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The Books That Shaped His Life

Written by Timothy W. RybackAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Timothy W. Ryback


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On Sale: October 21, 2008
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-0-307-27049-8
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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A Washington Post Notable Book
With a new chapter on eugenicist Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race

In this brilliant and original exploration of some of the formative influences in Adolf Hitler’s life, Timothy Ryback examines the books that shaped the man and his thinking.

Hitler was better known for burning books than collecting them but, as Ryback vividly shows us, books were Hitler’s constant companions throughout his life. They accompanied him from his years as a frontline corporal during the First World War to his final days before his suicide in Berlin. With remarkable attention to detail, Ryback examines the surviving volumes from Hitler’s private book collection, revealing the ideas and obsessions that occupied Hitler in his most private hours and the consequences they had for our world.

A feat of scholarly detective work, and a captivating biographical portrait, Hitler’s Private Library is one of the most intimate and chilling works on Hitler yet written.


The Man Who Burned Books

FOR HIM THE LIBRARY represented a Pierian spring, that mataphorica source of knowledge and inspiration. He drew deeply there, quelling his intellectual insecurities and nourishing his fanatic ambitions.He read voraciously, at least one book per night, sometimes more, so he claimed. “When one gives one also has to take,” he once said, “and I take what I need from books.”

He ranked Don Quixote,along with Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Gulliver’s Travels,among the great works of world literature. “Each of them is a grandiose idea unto itself,” he said. In Robinson Crusoehe perceived “the development of the entire history of mankind.” Don Quixotecaptured “ingeniously” the end of an era. He owned illustrated editions of both books and was especially impressed by Gustave Doré’s romantic depictions ofCervantes’s delusion-plagued hero.

He also owned the collected works of William Shakespeare, published in German translation in 1925 by Georg Müller as part of a series intended to make great literature available to the general public. Volume six includes As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and Troilus and Cressida. The entire set is bound in hand-tooled Moroccan leather with a gold-embossed eaglevflanked by his initials on the spine.

He considered Shakespeare superior to Goethe and Schiller in every respect. While Shakespeare had fueled his imagination on the protean forces of the emerging British empire, these two Teutonic playwright-poets squandered their talent on stories ofmidlife crises and sibling rivalries. Why was it, he once wondered, that the German Enlightenment produced Nathan the Wise, the story of the rabbi who reconciles Christians, Muslims, and Jews, while it had been left to Shakespeare to give the world The Merchant of Veniceand Shylock?

He appears to have imbibed his Hamlet. “To be or not to be” was a favorite phrase, as was “It is Hecuba to me.” He was especially fond of Julius Caesar. In a 1926 sketchbook he drew a detailed stage set for the first act of the Shakespeare tragedy with sinister façades enclosing the forum where Caesar is cut down. “We will meet again at Philippi,” he threatened an opponent on more than one occasion, plagiarizing the spectral warning to Brutus after Caesar’s murder. He was said to have reserved the Ides ofMarch for momentous decisions.

He kept his Shakespeare volumes in the second-floor study of his alpine retreat in southern Germany, along with a leather edition of another favorite author, the adventure novelist Karl May. “The first Karl May that I read was The Ride Across the Desert,” he once recalled. “I was overwhelmed! I threw myself into him immediately which resulted in a noticeable decline in my grades.” Later in life, he was said to have sought solace in Karl May the way others did in the Bible.

He was versed in the Holy Scriptures, and owned a particularly handsome tome with Worte Christi,or Words of Christ,embossed in gold on a cream-colored calfskin cover that even today remains as smooth as silk. He also owned a German translation ofHenry Ford’s anti-Semitic tract, The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, and a 1931 handbook on poison gas with a chapter detailing the qualities and effects ofprussic acid, the homicidal asphyxiant marketed commercially as Zyklon B. On his bedstand, he kept a well-thumbed copy of Wilhelm Busch’s mischievous cartoon duo Max and Moritz.

