The fount from which he drank
What Adolf Hitler's book collection teaches us about its owner
Hitler's Private Library:
The Books that Shaped His Life, by Timothy W. Ryback, Alfred A. Knopf, 278 pages, $25.95
There is seemingly no greater paradox: Adolf Hitler, whose regime is synonymous not only with the murder of millions of people but also with book burning, shaped his worldview more by the reading of books than by actual life experiences.
Hitler maintained three private libraries: one in his office in the chancellor's bureau, one in his Berlin apartment, and another in his vacation cottage near Berchtesgaden. After the fall of the Reich, the books were scattered all over, and some were looted or went missing. The American occupation authorities were able to salvage some of them, transferring 1,200 titles to the Library of Congress in Washington. The books were cataloged and preserved in a special section that was barely noticed.
Timothy Ryback, an American journalist, tracked down the locations of the missing books in various collections in Germany as well as at Brown University in Rhode Island. In his book, Ryback attempts to recreate the spiritual world - if one may call it that - of the leader of the Third Reich, while at the same time examining the volumes found in his libraries, some of which contain Hitler's handwritten notes. It is obvious that the collection included books the Fuehrer did not read, while some show dedications from those who gave him the books as gifts. These are also likely to shed light on what his aides believed would interest their leader.
A book a night
The impression that is formed of Hitler's spiritual world is spotty; hence, one should ostensibly be cautious about jumping to rash conclusions about the extent to which his views were based on his reading. However, since Hitler boasted that he read a book every night (and there are reliable accounts confirming this), it is impossible to ignore the fact that books shaped his opinions and his worldview.
As for his literary taste, Hitler on numerous occasions named his favorite books, which include Miguel de Cervantes' "Don Quixote," Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe," Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," Wilhelm Busch's "Max and Moritz" and the works of Karl May and William Shakespeare, with a particular love for "Hamlet." (Conspicuously absent are important German classics like the works of Goethe and Schiller; Hitler once remarked that he found it odd that the German enlightenment had produced Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's "Nathan the Wise," the story of a rabbi who reconciles Christians, Muslims and Jews, while it was an Englishman who gave the world Shylock.)
There were, of course, some unexpected finds in Hitler's various libraries. Alongside Carl von Clausewitz's "On War," there is also a French vegetarian cookbook with the written dedication "To Monsieur Hitler, vegetarian," from his vegetarian admirers in France (for those who forgot, yes, Hitler was a vegetarian and Himmler developed environmentally friendly ideas). There are also books on astrology.
A glance at this near-harmless list of titles is likely to bring to mind Hannah Arendt's concept of the "banality of evil." But Hitler's reading lists suggest something completely different. Ryback argues that Hitler's lack of formal education (he barely completed high school) and his ravenous appetite for books are characteristic of someone who uncritically adopts ideas from books, with the result being a maelstrom of half-baked opinions that only gives the appearance of a worldview.
Contrary to other Nazi leaders, who rose to leadership positions out of street battles with communists and socialists, Hitler viewed himself as a thinker and an ideologue with a philosophical perspective on history, as well as someone who held opinions not just in the field of politics but also on matters of architecture, art and aesthetics.
Ryback reveals that Hitler drew inspiration for the idea of building a new capital, "Germania," for the Thousand-Year Reich from a book he purchased as a soldier fighting at the French front during World War I. "Berlin," by Max Osborn, a well-known German intellectual and literary critic of the period, was critical of the foreign influences that permeated the designs of buildings and monuments in the city. Instead, Osborn proposed that a German style be conceived that would allow for construction of a "Sparta on the Spree River." The collection contains the original copy Hitler purchased during the war. The irony of the story is that Osborn, a German patriot through and through, was a Jew who was forced to leave Germany after 1933. He spent some time in Palestine, and then relocated to the United States, where he managed to re-establish himself as an art critic.
