A tyrant's private library
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 11 October 2008)

Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, arrived at Adolf Hitler's office in Berlin on March 11, 1945, bearing what he considered good news about the war. Back from the eastern front, he wanted to tell Hitler that Ferdinand Schorner, commander of the Third Panzer Division, had resisted a series of Soviet assaults and stabilized his defensive line in East Prussia. He particularly praised the way Schorner dealt with deserters by immediately hanging anyone caught behind the lines without permission.

Goebbels was pleased to see German soldiers dangling from trees, with signs on their chests branding them as deserters. Hitler agreed that Schorner was indeed a model commander and should be promoted at the next opportunity.

Of course, there was to be no next opportunity. In fact, the entire conversation sounds like a dream of madmen. Nazi Germany, already half buried in rubble, was only weeks away from total defeat. Yet Goebbels and Hitler seem to have barely acknowledged the possibility of losing.

That shared delusion was reflected in a birthday gift for Hitler that Goebbels brought with him, a new edition of Thomas Carlyle's famous biography of Frederick the Great, king of Prussia in the 18th century. Hitler had admired Frederick for decades, had invoked his example as early as 1924 and especially enjoyed Carlyle's idolatrous treatment of him. Hitler's library never lacked books about Frederick.

Hitler believed all along that he too would be revered as a great national hero, and if things went wrong he could find his excuse in Carlyle. He endorsed Carlyle's opinion that only a great nation deserved a great leader. After the Allied invasion at Normandy in 1944, Hitler said that if Germany lost the war it would be the people's fault. They would have failed their test before history.

At the end, Hitler had one more chance to identify with Frederick. In 1762, when defeat in war seemed a strong possibility, Frederick was saved by a miracle: The Tsarina Elizabeth of Russia, his great enemy, suddenly died. He was ecstatic. He knew that Elizabeth's successor would be easier to deal with, which proved to be the case.

On April 12, 1945, the death of Franklin Roosevelt excited Hitler in the same way. "Here we have the miracle I always predicted," Hitler said. He often expressed his belief in Fate, Providence, etc. Now his faith was justified. He considered sending an envoy to meet the new president, Harry Truman, and make a deal. But soon the Soviets were entering Berlin and Hitler chose a course that Frederick had at least once contemplated, suicide.

A bookish sort of murderer, Hitler scripted his world-historical role as an adaptation of his reading. Timothy Ryback has written one of the most interesting of recent books about him, Hitler's Private Library: The Books That Shaped His Life (Knopf), based on books Hitler is known to have owned, including 1,200 volumes that ended up in the Library of Congress.

As a reader, Hitler was a self-improver, a purposeful browser who believed in "the art of correct reading," which seems to have been a method of searching through books for whatever would confirm views he already held. If a writer could give him fresh reasons for his opinions, all the better. An obvious case was Paul de Lagarde's German Essays, in which Hitler underlined one passage: "Each and every irksome Jew is a serious affront to the authenticity and veracity of our German identity."

Another favourite book was The International Jew, by Henry Ford. "I regard Ford as my inspiration," Hitler remarked early in his political career. Ford appealed to him as a practical man, a prince of industry, whose anti-Semitism must, theoretically, have been based on sound principles.

Like Albert Einstein, Heinrich Mann and many other German boys, Hitler was enraptured by the pulp westerns of Karl May. They were cowboys-and-Indians tales written by an author who never visited the American West. All his life Hitler loved them, and during his years in power kept a shelf of May's books in his bedroom. He said that in difficult times those stories gave him courage. When criticizing his generals' lack of imagination, he suggested they read May for inspiration.

Ryback can't explain Hitler, an unknowable freak in many ways, but he leaves us with several insights into his subject, not least the thought of a dictator who lived out the most insane fantasies of the 20th century while loving above all the fantasies of a writer who had never glimpsed his subject.

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