Thursday, 5 February 2009

"Hitler's Private Library" by Timothy Ryback

"Hitler's Private Library"
by Timothy Ryback

of books and men ...

I was most interested by this publication. So much so that I actively (and vainly) tried to secure a review for it (I usually let the lit eds suggest titles to me)...

It is a curious subject, and it is one which is based on two ideas. The first is the strange fascination that anyone conscious of history would have in reading or handling one of Adolf Hitler's own books. I have had a similar experience in the National Archives in London, where I have handled original documents signed by Winston Churchill (a scrawled and interlinked WSC, if you are interested). One gets a tremendous buzz from it, I can tell you.

In Ryback's example, he is not above milking this particular thrill. He speaks repeatedly about Hitler's marginal notes, lines and exclamation marks, and most spectacularly, he claims that in one instance, he opened one of Hitler's books and a black, inch-long mustache hair fell out into his lap. This, however, though momentarily thrilling, is a bit of a one-trick-pony - it needs something more substantial to make the book work.

He finds his second raison d'écrire in the more cerebral - and indeed more tenuous - idea that one can read something into the individual by looking at his library. There are some problems with this. For one thing, marginalia can betray alot of things, but do they make the man? I think not and would indeed be horrified if someone - decades hence - tried to draw conclusions about me by looking at the volumes and marginal notes from my library. For another, Ryback only had access to a fraction of the estimated 16,000 books that Hitler was said to have owned - his conclusions surely can only be similarly fragmentary.

Yet, those caveats aside, Ryback's book is interesting. It is clearly meticulously researched and is well written. He ranges chronologically, taking a single volume of the library on which to hang each chapter, and through which to relate each episode of Hitler's life. He makes a number of enlightening diversions, and draws conclusions that are sensible and interesting, though hardly earth-shattering.

Hitler - Ryback tells us - was a voracious reader, often consuming a book a night. Moreover, he concludes that Hitler was not someone who allowed books to influence him unduly - rather, he took from his reading those facts and arguments that served to bolster and complement his existing opinions and prejudices. A good point perhaps, but hardly revolutionary, hardly rewriting history. And, if one recalls that most teachers and social workers read The Guardian and most former Brigadiers take The Daily Telegraph, one might concede that this is actually a more common failing than many of us would care to admit.

"Hitler's Private Library" is an engaging read, therefore, but it is based on some pretty thin foundations; both philosophically and materially. Ryback has done well to spin a book out of that meagre fare, but he sadly struggles to say much of any value or insight in the process.

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