Hitler’s Forgotten Library

The Atlantic Home


May 2003 Atlantic

You can tell a lot about a person from what he reads. The surviving—and largely ignored—remnants of Adolf Hitler’s personal library reveal a deep but erratic interest in religion and theology

by Timothy W. Ryback

Hitler’s Forgotten Library:


"Did you know that today is Hitler’s birthday?" the attendant said as he handed me Adolf Hitler’s personal copy of Mein Kampf, a tattered red-leather volume (a special second edition issued in 1926) with the title and author’s name embossed in gold on the spine. The young man, clean-cut and dressed in a sweatshirt bearing the skull and crossbones of the Curry College Rugby Football Club, explained that he knew this fact only because his sister shared a birthday with the Nazi leader. "You remember something like that," he said.

On this particular Friday (April 20, 2001, Adolf Hitler’s 112th birthday) the rare-book reading room of the Library of Congress—a high-ceilinged space elegantly appointed with brass lamps, heavy wooden tables, and thick carpet—hummed with subdued activity. At one table a heavy-set woman in a bright paisley blouse wore white gauze gloves to leaf through a fragile tome titled Histoire Aéronautique, a collection of quaint eighteenth-century lithographs depicting aeronauts in powdered wigs transported aloft by fanciful pneumatic contraptions. A smartly dressed black woman with cropped hair and large hoop earrings studied a book on slavery in Barbados. Across from her a stocky man with a laptop clattered away as he typed extracts from a book cradled in a velvet-lined wooden stand. At another table a young man in a suit stared into an oversized volume of black-and-white photographs of graphic sex—leather, chains, sprawled limbs—with SEX embossed on the silver-metal cover.

The rare-book collection is home to more than 800,000 volumes. It contains the personal libraries of Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson, and first editions of contemporary "authors" such as Andy Warhol and Madonna. It is also home to the remnants of the private library of Adolf Hitler, a man better known for burning books than for collecting them.

The books that constitute the Hitler Library were discovered in a salt mine near Berchtesgaden—haphazardly stashed in schnapps crates with the Reich Chancellery address on them—by soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division in the spring of 1945. After a lengthy initial evaluation at the U.S. military "collecting point" in Munich the books, numbering 3,000, were shipped to the United States and transferred in January of 1952 to the Library of Congress, where an intern was assigned to uncrate the collection. "The intern did what we call ‘duping out,’" says David Moore, a German-acquisition assistant at the Library of Congress. "If a book was not one hundred percent sure, if there was no bookplate, no inscription to the Führer, he didn’t keep it." According to Moore, duplicate copies were sent to the exchange-and-gift division and then either went to other libraries or found their way onto the open market; the non-duplicate books that could not be fully authenticated were absorbed into the Library of Congress’s general collection.

The 1,200 volumes that survived the "duping out" joined the rare-book collection on the third floor of the Jefferson Building, where they were unceremoniously identified by a large cardboard sign—dangling on a string from a ceiling pipe—that read, "Hitler Library. This bay only. Please replace books to proper location."

The sign has since been removed, the books relocated several times, and the collection euphemistically renamed the Third Reich Collection. The books can be ordered, five at a time, from the main desk in the rare-book reading room. When I first visited the collection, in April of 2001, fewer than half of the 1,200 books had Library of Congress numbers, and only 200 of those were listed in the online catalogue; the remaining thousand titles were listed alphabetically by author on yellowing cards in an old-fashioned wooden card catalogue, many still identified by the provisional numbers assigned them in the early 1950s. Jerry Wager, the head of the rare-book reading room, told me at the time, "Processing this collection has not been a high priority for us"; he also said that the books had been relocated yet again in recent months. "We routinely move collections to make better use of existing space and to accommodate new acquisitions," he said. A genteel man in his mid-fifties with a flawlessly manicured white beard, Wager is a master of discretion. When I asked about the Hitler collection’s new location, he replied, "For security reasons we don’t reveal where collections are located in the vault." He is equally circumspect about scholars who have previously studied the collection, simply noting that the books are requested only a few times each year and generally by people looking for specific volumes rather than for an opportunity to study the collection as a whole.

