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Mein Buch

Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life

By Timothy W. Ryback

( Knopf, 304 pp., $24.95)

Few buildings on Capitol Hill are grander than the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, with its great stairway, pillared façade, and magnificent domed reading room. And few rooms in that building seem more ordinary, even banal, than the rare book storage area where 1,200 books from the collection of Adolf Hitler stand tightly packed on steel shelves. Along with another eighty items in the Brown University Library and scattered texts elsewhere, these are the modest remains of the more than sixteen thousand books that Hitler assembled in his residence in Munich, in the Reichskanzlei in Berlin, and in his villa on the Obersalzberg in Bavaria, near Berchtesgaden. Like the Thousand-Year Empire, Hitler's imposing collections proved considerably more fragile than he expected. Even before the Führer died, American and Russian soldiers were packing his library and taking it home, bit by bit. Some came as single spies, like the young lieutenant who brought a much-thumbed copy of Henry Ford's My Life and Work back from Munich to New York, where he sold it at Scribner's. Others came in battalions, especially the Soviet "trophy brigade" that took the entire ten-thousand-volume collection from Berlin to Moscow, where it has not been seen since the early 1990s.

Only one large segment of the collection--three thousand books hidden in beer crates in a Bavarian salt mine--remained intact after the war ended. Members of the U.S. Army's Twenty-First Counterintelligence Corps concluded, after what they called a "hasty inspection of the scattered books," that the collection "was noticeably lacking in literature and almost totally devoid of drama and poetry." Worse still, "none of the books examined gave the appearance of extensive use. They had no marginal notes or underlinings." Hans Beilhack, reporting on the collection in November 1946 for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, noted contemptuously that the "library itself, seen as a whole, is only interesting because it is the library of a 'great' statesman and yet so uninteresting. It is the typical library of a dilettante."

Once the books reached Washington, Arnold Jacobius, then an intern and later an expert on the Weimar journalist Kurt Tucholsky, made a more detailed report to Frederick Goff, the head of rare books at the Library of Congress. Even he detected "little in the way of marginal notes, autographs or other similar features of interest," and at his suggestion most of the books, the ones that bore no signs of direct use, were merged into the library's general collection or sold as duplicates. Safely stored in Washington, even the books that the library kept and set apart attracted little attention. Many years ago, a librarian pointed them out to me as we hurried from one collection of incunabula to another: so far as he knew, no one had yet studied them. (In fact, some scholars had--notably Gerhard Weinberg and Robert Waite; but more than half of them remained uncatalogued as late as 2001.)

In the last twenty years or so, scholars in many fields of the humanities have realized that books, when studied as material objects as well as texts, can tell many stories about their owners. Like travelers in the woods, those who buy and read books leave tracks for scholars to read. Substantive (and legible) marginal notes and scrawled underlinings in pencil, fine bindings and tattered paper wrappers--all have something to tell us about those who saw them as appropriate ways of personalizing and responding to a particular book. Historians of the book--many of whom do their research at the Library of Congress and the Folger Library around the corner--have traced the development of such devices as the "manicule," the little pointing hand which, when drawn in a margin, indicated that a reader found a passage important, and which, as William H. Sherman has shown in his absorbing Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England, was one of many readers' practices that survived the transition from script to print.

This material turn in the realm of the intellect has brought great benefits. In particular, it has provided a forum in which literary scholars, art historians, and historians can all work together, something that seemed to have disappeared in the age of theory. The close study of how books were made and marketed, catalogued and read, as these scholars have shown, provides us with a new method for tracing the ways in which the thought of a philosopher or the work of a writer took shape, and how in turn important books were used, appropriated, and rejected by readers. And in this new climate, the interest of Hitler's once-neglected books became clear, and scholars began to look at the collection.

In 2001, Philipp Gassert and Daniel S. Mattern published a catalogue of Hitler's books in American collections, and a book-length study of the books in Washington by the Hungarian historian Ambrus Miskolczy appeared in 2003. Timothy Ryback's dramatic book takes us not just into Hitler's library, but also into the gritty material details of the books themselves. At one point he even recalls discovering in a particular book, "tucked in the crease between pages 160 and 161, a wiry inch-long black hair that appears to be from a moustache." Thanks to his imaginative research--and his willingness to investigate a very creepy subject--we come closer to one of the most elusive men ever to shape world history.

