Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hitler's Library by Timothy W. Ryback

We will never know the titles of the books Hitler had at his bedside table the day he killed himself but we do know eighty books that were in the bunker complex at the time, some rather recent acquisitions, such as a 1943 book titled A Prehistory of Roosevelt's War, By Hans Heinrich Dieckhoff. But there were also books he had acquired as a young man and at some point brought with him to Berlin: a 1913 treatise on Wagner's Parsifal, a tract on racial values published in 1917, a 1921 history of the swastika, and a dozen or so books on mystical and occult subjects all from the early 1920's, including a 120-page paperback called The Prophesies of Nostradamus by Carl Loog, published in 1921.

You can tell a lot about a person from what he reads. The surviving — and largely ignored — remnants of Adolf Hitler's personal library are deposited in the rare book collection of the Library of the U.S. Congress.

The books that constitute the Hitler Library were discovered in a salt mine near Berchtesgaden—haphazardly stashed in schnapps crates with the Reich Chancellery address on them—by soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division in the spring of 1945, transferred in January of 1952 to the Library of Congress, where an intern was assigned to uncrate the collection. "The intern did what we call 'duping out,'" says David Moore, a German-acquisition assistant at the Library of Congress. "If a book was not one hundred percent sure, if there was no bookplate, no inscription to the Führer, he didn't keep it." 1,200 volumes survived the "duping out".

Scholarly neglect of the Hitler Library derives in good part from an early mis-perception that its historical or biographical importance was limited. "Spot-checks revealed little in the way of marginal notes, autographs, or other similar features of interest," said Gerhard Weinberg, a leading authority on the Nazi era and one of the first scholars to explore the collection, "There were few clues that many of these books had been part of his personal library, and even less evidence that he had read any of them."

Even a systematic review of the collection begun in 1995 overlooked marginalia. In one reference Mattern and Gassert noted correctly that the Hitler Library contains two identical copies of Paul de Lagarde's German Essays, but they don't mention marginalia, despite the fact that in one volume fifty-eight pages have penciled intrusions—the first on page 16, the last on page 370. Given that Lagarde belongs to a circle of nineteenth-century German nationalist writers who are believed to have had a formative influence on Hitler's anti-Semitism, the marked passages are certainly worth noting. In an essay called "The Current Tasks of German Politics," Lagarde anticipates the emergence of a "singular man with the abilities and energy" to unite the German peoples, and calls for the "relocation of the Polish and Austrian Jews to Palestine." This latter phrase has been underlined and flagged with two bold strikes in the margin. Sometimes writing along the side of a page is recognizably in Hitler's jagged cursive hand.

For the most part, though, the marginalia are restricted to simple markings whose common "authorship" is suggested by an intense vertical line in the margin and double or triple underlining in the text, always in pencil; I found such markings repeatedly both in the Library of Congress collection and in a cache of eighty Hitler books at Brown University. Hitler's handwritten speeches, preserved in the Federal German Archives, show an identical pattern of markings. In one anti-Semitic rant Hitler drew three lines under the words Klassenkampf ("class struggle"), Weltherrschaft ("world domination"), and Der Jude als Diktator ("the Jew as dictator"); one can almost hear his fevered tones.

Hitler's habit of highlighting key concepts and passages is consonant with his theory on the "art of reading." In Chapter Two of Mein Kampf he observed, 'A man who possesses the art of correct reading will, in studying any book, magazine, or pamphlet, instinctively and immediately perceive everything which in his opinion is worth permanently remembering, either because it is suited to his purpose or generally worth knowing ... Then, if life suddenly sets some question before us for examination or answer, the memory, if this method of reading is observed ... will derive all the individual items regarding these questions, assembled in the course of decades, [and] submit them to the mind for examination and reconsideration, until the question is clarified or answered'. In these marginalia one sees a man (who famously seemed never to listen to anyone, for whom "conversation" was little more than a torrent of monologues) reading passages, reflecting on them, and responding with penciled dashes, dots, question marks, exclamation points, and under-scorings; intellectual footprints across the page. Here is one of history's most complex figures reduced merely to a reader with a book and a pencil.