WALTER BENJAMIN ONCE SAID that you could tell a lot about a man by the books he keeps—his tastes, his interests, his habits. The books we retain and those we discard, those we read as well as those we decide not to, all say something about who we are. As a German-Jewish culture critic born ofan era when it was possible to be “German” and “Jewish,” Benjamin believed in the transcendent power ofKultur.He believed that creative expression not only enriches and illuminates the world we inhabit, but also provides the cultural adhesive that binds one generation
to the next, a Judeo-Germanic rendering of the ancient wisdom ars longa, vita brevis.

Benjamin held the written word—printed and bound—in especially highr egard. He loved books. He was fascinated by their physicality, by their durability, by their provenance. An astute collector, heargued, could“read”a book the way a physiognomist decipheredt he essence of a person’s character through his physical features. “Dates, placenames, formats, previous owners, bindings, and all the like,”Benjamin observed, “all these details must tell him something—not as dry isolated facts, but as a harmonious whole.”In short, you could j udge a book by its cover, and in turn the collector byhis collection. Quoting Hegel, Benjamin noted, “Only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight,” and concluded,“Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.”

When Benjamin invoked a nineteenth-century German philosopher, a Roman goddess, and an owl, he was of course alluding to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s famous maxim: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk,” by which Hegel meant that philosophizing can begin only after events have run their course.

Benjamin felt the same was true about private libraries. Only after the collector had shelved his last book and died, when his library was allowed to speak for itself, without the proprietor to distract or obfuscate, could the individual volumes reveal the “preserved” knowledge of their owner: how he asserted his claim over them, with a name scribbled on the inside cover or an ex libris bookplate pasted across an entire page; whether he left them dog-eared and stained, or the pages uncut and unread.

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.”

FOR THE LAST HALF CENTURY remnants of Adolf Hitler’s library have occupied shelf space in climatized obscurity in the Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress. The twelve hundred surviving volumes that once graced Hitler’s bookcases in his three elegantly appointed libraries—wood paneling, thick carpets, brass lamps, over- stuffed armchairs—at private residences in Munich, Berlin, and the Obersalzberg near Berchtesgaden, now stand in densely packed rows on steel shelves in an unadorned, dimly lit storage area of the Thomas Jefferson Building in downtown Washington, a stone’s throw from the Washington Mall and just across the street from the United States Supreme Court.

The sinews ofemotional logic that once ran through this collection— Hitler shuf?ed his books ceaselessly and insisted on reshelving them himself—have been severed. Hitler’s personal copy of his family genealogy is sandwiched between a bound collection of newspaper articles titled Sunday Meditationsand a folio ofpolitical cartoons from the 1920s. A handsomely bound facsimile edition ofletters by Frederick the Great, specially designed for Hitler’s ?ftieth birthday, lies on a shelf for oversized books beneath a similarly massive presentation volume on the city of Hamburg and an illustrated history of the German navy in the First World War. Hitler’s copy of the writings of the legendary Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, who famously declared that war was politics by other means, shares shelfspace beside a French vegetarian cookbook inscribed to“Monsieur Hitler végétarien.”

When I first surveyed Hitler’s surviving books, in the spring of 2001, I discovered that fewer than half the volumes had been catalogued, and only two hundred ofthose were searchable in the Library ofCongress’s online catalogue. Most were listed on aging index cards and still bore the idiosyncratic numbering system assigned them in the 1950s. At Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, I found another eighty Hitler books in a similar state of benign neglect. Taken from his Berlin bunker in the spring of 1945by Albert Aronson, one of the first Americans to enter Berlin after the German defeat, they were donated to Brown by Aronson’s nephew in the late 1970s. Today they are stored in a walk-in basement vault, along withWaltWhitman’spersonal copy of Leaves of Grassand the original folios to John James Audubon’s Birds of America.

Among the books at Brown, I found a copy of Mein Kampf with Hitler’s ex libris bookplate, an analysis of Wagner’s Parsifal published in 1913,a history of the swastika from 1921,and a half dozen or so spiritual and occult volumes Hitler acquired in Munich in the early 1920s, including an account of supernatural occurrences, The Dead Are Alive!, and a monograph on the prophecies of Nostradamus. I discovered additional Hitler books scattered in public and private archives across the United States and Europe.

