Hitler, apparently, was high the whole time. Under the care of Theodor Morell, a “grossly obese quack doctor with acrid halitosis and appalling body odour,” the deranged Fuehrer was almost always “pumped with as many as eighty different drugs, including testosterone, opiates, sedatives and laxatives.”
But neither barbiturates nor morphine nor even massive amounts of cocaine could get Hitler through a certain intimate deed with Eva Braun. For that particular act, he needed Dr. Morell’s special virility injections, which contained “extracts from the prostate glands of young bulls.”
If you get a kick out of odd historical trivia like that, you’ll devour “When Hitler Took Cocaine and Lenin Lost His Brain,” the first installment in Giles Milton’s new “History’s Unknown Chapters” series. Packed with 50 stories your social studies teacher probably skipped, the book sports a wandering eye and witty voice that make for diverting winter reading.
Milton brings us lost tales of survival from some of history’s most harrowing expeditions and natural disasters. He celebrates forgotten acts of battlefield valor by both humans and animals, and he revisits some of history’s most sensational crimes and mysteries.
For instance, did you know that Agatha Christie once inexplicably vanished for 11 days — and that fellow mystery writers Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy Sayers were involved in the search? Or that for his bravery during World War I, a dog named Stubby was promoted to the rank of sergeant? Or that the last dodo was probably eaten by a shipwrecked Dutch sailor?
Dark moments are here, too. Perhaps the most horrifying recalls the 1781 voyage of the slave ship Zong, during which 132 slaves, including women and children, were tossed overboard so that the captain could submit them as losses in an insurance claim.
Milton does a wonderful job distilling his research into compact, engaging narratives. None is longer than a few pages, and several feature colorful quotes from primary sources. Perhaps the most priceless arrives in “To Hell and Back,” the story of American World War II hero Audie Murphy. When asked to give the advancing German army’s location during a battle, Audie radioed, “If you just hold the phone a minute, I’ll let you talk to one of the bastards.”
Milton, a British historian and journalist, once told an interviewer: “I don’t make anything up. There’s no fiction in my books.” Who needs fiction, some might argue, when you can unearth fabulous true tales like these?
John Wilwol is a writer living in Washington.
By Giles Milton
Picador. 272 pp. Paperback, $16