Walter Benjamin, who hovers over this book as a melancholy Jewish guardian angel, believed that a collection revealed something profound about the collector's mind and life: "ownership is the most intimate relationship one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting." Hitler's dwelling in Washington, however, is a ruin. A lot of the books that probably mattered most to him are not there; and he neither bought nor, in many cases, even saw a good many of the books preserved there. Sometimes precise connections emerge from the details. At one point Ryback finds Hitler using one of his books on magic to annotate another. We realize that both books must have been on Hitler's desk, and in his hands, at the same time. But historians' gold of this kind turns up very rarely here. Instead Ryback's reconstruction is accomplished mostly by weaving back and forth among individual books and other records, from Hitler's own writings to contemporaries' memoirs, as he seeks to show us how books shaped one of the twentieth century's most terrible minds. His effort is worthwhile: one finishes this short, packed book with a firmer take on the sort of intellectual--or pseudo-intellectual--who persuaded the best-educated nation in Europe to make war on civilization and try to exterminate the Jews. But deep insights remain elusive.

Hitler admitted that he was "no writer." But he insisted, again and again, that he was a reader. As a young man he claimed, with an autodidact's exaggeration, that he had read widely in German literature and philosophy--even though he still misspelled Schopenhauer as "Schoppenhauer." These claims represented, at least in part, a defensive response to bourgeois politicians such as Otto Dickel, whom Hitler confronted and defeated early in his career--men who had enjoyed, if that is the right word, the rigors of the German Gymnasium and university, and who felt at home in the highly abstract world of German philosophy and social science. Hitler never climbed these heights himself. His copies of the German classics show few signs of use, and his writings show little evidence of acquaintance with them. The annotated draft typescript of Mein Kampf that Ryback examines, with its misspellings and its vague, awkward prose, shows just how little literary culture Hitler had--a point that impressed itself even on the loyalists who tried to edit the book, as well as on those who tried to read it once it was published.

Still, Hitler read a great deal during the years when he rose to power. Walking the crowded, lively streets of Munich, he regularly stopped and shopped in his favorite used-book stores--so often, in fact, that he spent much of his income there. When Hitler became head of the Nazi Party, he had a list of recommended reading printed on party membership cards. While serving his time in prison after the Beer Hall Putsch, he withdrew from politics far more wholeheartedly than the soft conditions of his sentence required so that he could read and write. And the books and information that he amassed in the 1920s and 1930s served him directly in later years. A passionate collector of all sorts of texts on warfare, from strategic theories, military histories, and memoirs to handbooks of ships and tanks, Hitler read them with close attention. He amassed a detailed knowledge of everything from the doctrines of Clausewitz to the calibers of specific weapons, which came in handy again and again when he argued with the obdurate members of the German General Staff during World War II.

As head of state, Hitler continued to collect. Friends and admirers, such as Leni Riefenstahl and Sven Hedin, sent him their publications with flattering inscriptions. So did cities, companies, and publishers. More remarkable, he continued to read much--though hardly all--of what came in. Late at night on the Obersalzberg, Hitler read for hours a time, sometimes until dawn. He worked in his study, outside of which hung a sign that demanded ABSOLUTE SILENCE, reading with intense concentration--so intense that he became furious one night when Eva Braun interrupted him, and sent her packing, red-faced, with a "tirade. " At breakfast, as Traudl Junge, his last surviving secretary, recalled to Ryback, he "would reprise his previous night's reading in extensive, often tedious detail." Even at the end, as a photograph of the Berlin bunker shows, unidentified thick books took up some of the scarce space in his tiny bedroom.

What could reading do--what did it do--for Hitler? The mere fact that he marked many of his books, Ryback points out, is striking. After all, Hitler was "a man who famously seemed never to listen to anyone, for whom conversation was a relentless tirade, a ceaseless monologue." Yet as a reader he would stop "to engage with the text, to underline words and sentences, to mark entire paragraphs, to place an exclamation point beside one passage, a question mark beside another, and quite frequently an emphatic series of parallel lines in the margin alongside a particular passage." Hard though they are to interpret--the fuller annotations found in some of the volumes do not seem to come from Hitler himself--these traces show a man listening and responding. Could they offer a path to that mysterious mind, more concealed than revealed by the thousands of volumes of memoirs and commentary that never seem to penetrate Hitler's shell?

