When many people think about Adolf Hitler, they think of pure evil. He and his Nazi henchmen did many awful things. It is so hard to understand how anyone could be so bad. Many people just shrug and say that evil men just exist. This seems naive and shortsighted. How will we ever build a better world if we do not understand what went wrong in the past?
In the opening chapters of Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life by Timothy W. Ryback, Hitler is already a bit twisted. He has been stung by the rejection of his applications to be an art or architectural student. He has broken with some of his siblings. He is a message runner in the German Army of World War I, which he is enjoying. He is the sole survivor in his division from the original corps of men darting between the trenches. Though he will occasionally drink in the beer halls, he spends most of his time reading. At this point, the books seems rather innocuous - travel, art, and a little history. He seems almost likable if you keep your distance.
Soon after Hitler leaves the army, he is befriended by Dietrich Eckart, a much older man, a publisher of anti-Semitic books. There was a booming trade in anti-Jewish literature that made a nice profit for authors and publishers who could meet the demand. Eckart heard Hitler speak at a Nazi gathering in a beer hall and immediately recognized the young man as motivational force, something that Hitler himself had not seen. Eckart invited Hitler into his circle and began tutoring him on history, oration, and the ways of power. He gives him books to read.
I find one of the episodes that soon followed a bit difficult to believe. Hitler led a coup attempt in which people died for which he was arrested, tried, and convicted. He was imprisoned, but his cell was essentially a simple, comfortable, spacious private suite. He was allowed as many visitors as could come. He was given books, paper, and a typewriter. Here he wrote Mein Kampf, which his friends arranged to publish, even in a special limited leather-bound edition with gold lettering. He had plenty of money soon after his release from prison. (I have over-simplified this story, but this is a nutshell telling.) How can someone convicted of treason be so gently treated? He had supporters even among the people who convicted him.
I do not read a lot of German history, but I know one of the big questions is "Why did the German people so readily follow Hitler?" The quick answer is that the terms of peace from World War I were so painful to Germany and the people were tired of hardships and having a totally new government every year. Another big factor that comes up continually in Hitler's Private Library is that people were terribly afraid of communism. Many seemed perfectly willing to give up all civil liberties to protect them from the terror of the Bolsheviks.
In every chapter, Ryback discusses the books that Hitler read, many of which the author has examined at the Library of Congress or at Brown University. He tells which pages are smudged and what passages are marked. He also describes how many books were taken by U.S. and Soviet soldiers from the many Hitler residences as they fell into Allied hands. There should still be many thousands of books with either Hitler's signature or bookplate in private collections around the world.
At only 246 pages of actual text, Ryback's book will interest many readers unwilling to tackle gigantic Hitler biographies. It is a good addition to most public and academic libraries. Put it on display.
Ryback, Timothy W. Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. ISBN 9781400042043.