Hitler’s Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life
London: Vintage, 2010
I want to thank the commenters who have reacted to my previous articles, providing many useful insights and bits of information. This is the kind of reactive, collaborative, or even “crowd-sourced” discovery of history which was indeed impossible before the blessed age of the Internet.
I am prompted to write this article by Timothy Ryback’s book Hitler’s Private Library. It uses as its source material some of the 1,200 of Hitler’s books that have survived (less than 10% of the original total) and which are stored in the Library of Congress (one wonders if and when such stolen historical artifacts will be returned to their rightful owners in Germany). The book has plenty of useful information, as we shall see. But the author does not really intellectually engage with the admittedly voluminous material or provide any interpretation by which it might hang together. Perhaps that is for the best.
This suggests however that a comprehensive history of Hitler’s intellectual (self-)education – especially as regards to books – has apparently yet to be done. This is a question worth answering: What did Hitler read? Evidently this is a promising avenue for a talented, independent-minded German-speaking historian (which, leider, I am not). Nonetheless, why shouldn’t we work together here and now, and establish some promising pistes?
Hitler the Bookworm
Hitler and his followers are frequently presented as uncultured barbarians (e.g. the fraudulent Göring quotation: “when I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun”). In fact, all the evidence suggests that Hitler was personally obsessed with high culture, especially classical music and architecture, but also painting, sculpture, and film. He was eager to bring these arts to the German masses. (There is no doubt the manufactured global “pop culture” produced by Hollywood and Madison Avenue executives, currently dominant throughout the West, would have disgusted Hitler to his core.)
Hitler’s love of culture extended to an absolutely voracious appetite for books. Ryback writes of Hitler’s enormous personal library of 16,000 volumes:
It was by any measure an impressive collection: first editions of works by philosophers, historians, poets, playwrights and novelists. For him the library represented a Pieran 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.” (xi)
The latter quote and nightly readings are reported in Leni Riefenstahl’s memoirs. Other accounts are entirely congruent with this. Hitler’s childhood friend August Kubizek wrote: “Books, always more books! I can never remember Adolf without books. Books were his world” (137). These were read not for idle pleasure but proactively as “deadly serious business” of self-education and intellectual development. The other friend of his youth, Rudolf Häusler, similarly said that Hitler would read large tomes until two or three in the morning.
Hitler’s habits in this respect did not change as he matured. His former press chief Otto Dietrich recalled:
He was unteachable. I shall have more to say later about the amazing amount of information he had at his fingertips, and about how enormously well-read he was. [. . .]
Hitler read a great deal, usually late at night after he had retired and was unable to fall asleep. His personal reading consisted of technological matters, biographies of all sorts, and studies of his favorite arts: architecture, painting, sculpture, music, the theater, and the cinema. But he ignored on principle theoretical or belletristic works. He had a special antipathy for novels, which he never read, and for poetry; poems were an abomination to him.
Housekeeper Margarete Mitlstrasser and Berghof manager Herbert Döhring would find Hitler reading until dawn. Eva Braun was once sent back in tears after interrupting Hitler and a sign would be hung on his door with the notice: “ABSOLUTE SILENCE” (138). Secretaries Traudl Junge and Christa Schröder recalled that Hitler would discuss his recent readings in detail. Schröder explained that this was “in order to anchor it more permanently in his mind” (138). So determined was Hitler in his habits that Junge reported that in April 1945, in the depths of despair in the Führerbunker, she would still find a bespectacled Hitler sitting in his armchair in the evening, reading (235).
Hitler the News Junkie
All through the day, from noon to past midnight, Hitler insisted on having the latest foreign broadcasts and the most recent items from the foreign press. These reports were delivered in writing to his personal servant, who always remained close by him and kept them ready at hand for him. In the morning they had to be at his bedroom door, in case Hitler awoke early. There has probably never been a head of government who was so swiftly and completely informed on public opinion throughout the world as Hitler.
