Know a man by his books
Oct 2nd 2008
From The Economist print edition
Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped his Life
By Timothy W. Ryback
Knopf; 304 pages; $25. To be published in Britain by The Bodley Head in February
HE WAS better known for burning books than reading them. But surviving portions of Hitler’s private library reveal the German dictator as an ardent bibliophile, owning classics, history, travel writing, biography, studies of the occult and much else.
Timothy Ryback’s main find is the portion of Hitler’s huge book collection that ended up in an obscure section of the Library of Congress. Other books emerged from American officers who took them as souvenirs. The Soviet army had the best pickings: the library in Berlin’s Reichskanzlei, 10,000 volumes, was shipped off to Moscow in 1945 and has not been seen in public since (tantalisingly, it surfaced in the 1990s in an abandoned church but disappeared again).
But there is enough to go on. The author neatly weaves together Hitler’s political career with his book-collecting habits, tracing the well-thumbed volumes that Hitler consulted during the writing of “Mein Kampf”. Mr Ryback’s knowledge of German literature and the politics of the Nazi era makes him well placed to follow clues and draw inferences, both from the time and place of acquisition and from the marginalia that can be found in the books. Hitler was not only an avid reader but also an inveterate underliner. Perhaps the most chilling example of that is in Paul de Lagarde’s “German Essays”. Underlined is: “Each and every irksome Jew is a serious affront to the authenticity and veracity of our German identity.”
As the author points out, Hitler had a magpie mind. He speed-read books looking for material that he counted as useful—meaning anything that fitted into his mosaic of misplaced historical analogy and pseudoscience. What didn’t fit was discarded. This, as Mr Ryback writes, was the essence of Hitler: “Not a profound, unfathomable distillation of the philosophies of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, but instead a dime-store theory cobbled together from cheap tendentious paperbacks and esoteric hardcovers, which gave rise to a thin, calculating, bullying mendacity.”
Mr Ryback has done a good job maintaining a balance between dispassionate inquiry and moral revulsion. Yet the result is still slightly creepy. Flicking through a copy of what is probably the earliest acquisition in the collection, an architectural history of Berlin that Hitler bought in November 1915, he discovers between pages 160 and 161, “a wiry inch-long black hair that appears to be from a moustache”. It is suddenly all a bit too close for comfort.
Thursday, October 02, 2008