Why, with hundreds of Hitler biographies, had not more scholars visited the Third Reich Collection? It is referenced by none of the leading Hitler biographers—not Alan Bullock, not John Toland, not Joachim Fest. Ian Kershaw, whose recent two-volume Hitler biography has won international acclaim, told me in the summer of 2001 that he visited the collection once, in the early 1990s, but "decided against any consultation of the volumes in it, and in the event did not refer directly, so far as I recall, to the collection in my biography." In retrospect, Kershaw concedes, he should probably have at least mentioned the collection in a footnote.

Scholarly neglect of the Hitler Library derives in good part from an early misperception that its historical or biographical importance was limited. "Spotchecks revealed little in the way of marginal notes, autographs, or other similar features of interest," an internal Library of Congress review determined in January of 1952. "Indeed, it seems that most of the books have never been perused by their owner." Gerhard Weinberg, a leading authority on the Nazi era and one of the first scholars to explore the collection, confirms this initial assessment. "I was a newly minted Ph.D., and this was my first job beyond graduate school," Weinberg told me not long ago. "I was compiling information for the Guide to Captured German War Documents. The books had only recently been uncrated, and I was intrigued by what I would find there." To Weinberg’s disappointment, the Hitler Library appeared to consist mostly of presentation copies from authors or publishers. "There were few clues that many of these books had been part of his personal library, and even less evidence that he had read any of them," Weinberg says.

In 2000 Philipp Gassert and Daniel Mattern reached a similar conclusion. Beginning in 1995 Gassert, an assistant professor of history at the University of Heidelberg, and Mattern, the senior editor at the German Historical Institute, in Washington, D.C., systematically reviewed every volume in the collection. In the spring of 2001 Greenwood Press published the results of their research, The Hitler Library, a 550-page bibliography that lists each book alphabetically, with its author, page count, and call number. Also included are transcriptions of all handwritten dedications, some brief descriptions of marginalia, and an indication of which books contain the Führer’s bookplate—an eagle, a swastika, and oak branches between the words EX LIBRIS and ADOLF HITLER.

The Hitler Library provides the first comprehensive road map through the collection, but at times it leads readers astray.

Most significant is overlooked marginalia. In one reference Mattern and Gassert note correctly that the Hitler Library contains two identical copies of Paul de Lagarde’s German Essays, but they don’t mention marginalia, despite the fact that in one volume fifty-eight pages have penciled intrusions—the first on page 16, the last on page 370. Given that Lagarde belongs to a circle of nineteenth-century German nationalist writers who are believed to have had a formative influence on Hitler’s anti-Semitism, the marked passages are certainly worth noting. In an essay called "The Current Tasks of German Politics," Lagarde anticipates the emergence of a "singular man with the abilities and energy" to unite the German peoples, and calls for the "relocation of the Polish and Austrian Jews to Palestine." This latter phrase has been underlined and flagged with two bold strikes in the margin.

Sometimes writing along the side of a page is recognizably in Hitler’s jagged cursive hand. For the most part, though, the marginalia are restricted to simple markings whose common "authorship" is suggested by an intense vertical line in the margin and double or triple underlining in the text, always in pencil; I found such markings repeatedly both in the Library of Congress collection and in a cache of eighty Hitler books at Brown University. Hitler’s handwritten speeches, preserved in the Federal German Archives, show an identical pattern of markings. In one anti-Semitic rant Hitler drew three lines under the words Klassenkampf ("class struggle"), Weltherrschaft ("world domination"), and Der Jude als Diktator ("the Jew as dictator"); one can almost hear his fevered tones.