He did not want summaries; he had to have the original news items, word for word. In addition he was kept posted on the newspaper opinion of almost every country; editorials were telephoned or teletyped to Berlin several times a day, and from Berlin transmitted to wherever Hitler happened to be staying at the moment. Hitler valued this news from the outside world so highly because it gave him a certain check on the reports he received from his own department heads. 
Hitler disliked the press however, citing for example its blindness to contemporary geniuses, a criticism Schopenhauer also often made.
It seems Hitler also consumed a considerable amount of news during his Vienna days. Significantly for the development of Hitler’s fanatical anti-Semitism, the historian Steven Beller informs us in his cultural history of the Viennese Jewish community: “All the major daily newspapers of the liberal press [in Vienna] were either owned or edited by people of Jewish descent.” Hitler writes in Mein Kampf that frustration with the liberal Jewish prestige press was a major step in his emotionally-difficult conversion to anti-Semitism. He considered these papers to be misleadingly pseudo-highbrow and pseudo-objective, being actually hypocritically wracked by pervasive tribal-ethnic bias, ethnic nepotism, and virulent anti-German racism:
And I now began to examine my beloved “world press” from this [Judeo-critical] point of view.
And the deeper I probed, the more the object of my former admiration shriveled. The style became more and more unbearable; I could not help rejecting the content as inwardly shallow and banal; the objectivity of exposition now seemed to me more akin to lies than honest truth; and the writers were – Jews.
A thousand things which I had hardly seen before now struck my notice, and others, which had previously given me food for thought, I now learned to grasp and understand.
I now saw the liberal attitude of this press in a different light; the lofty tone in which it answered attacks and its method of killing them with silence now revealed itself to me as a trick as clever as it was treacherous; the transfigured raptures of the theatrical critics were always directed at Jewish writers, and their disapproval never struck anyone but Germans. The gentle pin-pricks against Wilhelm II revealed its methods by their persistency, and so did its commendation of French culture and civilization. The trashy content of the short story now appeared to me as outright indecency, and in the language I detected the accents of a foreign people; the sense of the whole thing was so obviously hostile to Germanism that this could only have been intentional.
Hitler’s Favorite Fiction
Apparently he did not dislike all novels, considering Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin [sic], and Gulliver’s Travels to be works of genius (Table Talk, February 17, 1942). He considered Shakespeare far superior to Goethe and Schiller, and loved to quote Hamlet and Julius Caesar. While hating Christian superstition and slave-morality, he apparently knew his Bible well.
Dietrich reports that Hitler loved cowboy stories: “In the earlier years of his reign he once more read through all the volumes of Karl May’s Indian tales, which had been his favorite boyhood reading.” And he enjoyed some of the same plays as William Pierce: “Bernard Shaw’s social and socialist satire aroused his enthusiasm both in print and on the stage.”
Hitler’s Political and Ideological Readings
Hitler claimed his own experience was described perfectly in fellow founding National Socialist Anton Drexler’s My Political Awakening. Dietrich Eckart, whom Hitler called the “polar star” of the Party, gave him a copy of Ibsen’s Nordic tale Peer Gynt. He read Gottfried Feder’s Manifesto for the Abolition of Interest Slavery. It is unclear whether Hitler read Arthur Moeller van den Bruck’s The Third Reich.
Hitler took advantage of his time at Landsberg prison to undertake what he called “higher education at state expense” (67). He read (not necessarily while there) Hans Günther’s Racial Typology of the German People, Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (he later met the author), and various works on the innumerable anti-Jewish critiques of the great Western minds (Luther, Goethe, Schopenhauer, Zola . . .).
Hitler read Paul Lagarde’s German Essays and underlined anti-Semitic passages advocating their physical removal as a “solution,” including one sentence: “Jews will be Jews” (140).
Hitler famously read Henry Ford’s The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem. In 1922, Hitler’s private office featured a picture of Ford and the young nationalist leader would state “I regard Ford as my inspiration” (71). Like Ford, Hitler considered The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to be an accurate portrayal of Jewish behavior, whether or not the malicious motives were conscious or whether the document was authentic.
