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A Constant Reader

Much of what Oechsner went on to report can hardly have come as a surprise—the fact that a large part of the collection was devoted to military history, for instance. But he also found room for a good deal of curious detail. When books about horse-breeding showed pictures of stallions alongside pictures of mares, Hitler frequently struck through the pictures of the mares with a red pencil, apparently to signal their inferiority. There were whole drawers in the library filled with photographs of famous actors, singers, and dancers. The four hundred–odd books in the section on the Catholic Church included numerous works of pornography, some of them said to have been annotated by Hitler with “gross and uncouth” marginal notes.

Oechsner also offered a glimpse of the nine hundred or so works of “simple, popular fiction” that the library contained. Foremost among them were the German cowboy-and-Indian tales of Karl May, boyhood favorites of Hitler that he repeatedly reread as an adult and recommended to his generals as manuals of strategy. There were also a large number of detective stories, with the British thriller-writer Edgar Wallace a particularly conspicuous presence. (This is not as unlikely as it may sound. Wallace was enormously popular in Germany: another great admirer was Konrad Adenauer.) And love stories were well represented in the library by the novelettes of Hedwig Courts-Mahler, characterized by Oechsner as “the leading romantic sob sister of Germany,” and scores of similar works. These last volumes were apparently kept in plain covers so as not to reveal their titles.

In a new study by Timothy W. Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library, Oechsner’s sketch is reprinted as an appendix. As Ryback says, the sketch is “journalistic by nature and propagandistic in intent”; some of its claims, he adds, are “sensational and salacious.” But he also concedes that it is “the best portrait we have of Hitler’s book collection.” Much of it rings true (and about those sensational claims, we simply can’t be sure). But what makes it especially valuable is that it is the only account of the library written before it was dispersed or destroyed.

In 1945 the ten thousand books that Hitler had kept in Berlin were shipped off to Russia by the Soviet authorities. They have not been seen since. Meanwhile, American soldiers were picking through the books that survived at the Berghof (which was by now a smoldering ruin), and others that had been kept in Munich. An unknown number of these minor spoils of war found their way to the States as souvenirs.

Amid all the chaos, one significant section of the library remained intact—a cache of three thousand books that had been placed for safekeeping in a salt mine near Berchtesgaden. It was sent to Washington, and after duplicates or works judged to be of no great interest had been weeded out, 1,200 volumes were set aside by the Library of Congress as a separate collection.

While occasionally consulted or examined by scholars, these books have been largely neglected: as late as 2001 less than half of them had been catalogued. Now—along with eighty books owned by Brown University—they form the basis of Timothy Ryback’s research. (The Brown volumes were a gift from a benefactor who had inherited them from his uncle, an American official who had been allowed by Soviet colleagues to take them from Berlin in 1945.)

It is a measure of the malign spell that Hitler still casts that Ryback’s book seems certain to arouse widespread curiosity. On the face of it, a book-length account of someone’s private library is fairly specialized fare. This is true even where major historical figures are concerned—Franklin Roosevelt, say, or Winston Churchill. But Hitler is different. The evil he unleashed pervades everything about him. It lends a sinister interest to much in his life that would otherwise be mediocre or unremarkable.

He is also set apart from other political leaders by the feeling we get that we can’t properly account for him. How did he come to be what he was? How did he come to do what he did? In spite of all the attempts that have been made to answer these questions, we are finally brought up, when we explore them, against something inexplicable. Sociology, psychology, and cultural history can only explain so much. Beyond lies darkness. But we go on looking for explanations all the same, and a close-up of Hitler’s reading offers the prospect of a valuable new key to his character. Such, at least, is the promise held out by the subtitle of Ryback’s study, “The Books That Shaped His Life.”

To put the matter in this way is to make altogether too large a claim, however. There are many other forces that shape a life besides reading. There is much more to reading than books. It is clear from Mein Kampf and elsewhere that Hitler got most of his early political education from newspapers. And even when a book is known to have had a strong impact on a reader, it is often almost impossible to chart the exact course of its influence.

In practice Ryback’s approach is at once more modest and more focused than his subtitle suggests. He doesn’t undertake a systematic interpretation of Hitler’s personality, or an exhaustive trawl through his library. Instead, he concentrates on a relatively small number of books that in his own words “possessed either emotional or intellectual significance for Hitler,” that “occupied his thoughts in his private hours and helped shape his public words and actions.”