'Books, books, always books!" August Kubizek once wrote. "I just can't imagine Adolf without books. He had them piled up around him at home. He always had a book with him wherever he went." Kubizek, Hitler's only real friend in his teenage years, recalled after the war that Hitler had been registered with three libraries in Linz, where he attended school, and had passed endless days in the baroque splendor of the Hofbibliothek, the former court library of the Hapsburgs, during his time in Vienna. "Bücher waren seine Welt," Kubizek wrote. "Books were his world." Other associates of Hitler provided similar testimony. More telling still is the five-year insurance policy Hitler took out in October of 1934, with the Gladbacher Fire Insurance Company, on his six-room apartment on the Prinzregentenplatz, in downtown Munich. In the letter of agreement accompanying the policy Hitler valued his book collection, said to consist of 6,000 volumes, at 150,000 marks—half the value of the entire policy.

For his official Berlin residence Hitler had his architect, Albert Speer, design a vast library that occupied the entire west wing. "Inventory records of the Reich Chancellery that we found at the Hoover Institution at Stanford suggest that by the early 1940s Hitler was receiving as many as four thousand books annually," Daniel Mattern told me. In Munich, Gassert and Mattern also discovered architectural sketches for a library annex to the Berghof that was intended to accommodate more than 60,000 volumes. "This was a man with a lot of books," Mattern says.

The biggest single share of Hitler's library, some 7,000 books, was devoted to military matters, in particular "the campaigns of Napoleon, the Prussian kings; the lives of all German and Prussian potentates who ever played a military role; and books on virtually all the well-known military campaigns in recorded history." A chapter in a book on Frederick the Great is especially worn, its pages tattered, marked with fingerprints, and smeared with red candle wax. Tucked in the crease between pages 162 and 163 I found a three-quarter-inch strand of stiff black hair.

Another 1,500 volumes concerned architecture, theater, painting, and sculpture. "One book on the Spanish theater has pornographic drawings and photographs, but there is no section on pornography, as such, in Hitler's Library," Oechsner wrote. The balance of the collection consisted of clusters of books on diverse themes ranging from nutrition and health to religion and geography, with "eight hundred to a thousand books of simple, popular fiction, many of them pure trash in anybody's language."

By his own admission, Hitler was not a big fan of novels, though he once ranked Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Don Quixote (he had a special affection for the edition illustrated by Gustave Doré) among the world's greatest works of literature. The one novelist we know Hitler loved and read was Karl May, a German writer of cheap American-style westerns. But one of the oldest volumes of literature still in the Hitler Library is a 1917 German edition of Peer Gynt, Henrik Ibsen's epic of a "Nordic Faust" who cuts a swath of human suffering—betraying friends, abandoning women, trading in slaves, and committing cold-blooded murder—on his way to becoming "emperor of the whole world." When challenged to account for his sundry trespasses, Gynt declares that he would rather burn in hell for excessive sins than simmer in obscurity with the rest of humanity. Edvard Grieg set this cruel play to beautiful music. Hitler's copy of Peer Gynt—handsomely illustrated by Otto Sager—bears a simple inscription by its German translator: "Intended for his dear friend Adolf Hitler. Dietrich Eckart. Munich, October 22, 1921."

In a French vegetarian cookbook with an inscription from its author, Maïa Charpentier, I encountered Monsieur Hitler végétarien. And I found hints of Hitler the future mass murderer in a 1932 technical treatise on chemical warfare that explores the varying qualities of poison gas, from chlorine to prussic acid (Blausäure). The latter was produced commercially as Zyklon B, which would be notorious for its use in the Nazi extermination camps.