Hitler imbibed a great amount of First World War literature, including apparently all of the early works of Ernst Jünger. In 1926, Jünger sent Hitler a copy of Fire and Blood with a personal dedication: “To the national Führer Adolf Hitler” (80). Hitler would write back: “I have read all your writings. In them I have come to value one of the few powerful conveyors of the frontline experience.” Hitler highlighted in pencil passages of Fire and Blood describing the emotional and spiritual aspects of war:
[The] unflinching dignified composure that a man reveals when confronted by his own extermination [Vernichtung, probably better rendered “annihilation”], and that we in our paltry everyday existence cannot even begin to imagine. (82)
(I would be interested to know what version of Storm of Steel Hitler read. Jünger constantly retouched the novel which apparently had a sharply nationalistic form before settling into a somewhat bowdlerized postwar version.)
Hitler described Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race as his “bible” in a letter to the author. One can certainly see the influence on Hitler’s thinking, namely the haunting observation that the innumerable victories of the old Nordic and Germanic tribes were vain insofar as the conquerors blended with the natives. Grant draws unsentimental, eugenic, anti-democratic, segregationist, and potentially exterminationist conclusions. Grant was more pan-European than Hitler, noting that both France and Germany were not exclusively Nordic (southern Germany in particular was largely Alpine . . .) and that “from the race point of view, the present European conflict [the First World War] is essentially a civil war” (101).
Grant and Hitler believed with Auguste Comte that “Demography is destiny” and with Benjamin Disraeli that “All is race.”
It is unclear whether Hitler read Lothrop Stoddard, although he was at least clearly influenced by similar ideas concerning the dysgenic, Bolshevism-prone “underman.”
Hitler certainly appreciated a certain Aryan America.
Hitler did not like Alfred Rosenberg’s Myth of the Twentieth Century, besides the trouble the book caused with the churches.
SS chief Heinrich Himmler gave Hitler Voices of the Ancestors and Death and Immortality in the World View of the Indo-Germanic Thinkers as birthday presents.
Hitler apparently read Sven Hedin’s 200-page America in the Battle of the Continents in a single night in October 1942, or so he appreciatively wrote to the author in any case (208).
Hitler’s Historical Models
Hitler was passionate about history from a young age – this being the only school class he enjoyed. As a youth he read his father’s copy of Heinrich Gerling’s history of the Franco-Prussian war. In 1922, Hitler would constantly buy books in Munich, such as those dealing with Austrian and French military history.
I do not know from which books Hitler learned about his unerring historical models: The Greco-Roman world (especially racialist and militarist Sparta), the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (or the “First Reich”), and Brandenburg-Prussia. This strikes me as a very important question.
From the Greeks, Hitler took the notions of racial citizenship, eugenics, and authoritarianism. He called Sparta “the first Volksstaat.” Personalities as different as Otto Dietrich and Karl Popper have noted the ideological filiation between Plato’s philosophy and National Socialism (Plato’s authoritarian leanings in The Republic only went further with his final work, The Laws, taking Sparta as a model).
Hitler claimed the Germans had not changed since Tacitus’ portrayal in Germania. He was most impressed by the Emperor Julian, who briefly restored Roman paganism, saying:
The book that contains the reflections of the Emperor Julian should be circulated in millions. What wonderful intelligence, what discernment, all the wisdom of antiquity! It’s extraordinary. (Table Talk, October 25, 1941)
It would be better to speak of Constantine the traitor and Julian the Loyal than of Constantine the Great and Julian the Apostate. What the Christians wrote against the Emperor Julian is approximately of the same caliber as what the Jews have written against us. The writings of the Emperor Julian, on the other hand, are products of the highest wisdom. If humanity took the trouble to study and understand history, the resulting consequences would have incalculable implications. One day ceremonies of thanksgiving will be sung to Fascism and National Socialism for having preserved Europe from a repetition of the triumph of the Underworld. (Table Talk, January 2, 1942)
Hitler cited Thomas Carlyle on occasion, including during his 1923 trial and in some speeches. Carlyle had written On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History and an incredibly-long 21-volume history of Frederick the Great. Hitler was perhaps only slightly less infatuated with the Prussian king, frequently citing him as a model of austere militarism, enlightened despotism, and, above all, indomitable will and providential fortune. Up to the end, Hitler would evoke Frederick to rouse the German people to resistance, hoping against hope that Germany would be saved by luck, as Prussia had been by the death of the Russian Empress Elizabeth during the Seven Years War.