Hitler's own words make clear--clearer, in fact, than the surviving volumes--just how much some writers meant to him. His lifelong favorites--leatherbound copies of which he kept in the study of his alpine villa--ranged from the Western adventure novels of Karl May to the plays of Shakespeare. May's novels, from The Ride Across the Desert on, "overwhelmed" Hitler as a boy, claiming his attention so powerfully that his grades suffered "a noticeable decline." During the war, Hitler told his generals to study May's books, and even had a special edition issued for soldiers at the front. He considered Winnetou, the Indian chief of May's tales, a master of "tactical finesse and circumspection," and a model for his own love of cunning tactics and surprises. Reading at night, he told Albert Speer, "when faced by seemingly hopeless situations, he would still reach for these stories," because "they gave him courage like works of philosophy for others or the Bible for elderly people."

Shakespeare seemed to him much greater than the classic German writers of the eighteenth century. After all, Shakespeare had brought the imperishable character of Shylock to the stage, whereas Lessing had created Nathan the Wise, the Jew who taught Christians, Muslims, and Jews a lesson of tolerance. Hitler quoted Shakespeare as more highly educated Germans quoted Goethe, threatening opponents: "We will meet again at Philippi." This material, fascinating as it is, comes not from the books preserved in Washington, but from records of Hitler's speeches and conversations. Though the handsome morocco-bound set of Shakespeare from Obersalzberg is now in Washington, it was printed in 1925--too late to be the German edition that imprinted "To be or not to be" and "We will meet again at Philippi" on Hitler's mind.

In some cases, Ryback derives fascinating and suggestive material from the books that he examines. On November 22, 1915, while serving as a message runner on the Western Front, Hitler bought a guide to the architecture of Berlin by the critic Max Osborn, a Jewish intellectual who covered the Western Front for the prestigious Vossische Zeitung while Hitler was stationed there, vividly recording the horror, and the increasing savagery, of the war. Ryback observes that "in November 1915, for a frontline corporal to pay four marks for a book on cultural treasures of Berlin, when cigarettes, schnapps, and women were readily available for more immediate and palpable distraction, can be seen as an act of aesthetic transcendence." This impression is confirmed by the thumbprints that appear beside Osborn's reproductions of works of art by Rubens and Botticelli, and which suggest that Hitler, who practiced drawing when he had the chance, still hoped for a career as a painter.

More striking are the passages in which Osborn condemns the wild eclecticism of much Berlin architecture, the "orgies of an unspeakable debasement in taste, " and singles out for praise certain clear exceptions. Osborn admired the martial, Prussian qualities of Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Neue Wache on Unter den Linden, a monument to those who died for Prussia in the wars of liberation against France, and the brilliance with which Karl Gotthard Langhans had crowned the Brandenburg Gate, at the other end of Berlin's great ceremonial boulevard, with the goddess of Victory. Evidently Hitler took a special interest in the long chapter, its margins smudged, bent, and spotted with paraffin, in which Osborn denounced the second-rate artistic tastes of the Prussian hero Frederick the Great.

Ryback notes that Hitler, who explored Berlin while on leave during the war, agreed with Osborn in condemning the city's architecture. In later life, of course, Hitler planned to transform the city into a monumental, stylistically coherent capital to be called Germania, and he and Speer realized parts of the plan in the Olympic Stadium and Chancery. Osborn, whose work was banned and who emigrated to America, presumably did not admire the direction in which Hitler took his rather conventional aesthetic nationalism. But the case seems clear: reading Osborn sharpened Hitler's sense of how to read Berlin--and very likely inspired him to abandon his earlier taste for architectural eclecticism. To the young Hitler, Vienna's Ringstrasse, with its Baroque Opera and Greek Houses of Parliament, Renaissance Burgtheater, and neo-Gothic Rathaus, seemed "like an enchantment out of the Thousand and One Nights." Hitler the veteran of war and reader of Osborn wanted something different: pure "Germanic-northern Ur-forms" that still, somehow, derived from ancient Greece.