Hitler’s habit of highlighting key concepts and passages is consonant with his theory on the "art of reading." In Chapter Two of Mein Kampf he observed,

A man who possesses the art of correct reading will, in studying any book, magazine, or pamphlet, instinctively and immediately perceive everything which in his opinion is worth permanently remembering, either because it is suited to his purpose or generally worth knowing … Then, if life suddenly sets some question before us for examination or answer, the memory, if this method of reading is observed … will derive all the individual items regarding these questions, assembled in the course of decades, [and] submit them to the mind for examination and reconsideration, until the question is clarified or answered.

In these marginalia one sees a man (who famously seemed never to listen to anyone, for whom "conversation" was little more than a torrent of monologues) reading passages, reflecting on them, and responding with penciled dashes, dots, question marks, exclamation points, and underscorings—intellectual footprints across the page. Here is one of history’s most complex figures reduced merely to a reader with a book and a pencil.

"Books, books, always books!" August Kubizek once wrote. "I just can’t imagine Adolf without books. He had them piled up around him at home. He always had a book with him wherever he went." Kubizek, Hitler’s only real friend in his teenage years, recalled after the war that Hitler had been registered with three libraries in Linz, where he attended school, and had passed endless days in the baroque splendor of the Hofbibliothek, the former court library of the Hapsburgs, during his time in Vienna. "Bücher waren seine Welt," Kubizek wrote. "Books were his world."

Though Kubizek’s reminiscences, first published in the 1950s, are in many ways suspect, his depiction of the future Führer as a bibliophile has been amply corroborated. One of Hitler’s first cousins, Johann Schmidt, recounted for a Nazi Party history of the Führer that when Hitler spent summers with relatives in the tiny Waldviertel hamlet of Spital, he invariably arrived with "lots of books in which he was constantly busy reading and working." Hans Frank, Hitler’s personal lawyer and the "governor" of Nazi-occupied Poland, recalled before his 1946 execution at Nuremberg that Hitler carried a copy of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation with him throughout World War I. During his incarceration after the failed 1923 Munich putsch, Hitler was regularly supplied with reading materials by friends and associates. He once referred to his time in Landsberg Prison as his "university paid for by the state." During a bout of prison blues in December of 1924 he received a package from Winifred Wagner, the daughter-in-law of the composer Richard Wagner and one of the few people who addressed Hitler with the familiar du. It contained a book of Goethe’s poetry from the Wagner family library. The 358-page volume, now at the Library of Congress, contains meditative classics such as "Across All Peaks" and "Evening Song," accompanied by handsome full-page pen-and-ink drawings. The inside cover bears a handwritten inscription: "Adolf Hitler, this picture book taken from the book garden of Eva Chamberlain, for your enjoyment in serious lonely hours! Bayreuth, Christmas 1924."

Books seem to have been the gift of choice for Hitler on virtually every occasion. The Hitler Library contains scores of books bearing inscriptions for Christmas, his birthday, and other festive occasions. A book titled Death and Immortality in the World View of Indo-Germanic Thinkers is inscribed for Hitler by the SS chief Heinrich Himmler on the occasion of "Julfest 1938"—Nazi circumlocution for Christmas. I also discovered books from the controversial filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl—two on the Berlin Olympics and an eight-volume set of the complete works of the nineteenth-century German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte in a rare first edition. Given that Hitler had charged Riefenstahl with filming the Olympic Games, the presence of the first two volumes was understandable; the Fichte was more puzzling.

When I called on Riefenstahl, who lives outside Munich and had just marked her hundredth birthday, she referred me to her published memoirs, in which she devotes a chapter to the Fichte volumes. According to that account, in the spring of 1933 the thirty-year-old filmmaker approached Hitler about the plight of several Jewish friends. "I have great esteem for you as an artist, you have a rare talent," Hitler replied, according to Riefenstahl. "But I cannot discuss the Jewish problem with you." Mortified by his rebuke (Riefenstahl says she felt herself go faint), she later sought to make amends by sending Hitler the Fichte. Bound in white leather with gold embossing, the books bear the inscription "Meinem lieben Führer in tiefster Verehrung [‘To my dear Führer with deepest admiration’], Leni Riefenstahl."

