Book Review: Hitler’s Private Library, by Timothy W. Ryback

Timothy W. Ryback explores the Führer’s private library

Hitler’s Books

The barbarisms of the Third Reich are common knowledge, running the gambit from genocide to a stranglehold on intellectual and artistic life via censorship and propaganda. Among these cultural atrocities fell the burning of books, as happened on May10, 1933 at some 30 German and Austrian universities.

Therefore, it is surprising to learn in Timothy W. Ryback’s Hitler’s Private Library that Adolf Hitler had a sizeable collection of around 16,000 books himself. These were on everything from culture, politics, architecture and much more. One of Hitler’s favorite past times, reading did a great deal to influence his ideology and even fed his passions from existentialist philosophy to popular fiction.

With Hitler having an overpowering public persona, it is easy to forget that he was just a man behind closed doors. His passions rested in things such as architecture (as pointed out in the first chapter with Berlin), art, and ideas. The oddest, and thus arguably the most intriguing interest of Hitler’s was in the fantasy “westerns” of Karl May and the then popular characters Winnetou and Old Shatterhand. Even though May had never been to the Western United States, and thus was writing from imagination rather than reality, the novels fascinated Hitler. Instead of a villain sitting at his fireside plotting world domination, we have a man retreating into a private world and curling up with a good book. Ryback has a fine ability to show the love Hitler had for literature in general and especially the oddity and eerie normality of this larger than life villain.

Ryback is a good story teller. The book starts out with a young Hitler serving on the front lines during the First World War, and we see the 26-year-old Hitler in service as a mail-runner. Here we encounter Max Osborne’s Berlin, a well thumbed, dog-eared architectural critique and overview of Germany’s capital, that Hitler carried with him in his pack, leaving finger smudges, food stains and even a hair from his moustache between the pages. Along with art, architecture fascinated Hitler throughout his life. But more importantly, we see the general life of a soldier in Hitler’s position, and while there are no day-to-day accounts of what Hitler personally went through, Ryback found among Hitler’s books, an account of the unit he was in and how, by the autumn of 1915, he was the only one still living from the original eight. It’s hard to avoid the irony: During all the years that Hitler was in power, repeated attempts were made on his life, all to no avail. Ryback thus shows a dark, humorous, vignette that shows Hitler had a knack for escaping demise long before he was the Führer.

Hitler’s literary tastes might be eye-catching to some, considering the politics of this man. At the top of his list were works of Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Daniel Defoe with Robinson Crusoe. Other work touched upon in Hitler’s Private Library were his own Mein Kampf, works of Nietzsche and volumes on military strategy, as well as an entire chapter devoted to a translation Peer Gynt by his mentor, Dietrich Eckart.

Dietrich Eckart, born 1868 in Neumarkt, Germany, was Hitler’s mentor, starting with his racially driven adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt for the German stage. Aside from this, Eckart was the editor of the anti-Semetic print Auf gut Deutsch. Throughout his later life, he was a strong critic of the Treaty of Versailles and used Social Democrats and Jews as the scapegoat for German defeat in the First World War. Eckart helped start the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, later on the National Socialist German Workers’ Party), and met Hitler in 1919 at a speech he was giving in Munich. Within Eckart’s inner circle, it was commonly believed a “messiah” with a “will to power” would come back and liberate Germany from the Jewish agenda. After meeting Hitler for the first time, Eckart felt this prophecy had come true.

“This Hitler is the future of Germany.”

Through Eckart, Hitler was able to meet the German intellectual Alfred Rosenburg, who was hanged after the trials at Nürnburg. Eckart is widely considered responsible for creating some of the core tenants of Nazi ideology along side Hitler, Roseburg and others. The second volume of Mein Kampf was dedicated to Eckart (fitting since he had “taught Hitler to write” and published his first essays, as Ryback says). After the failed Beer Hall Putsch (1923) he was put in prison and died of a heart attack shortly after his release.

What is important in terms of Hitler’s political development is to be found in the events of the early years after the First World War. When Hitler was offered a copy of Anton Drexler’s My Political Awakening, he recorded that he saw “[his] own development come to life before my eyes.” Many people regarded Hitler as anti-intellectual, but his reading tastes reflected an interest in thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Fichte and Nietzsche, who had several connections and influences upon Nazism and Fascism in Europe.

The rise of right-wing ideology in Germany was often credited to Nietzsche, and soldiers on the German front in the First World War were given copies of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, which gave a description of the transition from the apes to the Übermensch, where a master race was to run the world because of superior qualities. Thus German soldiers, as a moral compass, were fed with the notion that they were a superior race and, therefore, justified in the butcher of an inferior enemy. In Nietzsche’s paradigm, God was dead: Religion had failed and mankind thus had the responsibility to take matters into its own hands. From this, Hitler cherry-picked the ideologies that suited and skewed them to fit his prejudice against Jews and others he did not care for.

For example, Hitler pondered why the German enlightenment produced Nathan the Wise, while it was left up to Shakespeare to bring readers Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.” Ryback contends that Hitler’s selective understanding of texts molded him into the leader he ended up being.

It is, in the end, an imperfect inquiry. Although he did leave margin notes and under-linings, Hitler left no journals, no narrative to guide us through his collection.

“Like footprints in the sand, these markings allow us to trace the course of the journey but not necessarily the intent,” Ryback writes. Still, through his rich description of the surrounding context of time and place, drawing heavily from related histories, biographies, memoirs and other writings, he has been able to make some very interesting guesses, so that, in the end we discover “where attention caught and lingered, where it rushed forward and where it ultimately ended.”


Hitler’s Private Library: The Books that Shaped his Life
By Timothy W. Ryback
Vintage Books, London 2010
Available at
Shakespeare & Company Booksellers
1., Sterngasse 2
01 535 5053

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