On Speed: James Bond and the Myth of the Nazi Superman

Ian Fleming describes the preparations for a secret and dangerous operation of his secret agent and assassin James Bond in the 1954 novel Live and Let Die. Among other essentials, ‘There was even a box of Benzedrine tablets to give endurance and heightened perception during the operation…’

UK, 1954

Drug historians have quite rightly quoted this and similar lines from the Bond novels as an example of how the use of Benzedrine (an amphetamine more popularly known as speed) was quite wide spread throughout western societies in the 1950s. Charles O. Jackson even described the USA at that time as the ‘Amphetamine Democracy’.

Rereading the Bond novels we can detect more historical significance in 007’s drug use. Bond may be a playboy and a womanizer, an alcoholic according to present-day standards and at times a drug abuser, he is also a staunch pillar and defender of a tottering British Empire. There is a historical irony here: we notice that just before the emergence of a counter culture with a blooming use of all kinds of licit and illicit substances, a counter culture that will seem to threaten the very survival of the Empire itself, the potentials of drug use can work opposite ways. On speed you can either be ”on the bus”, as Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters who were fuelled with amphetamines as much as with LSD. Or you can, as 007, be “off the bus” and stick to the old ways and manners of the Empire.

US, 1967

Film makers would try to solve this apparent contradiction by portraying a new character: the ‘hip’ secret agent, integrating the liberated pleasures of the counter culture in his lifestyle while defending the established order -for instance in In Like Flint (1967), the American answer to the British Bond movies. We now know the type better through its satirical representation in Austin Powers (who is all right if he can have sex in a consequence-free environment and take mind-expanding drugs).

There is more irony to detect in Bond’s drug use. In Moonraker (1955) 007 fortifies himself for a confrontation at cards with Hugo Drax, the German leader of a secret organization modelled by Fleming on the infamous Waffen SS officer Otto Skorzeny. A waiter brings him an envelope. It contained a white powder. He took a silver fruit knife off the table and dipped the tip of the blade into the packet so that about half its contents were transferred to the knife. He reached for his glass of champagne and tipped the powder into it… ‘Benzedrine,’ he said… It’s what I shall need if I’m going to keep my wits about me tonight. It’s apt to make one a bit overconfident, but that’ll be a help too.

Bond needs the amphetamine to sustain and enlarge his powers. In the same vein, various drug historians, such as Werner Pieper in his delightful anthology Nazis on speed and Nicolas Rasmussen in his otherwise excellent history of amphetamines, have claimed that the Nazi war machine that included Drax/Skorzeny was itself powered by amphetamines. If we believe them, German tanks and planes fought their way through Europe in a kind of ecstatic Blitzkrieg Bop, with credits to the medical officers liberally administering German amphetamines such as Pervitin, a close chemical relative of Benzedrine.

Life During Wartime

Historians have in this way recreated an older myth that we can trace at least to the Nazi enemies battled by Captain America in the early 1940s comics: the myth of a Nazi Superman, fuelled by drugs and often transformed and enhanced by genetic engineering. Why else were the Nazis so evil and so victorious?

The image of a German war machine powered by speed is quite attractive although I fear it to be too exaggerated. But this is not the point here. What I detect is that – unconsciously or at least not explicit – two moral judgments become mutually enforcing because of association. Nazis are obviously bad. That they use speed, or were doped by their leaders, shows them to be even worse (if that would be possible). It works the other way as well: if you see illicit drug use, more in particular that of amphetamines, as bad, its use by Nazis is a further demonstration how bad it is.

The strange thing here is that people use this guilt by association as a rhetorical argument, although they might be against Nazis, but not against drug use in itself. For instance Werner Pieper, besides being a great publisher and a very amiable man, was a friend of Timothy Leary and at one time in his life an acid dealer himself. He has nothing against drug use in itself.  We also see the guilt by association argument implied in histories of medicine. That doctors used to prescribe substances now classified as illicit drugs shows them to be guilty by association; and that these drugs were used by doctors whose activities we do not like shows the substances to be bad drugs.

