Sleep

Hitler, Meth, and the War: Sleepless on the Western Front

Methamphetamine helped power the armies of World War II.

Posted Sep 29, 2019

Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-218-0504-36 / Dieck / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de
German armed forces, June 1942 – cropped, otherwise unaltered.
Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-218-0504-36 / Dieck / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de

In 1940 the French were terrified as the Germans sliced through their defenses in a remarkably short time in what was known as blitzkrieg or “lightening war”. Germany attacked France on May 10, 1940 and six weeks later was victorious. This was in sharp contrast to the four years of brutal trench warfare the two countries had fought only twenty years earlier during World War I. That war had ended with an Allied victory over Germany. Before the outbreak of World War II, the French thought they were ready with an impressive defensive system known as the Maginot Line.

The German forces worked around it and France was defeated, at great cost, in short order. The methods used by the Wehrmacht were revolutionary and employed new military doctrine, advanced weapons, and efficient organization. The weapons were highly effective and easily defeated the French defenses.  The tank, a military vehicle that had been first introduced in the previous war, was now far more effective and mobile. And it wasn’t only these technological and organizational improvements that made a difference.  Amazingly, the German soldiers and tank operators seemed to be able to push on for days and weeks with superhuman levels  of endurance and never seemed to sleep. What was going on here?  How were they able to do it?

Wars have always taken a heavy toll on the combatants and on those civilians in the way of the fighting. For soldiers, forced marches, prolonged combat, and environmental discomforts all contribute to loss of motivation and effectiveness. Under conditions of nearly continuous movement and combat, lack of sleep becomes a major factor in undermining the morale and efficacy of troops. But during the opening stages of the fighting in France during World War II, the Germany soldiers did indeed seem nearly superhuman as they were able to press on day after day without seeming to need sleep or rest. As it turns out, along with all the advantages of advanced technology and organizational structure, the troops themselves were being pharmacologically enhanced by the use of new drugs. Their secret weapon? Methamphetamine

Several books by Kamienski (2012) & Ohler, (2015), recently translated into English, address the fascinating topic of drug use for military purposes in general, and with regard to World War II in particular. Drugs have been used throughout human history to support soldiers either by increasing their capacity to fight, such as the use of cocaine during the First World War, or by soothing their shattered nerves after battle, such as alcohol and marijuana in many past as well as current wars such as in Viet Nam. While drugs have been used by humans throughout history for enhanced performance in war, World War II took this to new levels. Total war led to soldiers, civilians, and leaders using new and powerful pharmacological enhancers to help cope with the demands and stresses of this war.

Hitler is known to have suffered from severe sleep disorders, especially debilitating insomnia (Kamienski, 2012). Over the course of his time in power, he increasingly relied on drugs to help him sleep. Interestingly, while the exact drugs used are debated Ohler, (2015), it is well documented that Hitler was administered massive amounts of psychoactive drugs to maintain his performance but at a high cost. He may have used methamphetamine but was certainly given stimulant injections containing hormones and vitamins that improved mood, stamina, and alertness. Apparently he was administered some eighty-two different medications during his leadership of the Third Reich (Kamienski, 2012).

Stimulants give a feeling of euphoria and increase self-confidence. These drugs got him through the day, but then at night he suffered from insomnia and needed medications to help him sleep. Getting up in the morning would then be difficult, and the demands of running a total war would again require stimulants to get through the next day. And so the cycle would perpetuate itself. The use of stimulants worsened his insomnia, thus requiring greater doses of medications to help him sleep. His personal physician, Dr. Theodor Morell, provided these substances and often administered them by injection. These injections likely helped him give some of the powerful and frightening speeches for which he was known. It has been speculated that one of the reasons Hitler was so slow in responding to the invasion of France by the Allies on D-Day was that he was so affected by the medications used to put him to sleep that he could not be easily roused. Further, it has been speculated that many of his poor and aggressive decisions, which affected so many millions of people, may have been in part brought about by the effects of the drugs he was using. As the war progressed, his health deteriorated, and he used drugs to deal with increasing symptoms of insomnia, depression, and fatigue, as well as likely symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Undoubtably, the temporary benefits he experienced from his drug regimen were accompanied by long term loss of mental and emotional control and declining physical health. The drugs he sought help from early on increasingly  became  a source of over-confidence, poor judgment, and lack of impulse control.

