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:
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.
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.
Excerpted from Hitler's Private Library by Timothy W. Ryback. Copyright © 2008 by Timothy W. Ryback. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.