A FEW WORDS ABOUT ADOLF HITLER’S PRIVATE LIBRARY
(excerpts from the
book “Hitler’s Private Library” (2010)
The Man Who Burned Books
HE WAS, OF COURSE, a man known better for burning books than collecting them and yet by the time he died at age fifty-six he owned an estimated sixteen thousand volumes. It was by any measure an impressive collection: first editions of the works of philosophers, historians, poets, playwrights and novelists. For him the library represented a Pierian spring, that metaphorical source of knowledge and inspiration. He drew deeply there, quelling his intellectual insecurities and nourishing his fanatic ambitions. He read voraciously, at least one book per night, sometimes more, so he claimed. “When one gives one also has to take,” he once said, “and I take what I need from books.”
He ranked Don Quixote, along with Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Gulliver's Travels, among the great works of world literature. “Each of them is a grandiose idea unto itself,” he said. In Robinson Crusoe he perceived “the development of the entire history of mankind." Don Quixote captured “ingeniously" the end of an era. He owned illustrated editions of both books and was especially impressed by Gustave Dore's romantic depictions of Cervantes's delusion-plagued hero.
He also owned the collected works of William Shakespeare, pub¬lished in German translation in 1925 by Georg Muller as part of a series intended to make great literature available to the general public. Volume six includes As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and Troilus and Cressida. The entire set is bound in hand-tooled Moroccan leather with a gold-embossed eagle flanked by his initials on the spine.
He considered Shakespeare superior to Goethe and Schiller…
He was versed in the Holy Scriptures, and owned a particularly handsome tome with Worte Christi, or Words of Christ, embossed in gold on a cream-colored calfskin cover that even today remains as smooth as silk. He also owned a German translation of Henry Ford's anti-Semitic tract, The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem, and a 1931 handbook on poison gas with a chapter detailing the qualities and effects of prussic acid, the homicidal asphyxiant marketed commercially as Zyklon B. On his bedstand, he kept a well-thumbed copy of Wilhelm Busch's mischievous cartoon duo Max and Moritz.
WALTER BENJAMIN ONCE SAID that you could tell a lot about a man by the books he keeps—his tastes, his interests, his habits. The books we retain and those we discard, those we read as well as those we decide not to, all say something about who we are. As a German-Jewish culture critic born of an era when it was possible to be "German" and "Jewish," Benjamin believed in the transcendent power of Kultur. He believed that creative expression not only enriches and illuminates the world we inhabit, but also provides the cultural adhesive that binds one generation to the next, a Judeo-Germanic rendering of the ancient wisdom ars longa, vita brevis.
Benjamin held the written word—printed and bound—in especially high regard. He loved books. He was fascinated by their physicality, by their durability, by their provenance. An astute collector, he argued, could "read" a book the way a physiognomist deciphered the essence of a person's character through his physical features. "Dates, place names, formats, previous owners, bindings, and all the like," Benjamin observed, "all these details must tell him something—not as dry isolated facts, but as a harmonious whole." In short, you could judge a book by its cover, and in turn the collector by his collection. Quoting Hegel, Benjamin noted, "Only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight," and concluded, "Only in extinction is the collector comprehended."
When Benjamin invoked a nineteenth-century German philosopher, a Roman goddess, and an owl, he was of course alluding to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's famous maxim: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk," by which Hegel meant that philosophizing can begin only after events have run their course.
Benjamin felt the same was true about private libraries. Only after the collector had shelved his last book and died, when his library was allowed to speak for itself, without the proprietor to distract or obfus¬cate, could the individual volumes reveal the “preserved" knowledge of their owner: how he asserted his claim over them, with a name scribbled on the inside cover or an ex libris bookplate pasted across an entire page; whether he left them dog-eared and stained, or the pages uncut and unread.
Benjamin proposed that a private library serves as a permanent and credible witness to the character of its collector, leading him to the following philosophic conceit: we collect books in the belief that we are preserving them when in fact it is the books that preserve their collector. “Not that they come alive in him," Benjamin posited. “It is he who lives in them."
