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Book Review

Using Hitler's own books, a telling story of the man

Adolf Hitler, circa 1925, in his first Munich apartment. Adolf Hitler, circa 1925, in his first Munich apartment. (''HITLER'S PRIVATE LIBRARY'')
By Charles A. Radin
Globe Correspondent / December 27, 2008
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Adolf Hitler was short on education and long on sociopathic ideas, so it comes as no surprise that he was both passionate in his reading and fierce in his insistence that the books he selected justify his convictions.

But watching the relationship between the man and his books develop as Hitler moves from the trenches of World War I to the Reich Chancellery of the 1930s to the bunker where he spent his last days is fascinating.

Timothy Ryback writes gracefully, and the story he weaves around the books from Hitler's private libraries - 1,200 of them preserved at the Library of Congress and 80 others at Brown University - offers fresh perspectives, despite the vast literature on Hitler that has gone before. The elegance of the prose notwithstanding, the menace that was Hitler, first lurking in the background, then all-consuming, is ever present.

"Hitler's Private Library" opens "on a dreary Monday in late November 1915," when then-corporal Hitler walks from his billet near the front in northern France to a bookstore in Fournes, where he buys a book on the architectural history of Berlin. Ryback uses the setting and the book selection to suggest what was ordinary about Hitler at age 26 and what was not. Deftly, and with an economy of words, he sketches the future dictator's transition from young volunteer to bitter and hardened soldier.

Most of the subsequent chapters conform to a similar pattern: Ryback sets up a scene in which Hitler acquires or reads a book, then follows threads connecting that volume to important personalities and moments in Hitler's life.

Ryback's use of the first person in describing his exploration of Hitler's books is sometimes irksome but occasionally highly effective - as when he describes opening a volume and finding a single, straight, black mustache hair. Presumably we know whose.

Still, he writes with greater power when not in first person. "Hitler's copy of 'Peer Gynt' is a corpse of a book," he says of the Ibsen classic given to Hitler by Dietrich Eckart, the poet, journalist, and anti-Semite whom many consider the future tyrant's best friend and intellectual father. The ruins of the original, gold-stenciled title "jangle the eyes like skeleton bones."

Books increasingly became the gift of choice for Hitler, and their progressively obsequious inscriptions testify to his growing power. Such gifts and gushes could even help a person like filmmaker and propagandist Leni Riefenstahl restore herself to his favor.

In 1933, shortly before she cemented her position in the Third Reich with the propaganda epic "Triumph of the Will," Riefenstahl took tea with Hitler on a terrace of the Reich Chancellery. She used the moment to express concern about the treatment of the Jews. She mentioned several Jewish friends.

Hitler cut her off and told her to drop the subject. Riefenstahl left the Chancellery in distress over having offended him, and asked a director friend what to do. He advised her to present Hitler with a rare, beautifully bound first edition of the works of the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, playing both to Hitler's vanities as a collector and his pretensions as a philosopher. It worked.

A decade later, much had changed. With the war on, Henriette von Schirach, who like Riefenstahl had won Hitler's favor and gifted him with fine books with fawning inscriptions in the 1930s, expressed her concern, during a late-night gathering at Hitler's home, about the treatment of the Jewish women of Amsterdam.

Hitler screamed at her, "You have to learn to hate." Von Schirach fled the room, was advised to leave the house immediately, and never saw Hitler again.

Charles A. Radin works on international affairs programming at Brandeis University.

HITLER'S PRIVATE LIBRARY: The Books That Shaped His Life By Timothy W. Ryback

Knopf, 278 pp., illustrated, $25.95

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