Equally fascinating is Ryback's account of the short book on Alfred Graf von Schlieffen (famous for his plan for victory over France), written by the count's personal physician, that was given to Hitler in 1940 by Artur "Willy" Kannenberg, a member of his inner circle. From the Fraktur type used on its cover to its anecdotes of Schlieffen's kindness to defeated French generals, the book was clearly designed to showcase the Prussian virtues: courage, austerity, tradition, and the willingness to retreat for strategic purposes. But Kannenberg, whom Hitler first met at a restaurant and treated as a sort of court jester, transformed the book, as Ryback shows, with his presentation note on the front cover: "Dedicated to my Führer. Motto: 'one way or another.' Sieg Heil, Kannenberg, 19.5.1940." Celebrating ruthlessness, treating Hitler with adulation, Kannenberg quoted Hitler to Hitler: "one way or another," "so oder so," was one of his master's favorite sayings, like "wenn schon, denn schon"--"if you're going to do it, do it."

Hitler read the book as aggressively as Kannenberg's note suggested he should. As he went through the fourth chapter, on Schlieffen's campaign in France, he pondered and marked the passages in which Schlieffen warned against waging a two-front war against France and England to the west and Russia to the east. In the end, to be sure, Germany would have to conquer all of its enemies. But Schlieffen argued that along the way, "as the Great King [Frederick] has taught us, we must be ready to sacrifice even so rich a province as East Prussia, in order to concentrate all our forces where we seek a decision"--that is, in the west. As Hitler went through these passages, he may well have entertained his first thoughts, as Ryback suggests, about the invasion of Russia, which he would begin to discuss in July 1940. The pencil lines in this brochure, less than a hundred pages long, seem to reveal the origins of that arcanum imperii which would, in the end, destroy Hitler's own empire.

For the most part, the marked books show that Hitler read not to discover but to confirm what he already knew. In a famous passage in Mein Kampf, Hitler made clear that he rejected the scholar's deferential approach to texts. Intellectuals read supinely, allowing books to lead them: "Naturally, I understand by 'reading' something other than that which the average member of the so-called 'intelligentsia' understands," he wrote. "I know people who 'read' an endless amount, who go from book to book, from letter to letter, yet I would not want to call them 'well-read.' They possess an abundance of 'knowledge,' only their brain does not understand how to process and organize the material it has taken on board." Such readers "lack the art of being able to divide the valuable from the valueless in a book." In the end, Hitler explained, "reading is not something we carry out for its own sake, but an instrument used for a purpose," a "tool and a building material that one needs for one's calling in life."

Rather than simply storing materials "according to the structure of the book or the chronology of one's memory," one should fit each important passage, Hitler wrote, "like a piece in a mosaic into its orderly place in the general worldview: it is precisely in this way that it will help the reader to form a picture in his head." The reader who fails to follow this rule "thinks he really knows all that is serious, thinks he understands something from life, and is in possession of knowledge. Yet with each new addition he becomes increasingly alienated from the world, until he ends up either in a sanatorium, or in parliament as a 'politician.'" By contrast, the reader who follows Hitler's ruthless, pragmatic hermeneutics will use texts as quarries, finding in them exactly the stones to fill particular gaps or the tools to do particular jobs.

Hitler read, in other words, as he talked: not to uncover new facts or ideas but to validate what he already thought. That explains why he carefully went through an edition of the scholarly anti-Semite Paul Lagarde's German Essays, printed as late as 1934 by J.F. Lehmann, as well as several of the famous works on racial types by Hans F.K. Günther, known as "Rassengünther," a professor at Jena and one of the founders of German racial science and legislation, also published by Lehmann. These texts told Hitler nothing that he did not already know. Hitler did not need Rassengünther to show him what Jews looked like, or Lagarde to tell him that Germany could never assimilate its Jews, or to recommend that they be transplanted to Palestine, or to caution him that the Jews, formed by the Talmud, were too tough for Germans to oppose--or to condemn the particular offenses that Jews committed against German identity, as when they "lay claim to the honorable German name while constructing the most sacred sites one has in a Moorish style in order not to forget that one is a Semite, an Asian, a foreigner." He had long since drawn his own conclusions about the New Synagogue in the Oranienburgerstrasse and its congregation.