FOR THE LAST HALF CENTURY the remnants of Adolf Hitler's library have occupied shelf space in climatized obscurity in the Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress. The twelve hundred surviving volumes that once graced Hitler's bookcases in his three elegantly appointed libraries—wood paneling, thick carpets, brass lamps, overstuffed armchairs—at private residences in Munich, Berlin, and the Obersalzberg near Berchtesgaden, now stand in densely packed rows on steel shelves in an unadorned, dimly lit storage area of the Thomas Jefferson Building in downtown Washington, a stone's throw from the Washington Mall and just across the street from the United States Supreme Court.
The sinews of emotional logic that once ran through this collection—Hitler shuffled his books ceaselessly and insisted on reshelving them himself—have been severed. Hitler's personal copy of his family genealogy is sandwiched between a bound collection of newspaper articles titled Sunday Meditations and a folio of political cartoons from the 1920s. A handsomely bound facsimile edition of letters by Frederick the Great, specially designed for Hitler's fiftieth birthday, lies on a shelf for oversized books beneath a similarly massive presentation volume on the city of Hamburg and an illustrated history of the German navy in the First World War. Hitler's copy of the writings of the legendary Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, who famously declared that war was politics by other means, shares shelf space beside a French vegetarian cookbook inscribed to “Monsieur Hitler vegetarien. ”
When I first surveyed Hitler's surviving books, in the spring of 2001,1 discovered that fewer than half the volumes had been catalogued, and only two hundred of those were searchable in the Library of Congress's online catalogue. Most were listed on aging index cards and still bore the idiosyncratic numbering system assigned them in the 1950s.
At Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, I found another eighty Hitler books in a similar state of benign neglect. Taken from his Berlin bunker in the spring of 1945 by Albert Aronson, one of the first Americans to enter Berlin after the German defeat, they were donated to Brown by Aronson's nephew in the late 1970s. Today they are stored in a walk-in basement vault, along with Walt Whitman's personal copy of Leaves of Grass and the original folios to John James Audubon's Birds of America.
Among the books at Brown, I found a copy of Mein Kampf with Hitler's ex libris bookplate, an analysis of Wagner's Parsifal published in 1913, a history of the swastika from 1921, and a half dozen or so spiritual and occult volumes Hitler acquired in Munich in the early 1920s, including an account of supernatural occurrences, The Dead Are Alive!, and a monograph on the prophecies of Nostradamus. I discovered additional Hitler books scattered in public and private archives across the United States and Europe.
Several dozen of these surviving Hitler books contain marginalia. Here I encountered a man who famously seemed never to listen to anyone, for whom conversation was a relentless tirade, a ceaseless monologue, pausing 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. Like footprints in the sand, these markings allow us to trace the course of the journey but not necessarily the intent, where attention caught and lingered, where it rushed forward and where it ultimately ended.
In a 1934 reprint of Paul Lagarde's German Letters, a series of late- nineteenth-century essays that advocated the systematic removal of Europe's Jewish population, I found more than one hundred pages of penciled intrusions, beginning on page 41, where Lagarde calls for the “transplanting" of German and Austrian Jews to Palestine, and extending to more ominous passages in which he speaks of Jews as “pestilence." “This water pestilence must be eradicated from our streams and lakes," Lagarde writes on page 276, with a pencil marking bold affirmation in the margin. “The political system without which it cannot exist must be eliminated."
Hitler s own library was rapidly disassembled in the chaos of his collapsing empire. By the time he shot himself, American soldiers were already picking apart his collections in Munich. In Hitler's office at the Nazi Party headquarters in the Brown House, a young lieutenant found the copy of Henry Ford's My Life and Work that Hanfstaengl had inscribed back in 1924; the lieutenant eventually took the two-volume set, which "showed evidence of thumbing," back to New York and put it up for sale at Scribner's Bookstore.
At Hitler's Prince Regent Square residence, war correspondent Lee Miller found Hitler's books partially intact. "To the left of the public rooms was a library full of richly bound books and many presentation volumes of signatures from well-wishers," she noted. "The library was uninteresting in that everything of personal value had been evacuated: empty shelves were bleak spoors of flight." A photograph shows Miller seated at Hitler's desk. A dozen or so random books litter the adjacent shelves—paperbacks, hardcovers, a large, scuffed picture book of Nuremberg, three early editions of Mein Kampf in their original dust jackets.