This whole guilt by association argument fails to realize that people in the past might have actually been taking drugs because they saw benefits in doing it, and that they could even have been justified in this assumption. And we’re not talking of people in fiction, such as 007.  In the 1950s, in the Netherlands people would routinely swallow Pervitin to wean the effects of alcohol when they had to drive home safely. Unconsciously they copied Wehrmacht captain Hans von Stuck, who when on hearing that he was transferred from the Eastern Front to Africa told his driver: let’s swallow Pervitin and not stop till we’re out of Russia. One soldier captured at Stalingrad told his psychiatrist after the war how thanks to his Pervitin intake he was able to walk through the freezing weather to the prisoner camp, despite his injuries, while more unfortunate comrades didn’t make it and died horribly in the snow. Here at least was one guy happy with his drug, not because he was a Nazi Superman or defending an empire, but simply because he wanted to live.

Everyman's Little Helper

As for Bond, the morning after his confrontation with Drax he felt dreadful. ‘As well as acidity and liver as a result of drinking merely two whole bottles of champagne, he had a touch of the melancholy and spiritual deflation that were partly the after-effects of the Benzedrine…’

8 thoughts on “On Speed: James Bond and the Myth of the Nazi Superman

  1. I wrote an article about James Bond and his drugs from the Ian Fleming novels. It was published in the Christmas 2009 issue of The Pharmaceutical Journal, published by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. The reference for this is:
    Agents on Her Majesty’s secret service
    This content is archived
    James Bond fan and locum pharmacist Bob Dunkley reviews the materia medica in the novels of Ian Fleming
    Publication: The Pharmaceutical Journal
    Year 2009
    Volume 283
    Page number 695
    I read all the novels – 13, and highlighted any reference to any materia medica, and when I wrote the article I put the references into historical context. As you can see the content is archived and only available to registered users, but I can send a pdf to anyone interested.

  2. Thanks for the ‘otherwise excellent’ compliment from Dr Snelders. I do grant that the image of ‘Nazis on Speed’ has mythic dimensions, but I must disagree with his view that there is no specific relationship between methamphetamine use and German behaviour (and success) in the Blitzkrieg of 1940. One could mention contemporary British news accounts of German paratroopers “drugged and berserk” behind the Dutch lines — not mentioning which drug — but I suppose these can be conveniently dismissed as mere propaganda.

    Peter Steinkamp is the only historian I am aware of who has looked quantitatively at amphetamine consumption in the Second World War. He reports that the Wehrmacht consumed 35 million Pervitin (3mg Methamphetamine HCl) tablets in April-June 1940, the period of the Western Blitz, far more than any period before or after.* So that is about 12 million tablets per month. What is the correct divisor to calculate the number of ‘Nazis on Speed’ in the actual fighting? About 2.5 million men were mobilised by Germany for the Western Blitz, and the official “tooth to tail” ratio for the Wehrmacht was almost 1:1. So about 1.3 million men can be said to have been actively involved in forward areas during this period. If we are interested in those who actually fought, the ratio was much lower, but perhaps this is not fair, since when an army is advancing quickly the men who drive supply trucks and operate radios in division HQ and fix bridges have to work hard too. So even with conservative accounting we can say that the 1.2 million German soldiers ‘in action’ used about 10 methamphetamine tablets per month. If we are to take into account that actually very few men are involved in intense action of any kind (whether actual fighting or, say, driving supply trucks in the dark to avoid artillery) on any given day, the ratio of per-man-in action Wehrmacht speed consumption would shoot up, probably much higher than one pill/day on average for the Blitz. This is harder to measure, obviously.

    Why did the Wehrmacht take that much speed? The military on both sides tested it in ways that did not at first distinguish psychiatric effects on motivation/courage/aggression from alertness. I cannot speak to the German studies in detail, but on further testing, Allied scientists found the psychiatric effects decisive. That is, the Allied military adopted and distributed amphetamines largely for their motivation/aggression enhancing effects, as I argue in On Speed (and in more detail in a recent journal article**). According to Steinkamp, as on the Allied side the amphetamines were made available by the Wehrmacht through medical staff, but there was no central command to use the drugs (but there later was a command to use less). Mostly, the men using the drugs wanted them. So, there was no Nazi ‘conspiracy’ to force amphetamines on German soldiers, and I never said there was. It would be a valuable project for military historians studying war diaries and other contemporary records from the combat zone to look at what sort of circumstances led to men and medics reaching for the Pervitin and Benzedrine.