I also found, however, a Hitler I had not anticipated: a man with a sustained interest in spirituality. Among the piles of Nazi tripe (much of it printed on high-acid paper that is rapidly deteriorating) are more than 130 books on religious and spiritual subjects, ranging from Occidental occultism to Eastern mysticism to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Some of these volumes date from the early 1920s, when Hitler was an obscure rabble-rouser on the fringe of Munich political life; others from his last years, when he dominated Europe. Hitler was the classic apostate. He rebelled against the established theology in which he was born and bred, all the while seeking to fill the resulting spiritual void. As the Hitler Library suggests, he found no shortage of latter-day prophets peddling alternative theologies.

Unquestionably the most significant unread volume in the Hitler collection is a 1940 edition of Alfred Rosenberg's The Myth of the Twentieth Century, the Nazi classic that, with more than a million copies in print at the time, was second only to Mein Kampf for the Nazi movement. In the course of its 800 pages Rosenberg delivered the theological framework for a National German Church intended to subsume "the best of the protestant and catholic churches" and eliminate the "Jew-infested Old Testament." Denouncing the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as a "counterfeit of the great image of Christ," Rosenberg envisioned a "fifth gospel" depicting Jesus as an Aryan superman—"The powerful preacher and the raging prophet in the temple, the man who inspired, and whom everyone followed, not the sacrificial lamb of the Jewish prophets, not the man on the cross." Despite Rosenberg's repeated attempts to establish his Myth as official party doctrine, Hitler insisted that the book was a "private publication" that represented Rosenberg's personal opinions. In conversations Hitler admitted that he had read only "small portions" of it and described it as unreadable. Joseph Goebbels concurred, calling The Myth an "intellectual belch."

In the volumes of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (May 19, 1762 – January 27, 1814) given to him by Leni Riefenstahl, I encountered a veritable blizzard of underlines, question marks, exclamation points, and marginal strikes that sweeps across a hundred printed pages of dense theological prose. Where Fichte peeled away the spiritual trappings of the Holy Trinity, positing the Father as "a natural universal force," the Son as the "physical embodiment of this force," and the Holy Ghost as an expression of the "light of reason," Hitler not only underlined the entire passage but placed a thick vertical line in the margin, and added an exclamation point for good measure. As I traced the penciled notations, I realized that Hitler was seeking a path to the divine that led to just one place. Fichte asked, "Where did Jesus derive the power that has held his followers for all eternity?" Hitler drew a dense line beneath the answer: "Through his absolute identification with God." At another point Hitler highlighted a brief but revealing paragraph: "God and I are One. Expressed simply in two identical sentences—His life is mine; my life is his. My work is his work, and his work my work."

Among the numerous volumes dealing with the spiritual, the mystical, and the occult I found a typewritten manuscript that could well have served as a blueprint for Hitler's theology. This bound 230-page treatise is titled The Law of the World: The Coming Religion and was written by a Munich resident named Maximilian Riedel.

In this densely written treatise Riedel established the groundwork for his "new religion," replacing the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost with a new tripartite unity, the "Körper, Geist und Seele"—"body, mind, and soul." Riedel argued that traditionally mankind has recognized five senses, which relate only to the physical aspects of our existence, and that this hinders our ability to perceive the true nature of our relationship to God and the universe. He offered seven additional "senses" that every human being possesses, which are related to the subjective perception of the world; among them Riedel included our inherent sense of what is right and wrong, our emotional sense of another person, our sense of self-preservation. .. "The body, mind and soul do not belong to the individual, they belong to the universe," the author explained.

Based on the marginalia, it seems that Hitler not only received the Riedel manuscript but also read it carefully with pencil in hand. Individual sentences and entire paragraphs are underlined, sometimes twice or even three times. Riedel's "trinity" seems to have attracted Hitler's particular attention. A dense penciled line parallels the following passage: "The problem with being objective is that we use objective criteria as the basis for human understanding in general, which means that the objective criteria, that is, the rational criteria, end up serving as the basis for all human understanding, perception and decision-making." By using the five traditional senses to achieve this "objectivity," Riedel declared, human beings exclude the possibility of perceiving—through the additional seven senses he identified—the deeper forces of the world, and are thus unable to achieve that unity of body, mind, and soul. "The human mind never decides things on its own, it is the result of a discourse between the body and the soul," he claimed.