War correspondent Lee Miller in Hitler's Prince Regent Square residence. Most personal books had been removed by Hitler's staff. Note copies of Mein Kampf with the original dust jackets.
Four days later, advance troops of the 101st Airborne Division arrived on the Obersalzberg to find Hitler's Berghof a smoldering ruin. In the second-floor study, the hand-tooled bookcases had been reduced to ash, leaving only charred concrete walls and a soot-blackened strongbox, in which the soldiers found several first editions of Mein Kampf The rest of Hitler's books were discovered in a converted bunker room. "At the far end were arranged lounge chairs and reading lamps," an intelligence officer assigned to the 101st reported. "Most of the books were con¬cerned with art, architecture, photography and histories of campaigns and wars. A hasty inspection of the scattered books showed that it [sic] was notably lacking in literature and almost entirely devoid of drama and poetry." The classified report identifies only three works by name: Genesis of the World War, by the American revisionist historian Harry Elmer Barnes, Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince, and the critiques by the eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant.
The handsomely bound tomes with their distinctive bookplates became the totem of choice for the victorious soldiers. Newsreel footage records American soldiers picking through Hitler's book collection. One sequence shows a soldier opening a large volume to reveal the Hitler ex libris as the camera zooms in for a close-up; in another, several men emerge from the bunker with stacks of books under their arms. In the weeks that followed, the Berghof collection was picked apart book by book. By May 25, when a delegation of U.S. senators arrived on the Obersalzberg, they had to content themselves with albums from Hitler's record collection. Not a single book remained.
In those same weeks, Hitler's book collection in Berlin was also disassembled. At nine o'clock on the morning of May 2, thirty-six hours after Hitler's suicide, a Soviet medical team entered the nearly abandoned Fuehrerbunker. They reemerged an hour later waving black lace brassieres from Eva Braun's wardrobe and carrying satchels filled with diverse souvenirs, including several first editions of Mein Kampf Successive waves of plundering followed. When Albert Aronson arrived in Berlin as part of the American delegation sent to negotiate the joint occupation of the city, his Soviet hosts took him on a tour of Hitler's private quarters and as a courtesy let him take an unclaimed pile of eighty books. In those same weeks, the entire Reich Chancellery library—an estimated ten thousand volumes—was secured by a Soviet “trophy brigade" and shipped to Moscow and never seen again. The only significant portions of Hitler library's to survive intact were the three thousand books discovered in the Berchtesgaden salt mine, twelve hundred of which made it into the Library of Congress. The rest appear to have been "duped out" in the process of cataloguing the collection.
Thousands more lie in the attics and bookshelves of homes of veterans across the United States. Occasionally, random volumes find their way to the public. Several years ago, a copy of Peter Maag's Realm of God and the Contemporary World, published in 1915, with "A. Hitler" scrawled on the inside cover, was discovered in the fifty-cent bin of a local library sale in upstate New York. Following Aronson's death, his nephew donated the eighty books from the Fuehrerbunker to Brown University. In the early 1990s, Daniel Traister, head of the rare book collection at the University of Pennsylvania, was given a biography of Frederick the Great along with several Berghof trophies. An accompanying note read "Dan, you wouldn't believe how much money people want to offer me for these things. So far, I haven't met one whom I want to have them. Here: destroy them or keep them as you wish."
A few years ago, I received a similar note after writing an article on Hitler's library for The Atlantic Monthly. A Minnesota book dealer had inherited a Hitler book her mother had purchased at auction in the 1970s. Initially fascinated by the acquisition, the mother suffered a double bite of conscience: she was uncomfortable with profiting from a Hitler artifact and was equally uneasy about the motivations of a potential purchaser. After the mother's death, her daughter inherited both the book and the dilemma. Having read my article, and sensing that my interests were purely academic, she offered me the book at cost. A week later, Hitler's copy of Body, Spirit and Living Reason, by Carneades, arrived in a cardboard box.