Hitler would similarly cite Clausewitz to the same effect, less in reference to his famous treatise On War (whose influence on Hitler is unclear to me), but to his call to continue the resist Napoleonic France no matter the immediate military defeats.
Revolutionary and Napoleonic France clearly had a certain influence on Hitler, if only by a kind of mimetic dialectic. Hitler faulted Napoleon for declaring himself Emperor (Consul should have sufficed, apparently as Führer did for Hitler). The Republican/Napoleonic project of welding a communauté nationale – even without the racial element, which in fact was sometimes present (e.g. Sieyès) – in the name of social unity and patriotism, in some ways recalls the Hitlerian Volksgemeinschaft.
Hitler read Bismarck’s memoirs, commenting: “I know of no more trenchant criticism of the Kaiser than that given in the third volume of Bismarck’s own memoirs” (Table Talk, August 20, 1942). Hitler considered the Iron Chancellor as a model and a hero as the unifier of Germany, but lamented that he had been powerless against the rise of nihilism. He met with Bismarck’s descendants.
The fact is that from his early youth Hitler displayed a degree of interest in military affairs wholly astonishing in an artistic nature such as this. Long before he took power he possessed a very wide knowledge of military matters and the technology of armaments. He had read a great deal of military history; he was familiar with the technical literature on warfare, both that of Germany and of foreign countries. And he would sit up late carefully reading all new publications. In this field he was truly a phenomenon; even in peacetime his theoretical knowledge put many a general and admiral in the shade. Hitler possessed an incredible memory for military history, for the course of battles and of entire campaigns. He had an extraordinary knowledge of weapons. For example, he knew all the warships in the world, insofar as they were listed in Weyher’s Handbook of Navies or other such reference books. He could recite from memory the age, displacement, speed, strength of armor, turrets, and other armament of every ship. There was little missing in his knowledge of the most modern tanks and guns of all countries in the world. [. . .]
There was hardly a book on architecture that Hitler had not read, and he took the keenest interest in all new publications.
Eckart considered Fichte, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche to be the foundational philosophers of National Socialism. Fichte’s influence on Hitler is uncertain, although the former pioneered similar concepts of “Volkskrieg” and of Jews as “a state within the state.”
When asked by Leni Riefenstahl what he liked to read, Hitler answered simply: “Schopenhauer.” When asked on Nietzsche, he responded: “I can’t really do much with Nietzsche” (129). Nonetheless, he would meet with Nietzsche’s relatives. Hitler gave a deluxe edition of Nietzsche’s collected works to Mussolini on the latter’s sixtieth birthday. Mussolini was almost invariably a dear friend of Hitler’s and, like Richard Wagner, must be considered one of the great non-literary influences on him.
Presumably Hitler read Wagner’s Jewry in Music. Heroic classical music was like a drug for the young Hitler. One has the impression that his political career was an unceasing effort to communicate this same exalted feeling of living an epic saga, in service to his fanatical reason and an awesome national destiny, to an entire people. Hitler was a close friend of the Wagner family.
