In Hitler’s Private Library, Timothy W. Ryback works from Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “a private library serves as a permanent and credible witness to the character of its collector.” Ryback delves into the books–the actual, physical books–that Hitler studied and pondered, paying particular attention to the dictator’s annotations and marginalia. To be sure, there are plenty of political tracts–especially anti-Semitic writings, such as Henry Ford’s The International Jew–to be found in Hitler’s library, but far more fascinating is Ryback’s analysis of Hitler’s love for Robinson Crusoe, Shakespeare, Don Quixote, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, of all books. Hitler’s taste was varied–there’s an early infatuation with Max Osborn’s Berlin, an architectural guide to that city, an obsession with Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, and Hitler’s final day’s poring over a biography of Frederick the Great (he also comforted himself in the final days of his regime by rereading his boyhood favorite Karl May).
The Nazi party’s lurid mania for occultism is well documented, but Ryback brings a fresh perspective here, eschewing tabloid histrionics in favor of a measured approach to Hitler’s volumes of bizarre and arcane works. More troubling is the public misconception that the works of Schopenhauer and Nietchzsche some how gave philosophical weight to the Nazi’s crime spree; Ryback eliminates that notion:
For all the talk of Hitler’s exploitation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concepts of the “master race” or Arthur Schopenhauer’s notion of the “will to power” that Hitler used to headline the 1934 party rally and Riefenstahl cribbed as a title for her cinematic chronicle of the event, we have little credible evidence of Hitler’s personal engagement with serious philosophy. Most of what we know is tenuous and at best anecdotal.
In short, Hitler was a poseur who recontextualized bit parts of great thinkers into mind-numbing sloganeering for his own ends (luckily, no politicians today would be so crude). Ryback’s even-handedness here is indicative of the project of his book: his is not a psychological study; he never seeks to explain the motivations for Hitler’s evil actions, but rather report what Hitler read closely. What we get in the end is an historicized, contextualized account of a bibliophile who initiated book burnings and mandated reading lists.
Hitler’s Private Library is really a book about books and how what we read shapes and then testifies to who we are and what we did in our life. I am not particularly interested in Hitler or the (well-documented) history of WWII, but I found in Hitler’s Private Library both a fascinating dialogic analysis as well as a new narrative take on some pretty stale material. The philosophy of Walter Benjamin permeates Ryback’s book, which is also a big plus. I’m not sure if the world needs another book about WWII, but I’m always a sucker for books about books. Recommended.
Hitler’s Private Library is available in hardback and ebook on October 21st, 2008 from Knopf.