The books that shaped Hitler's worldview
Author Timothy Ryback's discovery of a cache of 1,000 volumes from Hitler's personal library in the Library of Congress resulted in his new book, "Hitler's Private Library." Ryback concludes that the dictator was a passionate reader, searching out works of literature, philosophy and history that furthered his goals of world domination.
Special to The Seattle Times
"Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life"
by Timothy W. Ryback
Knopf, 304 pp., $25
Adolf Hitler is better remembered as a burner of books than as a collector. Yet, as Timothy Ryback shows in his intriguing new book, "Hitler's Private Library," Hitler was a passionate bibliophile and a hungry reader who amassed a personal library of over 16,000 volumes.
In the spring of 2001, Ryback, a writer and the author of a previous book on the German town of Dachau, infamous as the site of a Nazi concentration camp, came across over 1,000 books from Hitler's private collection in the Library of Congress. Inspired by critic Walter Benjamin's idea that the book collector's character is preserved in his library, Ryback set out to see what information the rows of dusty books might yield about Hitler.
Ryback follows the faintest clues in his search. A wiry black hair, possibly from a mustache, suggests a place in a text where Hitler might have paused; smudgy fingerprints down the sides of the page with a Botticelli drawing in a 1915 guidebook to Berlin leads to a discussion of Hitler the would-be artist. And then there are the marginalia, faint pencil traces highlighting passages, exclamation points and comments directed to the books' authors, taking issue, questioning, signaling agreement.
As he notes, Ryback is not the first to study Hitler's marginalia, but he does make the perfect guide, intelligent, well-informed and careful, through this murky terrain. "Like footprints in the sand," he observes of these suggestive clues, "they do not necessarily reveal the purpose of the journey, but they do allow us to see where his attention caught and lingered, where it rushed ahead, where a question was raised or an impression formed."
Hitler's interests ranged widely, a fact reflected by his books. He loved literature and considered Cervantes's "Don Quixote," Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" and Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" among the greatest works of all time. He was particularly drawn to Shakespeare, finding him superior to Goethe, and owned his complete works in a handsome hand-tooled leather edition. He knew the Bible well, though he seems to have found greater comfort in the adventure stories of the wildly popular German novelist Karl May. He read history and biography and committed volumes' worth of obscure military facts to memory. He collected books on the occult (Nostradamus' prophesies among them) and scientific tracts on matters of race and the Jews.
In what makes for some of his book's most interesting chapters, Ryback reveals that it was a number of lesser-known writers and thinkers who were most responsible for shaping Hitler's racial ideas and not, as has so often been claimed, the great philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Hitler apparently read little of their works. Nor was he drawn to the writings of Gandhi, an anthology of whose prison writings Hitler owned but apparently never even opened.
The Hitler that emerges here is an intellectually aggressive, grasping individual who sought in books ideas that could be used as weapons in his struggle for power and domination. Hitler kept reading up until the end. Days before taking his own life in April 1945, he was engrossed in Thomas Carlyle's biography of Frederick the Great, the Prussian king who had been saved from certain defeat in 1762 by the unexpected decision of the Russian tsar to withdraw his attacking troops. This time there would be no miraculous turn of fate to save Germany. When Red Army troops searched Hitler's bunker, they found it stripped of his personal belongings, except, that is, for a few dozen books.
Douglas Smith is a resident scholar at
the University of Washington and author
of "The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great's Russia."
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