By Anthony Grafton
The New Republic, December 24, 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life
By Timothy W. Ryback
Bodley Head, 278 pages

The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress has a rare book storage area where 1200 books from the collection of Adolf Hitler stand tightly packed on steel shelves. These are almost all that remains of the more than 16 000 books that Hitler assembled.

Hitler was a reader. As a young man he claimed to have read widely in German literature and philosophy. But his copies of the German classics show few signs of use, and his writings show little evidence of acquaintance with them. An annotated draft typescript of Mein Kampf shows just how little literary culture Hitler had, a point that impressed itself on those who tried to read the published book.

Hitler read a great deal during the years when he rose to power. In Munich, he spent much of his income in used-book stores. While in prison after the Beer Hall Putsch, he withdrew from politics to read and write. A passionate collector of all sorts of texts on warfare, from strategic theories, military histories, and memoirs to handbooks of ships and tanks, Hitler read them with close attention.

As head of state, Hitler continued to collect. Late at night on the Obersalzberg, Hitler read for hours a time, sometimes until dawn. He worked in his study, reading with intense concentration. At breakfast, as Traudl Junge, his last surviving secretary, recalled to Ryback, he "would reprise his previous night's reading in extensive, often tedious detail."

Hitler the reader would stop "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."

Hitler's lifelong favorites ranged from the Western adventure novels of Karl May to the plays of Shakespeare. During the war, Hitler told his generals to study May's books. He considered Winnetou, the Indian chief of May's tales, a master of "tactical finesse and circumspection," and a model for his own love of cunning tactics and surprises. He told Albert Speer that he would reach for these stories because "they gave him courage like works of philosophy for others or the Bible for elderly people."

A short book on Alfred Graf von Schlieffen (famous for his plan for victory over France), written by the count's personal physician, was given to Hitler in 1940. From the Fraktur type used on its cover to its anecdotes of Schlieffen's kindness to defeated French generals, the book was clearly designed to showcase the Prussian virtues: courage, austerity, tradition, and the willingness to retreat for strategic purposes.

Hitler read the book aggressively. As he went through the fourth chapter, on Schlieffen's campaign in France, he pondered and marked the passages in which Schlieffen warned against waging a two-front war against France and England to the west and Russia to the east. In the end, Germany would have to conquer all of its enemies. But Schlieffen argued that along the way, "we must be ready to sacrifice even so rich a province as East Prussia, in order to concentrate all our forces where we seek a decision."

In a famous passage in Mein Kampf, Hitler rejected the scholar's deferential approach to texts: "Naturally, I understand by 'reading' something other than that which the average member of the so-called 'intelligentsia' understands," he wrote. "I know people who 'read' an endless amount, who go from book to book, from letter to letter, yet I would not want to call them 'well-read.' They possess an abundance of 'knowledge,' only their brain does not understand how to process and organize the material it has taken on board." Such readers "lack the art of being able to divide the valuable from the valueless in a book." In the end, Hitler explained, "reading is not something we carry out for its own sake, but an instrument used for a purpose."

Rather than simply storing materials "according to the structure of the book or the chronology of one's memory," one should fit each important passage, Hitler wrote, "like a piece in a mosaic into its orderly place in the general worldview: it is precisely in this way that it will help the reader to form a picture in his head." The reader who fails to follow this rule "thinks he really knows all that is serious, thinks he understands something from life, and is in possession of knowledge. Yet with each new addition he becomes increasingly alienated from the world, until he ends up either in a sanatorium, or in parliament as a 'politician.'"

Ryback describes the surviving esoteric and spiritualist volumes that formed a substantial part of Hitler's collection. They celebrated those individuals of "imaginative power," who could concentrate their spirits and conceive "explosive, dynamite-like" ideas that had the impact of an avalanche: ideas so powerful that they were beyond such soft, old-fashioned categories as good and evil, true and false, and could transform the world.

Ryback shows that Hitler called special attention to these passages in his books. At the core of Hitler's understanding of himself and his mission, the historian finds "less a distillation of the philosophies of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche than a dime-store theory cobbled together from cheap, tendentious paperbacks and esoteric hardcovers."

Hitler's worldview did not represent the culmination of centuries of German thought.

Red Handed

By Simon Sebag Montefiore
Literary Review, December 2008

Edited by Andy Ross

History's Greatest Heist: The Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks
By Sean McMeekin
Yale University Press, 288 pages

This book tells how a radical and illicit government plundered the treasure of Russia's tsarist regime to buy arms and fund the Soviet Union.

From the beginning, the Bolsheviks embraced violence and terror. But Lenin also used "expropriation" — the Marxist-Bolshevist euphemism for bank robbery — to raise party funds: the planning and execution of a run of violent but daring heists was how the young Stalin had first won Lenin's approval.

Once Lenin and his comrades seized power in October 1917 they continued their policy of expropriation on a larger scale. They had to pay an army and fund a war. They used every means of financial skullduggery to do so, and many of the key dealers, traders and middlemen were the very men who had helped organize Stalin's bank robberies and laundered the swag a decade earlier.

The tale begins comically with the inept attempts of the new Bolshevik masters to force Russia's worldly and cosmopolitan bankers to hand over their banks along with the contents of their safes.

Next, the Bolsheviks managed to seize the tsarist gold bullion, worth $680 million. This involved the murder of the Romanov imperial family. The next stage was the nationalization of all church property. Within weeks, Maxim Gorky had helped fill countless warehouses with artwork, jewels, cutlery, silver, gold, furniture, books, and other artifacts for sale abroad. By December 1921, the swag was worth $450 million ($45 billion in today's money).

The Bolsheviks were desperate for guns and food, and all these treasures were sold abroad. Soon Bolshevik operatives brought back hundreds of millions in cash in suitcases. In less than two years, Lenin raised $353 million.

The regime survived the Civil War to oppress its own people and cost millions of innocent lives in its quest to create a workers' paradise.


By Ritchie Robertson
The Times Literary Supplement, March 4, 2009

Edited by Andy Ross

Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life
By Timothy W. Ryback
Bodley Head, 278 pages

Hitler's books tell us a good deal about his mental world. Schopenhauer and Nietzsche are absent, confirming the suspicion that Hitler knew them only at second hand. There is a handsome edition of Fichte, given by Leni Riefenstahl, but the annotations are by someone else. Hitler did read the right-wing and racist books regularly presented to him by their publisher J. F. Lehmann. Paul de Lagarde's anti-Semitic German Essays have been thoroughly annotated, and Hans F. K. Günther's Racial Typology of the German People is almost falling apart from frequent use. Hitler owned all the Wild West adventure stories by Karl May and all the detective fiction of Edgar Wallace.

Little can be said about Hitler's response to most of the books.