Several dozen of these surviving Hitler books contain marginalia. Here I encountered a man who famously seemed never to listen to anyone, for whom conversation was a relentless tirade, a ceaseless monologue, pausing to engage with the text, to underline words and sentences, to mark entire paragraphs, to place an exclamation point beside one passage, a question mark beside another, and quite frequently an emphatic series of parallel lines in the margin alongside a particular passage. Like footprints in the sand, these markings allow us to trace the course of the journey but not necessarily the intent, where attention caught and lingered,where it rushed forward and where it ultimately ended.

In a 1934 reprint of Paul Lagarde’s German Letters, a series of late-nineteenth-century essays that advocated the systematic removal of Europe’s Jewish population, I found more than one hundred pages of penciled intrusions, beginning on page 41, where Lagarde calls for the “transplanting” of German and Austrian Jews to Palestine, and extending to more ominous passages in which he speaks of Jews as “pestilence.” “This water pestilence must be eradicated from our streams and lakes,” Lagarde writes on page 276, with a pencil marking bold affirmation in the margin.

“The political system without which it cannot exist must be eliminated.”

British historian Ian Kershaw has described Hitler as one of the most impenetrable personalities of modern history. “The combination of
Hitler’s innate secretiveness,” Kershaw writes, “the emptiness ofhis personal relations, his unbureaucratic style, the extremes of adulation and
hatred which he stirred up, and the apologetics as well as distortions built upon post-war memoirs and gossipy anecdotes of those in his entourage, mean that, for all the surviving mountains of paper spewed out by the governmental apparatus of the Third Reich, the sources for reconstructing the life of the German Dictator are in many respects extraordinarily limited—far more so than in the case, say, of his main adversaries, Churchill and even Stalin.”

Hitler’s library certainly contains its share of “spewed” material; easily two-thirds of the collection consists of books he never saw, let alone read, but there are also scores of more personal volumes that Hitler studied and marked. It also contains small but telling details. While perusing the unprocessed volumes in the rare book collection at the Library of Congress, I came across a book whose original contents had been gutted. The front and back boards were ?rmly secured to the spine by a heavy linen cover with the title, North, Central and East Asia: Handbook of Geographic Science,embossed in gold on a blue background. The original pages had been replaced by a sheaf of cluttered documents: a dozen or so photonegatives, an undated handwritten manuscript titled “The Solution to the German Question,” and a brief note typed on a presentation card that read:

My Führer

On the 14th anniversary of the day you first set foot in the Sternecker, Mrs. Gahr is presenting to you the list ofyour first fellow fighters. It is our conviction that this hour is the hour of birth of our wonderful movement and ofour new Reich. With loyalty until death.
Sieg Heil!

The Old Comrades

The card bore no date and the list of early Nazi Party members was missing, but the mention of “Mrs. Gahr,” presumably the wife of Otto Gahr, the goldsmith, whom Hitler charged with casting the first metal swastikas for the Nazi Party, as well as the reference to the fourteenth anniversary ofHitler’s first appearance in the Sternecker Beer Hall, preserves in briefest outline the trajectory of Hitler from political upstart in 1919 to chancellor ofthe German Reich in 1933.

For this book, I have selected those surviving volumes that possessed either emotional or intellectual significance for Hitler, those which occupied his thoughts in his private hours and helped shape his public words and actions. One of the earliest is a guidebook he acquired for four marks on a dreary Monday in late November 1915 while serving as a twenty-six-year-old corporal on the western front. The last is a biography he was reading thirty years later in the weeks leading up to his suicide in the spring of 1945. I have attempted to be judicious in my choice of Hitler volumes, selecting only those books for which there is compelling evidence that Hitler had them in his possession. I have exercised similar caution when it comes to the marginalia since the “authorship” of penciled intrusions cannot necessarily be determined definitively. Once again, I have relied on corroborating evidence, and I discuss individual cases in the text, drawing when available on the determinations of previous scholarship. To make titles accessible to the non-German reader, I generally use English translations of the original titles except in such obvious cases as Hitler’s Mein Kampf,or My Struggle.

Individually, these books help illuminate those issues that occupied Hitler in his more private hours, often at pivotal moments in his career.
Collectively they make good on the Benjamin promise, allowing us to glimpse the collector preserved among his books.

