The Magazine

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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Nevertheless, Ryback’s approach is seriously flawed. First, as he himself readily admits, only a small part of Hitler’s library was available to him for study: More than 10,000 of the books that made up Hitler’s private library are gathering dust somewhere in Russia after having been trucked out of Berlin by the Red Army. As a result, Ryback had access to only 1,300 books (almost all of them now at the Library of Congress) and concentrated on only 120 to 150 that could have been personally significant to Hitler. We have no idea whether the books that he examines are representative. 

Second, Ryback has an exaggerated faith in what marginal notations can reveal. In this respect he calls to mind the touching, naïve figure of Tatyana, a character in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, who attempts to unlock Onegin’s mind by entering his library and examining his marginalia. Marginal notes as a window into the soul? It’s a truly romantic notion, one that Ryback hypes ever further by writing portentously about how “a penciled mark [in the margin of a book owned by a dictator] can become state doctrine.” But in fact, Hitler’s “trenchant marks” are not very revealing: Only several dozen books contain handwritten marginalia that seem convincingly to have been inscribed by Hitler, and in these cases, most of the markings are limited to penciled underlinings or exclamation marks.

Ryback exaggerates Hitler’s intellectual seriousness. Just as Nazi ideology itself was, in the words of the German political scientist Karl Dietrich Bracher, essentially “an eclectic conglomeration of ideas and ways of thinking,” Hitler himself was little more than (to refer once more to Frederic Spotts) “a notorious pickpocket in the marketplace of ideas.” For this reason, any attempt to unlock Hitler’s character by examining the remnants of his library is ultimately unconvincing. Hitler did claim to be an obsessive reader—but even if that were believable, being an obsessive reader is not the same thing as being a selective or thoughtful one. Ryback himself points to Hitler’s method of reading, as disclosed in Mein Kampf: First you decide what you want to know, then you collect information that confirms what you already believe. Hitler did not read to expand his knowledge, and his earliest and perhaps greatest education came from stridently nationalistic and anti-Semitic newspapers, not from books. 

Ryback seems ultimately to have fallen prey to what Ron Rosenbaum termed “the pseudosophisticated snares of explanation.” Hitler once claimed to have carried Schopenhauer’s five-volume collected works in his knapsack throughout the Great War, and yet we know that he couldn’t even spell the philosopher’s name correctly. He was more of a mountebank than an intellectual, the kind who used books as props to advertise his genius to others. 

Ryback did well to look to Walter Benjamin for guidance, but overlooked the truly pertinent aperçu found in notes that Benjamin took for an unfinished essay on Hitler: “So much luster surrounding so much shabbiness.”

Michael McDonald is a writer and attorney in Washington. 

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