    As for the mythic dimensions, it should be pointed out that the association of (meth)amphetamine with Nazis/sadists/evil was one reinforced deliberately by Allen Ginsberg and other associates of Timothy Leary and ‘Peace and Love’ politics generally in the late 1960s. This association was used by them in the ‘Speed Kills’ campaign that peaked around 1970, drawing a distinction between harmless natural marijuana and destructive amphetamines made by big pharma and sold in huge quantities through doctors to ‘square’ mainstream America — and dispensed very freely by the military in Vietnam. In other words speed became a symbol of mainstream hypocrisy around drugs in the US, and a token in the cultural politics of the era generally. No doubt the bad image of (meth)amphetamine projected by the ‘Speed Kills’ movement reinforced the old Nazi-Speed association of wartime. An interesting project here would be using a tool like Google Ngram to track the Nazi-speed association in literature over time, for instance to see if there was a spike in the early 1970s.

    * P. Steinkamp, “Pervitin Testing, Use and Misuse in the German Wehrmacht,” in Wolfgang Eckart (ed.), _Man, Medicine, and the State: The Human Body as an Object of Government Sponsored Medical Research in the 20th Century_ (Stuttgart, 2006), 61-71

    ** N. Rasmussen, “On the Military Uses of Scientific Expertise: Amphetamine’s Adoption by the Allies in the Second World War”, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 42(2): 205-233 (2011)

  3. Although I would be the first to embrace the image of war machines battling each other on speed, and have no intention to deny the role of the use of (meth)amphetamines in the performance of Allied and Axis war machines during the Second World War, I still think that the historical evidence is inconclusive if we wish to establish the exact role of these substances.
    This for three reasons:
    1. Production figures are scarce, and where we have them, they don’t mean much. The number of 35 million tablets of Pervitin is the number of tablets delivered to the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe, not the number of tablets consumed. Distribution of the tablets was decided upon ‘in the field’ by medical officers, and as Steinkamp concludes, there was no planned attempt to distribute the drug among the troops.
    2. The question remains then to be answered to what extent the administration of Pervitin by medical officers was a structural phenomenon. There is as far as I know not much evidence from witness accounts for this, apart from those unearthed by Steinkamp. Maybe an extensive oral history project can find more evidence.
    3. A third reason to be skeptical is the uncertain outcome of (methamphetamine) use, an uncertainty that was well-known to German doctors in the Third Reich. Some people actually quiet down on amphetamines. This is why people with the diagnosis of ADHD are given Ritalin, a substance closely related to amphetamine. When I was a student I had a friend who rather depended on speed. But what he enjoyed most under influence of the drug was sitting quietly in a chair and reading a book. So let us not forget that the action of a drug is highly dependent on the set (including personality characteristics) of the user.
    Besides, it is of course possible that for example a tank commander who participated in the seven week’s German offensive that conquered Western Europe in May-June 1940 was on speed.in particular operations, but is hard to imagine that he would be all the time on speed without negative consequences for his performance and his mental and physical constitution.

    As I have argued elsewhere* it is highly probable that from 1939 on Pervitin use was endemic in German society, but as with its use in the Wehrmacht, there is no way to establish to what extent. I presume that the drugs that really got soldiers through the war, apart from emergency situations, were tobacco and alcohol. But I would love to contribute to an international comparative research project to establish the evidence for these and other drug uses in everyday life.

    * Stephen Snelders and Toine Pieters, ‘Speed in the Third Reich: Metamphetamine (Pervitin) Use and a Drug History From Below’, Social History of Medicine 2011, http://shm.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/02/19/shm.hkq101

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