For the last half century remnants of Adolf Hitler’s library have occupied shelf space in climatized obscurity in the Rare Book Division of the Library of Congress.
The 1,200 surviving volumes that once graced Hitler’s bookcases in his three elegantly appointed libraries—wood paneling, thick carpets, brass lamps, over- stuffed 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 re-shelving 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.
“Hitler’s copy of the writings of the legendary Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, who declared war was politics by other means, shares shelf space beside a French vegetarian cookbook inscribed to ‘Monsieur Hitler végétarien.”’
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 végétarien.”
When I first surveyed Hitler’s surviving books, in the spring of 2001, I 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.
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Excerpted from Hitler's Private Library by Timothy W. Ryback Copyright © 2008 by Timothy W. Ryback. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.