Fed by gifts and his own acquisitions, Hitler’s library swelled dramatically in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In his 1925 tax declaration Hitler listed his total personal assets at a paltry 1,000 marks, and claimed "no property" other than "a writing table and two bookcases with books." By 1930, however, as sales of Mein Kampf bolstered his income, book buying represented his third largest tax deduction (after general travel and transportation): 1,692 marks in 1930, with similar deductions in the two years following. More telling still is the five-year insurance policy Hitler took out in October of 1934, with the Gladbacher Fire Insurance Company, on his six-room apartment on the Prinzregentenplatz, in downtown Munich. In the letter of agreement accompanying the policy Hitler valued his book collection, said to consist of 6,000 volumes, at 150,000 marks—half the value of the entire policy. The other half represented his art holdings.

By the late 1930s Hitler had three separate libraries for his ever-expanding collection. At his apartment he removed a wall between two rooms and installed bookshelves. For the Berghof, his Alpine retreat near Berchtesgaden, Hitler built a second-floor study with handmade bookcases; color photographs of the finished space show an elegant setting with Oriental carpets, two globes, and bookcases fitted with glass doors and brass locks. Herbert Döhring, who managed the Berghof from 1936 to 1943, told me that the library could accommodate no more than 500 or 600 volumes. "He reserved this space for the books he really cared about," says Döhring, who helped Hitler to sort the books. "He used to have me send the rest to a storage facility in Munich or to the new Reich Chancellery in Berlin." For his official Berlin residence Hitler had his architect, Albert Speer, design a vast library that occupied the entire west wing. "Inventory records of the Reich Chancellery that we found at the Hoover Institution at Stanford suggest that by the early 1940s Hitler was receiving as many as four thousand books annually," Daniel Mattern told me. In Munich, Gassert and Mattern also discovered architectural sketches for a library annex to the Berghof that was intended to accommodate more than 60,000 volumes. "This was a man with a lot of books," Mattern says.

Unfortunately, Hitler never inventoried his books, and the only detailed accounting of his libraries comes courtesy of the former United Press correspondent Frederick Oechsner, who met Hitler repeatedly and was evidently able to acquaint himself intimately with the Führer’s book collections. "I found that his personal library, which is divided between his residence in the Chancellery in Berlin and his country home on the Obersalzberg at Berchtesgaden, contains roughly 16,300 books," Oechsner wrote in his best-selling book This Is the Enemy (1942).

According to Oechsner, the biggest single share of Hitler’s library, some 7,000 books, was devoted to military matters, in particular "the campaigns of Napoleon, the Prussian kings; the lives of all German and Prussian potentates who ever played a military role; and books on virtually all the well-known military campaigns in recorded history." Another 1,500 volumes concerned architecture, theater, painting, and sculpture. "One book on the Spanish theater has pornographic drawings and photographs, but there is no section on pornography, as such, in Hitler’s Library," Oechsner wrote. The balance of the collection consisted of clusters of books on diverse themes ranging from nutrition and health to religion and geography, with "eight hundred to a thousand books" of "simple, popular fiction, many of them pure trash in anybody’s language."

By his own admission, Hitler was not a big fan of novels, though he once ranked Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Don Quixote (he had a special affection for the edition illustrated by Gustave Doré) among the world’s greatest works of literature. The one novelist we know Hitler loved and read was Karl May, a German writer of cheap American-style westerns. In the spring of 1933, just months after the Nazis seized power, Oskar Achenbach, a Munich-based journalist, toured the Berghof—in the Führer’s absence—and discovered a shelf of Karl May novels at Hitler’s bedside. "The bedroom of the Führer is of spartan simplicity," Achenbach reported in the Sonntag Morgenpost. "Brass bed, closet, toiletries, a few chairs, those are all the furnishings. On a bookshelf are works on politics and diplomacy, a few brochures and books on the care of German shepherds, and then—pay attention you German boys! Then comes an entire row of books by—Karl May! Winnetou, Old Surehand, Bad Guy, all our dear old friends." During the war Hitler reportedly admonished his generals for their lack of imagination and recommended that they all read Karl May. Albert Speer recounted in his Spandau diaries,