I suppose a doctoral thesis could be written on Schopenhauer’s influence on Hitler. Lance Corporal Hitler famously carried about Schopenhauer’s enormous books in the trenches with him during the First World War. I tend to think that both the experience of the war and the example of Schopenhauer’s genius – one really has to read such an uncompromising and witty exposition of the unpopular facts of human life – had an enormous impact on Hitler. The two no doubt gave him, the impoverished artist who had barely escaped the humiliation of bumhood, an enormous boost in self-confidence (the passages in Mein Kampf on underemployed youth lacking self-esteem surely continue to resonate with many “NEETs” today).
I know rather less on the possible influence of Luther, Kant, Hegel, Spengler, Schmitt, and others. Many of their ideas are obviously present in Hitler, whether he was directly influenced or via these ideas’ influence in German society as a whole (e.g. anti-Semitism, authority . . .).
Ryback notes that a self-help book by a certain Carl Ludwig Schleich has the following passage emphasized with two strong strokes:
It is questionable whether there can be geniuses in politics. The political leader belongs to the nation. He has to have character. The genius belongs to mankind. He is an exemplary personality. There are politicians with genius but no political geniuses. (68)
But Ryback notes in passing that there is no guarantee the marginalia are Hitler’s . . .
1. I note that the “Nazi art thieves” theme continues to be unerringly popular in Hollywood.
2. There are also some odd statements which strike me as mistakes, e.g.: referring to Hitler’s “militant Prussian chauvinism” and listing Schopenhauer among “nineteenth-century German nationalists” (126-7).
3 .Notwithstanding the evident good faith of many of the historians, Schopenhauer’s comment on Kant comes to mind:
In consequence of his originality, it is true of him in the highest degree, as indeed of all genuine philosophers, that only from their own works does one come to know them, not from the accounts of others. For the thoughts of those extraordinary minds cannot stand filtration through an ordinary head. Born behind the broad, high, finally arched brows from under which beaming eyes shine forth, they lose all power and life, and no longer appear like themselves, when moved into the narrow lodging and low roofing of the confined, contracted, and thick-walled skulls from which peer out dull glances directed to personal ends. In fact, it can be said that heads of this sort act like an uneven mirror in which everything is twisted and distorted, loses the symmetry of its beauty, and represents a caricature. Only from their creators themselves can we receive philosophical thoughts. Therefore the man who feels himself drawn to philosophy must himself seek out its immortal teachers in the quiet sanctuary of their works. The principal chapters of any one of these genuine philosophers will furnish a hundred times more insight into their doctrines than the cumbersome and distorted accounts of them produced by commonplace minds that are still for the most part entangled in the fashionable philosophy of the time, or in their own pet opinions. But it is astonishing how decidedly the public prefers to grasp at those descriptions at second-hand. In fact, an elective affinity seems to be at work here by virtue of which the common nature is drawn to its like, and accordingly will prefer to hear from one of its own kind even what a great mind has said. Perhaps this depends on the same principle as the system of mutual instruction according to which children learn best from other children.
Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (New York: Dover, 1969), volume 1, preface to the second edition (1844), xxv. Hitler was certainly more artist than philosopher, but the point stands.
4. Otto Dietrich, The Hitler I Knew: Memoirs of the Third Reich’s Press Chief (New York: Skyhorse, 2010), 8, 123. Dietrich’s memoirs, written in 1949, are embittered and repentant, with clear denunciations of Hitler literally as a kind of demonic false prophet who had demanded all from his subordinates and Germany, only to bring about complete disaster. They are concise, highly readable, and informative.