Still, the bent pages and the flexible spines of these books indicate that Hitler read them often. In them, Ryback shows, "we can observe the application of Hitler's reading technique in all its selective intensity"--watch his pencil, following his eye across the page, underlining passages, entering occasional exclamation points and question marks, above all drawing the lines that marked stones useable for his mosaics. The new position of the reader made his books yield something they had not provided before. In 1934-1935, Hitler was head of state and possessed dictatorial powers. Reading as a leader, a ruler, he found in Günther's familiar images and Lagarde's familiar sentiments not the elements of a political program but the beginnings of a public policy. "A penciled mark can become state doctrine": Hitler's penciled marks became part of the Nuremberg Laws, promulgated in September 1935.

Ryback's useful book brings us a little closer to the mind of the monster. But it could have revealed more than it does. Far too often Ryback interrupts his analysis of the books and their contents, printed and handwritten, to tell us about his own adventures in researching them: only a few of these peeps into his workshop clarify the material. Too seldom does he take the opportunities this material offers to penetrate more deeply into Hitler's psyche. In a long chapter, Ryback describes the surviving esoteric and spiritualist volumes that formed a substantial part of Hitler's collection: works by thinkers now forgotten, such as Ernst Schertel and Maximilian Riedel. They offered elaborate analyses and complex charts of the relation between mind and spirit. More striking, they celebrated those individuals of "imaginative power," who could concentrate their spirits and conceive "explosive, dynamite-like" ideas that had the impact of an avalanche: ideas so powerful that they were beyond such soft, old-fashioned categories as good and evil, true and false, and could transform the world.

Ryback shows that Hitler called special attention to these passages in his books. They underpinned his own sense of himself as a new man, spiritually able to call down destruction on Europe's corrupt civilization. This was the vision that Hitler revealed in part to the very civilized League of Nations high commissioner to the free city of Danzig, Carl J. Burckhardt, during the critical days of August 1939, and in whole to his generals when he ordered them, two weeks later, to invade Poland. At the core of Hitler's understanding of himself and his mission, the historian finds "less a distillation of the philosophies of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche than a dime-store theory cobbled together from cheap, tendentious paperbacks and esoteric hardcovers."

True enough--and yet, as Corinna Treitel showed in her excellent book A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the German Modern, it is wrong to dismiss the esoteric strains in German thought in the early decades of the twentieth century simply because they now seem laughable. In a time when all values--from the objective ones of natural science to the traditional ones of the established churches--came into question, many Germans, some of them very well-born and educated, found more than cheap potato soup for the soul in these pursuits. Occultism offered new spiritual revelations to replace the old, and new scientific revelations that made for dazzling séances, and new insight (or so many serious artists thought) into the nature of the creative unconscious. The rise of occultism in all its forms, from good old-fashioned astrology to the spiritualism nourished by the war's vast toll of death, marked a distinctive part of Germany's strange path to modernity. Yet esoteric thinkers differed on many points, and Nazi officials took a wide range of positions on them before they finally decided, late in the war, to crush them. By confronting the thinkers Hitler used with close attention to detail, as Treitel did--and by drawing on Treitel's own rich book--Ryback could have done more than condemn Hitler's esoteric interests as cheap and silly. He could have traced them to their precise roots, and told us, as he does not, whether Hitler's response to them was distinctive, and if so how.

Hitler was far from the only twentieth century Big Man who claimed to be a Big Thinker and a Big Reader. Every good research library has the forty-four-volume Opera Omnia of Benito Mussolini, whose beautiful, eloquent Italian Hitler admired, but felt unable to emulate--not to mention the collected works of Joseph Stalin, some fourteen volumes in the Red Star Press edition published at London in the 1970s, or the lucubrations of Mao Zedong and Enver Hoxha or Kim Il Sung. How, one wonders, did Hitler's ways of reading, citing, and using texts resemble, or differ from, those of the other Great Dictators of his time? Or those of the other Nazi leaders? Ryback does not ask--much less answer--these intriguing questions.

This book sticks too close to Hitler, in the end, to tell us as much as it could have. Still, Hitler's Private Library offers clear proof, if any was needed, that Hitler's worldview did not represent, as American propaganda claimed, the culmination of centuries of German thought. It is in narrower, more crooked corridors of the great edifice of the German intellect--the intellectual Sonderweg that Fritz Stern explored so well half a century ago, and to which Corinna Treitel and others have more recently returned--that historians will capture the secrets of Hitler's mind. Timothy Ryback has not taken the grim trip himself: but others will, and his work will help to guide them.

Anthony Grafton is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the December 24, 2008, issue of the magazine.