Monday, November 8, 2010

On "Hitler's Private Library" by Timothy W. Ryback ****

I have never read a book-length biography of Adolph Hitler, so in a way, this book constitutes one of the most interesting ways to become more intimately acquainted with a person and his life. Ryback delves into the books contained within Hitler's library--those collected mostly at the Library of Congress and at Brown University. (Many were absconded with, taken as souvenirs by invading troops, at the end of World War II, so no full library exists.) He reads the books and the various dedications and marginalia within them. Although impossible to know for certain which books Hitler read or which marginalia is definitely that of the German leaders, Ryback appears to do a convincing job of figuring much of Hitler's actual reading out.

This is not a heavily thesis driven book, but if there were to be one, it would likely revolve around Walter Benjamin's writing on personal libraries. Indeed, Ryback uses Benjamin's ideas a lot, applying them over and over to Hitler's stash of books. Benjamin notes that you can tell much about a man by the books in that library at the time of his death; he also notes that most people read only about 10 percent of the books in their library (I am an exception in that regard, having read virtually all of mine, save for anthological words--the result of about five years without access to a public library that forced me to exhaust my own collection). So it is not just what we read but what we consume and keep that says something about us.

Ryback follows Hitler's reading pretty much in chronological order with his life, exploring how the one infected the other. If you ever have the idea that books don't matter (as I sometimes feel like), Ryback will convince you otherwise. Hitler's worldview in many ways was established in them--or not. For we learn that Hitler, who was a voracious reader, chose to read books in the following manner: start with the index and table of contents, read the conclusion, and then garner from the index and contents any passages that might be of use to you, that by reading you can write to your brain for future presentation to others. Inevitably, this kind of reading lends itself to one that mostly confirms one's own points of view, since one is only looking for the select passages that fit with that preappointed scope. (And yet, in our increasingly widespread choice of media, that is essentially how many of us are coming to view our world: if liberal, we pick MSNBC, if conservative, Fox. If we choose to, we can read accordingly also, confirming what we already know, failing to challenge our deepest beliefs.)

Ironies run throughout the book--as they did in Hitler's life. One of his favorite books as a young man was a travel guide to Berlin, written by a Jewish man (who would flee Germany under Hitler's Reich). Hitler's family itself apparently was one tolerant of various ethnicities. Hitler himself, or so Ryback reads him, was early on uncomfortable with certain anti-Semitic remarks certain peoples would make. His conversion, however, would come as he became more and more heavily influenced by the National Socialist movement and by the thinker and mentor Dietrich Eckart.

Another irony is pointed to in the title of the preface, "The Man Who Burned Books," for it is obvious that Hitler himself greatly respected reading. It is also, however, obvious that he lacked formal education. His reading was haphazard in a range of subjects. A compelling speaker, he was aware of his educational deficiencies, and the chapter discussing how he sidelined the one other great leader in the rising Nazi political party, whose intellectual chops more than matched his own, is rather disturbing in a Star Wars "dark side" of the Force kind of way. Essentially, he gave the party a choice--either allow him to be in charge (and thus able kick his rival out of the movement) or he would forge his own movement, splitting the party in half and essentially decimating any chance for meaningful power gains. A scan for information on Otto Dickel, this rival, on the Internet shows how pervasively his influence was removed, for there is very little information about him save his published treatise and his removal from the party.

A very intriguing chapter concerns Hitler's religious influences and how those almost played out in a manner that could have changed history. Hitler grew up Catholic and still held to certain mystical ideas about the faith. A German bishop, recognizing this, wrote a book with the express intent of dividing the Nazi leadership and almost succeeded. The book essentially aimed to join Catholicism with Fascism. (Jews, the book offered, were not problematic because of race but became of religion. Alas, had the bishop had his way, the Holocaust would have turned into one based primarily in religion rather than in ethnicity--in other words, another Inquisition.) Certain mystical anti-Christian fascist leaders were against the book's ideas; other fascist leaders more concerned only with power saw its value. Hitler wavered between the two camps, but eventually fell in with the former. The bishop's book was not given a seal of approval by Hitler, and the church--earlier indifferent to the bishop's plans--even ended up reprimanding the bishop for trying to join it with a materialistic cause.

Other chapters concern Hitler's war strategies (pulled from various books) and his bickering with his generals over matters of command, his own set of writings (Mein Kampf, followed by a book on political strategy, followed by an autobiography manuscript about World War I that was destroyed, followed by a manuscript merging national concerns, politics, and autobiography that was abandoned), and his philosophical inspirations.

In all, Hitler comes across in Ryback's text as an insecure man who moves decidedly more and more toward paranoia, a human being who gradually loses his grip on reality. Watching Hilter's development (in both his life and in his thinking) through his reading is a fascinating exercise well worth the undertaking, for it becomes a warning to us all.

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