The treatise was in remarkably good condition, a hefty tome bound in textured linen with leather triangles on each corner and a matching leather spine with title and author embossed in gold. The linen was partially frayed and the leather was scuffed in places, but otherwise the volume was flawless. Opposite the Hitler ex libris, a typewritten note had been tipped into the binding recording the volume's provenance:
This volume was taken from Adolph [sic] Hitler's personal library located in the underground air-raid shelter in his home at Berchtesgaden. It was picked up by Major A. J. Choos as a souvenir for Mr. E. B. Horwath on May 5,1945.
For several years, Body, Spirit and Living Reason haunted the bookshelves of my Salzburg apartment until I, too, grew uncomfortable with its presence. Like the Pennsylvania veteran and the Minnesota book dealer, I had no interest in profiting from the volume and had serious concerns about its further disposition. I ultimately resolved the dilemma by donating the volume to the Archive of the Contemporary History of the Obersalzberg in Berchtesgaden, a private repository established by a resident archivist to preserve the history of the town, including this dark chapter.
The Hitler Library in the rare book and manuscript division at the Library of Congress, as photographed in the 1970s.
After spending nearly a decade behind a glass case in Hitler's second- floor Berghof study—a silent witness to his daytime meetings and late-night reading—the Carneades volume had found its way back to Berchtesgaden, where its journey had begun nearly seven decades earlier. Indeed, habent suafata libelli.
From This Is the Enemy, by Frederick Oechsner, 1942
I FOUND THAT [HITLER'S] PERSONAL LIBRARY, which is divided between his residence in the Chancellery in Berlin and his country home on the Obersalzberg at Berchtesgaden, contains roughly 16,300 books. They may be divided generally into three groups:
First, the military section containing some 7,000 volumes, including 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 of the well-known military campaigns in recorded history.
There is Theodore Roosevelt's work on the Spanish American War, also a book by General von Steuben, who drilled our troops during the American Revolution. [Werner von] Blomberg, when he was war minister, presented Hitler with 400 books, pamphlets and monographs on the United States armed forces and he has read many of these.
The military books are divided according to countries. Those which were not available in German Hitler has had translated. Many of them, especially on Napoleon's campaigns, are extensively marginated in his own handwriting. There is a book on the Gran Chaco dispute [the 1932-35 war between Paraguay and Bolivia] by the German General [Hans] Kundt, who at one time (like Captain Ernst Rohm) was an instructor of troops in Bolivia. There are exhaustive works on uniforms, weapons, supply, mobilization, the building-up of armies in peacetime, morale and ballistics. In fact, there is probably not a single phase of military knowledge, ancient or modern, which is not dealt with in these 7,000 volumes, and quite obviously Hitler has read many of them from cover to cover.
The second section of some 1,500 books covers artistic subjects [such] as architecture, the theater, painting and sculpture, which, after military subjects, are Hitlers chief interest. The books include works on surreal¬ism and Dada-ism, although Hitler has no use for this type of art.
One of his ironical marginal notes could be roughly translated: "Modern art will revolutionize the world? Rot!" In writing these notes Hitler never uses a fountain pen but an old-fashioned pen or an indelible pencil.
In drawers beneath the bookshelves he has a collection of photographs, drawings [of] famous actors, dancers, singers, both male and female. One book on the Spanish theater has pornographic drawings and photographs, but there is no section on pornography, as such, in Hitler's library.
The third section includes works on astrology and spiritualism pro-cured from all parts of the world and translated where necessary. There are also spiritualistic photographs, and, securely locked away, the 200 photographs of the stellar constellations on important days in his life. These he has annotated in his own handwriting and each has its own separate envelope.
In this third section there is a considerable part devoted to nutrition and diet. In fact, there are probably a thousand books on this subject, many of them heavily marginated, those marginal comments including the vegetarian observation: "Cows were meant to give milk; oxen to draw loads." There are dozens of books on animal breeding with the photographs of stallions and mares of famous name. One interesting psychological angle here is that where stallions and mares are shown on opposite pages, many of the mares have been crossed out in red pencil as merely inferior females and unimportant compared with the stallion males.
