A Constant Reader

Mary Evans Picture Library/Everett Collection
Adolf Hitler, circa 1935
In 1942 an American journalist called Frederick Oechsner published a book about Hitler entitled This Is the Enemy . It included an account of Hitler’s personal library, based on interviews Oechsner had conducted with the Führer’s associates while working as the United Press International correspondent in Berlin. And the first thing he made clear was that the library was a very substantial one. Hitler’s books were divided between his official residence in Berlin and the Berghof, his mountain retreat near Berchtesgaden, and there were over 16,000 of them—an estimate that subsequent scholarship has confirmed.

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…

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