Hitler’s Private Library
The Books That Shaped His Life
by Timothy W. Ryback
Vintage, 320 pp., $16
‘Hitler is explicable in principle,” the historian Yehuda Bauer has said, “but that does not mean that he has been explained.” Nor, one is tempted to add, as the stack of books devoted to figuring him out grows ever higher, does it necessarily mean that he ever will be. How is it possible that a man so contemptuous of civilized values could rise to rule over one of Europe’s most civilized nations? What enabled him to retain the support of the German people as he openly pursued his plans for war and genocide? Was he an actor, or a true believer? A typical tyrant (but one with modern means of control and destruction at his disposal) or a sui generis singularity?
In Explaining Hitler (1998), Ron Rosenbaum cast a critical eye on the many attempts to make sense of Hitler hoping to learn what they tell us about such important social assumptions as free will, individual responsibility, and historical determinism. He concluded, though, that we may lack sufficient historical evidence to answer once and for all the key questions about Hitler’s malignant personality. And yet, given the enormity of Hitler’s crimes, it doesn’t seem right to give up; hence the search continues, as scholars return to “the unpleasant subject”—Golo Mann’s wry euphemism for the Führer—in search of explanations. The latest study holding out the promise of illumination is Hitler’s Private Library. Formerly a Harvard lecturer and cofounder of the Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation, Timothy Ryback currently serves as the deputy secretary general of the Académie Diplomatique Internationale in Paris.
Hitler is commonly regarded as a book-burner, not a book-lover; with good reason, his image is that of a demagogic public ranter, not a demure private reader. But Ryback disagrees, claiming that books were central to Hitler’s life and that a thorough analysis of Hitler’s reading will reveal his true nature. He promises not merely to take us into “Hitler’s private library” but, as his subtitle emphasizes, to reveal the books “that shaped his life.” To do this he will inspect the marginalia and inscriptions found in a limited number of books known to have been owned by Hitler and thereby reconstruct the role these books played at critical stages in his life.
“Like footprints in the sand,” he asserts, Hitler’s handwritten marginal comments “allow us to see where his attention caught and lingered, where it rushed ahead, where a question was raised or an impression formed.”
Ryback’s claim about the importance of books to Hitler is certainly plausible. Intimates of Hitler from his earliest appearances in Munich to his final days in Berlin testify that he read voraciously. One described his nocturnal reading habits as “one book per night, either at his desk or in his armchair, always with a cup of tea,” and another claimed that “the very first piece of furniture” for his Munich apartment “was a wooden bookcase, which he quickly filled with books from friends and antiquarian bookshops.” Photographs of Hitler immersed in reading or surrounded by books—several of which are reproduced here—seemingly cement the connection. Reliable historical reports estimate that Hitler’s personal library, divided between Berchtesgaden and Berlin, grew to well over 16,000 volumes by the 1940s. Dozens of books were at his bedside in the bunker.
Moreover, it’s easy to believe that our minds are affected if not determined by what we read. Thus Ryback calls attention to Pope’s famous admonition—A little learning is a dangerous thing / Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring—about the ill effects of ill-digested books. Ryback also draws methodological support for his inquiry from a lively personal essay by Walter Benjamin, entitled “Unpacking My Library.” In this essay Benjamin, reviewing the contents of his own personal library in 1931, reflects on how a book collector’s true character is revealed through the books that he accumulates over time. As Ryback explains in his preface:
Benjamin proposed that a private library serves as a permanent and credible witness to the character of its collector, leading him to the following philosophic conceit: We collect books in the belief that we are preserving them when in fact it is the books that preserve their collector. “Not that they come alive in him,” Benjamin posited. “It is he who lives in them.”