Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life by Timothy W Ryback

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Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life by Timothy W Ryback

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A study of Hitler's own collection of books, now mostly in two major libraries in the United States, showing how they reflected his interests and reinforced his prejudices.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099532170

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As the fictional schoolboy hero Nigel Molesworth might have said, any fule kno that Adolf Hitler was notorious for burning books. Nevertheless he was also an avid collector and passionate reader, as around 1200 surviving volumes once in his possession now in the Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress, and a smaller quantity in Brown University, Rhode Island, demonstrate. Among them were world literature classics, such as 'Robinson Crusoe', 'Uncle Tom's Cabin', and 'Gulliver's Travels'. He also owned an edition of the collected works of Shakespeare, in hand-tooled Moroccan leather with a gold-embossed eagle flanked by his initials on the spine. The Bard, he once said, was greatly superior to Goethe and Schiller.

In the first chapter, Ryback writes in detail of Corporal Hitler, serving at the western front in northern France in 1915, walking into the nearest town to buy an architectural history of Berlin. We even have a description of how the hardback book has fared over the intervening ninety years or so, with blunted brown corners curling inwards like dried lemon rind, the spine dangling precariously from fraying linen tendons, and the fine grit that drizzled from its pages as soon as he (Ryback) opened it. He was perhaps the first to do so since its owner. During the years between the Great War and his coming to power, he frequented the bookstalls in Munich, adding more titles to the shelves in his rented rooms.

A 'New Yorker' journalist writing a profile of him in 1935 estimated that he owned about 6,000 volumes at the time. One associate used to say that 'books were his world', and never recalled seeing him without at least one volume to hand. Another remembered him studying large tomes till 2 a.m. or even 3 a.m. – 'deadly serious business', rather than light reading for relaxation. These sessions could be intense, even fierce. One evening Eva Braun was unfortunate enough to intrude on a late-night read, only to be seen off 'with a tirade that sent her hurtling red-faced down the hallway'. What book he had in front of him at the time, we are not told.

It is hardly necessary to add that, with his closed mind, many of his books were of a rather unpleasant nature. Almanacs on aircraft and armoured vehicles, and studies of Germanic myths, as might be expected, were one thing. Books which did no more than confirm his preconceived notions and stubbornly-held racist theories, were quite another. Such titles as 'Teachings on Human Heredity and Racial Hygiene', 'The Racial Typology of the German People', Ryback found, were well annotated with marginalia and underlinings, and sometimes fell open at favourite passages. Some, including a book containing harrowing illustrations on sterilization, were presented to Hitler and inscribed 'in great friendship'.

There is also reference to Hitler's own writings. 'Mein Kampf' was initially published in two volumes, though it appears that sales fell short of the publisher's expectations. He also contemplated a war memoir, but it probably went no further than an idea, and no manuscript was ever found. With uncharacteristic humility, he once admitted that he was not a writer; I cannot keep my thoughts together when I am writing. Nevertheless, within three years he would have no time to be a wordsmith on the printed page, as by then he was chancellor of Germany. No book about Hitler can be an exactly pleasant or light read. But it is essential to know a certain amount about the man – I've always believed that there is so much we can learn from history, and not just from reading about the great and the good – and this is a very interesting read, not to say fascinating insight, into the mind of the most notorious man of his age.

Our thanks to Vintage for sending Bookbag a review copy.

If you enjoy this, you might also like Killing Hitler by Roger Moorhouse, or on the bibliomaniacal angle, a study of another famous collector of the printed word, Oscar's Books by Thomas Wright.

Buy Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life by Timothy W Ryback at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life by Timothy W Ryback at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life by Timothy W Ryback at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life by Timothy W Ryback at Amazon.com.

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