Reading Hitler's Mind; LITERARY TYRANT: Hitler Was an Avid Reader - and His Anti-Semitism Seems to Have Come from Books Rather Than People

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), January 25, 2009 | Go to article overview

Reading Hitler's Mind; LITERARY TYRANT: Hitler Was an Avid Reader - and His Anti-Semitism Seems to Have Come from Books Rather Than People


Byline: Craig Brown

Book of the Week

Hitler's Private Library By Timothy W. Ryback Bodley Head [pounds sterling] 18.99 . [pounds sterling]17.10 inc p& p (08451550713)***

Last year saw the publication of the wonderful Oscar's Books, about the books that shaped Oscar Wilde's life. The author, Thomas Wright, set out to read all the books in Wilde's library - many still covered with his marginalia - and thus to trace his subject's intellectual and emotional development.

Timothy W. Ryback has now performed the same operation on Adolf Hitler. On the face of it, you could not find two more different human beings than Adolf and Oscar. Yet the pair of them had a number of things in common. Both were keen readers: Hitler had 16,000 volumes in his library, whereas Wilde had only 2,000, but at least two-thirds of Hitler's were unread. Both shared a passion for Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Carlyle, though little else. Both were imprisoned and read avidly in their cells ('higher education at the state expense', observed Hitler in an uncharacteristically Wildean turn of phrase). Both wrote autobiographies in prison (Mein Kampf and De Profundis). Both their libraries were dispersed within days of their downfalls.

Perhaps most important of all, the lives of both men were shaped by their reading. Wilde's love of Greek tragedy and Irish folklore prompted him to engineer #x0Ahis own fall from grace, just as Hitler's thirst for barmy books on race, the occult and theories of history propelled him towards his diabolic ends.

Throughout his life, Adolf Hitler read voraciously: in the First World War, his fellow soldiers spent their spare cash on drink or cigarettes but he would spend it on books. In 1915, he bought an architectural history of Berlin for four marks. The volume still survives, complete with dog-eared pages, a broken spine and stains of mud and paraffin. In 1933, as its author was a Jew, it was placed on the list of books banned by the Nazis, although Hitler disobeyed his own ruling and kept his copy. For 30 years, he nursed plans to transform the architecture of the German capital. 'We want to eliminate whatever is ugly in Berlin,' he declared in 1941.

In 2001, Timothy Ryback came across this battered book in the Hitler collection in the Library of Congress. On opening it, he discovered, 'tucked in the crease between pages 160 and 161, a wiry inchlong black hair that appears to be from a moustache'. This must surely be one of the eeriest examples of literature colliding with life. At that moment, I suspect most of us would have slammed the book shut and rushed for the exit but Ryback is obviously made of stronger stuff.

Oddly enough, Thomas Wright had a similar experience when leafing through one of Wilde's old books: 'I laughed when I came across a jam stain on one of the pages - practically the only mark in the book. I imagined Wilde, a century earlier ... holding the volume in one hand and a slice of bread and jam in the other.'

A dolf Hitler's favourite books were, by and large, what one would have expected. Roughly half his entire library was devoted to military matters, including an interminable number of regimental histories sent to him by devoted followers and volumes on uniforms, weapons, ballistics and great commanders. He also had many anti-Semitic books, including Henry Ford's The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem, and copies of Mein Kampf in braille, presumably for blind Nazis.

His library included works by Nazi pseudo-philosophers Drexler, Fichte,

Lehmann, Lagarde and Eckart, bestsellers in their time but now thankfully forgotten. Ryback argues persuasively that Hitler's anti-Semitism was not only encouraged by his reading but formed by it too. Hitler's own upbringing was not remotely anti-Semitic: he once recalled being 'horrified' by the occasional anti- Semitic remark he heard at school. …

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