January 27, 2020  (Web Review)

World War Speed: Methamphetamines in World War II

(2019) 60 min. DVD: $24.99 ($54.99 w/PPR). PBS Video (www.education.shop.pbs.org). ISBN: 978-1-5317-1073-6.

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

Historians have long suspected that Nazi soldiers were hopped up on speed during campaigns in order to make them energized and fearless. But in recent years, evidence has emerged that the Allies also gave their soldiers drugs in a catch-up game. Filmmaker Steven Hoggard’s PBS-aired Secrets of the Dead documentary examines the role of amphetamines in WWII combat. Officially, Hitler was against drug use, although it’s known that he and his henchmen were users (amphetamines were first made available over the counter in German pharmacies in 1938). At the outset of the war, the German army tried to compensate for lower troop numbers and less advanced equipment, giving their men drugs before the infamous blitzkriegs that required soldiers to move swiftly with little sleep or time for rest—often advancing 22 miles a day under fire. The documentary explores a significant well-preserved find: a German bomber submerged in the icy waters of a Norwegian fjord that is loaded with a supply of Pervitin, a drug the Nazis hoped would allow the crew to survive periods of isolation and extreme survival conditions. On the Allies side, doctors experimented with caffeine and Benzedrine, which they felt would promote a feeling of euphoria and extreme alertness. Needless to say, all of these drugs resulted in a reduced ability to make rational decisions, which is crucial in life and death situations (some units using stimulants suffered up to 80 percent casualties). Although this isn’t covered in much depth, drugs were also probably a factor in promoting atrocities and brutality, particularly along the murderous Russian front. A shocking story of the role of war in normalizing drug abuse, this is recommended. Aud: C, P. (S. Rees)