Hitler's Private Library

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Since World War II, countless biographies and analyses of German chancellor Adolf Hitler have appeared in print. From Nazi sociology to his personal sociopathy, all elements of Hitler’s life, including every word spoken or written by and about him, have been painstakingly scrutinized, elucidating the mind of the man whose psychopathology led to the death of more than fifty million people.

One aspect of Hitler’s life, however, has been little examined: his obsession with books. “I can never remember Adolf without books. Books were his world,” recalled an associate. Hitler explained, “I take what I need from books.” Following German-Jewish art critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin’s belief that books reveal and preserve their owner, Timothy W. Ryback examined some of the twelve hundred Library of Congress volumes, plus some of the eighty housed at Brown University, to draw insightful and incisive conclusions about their owner, Hitler.

Building on two prior studies, The Hitler Library: A Bibliography (2001) by Philipp Gassert and Daniel Mattern and Führer olvas (2000; Hitler’s Library, 2003) by Ambrus Miskolczy, Ryback’s Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life compellingly studies the provocative notion that Hitler (little known as a bibliophile) acquired and reinforced his most pernicious theories from books.

From weapons manuals and historical biographies to classic great fiction; from adventure novels and religion to the occult; from seething anti-Semitic tracts and political history to art and architectureliterally from militarism to mendacityHitler’s eclectic literary tastes lay bare his mind and his morality, and even more revealing are the marginalia he penned in his books. Analyzing effectively in chronological order and blending seamlessly the personal and the historical, Ryback expertly traces, through the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s, the evolution of Hitler’s psyche from genesis to genocide.

Critic Max Osborn’s Berlin (1909) was bought in 1915 by twenty-six-year-old World War I message runner Hitler, who, despite his rejection by the Royal Academy of Arts in Vienna, considered himself an artist. Osborn’s book was important because it celebrated two of Hitler’s lifelong obsessions: Prussian elements in Berlin’s architecture and German ruler Frederick the Great’s eighteenth century military successes, both of which inspired Hitler’s promise to make Berlin the world’s capital.

After reading poet Anton Drexler’s booklet Mein politisches Erwachen (1923; my political awakening), Hitler concluded, “I saw my own development come to life before my eyes.” Although he did not consider himself an anti-Semite in his youth, Hitler became fixated on Drexler’s thesis that Jews owned 80 percent of German money, thereby controlling the economy. In 1919, Drexler introduced Hitler to politician Dietrich Eckart, who ultimately became Hitler’s mentor. A newspaper reported that Eckart’s anti-Semitism was so virulent that for his lunch he could well eat “a half dozen Jews along with his sauerkraut.” Eckart and Hitler soon became intellectual partners in hate, relishing Eckart’s writing such chilling absurdities as that the death of “six million men” and “tens of thousands of children” during the Crusades was the fault of the satanic Jews. Eckart also produced a highly regarded adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt (pr. 1867), a book he gave to Hitler in 1921. In the plot, Peer Gynt’s overweening ambition for global conquest causes mass destruction, and after it, he achieves ultimate absolution. Hitler obviously identified with the play’s protagonist.

Clearly, the most significant way to be preserved by one’s books is to write one. In the Hitler collection at the Library of Congress are a dozen or so copies of Hitler’s famous manifesto Mein Kampf as well as the books that are its intellectual antecedents, such as American industrialist Henry Ford’s The International Jew (1921), an anti-Semitic treatise that excoriates Jewish plans to rule the world. Hitler described Ford as “my inspiration.” Originally titled A Four and a Half Year Battle Against Lies, Stupidity, and Cowardice, Hitler’s magnum opus was composed during his brief time in Landsberg prison. With its poor spelling, grammar, and punctuation, it was published in 1925 with the shorter title Mein Kampf (My Struggle, 1933). One scathing review called it “Hitler’s end”; another said the book casts...

(The entire section is 1899 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 105, no. 2 (September 15, 2008): 16.

Christianity Today 52, no. 11 (November, 2008): 74.

The Economist 389 (October 4, 2008): 90.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 16 (August 15, 2008): 87.

Library Journal 133, no. 17 (October 15, 2008): 70.

The New Republic 239, no. 11 (December 24, 2008): 32-35.

The New York Sun, September 24, 2008, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 33 (August 18, 2008): 56.

The Seattle Times, October 16, 2008, p. 16.

The Washington Post Book World, October 26, 2008, p. BW10.