During World War II (the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union), alcohol was the norm in the Soviet army, and was unofficially called the Narkomovskie 100 grams. Strong alcohol (vodka) before the fight partially relieved nervous tension. The caricature of Soviet, and now Russian, soldiers using vodka or alcohol as a means enhancing their motivation is common and there is some truth to it.
From the words of the director Grigory Chukhrai, who fought in World War II:
“Generally, they were issued only before the attack itself. The sergeant walked along the trench with a bucket and a mug, and those who wanted to pour themselves [did]. Those who were older and more experienced refused. Young and inexperienced drank. They, in the first place, perished. “The old men” knew that there was no need for the vodka.”
However, other countries, especially Germany, had a similar practice of “motivating” soldiers. In his book The Road to Stalingrad, Benno Zieser describes one of the cases of drinking alcohol:
The field kitchen arrived at night to distribute rations. Everyone got a bottle of schnapps. The bitter experience taught us not to particularly rejoice at this generosity: it was definitely a bad sign. We did not have to wait long: it was ordered to attack at six in the morning. We did not sleep well that night.
To achieve high military objectives, the German command used more effective substances than alcohol. Especially popular was the use of Pervitin, the commercial name of methamphetamine. In the 1930s, pharmacists of the Berlin firm Temmler Werke used it as a psychostimulant. According to the testimony of former Wehrmacht military personnel, Pervitin began to be used in the army and in the defense industry in 1938.
In 1939, under the supervision of military physician Otto Ranke, tests of Pervitin were conducted in which about 90 students took part. The tests showed a positive result–the students expressed confidence that the pills helped them to feel vigorous and able-bodied. Before the invasion of Poland, tank drivers got Pervitin, and later they were also issued to pilots. Luftwaffe pilots with such doping could make six sorties a day.
Future Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll wrote to his parents on 9 November 1939: “Dear parents, brothers and sisters, I serve in Poland, it’s hard here and I ask you to understand me when I write only every 2-4 days, today I’m writing only to ask you to send me a pervitin. Your Henry.”
Thanks to methamphetamines, soldiers were relieved of fatigue and partly of fear. After taking the drug, the soldiers had more confidence, did not feel pain, and would take more risks. According to testimonies, it was also used in the highest German command, including by Hitler himself.
However, Pervitin caused dependence and had side effects. When the euphoria from Pervitin was over, soldiers experienced physical and mental exhaustion. Other negative consequences of the methamphetamines included nausea, aggressiveness, irritability, confusion, anxiety, and paranoia, to name a few. Prolonged use of Pervitin led to irreversible consequences.
According to statistics, during the Second World War, the pharmaceutical company Temmel supplied the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht with more than 200 million tablets of Pervitin. Most of the “doping” was done in advanced military units located in France, Holland, Belgium, Poland and some areas of the Soviet Union.
The director of the Museum of the History of the Bundeswehr, Gorkh Piken, said “For Operation ‘Westfeldtsug’ to capture the Benelux countries and France in April 1940, the Wehrmacht ordered 35 million tablets of pervitin.”
German soldier Peter Emmerich recalled,
“At the end of June 1941, we crossed the border of Russia and received from our military doctor a miracle pill. They were given to everyone who was behind the wheel. As they said, for cheerfulness….I felt fine, no intoxication. I just did not want to sleep or eat. There was no time to rest. Order: at any cost, only forward.”
Not all soldiers received methamphetamines. Tankmen and pilots in many cases used the so-called “Tank Chocolate” and “Fliger Chocolate,” which was based on Pervitin with the addition of caffeine.
Efforts to create improved psychotropic substances were made until the last days of the war. A new drug called D-IX and in its composition had 5 mg of cocaine, 3 mg of pervitin and 5 mg of oxycodone was introduced. Tests were conducted in the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen.
The scientific leader of the memorial at Sachsenhausen, Astrid Lai, described the events as follows: “They had to walk around a circle, behind each of them were bags of sand and stones weighing [33 pounds, and] they mimicked the equipment. With the use of these stimulants, people could move without stopping for more than a day.”
Odd Nansen, one of the prisoners at the Sachsenhausen camp, wrote in his diary, “At the very beginning, the prison inmates, on whom the new drug was tested, were happy and even sang songs, but after 24 hours of continuous walking, most of them just fell to the ground from impotence.”
After World War II ended, many of the German pharmacists continued their work on the creation of stimulants in the United States.
In the Soviet Union, the industrial synthesis of Pervitin was established in 1946, and was used in psychiatry for the treatment of depression and narcolepsy until 1954.