5. Ibid., 115-6.
6. Ibid., 119.
7. Beller is worth quoting at length:
It is almost cliché [sic] to say that the Viennese liberal press was very Jewish. The problem with antisemitic attacks on the ‘Jewish press’ was that, in Vienna at least, there were based on hard fact. All the major daily newspapers of the liberal press were either owned or edited by people of Jewish descent. There were Bacher and Benedikt at the Neue Freie Presse, regarded by many as The Times of central Europe. This paper had a circulation rival in the Neue Wiener Tagblatt, whose founder and chief editor was Moritz Szeps. When Szeps left to start the rival Wiener Tagblatt in 1886, after a dispute with the board, the Singer brothers took it over. Then there was the Wiener Allgemeine Zeitung, edited by Theodor Hertzka, and later by Szeps’ son, Julius. The socialist newspaper, the Arbeiter Zeitung, was edited by Friedrich Austerlitz. All these figures, the central actors in the history of the Viennese liberal press, were of Jewish descent. This by no means exhausts the list of newspapers run by Jews. Even newspapers which were conservative in profile, clerical or antisemitic, could be staffed by Jews. [. . .] Tietze [a historian] gives the example of the Neue Wiener Journal, but his was not the only case. The history of Jewish journalism and of the Viennese press in general, it has been said, almost amount to the same thing. Especially noteworthy is the fact that the three main cultural journals of the turn of the century were run primarily by Jews: Die Zeit by Heinrich Kanner and Isidor Singer, along with Hermann Bahr (not of Jewish descent), Die Wager, edited by Rudolf Lothar, and Die Fackel, by Karl Kraus. At the editorial level of the liberal press the Jewish presence was dominant.
The leaves the question of the Jewish presence in the lower ranks, in the main body of journalists. The Festschrift of the journalists’ and writers’ society in Vienna, Concordia, contains a list of all the members of the society [. . .]. At present the proven figure for the Jewish presence, out of a total membership of 359, is 185, 51.5 per cent. If then [. . .] we count in half of those names regarded by Dr Heuer and Dr Jäger-Sunstenau as probably Jewish, then the total goes up to 227, 63.2 per cent.
Such a figure has large implications for the cultural élite of Vienna, for the links between the press and such key groups as Young Vienna were very strong. This was an age when journalists were still regarded in liberal circles as ‘knights of the intellect’. In Vienna especially the feuilleton review was one of the arbiters of taste. When Arthur Schnitzler wanted to prove the worth of his play Liebelei so that Burckhard would perform it (against the advice of Hermann Bahr), he persuaded Theodor Gomperz to ask Ludwig Speidel, the Burgtheater feuilletoniste for the Neue Freie Presse, to give his opinion. Speidel’s praise meant that the performance went ahead. Hanslick, Speidel’s colleague for the music review, is well known to have ruled the musical taste of the whole city. His successor was Julius Korngold. After 1918, the feuilleton staff of the Neue Freie Presse consisted of five of Vienna’s best critics: Raoul Auernheimer, Felix Salten, Ernst Lothar, Korngold and A. F. Seligmann. All five were of at least partly Jewish descent.
It should be pointed out that the Viennese press was not totally Jewish: Some of the most famous journalists, such as Bahr (and probably Hanslick), were not of Jewish descent. Nevertheless, the Jewish presence was predominant. [. . .] [I]n an age when the press was the only mass medium, cultural or otherwise, the liberal press was largely a Jewish press.
Steven Beller, Vienna and the Jews, 1867-1938: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 38-40. Beller rationalizes his account by adding that Jews were so staggeringly over-represented in the Viennese media because this was one of the few professions without religious restrictions. Of course, Jews also have historically “prospered” in the mass media of other countries such as the United States, Germany, France, or Great Britain, even when there were no such religious restrictions.
8. Adolf Hitler (Mannheim translation), Mein Kampf (London: Hutchison & Co, 1969), 54-55. Contemporary White Advocates have similar grievances today, whether concerning the incredible moralistic fervor of the New York Times in promoting “War World T” or the pseudo-technocratic condescending paternalism of the “Voxsplainer.”
9. Dietrich, The Hitler I Knew, 123.
10. Ibid. Presumably especially Man and Superman.
11. Moeller van den Bruck is referred to by Ryback repeatedly as “Moeller von den Bruck.”
12. Hitler was incidentally most impressed by the conversations between Frederick and Voltaire (I am not sure if he was referring to the two’s written correspondence, which is incredibly obsequious).
13. Dietrich, The Hitler I Knew, 61-62, 132.