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Michael Dirda on 'Hitler's Private Library'
The Führer loved his library, but what good did it do?

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, October 26, 2008

HITLER'S PRIVATE LIBRARY

The Books That Shaped His Life

By Timothy W. Ryback

Knopf. 278 pp. $25.95

Most of what remains of Hitler's personal library -- 1,200 volumes out of the roughly 16,000 it once contained -- can be found on the rare book shelves of the Library of Congress. Retrieved largely from a Berchtesgaden salt mine, many of these books contain fawning inscriptions to "Mein Führer" from their authors and sometimes also display an oversized woodcut bookplate, consisting of a spread eagle and the name Adolf Hitler. Apart from the occasional ownership signature and date, the German dictator usually didn't scribble in his books, preferring to underline favorite sentences in pencil or to draw a vertical line or insert an exclamation point in the margin next to a significant passage. These markings alone hint at the nature of Hitler's engagement with any particular text, yet it is often impossible to be sure that they are even in his hand. There's also no way of telling whether these remnants of Hitler's library actually represent the titles that he most truly cared about. Odds are they don't. A good many of the volumes appear to be unread.

So what books did Hitler value and even cherish? According to Timothy W. Ryback's research, "he ranked Don Quixote, along with Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Gulliver's Travels, among the great works of world literature. . . . He considered Shakespeare superior to Goethe and Schiller." Hitler, we are told, frequently quoted Hamlet and Julius Caesar, was well versed in the Bible (he had once hoped to become a Catholic priest or monk), and was passionate about the adventure novels of Karl May, many of them Westerns in roughly the style of Owen Wister or Zane Grey. Hitler once wrote: "The first Karl May that I read was The Ride Across the Desert. I was overwhelmed! I threw myself into him immediately which resulted in a noticeable decline in my grades." How strange and sad it is to think of this evil, evil man as a wide-eyed schoolboy avoiding his homework in order to read one more exciting page about Old Shatterhand and the Apache chief, Winnetou.

Adopting the critic Walter Benjamin's arguable proposition that "a private library serves as a permanent and credible witness to the character of its collector," Ryback examines perhaps 15 or 20 representative works from Hitler's surviving books to illuminate their owner's thought and actions. These include guides to Berlin and Brussels (both studied at the front during World War I); Hitler's memoir, Mein Kampf; an edition of the philosopher Fichte (given to him by filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl); selected works of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche; volumes devoted to weaponry, military strategy and great generals (Frederick the Great, von Schlieffen); several popular accounts of the occult; and numerous anti-Semitic tracts and works of pseudo-scholarship, including Henry Ford's notorious The International Jew. Hitler once said, "I regard Ford as my inspiration."

While Hitler's Private Library is crisply written and covers the dictator's reading life from World War I to his suicide in 1945, Ryback could have dug a little deeper. For instance, we are told about Hitler's rabid devotion to Karl May several times -- as an adult the dictator would apparently return to these adventure stories as others do to the Bible -- yet one looks in vain for a sustained analysis of May's books and their appeal. Presumably, this is because none of Hitler's personal copies of the novels survive. Yet surely, given their signal importance to his subject, they should be covered in a study subtitled The Books That Shaped His Life. Similarly, Ryback focuses one chapter on the vile Dietrich Eckart's German translation of "Peer Gynt," showing how Hitler's mentor in anti-Semitism transformed Ibsen's protagonist into a heroic Aryan ideal. But shouldn't Ryback have at least commented on the recent claims -- by Steven Sage-- that three of Ibsen's other plays provide actual blueprints for Hitler's vision of the Third Reich?

While thoroughly engrossing, like virtually all books about the Nazi dictator, Hitler's Private Library does sometimes leave a reader slightly annoyed or puzzled. Details are occasionally wrong or at least fuzzy and in need of clarification. "Peer Gynt" isn't an epic poem; it's a drama in verse. Is Eckart's last play, "Lorenzaccio," another reworking, this time of Alfred de Musset's dramatic masterpiece of the same name? When Ryback describes a Botticelli illustration for Dante -- in which "a despairing figure clings to an angel as he is lifted from the Inferno" -- he calls it "a powerfully emotive moment of salvation." In Catholic theology once you're damned to hell, you have lost the possibility of salvation forever. (To my eye, the so-called "despairing figure" looks like Dante.) And did Alfred Rosenberg really claim that "Saint Peter, working as a Jewish agent, changed his name from Saulus to Paulus?" Wouldn't that mean that Saint Peter was also Saint Paul? Listing some works from the National Socialist Institute that Hitler probably "devoured," Ryback mentions "anthologies of anti-Semitic remarks ranging from Martin Luther to Émile Zola." Zola? This last certainly merits explaining, given Zola's courageous "J'Accuse," his famous declaration that French anti-Semitism had led to the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of the soldier Alfred Dreyfus.

These are all relatively small matters, usually imprecisions rather than errors, but they gradually mount up and detract from the overall merit of Hitler's Private Library. So, too, does the impression that Ryback is something of a glory hog: He never misses an opportunity to say "I." The Hitler books may have been cared for by the Library of Congress for the past 60 years, but you'd think Timothy W. Ryback was the first person ever to turn their pages. He refers constantly to himself: "I found," "I encountered," "I discovered," "When I first surveyed Hitler's surviving books," "By my count," "I was puzzled by," "In paging through this slender volume, I observed" and on and on. Arguably, such phrases are intended to make Hitler's Private Library more "personal," but they sound boastful and should have been discouraged by the book's editor. What does the otiose "I found" add to a clause like "a sentiment echoed in marked passages in Hitler books I found at Brown University"? Had those Hitler books been lost or misplaced?

But then Ryback is also repeatedly telling us that he interviewed this or that surviving member of the Hitler entourage, or making sure we know that he wrote to the aged Leni Riefenstahl to ask about the background for the filmmaker's gift of the Fichte volumes. Riefenstahl crisply replied that "she remembered the exact circumstances, which she had recorded in precise detail in her memoirs." Now, normally a scholar would check the published sources first, wouldn't he? And since the needed material does turn out to be in the Riefenstahl memoirs, what purpose other than vanity is served by mentioning this exchange of letters at all?

These gripes aside, Hitler's Private Library is still fascinating -- and unnerving. Hitler, Ryback shows us, remained a serious reader all his life, spending much of his disposable income on books during the 1920s and regularly passing quiet evenings in his library during the 1930s and '40s, no matter how dreadful the orders he'd been giving during the day. Of course, he was often studying -- studying! -- such ranting works as Madison Grant's The Passing of the Great Race, and yet he also dreamt over volumes devoted to art and architecture, read his adventure novels and world classics.

So the mystery remains: Just how does a man who appreciates Don Quixote, "Hamlet" and Uncle Tom's Cabin grow so monstrous? Wide reading is traditionally supposed to humanize and enlarge our hearts, to encourage empathy and allowance for differences among people. But the example of Hitler, like that of the concentration camp commanders who listened to Mozart to drown out the cries of the innocent, continues to give one pause. Certainly, art and books matter, just as political principles and religious convictions matter, but living, breathing human beings matter most of all. ·

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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