It was just the sort of thing Hitler liked. Through extensive scientific research Riedel had determined that beyond the five known senses, the human possessed additional perceptive capacities that a gone unrecogonized and that existed in a vestigial state. By identifying and cultivating these untapped cognitive abilities, a person was able to access reserves of knowledge and insight, to connect to the deeper forces that moved the world, those universal "reservoirs" of knowledge described by Carl Ludwig Schleich and Ernst Schertel.

Hitler draws a thick line beside this passage on page 69 of Schertel's book Magic, then traces Schertel's reflections on Schleich's observations. Schertel notes, with Hitler's pencil in train, that the great cultures of the past were unthinkable without the grand ideas that were willed into existence by individuals of " imaginative power", who were not "slaves" to empirical realities, who could imagine a world and then will it into existence through the force of their personality. Schertel describes this creative genius as the truly "ektropic", an energizing force possessed of demonic qualities that is capable of shaping the course of the world.

"One has always said that the European has the capacity for a particularly well-developed 'sense of reality', 'sense for facts' etc." Schertel writes, "But a closer look shows that he looks right past 'reality' and 'fact' and that what he holds in his hands are empty images.The entire materialism and rationalism of our era is in complete contradiction to the deeper sense of reality and facts...
With the ektropic dynamic there is no such thing as "real" or "unreal", as "true" or "false", as "right" or "wrong". Only when this completely irrational, immoral, apersonal force has consumed us can we perceive these values.

Here we glimpse at least a portion of Hitler's essential core. It was less a distillation of the philosophies of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche than a dime-store theory cobbled together from cheap, tendentious paperbacks and esoteric hardcovers, which provided the justification for a thin, calculating, bullying mendacity.

It was Schertel's "ektropic" man, not Schopenhauer's genius of will or even Nietzsche's "new man" born beyond good and evil, who greeted Carl Burckhardt on the airy crag above the Obersalzberg in early August 1939, who seemed to have the ability to "usher in the end of civiization', and it was this same "ektropic" man who stood two weeks later in the great hall of the Berghof, framed against the imposing face of the Untersberg, and told his generals of his decision to go the war.


  1. Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life by Timothy W. Ryback; Knopf, 2008

  2. It sounds quite spectacular: someone studying the books of Hitler's private library in order to know the man, his thoughts and feelings. But Ryback has not done a proper job. On this blog, Loog's "Die Weissagungen des Nostradamus"(Pfullingen in Württemberg, 1921) is mentioned. In one of the last chapters, Ryback describes that in this book, Loog predicted World War II and the German attack on e.g. France. He wondered if Hitler read these predictions. The answer is: no.
    Nowhere in "Die Weissagungen des Nostradamus", Loog had predicted that in 1939, England would declare war to Germany because of the German invasion in Poland. He hadn't even made the slightest allusion to it.
    Back in 1921, Loog supposed that, counting from the Great War, i.e. World War I, the next great war in Europe in which Germany would be involved, would begin around 2100 AD. It would take Germany about 200 years to recover from what happened to her because of the Versailles treaty.
    Loog had listed six internal crises in England for the period 1649-1714, dealing with the beginning of the rulership of British dynasties, including Cromwell. For 1939, he expected the seventh, last and most severe crisis in England and at the same time one in Poland. But he had no idea about the nature of these crises. By 1939, France would face a period of peace and there might be an emperor in Germany. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing about whatever European war which would begin in 1939.
    One can only hope that Ryback's descriptions of other books of Hitler's library are more accurate than his descriptions of Loog's comments upon the Prophecies of Nostradamus.