Adolf Hitler arrived at Kroll Opera in Berlin, April 28, 1939 to address the Reichstag.
Ukrainian soldiers have speculated that Russian troops are fighting while high on amphetamines.Militaries throughout history have drugged soldiers to enhance their performance on the battlefield.Nazi troops were given methamphetamines during World War II to decrease fear and increase aggression.
The Russian military may be taking a page from the Third Reich’s playbook as the brutal war in Ukraine drags on.
A May report from the Royal United Service Institute cited Ukrainian military personnel who said Russian soldiers they encounter often appear to be “under the influence of amphetamines or other narcotic substances,” an observation various Ukrainian soldiers have made several times over the last year.
But supposedly drugged-up Russian troops in Ukraine are only the most recent installment in a long, global history of militaries seeking to boost their armies’ performance on the battlefield by any chemical means necessary — a tactic most infamously deployed by Nazi Germany during World War II.
Norman Ohler, author of “Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich,” studied rare archival documents and spoke to first-hand witnesses to argue the thesis of his 2015 book: That drugs — more specifically, a low-dose pharmaceutical pill akin to modern-day meth — fueled the Third Reich and played a major role in the German army’s early-war blitzkrieg success across Europe.
“Drugs have often played a role,” Ohler told Insider of wartime strategy. “But the Nazis took it to another level and really had successes because of the drug use, which they otherwise probably would not have had.”
The Third Reich was fueled, in part, by methamphetamine
The “miracle” meth pill, as Nazi Germany touted it, was developed in the country in the late 1930s and hit the market as Pervitin, an over-the-counter pharmaceutical that quickly took the nation by storm. The small dosage, which is equivalent to about three milligrams of modern-day meth, according to Ohler, made people more alert and happier, he said.
Pervitin was already popular among civil society when Dr. Otto Ranke, the director of the Institute for General and Defense Physiology, who was tasked with improving the capabilities of the country’s soldiers, began to envision what the drug might do for Germany’s boys headed toward war.
The drug decreased fear, increased aggression, reduced the need for sleep, and improved performance of simple tasks, Ranke found. Many soldiers had even brought it with them when the war started, Ohler said.
“They said it makes it easier for them to do their job, killing people or invading a foreign country,” Ohler told Insider.
Adolf Hitler at the Western Front on May 14, 1940
Soldiers were stocked with Pervitin as the drug stood its “first real military test” when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, according to a TIME report. The rapid overrun in Poland cemented Pervitin’s success and introduced a new form of Nazi warfare known as blitzkrieg, which was characterized by quick, surprising, and mechanized attacks on unsuspecting enemy troops.
“It enabled the German army to do blitzkrieg in the West. They didn’t need to sleep once they started attacking,” Ohler said. “They were charging through France and Belgium and Holland, unafraid, not stopping, while the British and French troops were sleeping.”
The German army cited Pervitin as a decisive factor in the winning campaign, Ohler said, and it supplied its troops with millions of pills ahead of the army’s attack on the Soviet Union. Even the magic drug, however, could not win Germany that 1941 battle.
As the war dragged on for another four years, Pervitin continued to be deployed to soldiers, Ohler said, but the one-time miracle drug began to cause dependency issues and depression among users. Germany even organized a rehab program for “overflown” pilots, or those who were addicted to the drug, Ohler said.
After the Nazis were defeated, production of Pervitin continued in Germany, moving to the black market, according to Ohler. Decades later, the drug was used by East German border troops seeking to stay awake as they manned the Berlin Wall, he said. The drug wouldn’t be made illegal until the 1980s, Ohler told Insider.
Rampant drug use flew in the face of Nazi ideology
The German army’s dependence on methamphetamines during World War II stood in stark contrast to the Nazi’s clean-cut, anti-drug image. The use of Pervitin among soldiers prompted resistance from high-ranking Nazi leaders, who were concerned with maintaining the party’s ideals, Ohler said.
German military leaders, however, were focused first and foremost on trying to win a war.
“The army is the army. In the field, it has to fight. It doesn’t care about ideology,” Ohler said.
Ohler found evidence that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler was aware of the fact soldiers were using Pervitin, but never publicly acknowledged his feelings toward the drug. The dictator himself was abusing opioids near the end of his life, including an early form of OxyContin, according to medical records reviewed by Ohler.
Many other militaries have relied on chemical help amid wartime
As Insider reported earlier this year, several countries have a history of supplying their soldiers with performance-enhancing drugs. British stores used to sell syringes of heroin as gifts for troops during World War I; the British and American armies both relied on other amphetamines and stimulants during the Second World War after witnessing the drugs’ success for the Germans, Ohler said, and the US military distributed painkillers and “pep pills” — also known as speed — to soldiers headed toward long-range reconnaissance missions during the Vietnam War.
Alcohol has also been a common battle bedfellow throughout history. The Russian military gave its soldiers vodka rations to get through World War II; France opted for red wine; and alcohol remained the “number one” drug for Germans during the war, Ohler said.
Amid the life-or-death stakes of war, performance-enhancing drugs, despite their numerous and notable downsides, maybe too enticing a boost to pass up.
“I would be surprised if drugs were not being used in the Ukrainian-Russian war,” Ohler said. “It’s too good for an army.”