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 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.

Hitler was undoubtedly aware of List’s ideas, and in her masterly study Hitler’s Vienna* Brigitte Hamann weighs up the significance of the reference to him as “my dear Arman brother.” Did it imply that he had been involved in one of the List secret societies himself, or simply that the friend who gave him the Tagore book thought of him as a natural Arman—an embodiment of the Arman ideal? Hamann leaves the question unresolved, but goes on to give a detailed account of Hitler’s possible debt to List.

Hitler’s library doesn’t throw much light on his early exposure to occult teachings: none of the books in it were acquired before World War I. It does, however, contain scores of books on occult themes from a later date, which Ryback describes as “perhaps the most articulate witnesses to Hitler’s lifelong preoccupation.” Some of these—a commentary on the prophecies of Nostradamus, for instance—were purchased at the beginning of the 1920s, when his collection was just beginning to take shape. Others were added toward the end of his life. Together they form an unholy jumble, with bric-a-brac ranging from a seventeenth-century alchemical treatise to a Victorian study of paranormal phenomena illustrated by grainy “spirit photographs.” One small book has the catchy title The Essence of Creation: Research About This World and the Afterlife, About the Essential Truths of Nature, About the Substance of the Soul and the Resulting Conclusions .

Ryback understandably tiptoes around most of this material, but singles out for special attention three works with extensive pencil markings that were almost certainly made by Hitler. Two of them—one by an author called Carl Ludwig Schleich, the other by an author called Ernst Schertel—are books published in the early 1920s that stress the interaction between the realms of matter and spirit. The third is an unpublished typescript, ” Law of the World,” which the author, Maximilian Riedel, succeeded in getting Hitler to read in August 1939 through the intercession of a member of the Führer’s household.

Riedel, too, was preoccupied by the interpenetration of body and soul: Ryback reproduces a complicated diagram from his typescript that is meant to illustrate “linkages between the physical and spiritual worlds.” Riedel also believed that along with their five senses, human beings had “seven additional perceptive capacities,” which, properly harnessed, gave them access to “deeper universal knowledge.” For their part Schertel and Schleich both maintained (as the first of them put it, virtually quoting the second) that “our body presents a collection of potential and kinetic world energies.”

Many of us, in most contexts, would be content to dismiss such stuff as bilge. But bilge has to be taken seriously when it has helped to form the worldview of someone who occupies the position that Hitler held by the 1930s. It was only a step, moreover, from cloudy metaphysics to the cult of the world-transforming hero. Riedel praised the rare individual who used his full array of senses to tap into the deeper forces of life. Both Schleich and Schertel mused on the demonic power that enabled a few exceptional men to will new realities into existence, and the lesson was not lost on Hitler.

Ryback devotes a large part of his chapter on the occult to a telling account of the visit paid to the Berghof in the summer of 1939 by the League of Nations high commissioner for Danzig, the Swiss diplomat Carl Burckhardt. Hitler was threatening war, Burckhardt had come to plead for peace, and the drama of the occasion was heightened by the alpine setting. “All my great plans,” Hitler once claimed, “were conceived here.”

At first this episode looks like a detour in the narrative. Then we realize that it is meant to bring home to us that the Hitler who brooded over cranky, esoteric theories and the Hitler who drew up “great plans” for world domination were one and the same. Schertel’s homemade term for the power that drove on the ideal (and amoral) hero he dreamed of was “ektropic.” For Ryback, Hitler—when he spoke to Burckhardt, and when he told his generals of his decision to go to war two weeks later—was “‘ektropic’ man.”

This seems a reasonable enough label (it has the right air of cheap science fiction), provided we recognize that Hitler didn’t positively need such people as Schleich and Schertel to inspire him. If he wanted reassurance that he was a Man of Destiny, he always had older forms of magic to fall back on. Frederick Oechsner tells us that in its intact form his library contained, securely locked away, “200 photographs of the stellar constellations on important days in his life.” They were all annotated in his own handwriting.

The least surprising aspect of his library is that racist and nationalistic works were present in force. Those which have survived include books by Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the essays of Paul de Lagarde (the German Oriental scholar who was already using implicitly genocidal language about Jews back in the 1880s), The Third Reich —which gave the Nazis one of their key slogans—by Arthur Moeller von den Bruck, and some bulky tomes by Hans F.K. Günther, the obsessional “race expert” who ultimately became a professor at the University of Jena. One book that Hitler is known to have treasured has disappeared, his copy of Henry Ford’s The International Jew —or, in its German translation, Der Internationale Jude: Ein Weltproblem . (For a time, after he had read it, he kept a picture of Ford on the wall beside his desk.)