Hitler was wont to say that he had always been deeply impressed by the tactical finesse and circumspection that Karl May conferred upon his character Winnetou … And he would add that during his reading hours at night, when faced by seemingly hopeless situations, he would still reach for those stories, that they gave him courage like works of philosophy for others or the Bible for elderly people.

No one knows the exact extent of Hitler’s library. Though Oechsner estimated the original collection at 16,000 volumes, Gassert and Mattern assert that it is impossible to determine the actual dimensions, especially since the majority of the books were either burned or plundered in the final weeks of the war—an assumption confirmed in part by Florian Beierl, the head of the Archive for the Contemporary History of the Obersalzberg, in Berchtesgaden. According to Beierl, Hitler’s Berghof experienced successive waves of looters: first local residents, then French and American soldiers, and eventually members of the U.S. Senate. Beierl showed me archival film footage (taken by the legendary World War II photographer Walter Rosenblum) of a delegation of American senators—Burton Wheeler, Homer Capehart, and Ernest McFarland—emerging from the Berghof ruins with books under their arms. "I doubt if they were taking them to the Library of Congress," Beierl said.

I have also been told that a portion of the Hitler Library may have been seized by the Red Army. "Stalin was so paranoid about Hitler that he sent trophy brigades to search for anything connected with him," says Konstantin Akinsha, a former researcher for the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. "His skull, his uniforms, Eva Braun’s dresses, her underwear—they are all in Moscow." Akinsha told me recently that in the early 1990s he heard rumors about a depository in an abandoned church in Uzkoe, a suburb of Moscow, which allegedly contained a huge quantity of "trophy books," including some that had belonged to Hitler.

Grigory Kozlov, another "trophy" sleuth, confirms that a "secret depository" did indeed exist in Uzkoe for more than four decades, with tens of thousands of books stacked from floor to ceiling. "At the beginning of 1995 there was a big discussion about trophy books," Kozlov told me. "They decided to remove these books from Uzkoe and destroy all traces that showed there had been some sort of secret depository there." Now, he says, the books have been dispersed anonymously in libraries and archives across Russia. "I don’t know what’s true or not," Kozlov told me. "Books were evacuated without records, confiscated without records. I don’t know if anyone is ready to talk."

The 1,200 of Hitler’s books in the Library of Congress most likely represent less than 10 percent of the original collection. Nevertheless, when I first visited the Hitler Library, in April of 2001, I was surprised to discover that despite the incompleteness of the collection, I could easily discern the collector preserved within his books. In more than 200 World War I memoirs, including Ernst Jünger’s Fire and Blood, with a personal inscription to "the Führer," I encountered Hitler the "Austrian corporal," with his bushy moustache, his somber demeanor, and his battlefield service, during which he was twice wounded and for which he was twice decorated, once with the Iron Cross first class.

In two olive-drab paperbacks, guidebooks to the cultural monuments of Brussels and Berlin, published by Seemann Verlag and costing three marks each, I glimpsed Hitler the aspiring Frontsoldat-cum-artist. The Berlin guide has Hitler’s signature in faded purple ink on the inside front cover, with the place and month of purchase: "Fournes, 22 November 1915." In the Brussels guide Hitler simply scrawled "A. Hitler" in pencil; the last three letters trail downward like unspooling ribbon. A chapter on Frederick the Great is especially worn, its pages tattered, marked with fingerprints, and smeared with red candle wax. Tucked in the crease between pages 162 and 163 I found a three-quarter-inch strand of stiff black hair.

