Dec/Jan 2009

Reading the Reich

Researching Hitler's library, Timothy Ryback finds uneasy truths about a book burner's book learning.

Trevor Butterworth


Timothy Ryback, a lithe, affable fifty-four-year-old, originally from Michigan, is in his favorite Paris haunt, the dark upstairs library of the bookstore Shakespeare & Company, on the rue de la Bûcherie. A haven for serendipity—Ryback pulls down a volume at random and it turns out to be a history of the Bodley Head press, his publisher in Britain—the store is also a peculiarly American testament to a belief in literature and its endurance. Founded in 1951, by an American expat, George Whitman, it revived the name of the legendary store opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach, who published the first edition of Joyce's Ulysses. In a fitting tribute to literary and biological genealogy, Whitman's twenty-seven-year-old daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, now runs the store. This sense of continuity and resilience, of the quiet worship of the written word—a secular counterpart to the tolling grandeur of Notre Dame directly across the river—provides a reassuring backdrop for discussing Ryback's new book.

A former lecturer at Harvard, who cofounded the Paris-based Institute for Historical Justice and Reconciliation in 2004, Ryback explored the strange legacies of Dachau (originally a major artists' colony, frequented by, among others, Rilke) in The Last Survivor (1999). Now he has penetrated the brutality of the Holocaust and found that its origins are inescapably literary. Hitler's Private Library (Knopf, $26) is not merely a deft intellectual history of Nazism—an account of how "a penciled mark can become state doctrine," as he puts it—it charts the way reading can undo all that we expect literature to create.

The discovery that Hitler, a man better known for burning books, was an obsessive reader began with a routine yet perplexing query from an editor at the New Yorker: What had happened to the führer's immediate family? It was a trivial yet tantalizing question historians had forgotten to ask, and Ryback was blindsided: "My God, I had been studying this stuff for a decade and I couldn't answer! I said, 'You know what? Let me look into it and I'll get back to you.'"

In the course of his research—it turned out that Hitler's closest living male blood heirs were on Long Island—Ryback discovered a declassified document claiming that Hitler's cufflinks, as well as other memorabilia, were kept in the White House. It was during the Clinton administration, Ryback recalls, and he was told on inquiring that they could find nothing—but that if he went to the Library of Congress, he would find the remnants of Hitler's library. Since Congress was under Republican control, Ryback wondered whether the White House was making subtle ideological sport of its rival branch. "When I initially went there, you could sense the discomfort," he says. But once his academic bona fides were established, the librarians helped him look through some twelve hundred volumes, most of them uncatalogued, out of a library that originally contained some sixteen thousand. (Brown University had an additional eighty, and smaller numbers resided in other collections; more than ten thousand gather dust in Russia, booty trucked out of Berlin by one of Stalin's trophy brigades and effectively lost to the world.)

After winnowing out the books that had no significance whatsoever, being gifts from admirers or heads of state, Ryback was left with 120 to 150 books that could legitimately be said to have had significance to Hitler, through evidence provided by marginalia or other chronologies of the Nazi era. Ryback narrowed in further to a core that had a personal significance. "I selected books with the absolute certainty that these books were in this man's hands," he says, well aware that airy speculation on his part would ruin his investigation's credibility.

Ryback was also uneasy about whether he should be "reading" Hitler through his books at all. "There is so much voyeurism around Hitler and so much useless and destructive observation," he explains, "so how do you read Hitler's own books responsibly and carefully?" In Walter Benjamin—a critic who died in the act of fleeing the Nazis—Ryback found his Virgil. In the essay "Unpacking My Library," Benjamin argued that one could tell the character of collectors from the books they accumulated.

"What astonished me about it was the immediacy of the person," says Ryback. "Ian Kershaw has written this brilliant sixteen-hundred-page biography—it is the biography for generations—but in the introduction to the first volume, he says that for all the material spewed out by the Third Reich, we actually know relatively little about Hitler the man." The subsequent literature on Hitler is either technical history or its opposite, anecdote, memoirs by former associates each contaminated by the author's own agenda and partial recollection, says Ryback. But "books are essentially different, they are intellectual objects, and going back to the Walter Benjamin essay, the books that we acquire, the books that we read, the books that we don't, the books that we keep—every bit of that tells you something about the person."

The books told Ryback that Hitler was animated not by the excitement of an autodidact discovering a vast world of knowledge but by the intellectual insecurity of a high school dropout who needed to overpower everyone else in the room. Hitler, he says, "had a brilliant mind for being able to absorb information, but he had very little capacity for the type of critical thinking that comes from a serious, rigorous education—the distinction between information collecting and knowledge." It is hardly a surprise, then, to find Hitler surrounding himself with encyclopedias at his various residences.

The most important was the Great Brockhaus Encyclopedia, twenty leather-bound volumes of facts and figures that Hitler would reach for in conversation to batter his opponents. "His mind was encyclopedic in both the positive and negative sense of the word," Ryback says. "His ability to retain large amounts of information was incredible, but there was no depth. You can find him talking about Schopenhauer in one breath and then some totally obscure racist in the next breath—and putting those as equivalencies with no distinction between them."

Instead of eliciting mockery, Hitler's panoptic ramblings dazzled his acolytes. As Ryback notes, after an evening listening to Hitler compare Friedrich Schiller to George Bernard Shaw, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels declared to his diary, "The man is a genius." If Hitler read uncritically, his associates absorbed his disjointed thinking with equal credulity.

The upshot is that "when you try to understand the dimensions of horror Hitler inflicted on the world in the context of Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, you're giving it a false profundity," says Ryback. "It was superficial, and it was vicious; it was a gutter intellectualism, and we need to understand that there wasn't great deep thought to this. I do believe Hitler read some Schopenhauer, and I do believe he read some Nietzsche and some Fichte, but I don't believe he understood them."

What's shocking, says Ryback, "is that books written by Americans about the American experience helped to drive and inform Hitler's thinking." The most formative was auto baron Henry Ford's The International Jew (actually an assemblage of ghostwritten newspaper articles), which Hitler read before he wrote Mein Kampf. The books "are very similar in style and approach," says Ryback. When asked by a reporter why a portrait of Ford hung in his office, Hitler replied, "I regard Ford as my inspiration." Ford's volumes were also on the recommended-reading list printed on Nazi Party membership cards—another uncomfortable reminder that reading was considered fundamental to building a Nazi state. Equally influential was Madison Grant, who in 1916 published The Passing of the Great Race, a racist tract contending that American dominance issued from the superiority of Nordic bloodlines. Hitler would later call the book "my bible."

But for all the cognitive dissonance that came with confronting the American roots of Hitler's racist and anti-Semitic views, Ryback says, more unsettling was the sense of literacy being used against civilization, of books burning culture. "We believe literary reading is an ennobling enterprise," he says. "The underlying assumption is that we are better people for reading. What's shocking about this is that we had a man who read to fuel exactly the opposite, everything that was destructive to intellectual processes. Out of this imbibing emerged such evil that it flies in the face of what we believe reading actually does."

Trevor Butterworth is a regular contributor to the Financial Times.

Advertisement