There are some 400 books on the Church—almost entirely on the Catholic Church. There is also a good deal of pornography here, portraying alleged license in the priesthood: offenses such as made up the charges in the immorality trials which the Nazis conducted against priests at the height of the attack upon the Catholic Church. Many of Hitler's marginal notes on this pornographic section are gross and uncouth. Some pictures show Popes and Cardinals reviewing troops at moments in history. The marginations here are: "Never again" and "This is impossible now," showing that Hitler proposes that the princes of the Church shall never again be allowed to gain political positions in which they can command armies and otherwise exercise temporal pow¬ers. Hitler is himself a Catholic, though not a practicing one.
Some 800 to 1,000 books are simple, popular fiction, many of them pure trash in anybody's language. There are a large number of detective stories. He has all of Edgar Wallace; adventure books of the G. A. Henty class; love romances by the score, including those by the leading roman¬tic sob sister of Germany, Hedwig Courts-Mahler, in which wealth and poverty, and strength and weakness are sharply contrasted and in which honor and chastity triumph and the sweet secretary marries her millionaire boss. All of these flaming volumes are in neutral covers so as not to reveal their titles. Hitler may read them, but he doesn't want people to know that he does.
Among Hitler's favorites is a complete set of American Indian stories written by the German, Karl May, who had never been to America. These books are known to every German youngster, and Hitler's fondness for them as bedside reading suggests that he, like many a German thirteen-year-old, has gone to sleep with the exploits of "Old Shatterhand" reeling through his brain. Hitler's set, which was presented to him by Marshal Goering, is expensively bound in vellum and kept in a special case. They are much thumbed and read and usually one or two may be found in the small bedside bookcase with its green curtain in Hitler's bedroom.
Sociological works are strongly represented in the library, including a unique book by Robert Ley, written in 1935, on world sociological problems and solutions. This book never was circulated. Six thousand copies were printed, 5,999 were destroyed; the single remaining copy is Hitler's.
The reason: all books and pamphlets on National Socialism have to be submitted to a special Party commission before being released for publication, and books by prominent Nazi individuals have to be shown to Hitler himself The book, by Ley, a notorious idolater, so idealized Hitler that even he couldn't stomach its being published.
Another suppressed book in Hitler's library is Alfred Rosenberg's work on the proposed Nazi Reich-Church, of which today there are only twelve copies in proof, although typewritten carbon copies of some sections are known to exist and in mysterious ways to have circulated as far as the United States.
In earlier days, when he had time, Hitler used to bind his own dam¬aged books. Hitler's own best-seller, Mein Kampf has yielded him a fancy fortune, estimated by German Banking circles to be about 50,000,000 Reich mark ($20,000,000 at official rates). With part of this sum, Hitler has amassed a collection of precious stones valued at some 20,000,000 Reich marks, which he keeps in a special safe built into the wall of his house at Berchtesgaden.
The stones were bought for him in various parts of the world by his friend Max Amann, head of the Nazi publishing firm the Eher Verlag, in which Hitler has an interest. It was Hitler who put Max Amann in charge of the Eher Verlag, and it has turned out to be a lucrative job; Amann's own fortune today is estimated by bankers at around 40,000,000 Reich marks. With absolute autocratic control over all publishing enterprises in Germany, it is no wonder that the Nazi Eher Verlag snowballed into a phenomenally profitable enterprise for everybody connected with it, including Adolf Hitler. The Reich Chancellor has never found it necessary to use his official salary, a large part of which he turns over to charity.
Among the books in Hitler's library is one volume covering a field in which he has always shown particular interest: namely, the study of hands, including those of as many famous people throughout the ages as could be procured. Hitler, in fact, bases a good deal of his judgment of people on their hands. In his first conversation with some personality, whether political or military, German or foreign, he usually most carefully observes his hands—their form, whether they are well cared for, whether they are long and narrow or stumpy and broad, the shape of the nails, the knuckle and joint formation and so on. Various generals and diplomats have wondered why Hitler sometimes, after starting a conversation in a cordial and friendly way, became cool as he went along, and often closed the discourse curtly or abruptly without much progress having been made. They learned only later that Hitler had not been pleased by the shape of their hands.
 In the early 1990s, a Moscow newspaper reported on the presence of these books in an abandoned church in the Moscow suburb of Uzkoe. Shortly after the article appeared, the collection was removed and has not been seen since.