The roots of evil
Most of the Fuehrer's collection was devoted to political writings from authors belonging to the radical right-wing camp in Germany and Europe. Paul Lagarde's "German Letters," a series of essays penned in the late 19th century, proposes the expulsion of the Jews from Europe. A newer version of the book that was published in 1935 is found in the collection. Ryback found and counted more than 100 notations made by Hitler, emphasizing sections that centered on criticism of the Jews for their role in the German economy and culture, and proposals to banish them from Germany.
Other books in his personal library, as well as the list of works that Hitler borrowed from the Nazi Party library in Munich sometime during the 1920s, all found by Ryback, include those written by the historian and fervent advocate of German nationalism Heinrich von Treitschke; "The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century," by Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the English father of modern racist ideology; Henry Ford's "The International Jew"; a book written by the founder of German "scientific" racism, Hans F.K. Guenther; Arthur Moeller van den Bruck's "Das Dritte Reich" ("The Third Reich"), from which the Nazis took the term; the writings of leading American eugenicist Madison Grant; the books of Martin Luther, describing his virulent attitude toward the Jews; and the books of Dietrich Eckart, Hitler's mentor in Munich at the start of his political career.
Also prominent are the works of Ernst Juenger, a brilliant intellectual who managed to walk the tightrope of a seemingly refined aestheticism in expressing his admiration for the war and support for the Nazis (he rehabilitated himself in West Germany following World War II). The collection also contains a copy of a book written by the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, an ardent admirer of Hitler who dedicated one of his books to the Fuehrer during the war, prompting an exchange of letters between the two. Hitler thanked the Swede for his support of the war and his philosophy. Among the later additions to Hitler's library is a German translation of Thomas Carlyle's biography of Frederick the Great. The book was presented to Hitler by Joseph Goebbels in March 1945, when the Fuehrer was ensconced in the bunker in which he would commit suicide just weeks later. Frederick the Great was a role model for Hitler, and Carlyle, another of whose works was titled "On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History," was one of his favorite historians.
It's not surprising that Hitler's library includes the complete oeuvre of the writings of the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. His works were given to Hitler as a gift from his ardent admirer, filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who dedicated them with the words "To my beloved Fuehrer, with feelings of deep respect." Fichte was the author of the 1808 "Addresses to the German Nation," which many see as the origin of German political nationalism. It is perhaps less obvious that the works of the philosopher Immanuel Kant (the three "Critiques") were also in Hitler's library, though it is unclear whether he read any of them.
For all intents and purposes, there are no real surprises in the library. Indeed, it is characterized by its one-sidedness. The British historian Ian Kershaw, who authored perhaps the most impressive biography of Hitler, has written that his subject remained an enigma for him - yet this need be only partially so.
It is the library that allows us a close-up glimpse of Hitler's worldview. Ryback shows him to be a man in possession of only the most basic education who, like many pseudo-intellectuals, was attracted to all-encompassing and ambitious views without possessing the tools to evaluate them. The books Hitler read did not change his perspective, but served only to strengthen it. He wasn't interested in general works of history, or politics or architecture, works that would enable him to take a critical look at his half-baked philosophies.
The books in Hitler's collection were also a reservoir from which he drew his ideas, those that found expression in "Mein Kampf," his speeches, his "table talks" and his policies. He is shown to be a lower-middle-class person, half-educated, who is nonetheless caught up in ideas and views himself not just as a political leader but also as a thinker.
Ironically, one may say of Hitler exactly what he wrote of others: that there are some people "who have much 'knowledge,' but who are incapable of organizing or internalizing the material."
Lastly, in contrast to the general perception, the library actually proves that Hitler was not alone in either his thoughts or his policies. The actions that he proposed and that were later implemented by him with unconscionable brutality had roots. His opinions and perspectives reflected a significant trend discernible among a large number of thinkers and European (and American) statesmen during the late 19th century. The presence in his library of works written by the likes of Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Henry Ford shows that Nazi ideology did not spring from a single man or movement. It was a not insignificant current of Western culture, and an end was put to it only in the wake of the horrors of World War II, despite the fact that flashes of it appear here and there even today. And all this is very, very far from banality.
Prof. Shlomo Avineri is the author of "Herzl," published by the Zalman Shazar Center (Hebrew).