“When a person ‘gives’ he also has to ‘take,’ and I take what I need from books” (106). As a minister of the gospel, I would be hard pressed to find a truer word for the nature of my profession. The need to feast regularly on books is a prerequisite to continued depth, insight and understanding. I resonate with it; but this very resonance is deeply troubling to me. And the trouble stems from the fact that this little phrase was spoken by a person no less infamous than Adolf Hitler.
Timothy Ryback’s book, “Hitler’s Private Library: The Books that Shaped His Life” (The Bodley Head, 2009), delves into the intellectual history of the man who is arguably the 20th century’s greatest villain. That man was also, perhaps ironically, an avid reader, and the startling truth is that the very man who burned books was also a passionate collector of them, with a library of some sixteen thousand volumes (in multiple locations) at the time of his death. Ryback examines a fraction of this remaining library (much was pilfered after the war), considering a number of individual volumes, the three books that Hitler wrote, and the sizeable chunk of Hitler’s library that is stored in the archives of the Library of Congress. Ryback argues, effectively, that one of the best ways to understand a man is to study the books that he reads.
With this goal in mind, Ryback studies Hitler’s books for marginalia—those places where Hitler underlined a passage, drew one or more vertical bars alongside a passage, or wrote exclamation points or question marks in the margins. Then he draws parallels between these underlined thoughts and events, speeches, and actions in Hitler’s life. The correlations are, at times, chilling. We can trace Hitler’s growingly virulent anti-Semitism, identify some of the sources of his belief in Germanic primacy and, if you will, ‘manifest destiny’; we can follow in the margins as he highlights passages about great personalities and their ability to ‘will into existence’ changes in geopolitical reality.
Ryback’s book is better, in my estimation, than a straight biography in the same way that archaeology is preferable to history: one deals with evidence, the other deals with theory. And Ryback’s book, in following Hitler’s pencil, gives us a profound look into the evidence that shaped the mind of his subject. As such his study is the archaeology of ideas—here we reach the bedrock of thought, and what Ryback has done is piece together the potsherds of Hitler’s intellectual worldview. The picture that emerges is both chilling and challenging at the same time.
Ryback chills and challenges us because the act of reading a book about reading is a strangely reflexive process. One can’t help (if one is critical) querying oneself about your own reading practices, and the result, and perhaps the most profound consequence of the book, is that Hitler’s life becomes a mirror against which the reader must examine his own reading habits. I am a reader. I write in my books. They are filled with marginalia—vertical lines, underlining, question marks, and personal notes in the margins. Hitler, I am forced to admit, was a reader like me. But Hitler was also a reader unlike me—he read one or two books every night; I’m lucky to get through one a week. He could recall at will large portions of books that he had committed to memory; I have trouble remembering what I ate for dinner last night. Hitler, I’m forced to admit, was a more committed reader than I am. So what marks the differences between us?
At one point in the book, Ryback explains Hitler’s personal theory of reading as recorded in Mien Kampf. There Hitler “compares the process of reading to that of collecting ‘stones’ to fill a ‘mosaic’ of preconceived notions. He studies the table of contents or even the index of a book, then gleans select chapters for ‘usable’ information” (114). The implication of this reading strategy is that Hitler is not looking, really, to challenge his own presuppositions, only to have his primary presuppositions reinforced. Some elements may be tweaked, but on the whole his worldview was decided from the outset. This seems to be true despite the fact that Hitler claims (after describing his strategy) that the information which is imbibed then either corroborates or challenges the original ‘picture;’ but here the evidence of Hitler’s life points to a far more selective choice of books. Only those books which ascribe to his worldview are embraced; those which challenge it are burned.
The literary worldview to which Hitler ascribed seems easy enough to identify: first, books which promote the concept of Germanic primacy, which included anything which elevated German history, the German geist, and the sense of German destiny in world history. Second, Hitler embraced books which promoted anti-Semitism, and these books must be seen in concert with his German nationalism, because the glorification of Germany and the demonization of Jews were two sides of the same insidious coin (on racial, historical, and political levels). Lastly, Hitler was drawn to books which promoted a view of the self which I can only describe as the ‘self as the agent of destiny.’ Here the lone human will beats the odds and achieves its destiny, or the potent human personality warps reality to fit its own perception of how things should be. In short, it is a self for which the ends justify the means.
These ideas to which Hitler was drawn were not pet fancies, but rather seemed to typify German intellectual culture in the 30s and 40s. In other words, the culture of anti-Semitism and German nationalism and belief in the self seems to have been literarily pervasive during the years of Hitler’s rise. Commenting on the culture of the German Reich in the years leading up to the war, Ryback used the word “mendacity” to describe Hitler’s Germany. Mendacity (which I admit I had to look up) is a willful twisting of the truth. It is a wholly appropriate word for the entire Reich atmosphere. Not only are mendacious books printed and circulated (Mien Kampf being a prime example), but the entire reading strategy and intellectual world of Germany in the 30s and 40s seems to be pervasively mendacious. There is a profound twisting of the truth for expeditious ends. Furthermore Hitler gambled, and Germany with him, that if they could win the war they could also re-write the history of the events leading up to the war. And in this, Hitler, often perceived as the great personality that led Germany as a pied piper into war, appears rather to be a figurehead representing an utterly mendacious cultural movement. This implies that the blame for the Second World War can be laid, not at the feet of Hitler, but at the shoddy scholarship and mendacious literature that was published in pre-war Germany.
The Hitler/Third Reich mirror sheds challenging light on our reading. Am I only reading books that reinforce what I have decided to be true, or do I read books that challenge my worldview? How selective am I in the literature I imbibe? If someone were to examine my library and make judgments about me based on the books I have read, what would that person conclude?
Rather than falling into an epistemological panic, I think there are two reading suggestions which can be derived as contrasts to any Hitlerian reading strategies, two things that separate Hitlerian reading from good reading. First, one must read broadly. Imbibe books from various subjects, in various disciplines, from various perspectives. Second, read submissively. Allow each book to contribute to the ever growing constellation of knowledge in your mind. Allow the books to challenge your presuppositions. Allow them to question your beliefs. Some books, of course, will need to be dismissed; others will change the shape of your inner universe. But don’t allow your preconceptions to dismiss a book before you’ve read it, but engage with the book and then reevaluate your presuppositions. You may find that your presuppositions were in need of adjustment, or that they were correct. But you cannot discover that—and you will be doomed to an ignorance of self-enclosed intellectual stagnation—if you never allow them to be challenged at all.