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Hitler Reading

Is there much to be learned from a portion of his books?

Apr 26, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 30 • By MICHAEL MCDONALD
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Ryback embraces this conceit wholeheartedly, and his modus operandi is to single out surviving books from Hitler’s library that seem to have played an important part in his life. He tells us a bit about each book’s author and contents and then uses the books as a springboard to discuss broader historical issues that influenced the development of Hitler’s Weltanschauung. For example, in the opening chapter, Ryback relates how, during World War I, Hitler walked into the French town Fournes one day while serving as a message runner on the Western Front and purchased an architectural history of Berlin by the celebrated art critic Max Osborn. The book, a chauvinistic paean to Prussian grace, constitutes one of the earliest traces of Hitler’s lifelong obsession with the German capital. It survives, smudged and paraffin-stained, in the Library of Congress’s rare book collection. Examining it, Ryback notes how it “evidently spoke to the young Austrian corporal as indicated by the volume’s dog-eared pages and broken spine.” With even greater insight, Ryback observes how the very purchase of the book reveals the artistic ambitions that consumed Hitler: 

In November 1915, for a frontline corporal to pay four marks for a book on cultural treasures of Berlin, when cigarettes, schnapps, and women were readily available for immediate and palpable distraction, can be seen as an act of aesthetic transcendence.

It is a telling anecdote that reveals Hitler’s aesthetic bent of mind and his lifelong interest in the arts, which, as Frederic Spotts has observed in Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (2003), would prove to be as intense as his racism. 

In the following chapter Ryback discusses an inscribed copy of a German stage adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, given to Hitler when he was in his early thirties. Hitler received the book as a gift from Dietrich Eckart, who ran a publishing house that specialized in anti-Semitic literature and was, according to Ryback, the man who “scripted Hitler’s role as history’s most infamous anti-Semite.” Ryback speculates on the appeal that Peer Gynt—the story of a youth from a provincial Norwegian village who is intent on becoming “king of the world”—would have had for Hitler and uses Eckart’s biography to explore the early days of the Nazi party in Munich.

Ryback knows the history of this period exceptionally well, and has a good eye for spotting and highlighting revealing vignettes; the links he establishes between the books and the life invariably make for absorbing reading. All told, he concludes that Hitler seems to have read (surprise!) mostly rightwing and racist books by Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Paul Lagarde, and Henry Ford that the Nazi publisher J. F. Lehmann gave him over the years. 

When it came to literature, Ernst Jünger’s battlefront memoir Fire and Blood seems to have exercised a considerable attraction on Hitler during a period when he considered writing a war memoir of his own. Needless to say, Hitler was persuaded by Jünger’s insistence upon “the transformative effects of slaughter” and “the hardening of heart and soul” that occurs in combat. Hitler also had a penchant for the Saxon novelist Karl May’s Wild West adventure stories, which he had reissued in a special field edition for German soldiers at the front and later recommended to his military commanders as manuals of strategy. (Don’t blame the innocent May, whose entertaining tales of the wise Apache Chief Winnetou and his “white blood brother” Old Shatterhand were also a favorite of Albert Einstein.) 

On the whole, however, what we may call serious literature held no interest for Hitler, and is totally absent from his surviving library. In its place Ryback notes scores of books devoted to Hitler’s lifelong preoccupation with the occult—the prophecies of Nostradamus and the like—together with works that deliriously describe the interaction between the realms of matter and spirit. A personal favorite of Hitler’s in this latter category was a man by the name of Ernst Schertel, who wrote a dense tome “proving,” so he thought, how the creative, “truly ektropic” (sic), genius possessed the demonic power to free himself from empirical realities and, in effect, will new worlds into existence through sheer force of personality. And so on, up to Ryback’s final chapter on how Hitler’s reading of Thomas Carlyle’s History of Frederick the Great gave him hope in the bunker that, somehow, Germany would win the war.

Ryback deserves praise for his investigative labors and, especially in our increasingly virtual and digitalized age, for recognizing what the physical nature of books may reveal about their owners. He also deserves a reader’s gratitude for being a graceful and interesting writer. 

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