The Germany military used vast amounts of methamphetamine, especially early in the war, to provide the extra stamina and reduced need for sleep it needed to help overwhelm its enemies (Kamienski, 2012).  While official government policy was staunchly antidrug, the reality was that winning the war was more important for the military than adhering to the sober, efficient way of life that was publicly enforced. Methamphetamine was first synthesized in 1893, and became readily available to the German public in 1938 as Pervitin, which was manufactured by the pharmaceutical company Temmler-Werke. 

Its effects were to increase risk-taking behavior, improve concentration, enhance self-confidence, and reduce the need for food, water, and sleep, while also decreasing pain sensitivity. It is easy to see why such a drug would become very popular during the difficult and unpleasant war times when food was often short and the need to stay alert and vigilant for prolonged periods of time was necessary. Experiments by German scientists had documented the potential beneficial effects for military use of methamphetamine prior to the start of the war. According to Kamienski (2012) German soldiers consumed some 35,000,000 tablets of Pervitin and related formulations of methamphetamine during the conquest of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, and France. While methamphetamine could also be taken by injection, eating  chocolates containing it was much more popular. These energizing treats were very popular with pilots and tank crews. 

While the initial impact of the use of methamphetamine was positive for military purposes, its downsides quickly became apparent. Troops soon showed the effects of prolonged alertness with little sleep or rest; the result being rapid decreases in combat effectiveness. The period of increased alertness was purchased with a longer term crash. After 1940 extensive use of methamphetamine did continue, especially on the Eastern Front during the attack on the Soviet Union and by pilots carrying out long distance bombing raids, but the nearly unrestrained use during the Battle of France was not repeated. It is also possible that the increased aggressive behavior caused by the excessive use of methamphetamine contributed to some of the terrible atrocities committed by German troops during the war.

During the course of the second world war other nations also employed stimulant drugs. The Japanese, who traditionally strictly controlled the use of mind altering substances, found that the conditions of total war required a focused and alert population in order to cope with the pressures of the war (Kamienski, 2012).  In 1941 large-scale production of Philopon, a methamphetamine preparation, was carried out.  Civilians working in the defense industries were often encouraged or required to use this performance-enhancing drug. It was also used extensively by the military, including by kamikaze pilots. The ability to cope with reduced food and sleep were seen as essential to war effectiveness for soldiers and civilians alike. 

On the allied side, the need for increased vigilance and decreased sleep was also present (Kamienski, 2012).  The allies, however, used a somewhat less powerful agent, amphetamine. The British issued amphetamine, in the form of Benzedrine tablets, to pilots flying long range missions. Benzedrine was found to be more effective than caffeine in helping pilots stay awake and focused for these long and dangerous missions. In time, support troops on the ground began to be issued amphetamines in order to help them work the prolonged day and night shifts they often had to cover. Kamienski (2012) noted that the British used about 72,000,000 Benzedrine tablets during the war. The American military adopted Benzedrine for use by its soldiers and pilots as well. Amphetamine’s ability to help reduce need for sleep and increase stamina, risk taking behavior, confidence, and aggression were all seen as being most helpful to the Allied war effort. 

In all of the countries that used stimulants to increase the effectiveness of their military and civilian populations during wartime, a lasting and unintended effect was the continued  use and abuse of these substances among both their military and general populations after the war. Active service military, truck drivers, students, shift workers, and others who have jobs that require long hours of vigilance and effort, often with little sleep, have turned to these substances for their sleep-suppressing and alertness-enhancing properties. In addition, they have been used for weight loss, enhanced sports performance, and recreation.  When judiciously used, stimulants do have medical uses, as in the treatment of ADHD, and can prove invaluable in certain military situations where prolonged alertness is required. But the outcome of using these substances for long periods during  wartime also demonstrated that sacrificing sleep, normal human functioning, judgement, and behavior, can carry  a very  steep price. Whether soldier or student, athlete or truck driver, our bodies and brains need adequate sleep.

"Yin and Yang" by Klem - This vector image was created with Inkscape by Klem, and then manually edited by Mnmazur.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
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Source: "Yin and Yang" by Klem - This vector image was created with Inkscape by Klem, and then manually edited by Mnmazur.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

References

Kamienski, Lukasz, (2012). Shooting up: A history of drugs in warfare. First published in the United Kingdom in 2017. London: C. Hurst & Co.

Ohler, Norman, (2015). Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich. First U.S. edition, 2017. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.