In discussing these volumes, he considers not only their contents but also (where appropriate) their provenance and their physical condition. There is an architectural guide to Berlin, for instance, which Hitler bought and read while on active service in France in World War I. It fed his dreams of how Berlin might be transformed on an imperial scale; it also received a battering, as he carried it around, of which the scars are still visible—a broken spine, a spot of red paraffin, corners curled inward “like dried lemon rind.”

The only serious philosopher represented among Hitler’s surviving books—by a first edition of his complete works, elegantly rebound in white leather—is the early-nineteenth-century nationalistic thinker Johann Gottlieb Fichte. This is Ryback’s cue for arguing that Fichte anticipated the spirit of Nazism far more closely than Schopenhauer or Nietzsche. But his readers are likely to be at least as impressed by his account of how the white-leather volumes came into Hitler’s possession: they were a present from the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, given to him as a peace offering after they had had a falling out (or so she claimed) at the suggestion of an old admirer who had originally given them to her.

A number of the surviving Hitler books contain handwritten marginalia—“several dozen,” Ryback tells us. This is only a small proportion of the collection as a whole, and most of the markings seem to be limited to penciled underlinings or exclamation marks and the like. Nonetheless, Ryback’s examination of them yields a good deal that is of interest.

The most striking instance is his account of a short book about the Prussian military strategist Alfred Graf von Schlieffen, published in 1921 and given to Hitler by his chef and major domo Artur Kannenberg—not merely given to him, urged on him—in May 1940. Hitler followed Kannenberg’s advice, and the marginal markings in the book testify to the close attention with which he read it. Many of these markings singled out passages that bore on his current preoccupations; in Ryback’s view, highlights on two of the pages, about Germany’s need “first to secure its western borders [i.e., defeat France and England] before dealing with Russia,” constitute “the earliest recorded evidence of Hitler’s plan to invade the Soviet Union.”

Another book that kept his pencil busy was the novelist Ernst Jünger’s battlefront memoir Fire and Blood, which he read in 1926, at a time when he was contemplating writing a war memoir of his own. In general, although Hitler sang the praises of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Robinson Crusoe, he had little time for poetry or serious fiction, but perhaps Jünger should count as an exception. At any rate, he marked passage after passage in Fire and Blood with obvious enthusiasm, concentrating not so much on descriptions of actual battle as on what Ryback sums up as “Jünger’s frontline epiphanies about the transformative effects of slaughter, about the hardening of the heart and soul.”

Ryback also reports on some of the more interesting inscriptions in the library’s many presentation copies. They provide a number of telling moments. Long before Hitler came to power, for instance, Jünger sent him a copy of one of his books inscribed “To the national Führer Adolf Hitler.” And Kannenberg’s inscription in the study of Schlieffen deliberately overrode an important aspect of the book’s spirit. The author of the book was at pains to stress that the Prussian tradition had a chivalrous side—recalling, for example, that Schlieffen declined to bombard Paris during the Franco-Prussian War because of the harm it would have inflicted on civilians. By contrast, the jovial-brutal Kannenberg (of whom Ryback paints an excellent portrait) was a man without scruples. He recommended Schlieffen as a strategist, but he also included in his scrawled inscription one of Hitler’s favorite sayings, “so-oder-so “—“one way or another.” In effect he was exhorting his master to remain true to his own ruthlessness.

There is one inscription with an interesting possible implication that has already been discussed by a major Hitler biographer, but which Ryback himself passes over in silence. Among the books in the Library of Congress holding, as he points out, is a translation of Nationalism by Rabindranath Tagore, with an inscription showing that it was given to Hitler by a woman admirer on his thirty-second birthday. What Ryback doesn’t mention, however, is that the woman also describes Hitler as “my dear Arman brother.”

The term “Arman” was coined by the Austrian racial mystic Guido von List (1848–1919), an impressively bearded false prophet whose esoteric doctrines centered on his belief in the absolute superiority of the Aryan-German race (originally from the Far North), who were destined to regain their rightful dominance after a titanic struggle against inferior races (“the herd people”) in which they would be led by a god-man, “the strong one from above.” To promote their cause, List’s followers founded an interlinked series of secret societies, including the “Armanship” association and the “High Armans’ Revelation.” Armans, according to List, were survivors of the pre-Christian “noble race of the people.” Thanks to generations of careful breeding, they had preserved their native purity.

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