If you keep up with the kind of “news” featured in the National Enquirer, then there’s probably not much of a reason to read Giles Milton’s When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain. Not exactly the typical reading material for CounterPunchers. But—and this is a big but—in these depressing days of watching the world fall apart, I suspect that readers of the check-out tabloids may be on to something. Pure entertainment, lots of laughs, recalling trivia, keeping a bit of sanity before total depression takes over. To be honest with you, the reason that the content of the tabloids and Giles Milton’s book are not the same is that Milton has not made up his facts but dug, deeply, into some of the stranger incidents from our collective past. Stranger than fiction? Possibly, but life always seems to create more bizarre people and unforeseen happenings than most writers will ever imagine. To wit, you will probably delight in many of the whoppers in this volume, though some are simply in bad taste.
Take the case of Agatha Christie when she disappeared. Poof, just like that, December 3, 1926. She had published six novels and was already famous when she vanished without a trace: “more than one thousand policemen were assigned to the case, along with hundreds of civilians. For the first time, aeroplanes were also involved in the search.” Sir Arthur Conon Doyle and Dorothy l. Sayers were asked to help, but they couldn’t solve the puzzle of the missing writer. Did she commit suicide in such a clever way that her body would never be located? Finally, after eleven days, Agatha Christie was sighted. Weirdly, she had run off to a hotel in Harrogate and signed herself in using the name of her husband’s mistress, Theresa Neele. Figure that one out. During the rest of her life, Christie never spoke about what happened? Amnesia? A fugue? Or was it all plotted as the prelude to ditching her husband, whom she divorced two years later (and subsequently remarried someone else)?
The story of Hitler taking cocaine—one of several stories about the Nazi leader in the volume—is a little less dramatic than another about his English mistress, Unity Mitford. Rumors, circa 1934, suggested that she was pregnant when she returned to England after her fling with the Führer. I said rumors, nothing more than that. Milton describes Unity’s hospitalization after her return to England. But—and here we get a little close to tabloid journalism—he concludes, “If true, it would mean that Hitler’s child is quite possibly still alive and living somewhere in England.”
The story of Lenin’s brain is a little more engaging because it reveals the state (still today) of the Russian fixation with their dead icon. Lenin was embalmed, after his brain was removed for study. Does a great man have a brain that is different than everyone else’s? The professor in charge of the question had Lenin’s brain “sliced into 7,500 microscopically thin sections.” But findings of the results were not published, until 1993, in spite of the “fourteen volumes bound in green leather and embossed with a single word: LENIN” in the state’s archives. The writer of that “scientific paper” concluded that Lenin was not a genius, i.e., he had a normal brain. There are quite a few candidates I could propose for similar examination once they leave us, but I already know that they, too, are not geniuses.
So it goes, with one strange tale after another, with some you are already familiar. There’s the sad story of Onoda, the last Japanese guerrilla survivor in a remote area of the Philippines, well after the end of World War II. He refused to believe that the war had ended until one of his fellow guerrillas was sent to find him (and convince him)—March 9, 1974. Talk about a life not lived. Then there’s the Lindberg baby kidnapping and the Uruguayan rugby survivors, whose plane crashed in the Andes, and had to resort to cannibalism to survive. Milton tells other stories where cannibalism also occurred. These issues of survival, in extreme situations, are not nearly as horrifying as several that follow. Three, in particular, demonstrate the profit motive of man’s inhumanity to his fellow men.
The first is the account of Ota Benga, an African pygmy from the Congo, who, in 1904, was brought to the United States by an American missionary. The intent was to place him on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair. That was bad enough but something worse happened afterwards when Benga was placed in the Bronx Zoo, in the monkey house. Decent people did this to him. But Benga’s fate was not as awful as the “Hottentot Venus,” as she was called, brought to England from Cape Town by a British doctor. Her attraction? “Protruding buttocks and [an] oversized vulva.” It wasn’t too long before white men realized that they needed to have sex with her, resulting in her death from syphilis, in 1915. Worse, her genitals and her brain were then pickled and also put on display—“she remained in the Musée de l’Homme until 1974.” This display of Western racism didn’t end until 2002, “after the intervention of Nelson Mandela, [when] her remains were finally returned to her native South Africa and given a decent burial.”
There are plenty of disgusting stories in Milton’s volume, but one—to my mind—is simple bad taste, even worse than what happened to Ota Benga or the Hottentot Venus. Milton titles it the “Good Ship Zong,” a slave ship, en route to Jamaica in 1781. The mortality rate was very high, with sixty plus slaves dying after they left Africa. The captain feared his profits would be so reduced that he had to discover a solution. Generally accepted procedures meant that if “if slaves died of illness, their insurance value was lost. But if they were thrown overboard in order to preserve the ship’s scant supply of water (and thereby save the lives of others), an insurance claim would be valid under a legal principal known as the ‘general average.’” For days, the weakest slaves were thrown overseas. Then the captain became obsessed with tossing an increasing number of slaves overseas. The subsequent claims to the insurance company—after a series of reversals because of abolitionists—failed because of the final argument: “Blacks are goods and property,” i.e., not human beings. The insurers had to pay up. Once again, profit ruled. And you wonder where “black lives matter” comes from?
So Giles Milton’s book is a bit of a mixed bag. Read at your own risk, especially if your repulsion level in low.
Giles Milton: When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain
Picador, 272 pp., $16