Leading Nazi colleagues also did their bit to fill the library’s shelves. In 1927, for instance, Hermann Göring presented Hitler with a copy of his memoir, Göring, What Were You Thinking! (What a jaunty fellow Göring was!) In 1938, Heinrich Himmler weighed in with Death and Immortality in the Worldview of Indo-Germanic Thinkers . And Hitler’s foremost mentor in his early days in the Nazi party, Dietrich Eckart, figures prominently in Ryback’s pages. Eckart was a well-connected litterateur who was notorious, even among fellow Nazis, for the ferocity of his anti-Semitism. By the time he died in 1923 he had outlived his usefulness to Hitler; but a relic of their friendship can be found, in forlorn physical condition, in the Library of Congress—a copy of Eckhart’s stage adaptation of Peer Gynt, adorned with a flowing inscription to Hitler and atmospheric woodcuts.

All this material is sensitively handled by Ryback and intelligently presented. Hitler’s Private Library brings us closer to Hitler at many points. But it can’t be said to transform our general picture of him. True, it does offer one major new perspective, which is signaled at the outset by an epigraph, a famous passage from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism :

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring….

And having quoted these lines, Ryback enlarges on them in the opening sentences of his text:

For him the library represented a Pierian spring, that metaphorical source of knowledge and inspiration. He drew deeply there, quelling his intellectual insecurities and nourishing his fanatic ambitions….

The implication is clear. Hitler was an autodidact, with an autodidact’s limitations, and the world might have been spared incalculable misery if he had received proper intellectual guidance. For anyone who believes in the power of education, this is a stirring thought. But how true is it?

There was in fact nothing particularly superficial about his knowledge of many of the subjects he was interested in. No doubt he could have read even more Paul de Lagarde than he did, or immersed himself even more thoroughly in the pseudoscience of Hans F.K. Günther, but that would hardly have improved matters. The trouble was not that he didn’t drink deeply enough, but that he drank at the wrong springs. And this in turn infected pursuits that in other contexts might have been perfectly respectable. He knew a great deal about military history. If he had had a systematic training in the subject, he would have known more. But the effect, unless lots of other things about him changed as well, would simply have been to make him a more efficient version of the man he was.

It doesn’t seem quite right to describe Hitler as an autodidact, not even as an autodidact gone wrong. A better term would be lumpenintellectual. It wasn’t his defective learning that was dangerous, but his ideas—and whether those ideas would have been more humane if he had had a more solid education is far from certain. If we look beyond Hitler himself, there are many reminders in Ryback’s book that high culture is capable of coexisting with the most vicious behavior, and with creeds that sanction that behavior.

An eloquent example is that of the Munich publisher Julius Lehmann, who kept Hitler supplied, year after year, with complimentary copies of the Nazi or quasi-Nazi books he published—everything from a reprint of Lagarde’s essays to an onslaught on Weimar democracy. More than fifty Lehmann books of this type are preserved in the Library of Congress, with inscriptions that repeatedly urge Hitler to think of them as “building blocks” for Nazism.

Yet J.F. Lehmanns Verlag—Julius founded the firm—was also the foremost German medical publisher, at a time when German medicine led the world. Its publications included a dozen journals, and it was particularly renowned for its medical atlases, which were reissued in many different languages. (An American publisher once placed an order for 100,000 copies of one of them.) The profits that the firm made on the medical side not only kept the whole enterprise going; they were also used to subsidize its right-wing titles, which were often published at a loss. Honest medicine, in other words, came to the financial aid of a manual on sterilization and a study of “racial hygiene.”

Life for historians would be a lot easier if the Nazis had been barbaric in every respect—if their only reaction to the world “culture” had been to reach for their guns. Often, of course, they were worse than barbaric; but they also represented a hideous distortion of culture rather than a flat turning away from it. And this is as true of Hitler as of any of his followers. Cruelty, resentment, and the lust for power weren’t the only things driving him. He needed to believe in himself as a thinker as well.

Ryback naturally doesn’t take Hitler at his own valuation, and constantly reminds us of his intellectual shallowness. Even so, he tends to make him seem more systematic than he was—partly because his own book is neatly organized, and partly because he largely confines himself to the books in the Library of Congress, a collection that has already been tidied up. You get a better idea of the chaotic aspects of Hitler’s personality from Oechsner’s brief essay.

Nonetheless, Ryback’s portrait is both original and rewarding. He raises fresh questions and throws light into neglected corners. And without being melodramatic about it, he provides a steady sense of the terrible issues that were at stake as Hitler sat reading. “The hand that signed the paper felled a city”—or in this case, the hand that underlined a key passage or drew a confirmatory line in the margin.

This Issue

May 14, 2009