Crystal meth is notorious for being highly addictive and ravaging countless communities. But few know that the drug can be traced back to Nazi Germany, where it first became popular as a way to keep pilots and soldiers alert in battle during World War II.
“Alertness aid” read the packaging, to be taken “to maintain wakefulness.” But “only from time to time,” it warned, followed by a large exclamation point.
The young soldier, though, needed more of the drug, much more. He was exhausted by the war, becoming “cold and apathetic, completely without interests,” as he himself observed. In letters sent home by the army postal service, he asked his family to send more. On May 20, 1940, for example, he wrote: “Perhaps you could obtain some more Pervitin for my supplies?” He found just one pill was as effective for staying alert as liters of strong coffee. And — even better — when he took the drug, all his worries seemed to disappear. For a couple of hours, he felt happy.
This 22-year-old, who wrote numerous letters home begging for more Pervitin, was not just any soldier — he was Heinrich Böll, who would go on to become one of Germany’s leading postwar writers and win a Nobel Prize for literature in 1972. And the drug he asked for is now illegal, notoriously so. We now know it as crystal meth.
Many TV fans are familiar with the drug primarily from the hit American series “Breaking Bad,” in which a chemistry teacher with financial troubles teams up with a former student to produce meth by the pound, while drug enforcement agents chase drug rings in the oppressive New Mexico heat.
Meth use is also on the rise in real-life Germany. According to the latest official reports, the country saw more first-time users over the last year than ever before. In fact, the number of known cases skyrocketed from 1,693 to 2,556 within a single year. Use of the addictive drug has been increasing in Germany since the mid-1990s, with most of it coming into the country from the neighboring Czech Republic.