From the Hardcover edition.
Timothy W. Ryback

About Timothy W. Ryback

Timothy W. Ryback - Hitler's Private Library

Photo © Herman Seidl Tirez images

Timothy W. Ryback is the author of Hitler’s Private Library, which was named to the Washington Post Book World Best Nonfiction list in 2008, and The Last Survivor: Legacies of Dachau,New York Times Notable Book. He has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He lives and works in Paris.



“Elegantly written, meticulously researched. . . . Thought-provoking. . . . Ryback has produced a valuable short addition to attempts to understand this strange man whose impact on the world was so baleful.”
—Ian Kershaw, The New York Sun

“Fascinating. . . . Thanks to Ryback’s imaginative research . . . we come closer to one of the most elusive men ever to shape world history. . . . His effort is worthwhile: one finishes this short, packed book with a firmer take on the sort of intellectual—or pseudo-intellectual—who persuaded the best-educated nation in Europe to make war on civilization and try to exterminate the Jews.”
The New Republic

“Ryback’s portrait is both original and rewarding. . . . Certain to arouse widespread curiosity.”
New York Review of Books

“Intriguing. . . . [Ryback is] the perfect guide, intelligent, well-informed, and careful.”
The Seattle Times

“Finely written. . . . Unique in its focus. . . . A fresh perspective on a figure who has spawned countless biographies yet remains one of the 20th century’s indecipherable enigmas.”
Financial Times

“Remarkably absorbing. . . . A tantalizing glimpse into Hitler’s creepy little self-improvement program. While being a bookworm may not be a precondition for becoming a mass murderer, it’s certainly no impediment.”
—Jacob Heilbrunn, The New York Times Book Review

“Ryback writes gracefully, and the story he weaves around the books from Hitler’s private library . . . offers fresh perspectives. . . . Deftly, and with an economy of words, he sketches the future dictator’s transition from young volunteer to bitter and hardened soldier.”
Boston Globe

“Crisply written. . . . Thoroughly engrossing. . . . Fascinating—and unnerving.”
The Washington Post Book World

“Irresistible. . . . Approaching Hitler from an unexpected angle, Ryback isn’t adding a gimmicky volume to the vast bibliography: he’s shedding more light on the man than I have found in many full-dress studies.”
—John Wilson, Christianity Today

Hitler’s Private Library provides a warning against the dangers of blind adherence to ideology and the damage that a deal of selective reading can do.”
The Sunday Times (London)

“Ryback neatly weaves together Hitler’s political career with his book-collecting habits. . . . He has done a good job maintaining a balance between dispassionate inquiry and moral revulsion.”
The Economist

“Ryback has penetrated the brutality of the Holocaust and found that its origins are inescapably literary. Hitler’s Private Library is not merely a deft intellectual history of Nazism . . . it charts the way reading can undo all that we expect from it.”

“An absorbing account of a reader who professed to love books but burned them anyway.”

“[A] landmark study in the evolution of the Third Reich.”
Sacramento Book Review

“In Hitler’s Private Library, Ryback turns Hitler’s reading into a way of reading Hitler—his mind, his obsessions, his evolution. It’s an original and provocative work that adds valuable context to the skeletal and mystifying historical record.”
—Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler

Hitler’s Private Library is a meticulously researched and highly original focus on one of history’s most enigmatic figures. Ryback shines his laser-like perceptions into the library and mind of Adolf Hitler in a way no previous book has done. Anyone even vaguely interested in the uses and misuses of ‘a little bit of knowledge’ and ideology will marvel—and shudder—at Ryback’s riveting insights.”
—Steven Bach, author of LENI: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl

“Fascinating. . . . Hitler’s Private Library will appeal to anyone interested in what books mean to us, and is ‘must’ reading for anyone who doubts the power of written words to sway the human imagination toward good or evil.”
Sacramento News & Review (A Best Book of 2008)

  • Hitler's Private Library by Timothy W. Ryback
  • January 12, 2010
  • History - Holocaust
  • Vintage
  • $16.95
  • 9780307455260

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