Methamphetamine, the Volksdroge
National Socialism was toxic, in the truest sense of the word. It gave the world a chemical legacy that still affects us today: a poison that refuses to disappear. On one hand, the Nazis presented themselves as clean-cut and enforced a strict, ideologically underpinned anti-drug policy with propagandistic pomp and draconian punishments. On the other hand, a particularly potent and perfidious substance became a popular product under Hitler. This drug carved out a great career for itself all over the German Reich, and later in the occupied countries of Europe. Under the trademark Pervitin, this little pill became the accepted Volksdroge,
or "people's drug," and was on sale in every pharmacy. It wasn't until 1939 that its use was restricted by making Pervitin prescription-only, and the pill was not subjected to regulation until the Reich Opium Law in 1941.
Its active ingredient, methamphetamine, is now either illegal or strictly regulated, but with the number of consumers currently at over 100 million and rising, it counts today as our most popular poison. Produced in hidden labs by chemical amateurs, usually in adulterated form, this substance has come to be known as "crystal meth." Usually ingested nasally in high doses, the crystalline form of this so-called horror drug has gained unimaginable popularity all over Europe, with an exponential number of first-time users. This upper, with its dangerously powerful kick, is used as a party drug, for boosting performance in the workplace, in offices, even in parliaments and at universities. It banishes both sleep and hunger while promising euphoria, but in the form of crystal meth it is a potentially destructive and highly addictive substance. Hardly anyone knows about its original rise in Nazi Germany.
Breaking Bad: The Drug Lab of the Reich
Under a clean-swept summer sky stretching over both industrial zones and uniform housing, I take the suburban train southeast, to the edge of Berlin. In order to find the remnants of the Temmler Factory I have to get out at Adlershof, which nowadays calls itself "Germany's most modern technology park." Avoiding the campus, I strike off across an urban no man's land, skirting dilapidated factory buildings and passing through a wilderness of crumbling brick and rusty steel.
The Temmler Factory moved here in 1933. It was only one year later that Albert Mendel (the Jewish co-owner of the Tempelhof Chemicals Factory) was expropriated by the racist laws of the regime and Temmler took over his share, quickly expanding the business. These were good times for the German chemicals industry (or at least for its Aryan members), and pharmaceutical development boomed. Research was tirelessly conducted on new, pioneering substances that would ease the pain of modern humanity or sedate its troubles. Many of the resulting pharmacological innovations shape the way we consume medicine today.
By now the former Temmler Factory in Berlin-Johannisthal has fallen into ruin. There is no sign of its prosperous past, of a time when millions of Pervitin pills a week were being pressed. The grounds lie unused, a dead property. Crossing a deserted parking lot, I make my way through a wildly overgrown patch of forest and over a wall stuck with broken bits of glass designed to deter intruders. Between ferns and saplings stands the old wooden "witch's house" of the founder, Theodor Temmler, once the nucleus of the company. Behind dense alder bushes looms a forsaken brick building. A window is broken enough for me to be able to climb through, stumbling into a long dark corridor. Mildew and mold grow from the walls and ceilings. At the end of the hallway a door stands beckoning, half open, encrusted with flaking green paint. Beyond the door, daylight peers through two shattered, lead-framed industrial windows. An abandoned bird's nest hides in the corner. Chipped white tiles reach all the way to the high ceiling, which is furnished with circular air vents.
This is the former laboratory of Dr. Fritz Hauschild, head of pharmacology at Temmler from 1937 until 1941, who was in search of a new type of medicine, a "performance-enhancing drug." This is the former drug lab of the Third Reich. Here, in porcelain crucibles attached to pipes and glass coolers, the chemists boiled up their flawless matter. Lids rattled on pot-bellied flasks, orange steam released with a sharp hissing noise while emulsions crackled and white-gloved fingers made adjustments. Here methamphetamine was produced of a quality that even Walter White, the drug cook in the TV series Breaking Bad, which depicts meth as a symbol of our times, could only have dreamed of.
Prologue in the Nineteenth Century: The Father of All Drugs
Voluntary dependence is the finest state.
??—??Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
To understand the historical relevance of methamphetamine and other substances to the Nazi state, we must go back before the beginning of the Third Reich. The development of modern societies is bound as tightly with the creation and distribution of drugs as the economy is with advances in technology. In 1805 Goethe wrote Faust in classicist Weimar, and by poetic means perfected one of his theses, that the genesis of man is itself drug-induced: I change my brain, therefore I am. At the same time, in the rather less glamorous town of Paderborn in Westphalia, the pharmaceutical assistant Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner performed experiments with opium poppies, whose thickened sap anesthetized pain more effectively than anything else. Goethe wanted to explore through artistic and dramatic channels what it is that holds the core of the world together??—??Sertürner, on the other hand, wanted to solve a major, millennium-old problem that has plagued our species to a parallel degree.
It was a concrete challenge for the brilliant twenty-one-year-old chemist: depending on the conditions they are grown in, the active ingredient in opium poppies is present in varying concentrations. Sometimes the bitter sap does not ease the pain quite strongly enough, and other times it can lead to an unintended overdose and fatal poisoning. Thrown back entirely on his own devices, just as the opiate laudanum consumed Goethe in his study, Sertürner made an astonishing discovery: he succeeded in isolating morphine, the crucial alkaloid in opium, a kind of pharmacological Mephistopheles that instantly magics pain away. Not only a turning point in the history of pharmacology, this was also one of the most important events of the early nineteenth century, not to mention human history as a whole. Pain, that irritable companion, could now be assuaged, indeed removed, in precise doses. All over Europe, apothecaries had to the best of their ability (and their consciences) pressed pills from the ingredients of their own herb gardens or from the deliveries of women who foraged in hedgerows. These homegrown chemists now developed within only a few years into veritable factories, with established pharmacological standards. Morphine was not only a method of easing life's woes; it was also big business.
In Darmstadt the owner of the Engel-Apotheke, Emanuel Merck, stood out as a pioneer of this development. In 1827 he set out his business model of supplying alkaloids and other medications in unvarying quality. This was the birth not only of the Merck Company, which still thrives today, but of the modern pharmaceutical industry as a whole. When injections were invented in 1850, there was no stopping the victory parade of morphine. The painkiller was used in the American Civil War of 1861–65 and in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Soon morphine fixes were doing the rounds as normal procedure. The change was crucial; the pain of even seriously injured soldiers could now be kept within bounds. This made a different scale of war possible: fighters who before would have been ruled out for a long time by an injury were soon coddled back to health and thrust onto the frontline once again.