You can learn much about a man from his books. Since the world already knows plenty about Adolf Hitler, can we find a reflection of the man in his private library?
Hitler personally owned about 16,000 volumes, stored at several locations. The vast majority of this collection was lost in the closing days of World War II as the various portions were looted and destroyed. The Reich Chancellery library, the largest segment of the collection at 10,o00 volumes, was taken to Moscow and disappeared for nearly 50 years. Not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union a Moscow newspaper reported that the collection has been rediscovered in an abandoned church, but the books were moved and once again lost to history.
Similarly, the Berghof collection was looted piece by piece as victorious American soldiers took them as souvenirs, some of which occasionally reemerge when the attics and bookcases of deceased veterans are inventoried for posterity.
The only significant portions of Hitler’s library 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.
These 1,200 volumes were mined by Timothy Ryback to gain insights into Hitler’s reading habits, which he presents in Hitler’s Private Library: The Books that Shaped his Life. Ryback’s book is not the first nor the most extensive on the subject, but it is discerning in that he recognizes that, like all book collectors, Hitler read only a fraction of his library, evidence of which he left as marginalia, highlighting, dog-eared pages and worn bindings. These are the signposts pointing to the books that he valued.
Hans Beilhack, who had a chance to peruse the salt mine collection before it was shipped to the United States, noted in a 1946 newspaper column that despite the large size of Hitler’s library, it was ultimately that of a dilettante: the vast range of eclectic topics indicated no commitment to a real mastery of any field of knowledge. A large portion of Hitler’s original collection was popular fiction, “pure trash in anybody’s language.” Hitler’s favorite books by far were the 19th century novels of Karl May, who wrote heavily romanticized adventures involving Native Americans in the Old West [a subject that remains a fixture in German popular culture].
“The first Karl May that I read was The Ride Across the Desert,” he once recalled. “I was overwhelmed! I threw myself into him immediately which resulted in a noticeable decline in my grades.” Later in life, he was said to have sought solace in Karl May the way others did in the Bible.
There were, of course, the many titles on National Socialist ideology, anti-Semitism and German nationalism. The pseudo-mystical prose in most of these works is impenetrable, especially in English translation, but judging by his highlights Hitler was most interested in passages that referenced some form of spiritual union between the individual and the state.
The largest single subject in Hitler’s library concerned military matters, estimated by a contemporary chronicler, Frederick Oechsner, to number about 7,000 volumes, and containing works on every conceivable subset of military science and history.
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 had read many of them from cover to cover.
But this prodigious military reading betrayed the shallowness of his understanding. Hitler seemed most interested in the technical dimension of warfare; he would scour annual almanacs of military equipment and weaponry, memorizing specifications and production histories. He would then deploy this phenomenal mastery of figures against his own generals to overcome their resistance to his battlefield micromanagement.
Hitler read Clausewitz, but was interested mainly in his political writings. Strategy and operational art was not a major subject of study. As for his tactical education:
Hitler had also mastered the writings of Karl May. Unlike his generals, he had studied May’s adventure stories of the American West, taking close note of the tactical skills and cunning of Winnetou, May’s Native American hero, who combined stealth and surprise to outwit and overcome his opponents. Weary of his generals’ “eternal doubts” about his “great ideas,” and struck by their own dearth of imagination and boldness, Hitler recommended to them May’s books as a means of sharpening their battlefield prowess, and issued as special field edition for the soldiers at the front.
But for Hitler, all such considerations were of secondary importance because in reading the biographies of the great captains of history, he came to understand war as contest of personalities. Having negotiated with the enemy in the years leading up to the war and seen the ease with which they caved to his demands, Hitler had no doubt that he alone had the singular willpower to prevail against all others.
“Essentially, it depends on me, my existence, because of my political activity,” Hitler said. “Furthermore, the fact that probably no one will ever again have the confidence of the whole German people as I do. There will probably never again be a man with more authority. My existence is, therefore, a factor of great value.”
Hitler was well known for his voracious reading habits, reading into the small hours of morning, usually finishing at least one book per night. But quantity and speed masked his shallow comprehension of the material. As he described in Mein Kampf, his reading technique depended on recognizing and exploiting informational useful to his own personal needs:
“Once the knowledge he has achieved in this fashion is correctly coordinated within the somehow existing picture of this or that subject created by his imagination, it will function either as a corrective or as a complement, thus enhancing either correctness or the clarity of the picture … Then, if life suddenly sets some question before us for examination or answer, the memory, if this method of reading is observed, will immediately take the existing picture as a norm, and from it will derive all the individual items regarding these questions, assembled in the course of decades, submit them to the mind for examination and reconsideration, until the question is clarified or answered.”
In practice, Hitler would first examine the table of contents and index for sections that interested him and read these chapters first. The rest he would quickly skim over. His marginalia generally consisted of highlighting, underlining, pencil marks and occasionally punctuations such as question marks and exclamation points. He rarely took actual notes, either in the margins or on a separate sheet of paper, and when he did they were crude declarative statements like “what rot!”, “this is impossible now”, “never again!”, etc.
“I take what I need from books,” Hitler once claimed. Ryback’s research leaves no reason to doubt that claim: he took what he needed…and nothing else.