In dozens of books, with salutations from the likes of Prince August Wilhelm—son of the last German Kaiser—and the heirs of the Bechstein piano dynasty, I saw Hitler the protégé of Germany’s financial, social, and cultural elite. One book on Führertum—"leadership"—was presented to Hitler by the industrialist Fritz Thyssen, who had introduced him to some of Germany’s leading businessmen at a decisive meeting in Düsseldorf in January of 1932. "To the Führer, Adolf Hitler, in memory of his presentation to the Düsseldorf Industrial Club," Thyssen wrote on the inside cover. Several books are inscribed to Hitler from Richard Wagner’s youngest daughter, Eva, who had married Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Chamberlain was an anti-Semitic Englishman best known for his book The Foundations of the 19th Century, in which he advanced the thesis that Jesus was of Aryan rather than Semitic blood. Hitler read Chamberlain during his Vienna period, and had a brief audience with the aging anti-Semite at the Wagner estate shortly before being sent to Landsberg Prison. "You know Goethe’s differentiation between force and force," Chamberlain wrote Hitler in October of 1923. "There is force which comes from chaos and leads to chaos, and there is force which is destined to create a new world." Chamberlain credited Hitler with the latter.

In a French vegetarian cookbook with an inscription from its author, Maïa Charpentier, I encountered Monsieur Hitler végétarien. And I found hints of Hitler the future mass murderer in a 1932 technical treatise on chemical warfare that explores the varying qualities of poison gas, from chlorine to prussic acid (Blausäure). The latter was produced commercially as Zyklon B, which would be notorious for its use in the Nazi extermination camps.

I also found, however, a Hitler I had not anticipated: a man with a sustained interest in spirituality. Among the piles of Nazi tripe (much of it printed on high-acid paper that is rapidly deteriorating) are more than 130 books on religious and spiritual subjects, ranging from Occidental occultism to Eastern mysticism to the teachings of Jesus Christ—books with titles such as Sunday Meditations; On Prayer; A Primer for Religious Questions, Large and Small; Large Truths About Mankind, the World and God. Also included were a German translation of E. Stanley Jones’s 1931 best seller, The Christ of the Mount; and a 500-page work on the life and teachings of Jesus, published in 1935 under the title The Son: The Evangelical Sources and Pronouncements of Jesus of Nazareth in Their Original Form and With the Jewish Influences. Some volumes date from the early 1920s, when Hitler was an obscure rabble-rouser on the fringe of Munich political life; others from his last years, when he dominated Europe.

One leather-bound tome—with WORTE CHRISTI, or "Words of Christ," embossed in gold on the cover—was well worn, the silky, supple leather peeling upward in gentle curls along the edges. Human hands had obviously spent a lot of time with this book. The inside cover bore a dedication: "To our beloved Führer with gratitude and profound respect, Clara von Behl, born von Jansen von den Osten. Christmas 1935."

Worte Christi was so fragile that when the attendant brought it to me, he placed it on a red-velvet pad in a wooden reading stand, a beautifully finished oak contraption with two supports that could be adjusted with small brass pegs to fit the dimensions of the book. No more than a foot wide and eighteen inches long, the stand had a sacred air, as if it belonged on an altar.

I reviewed the table of contents—"Belief and Prayer," "God and the Kingdom of God," "Priests and Their Religious Practices," "The World and Its People"—and skimmed the introduction; then I scanned the book for marginalia that might suggest a close study of the text. A white-silk bookmark, preserved in its original perfection between pages 22 and 23 (only the portion exposed to the air had deteriorated), lay across a description of the Last Supper as related by Saint John. A series of pages that followed contained only a single aphorism each: "Believe in God" (page 31), "Have no fear, just believe" (page 52), "If you believe, anything is possible" (page 53), and so on, all the way to page 95, which offers the solemn wisdom "Many are called but few are chosen."

On page 241 appears the passage "You should love God, your Lord, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your spirit: this is the foremost and greatest commandment. Another is equally important: Love your neighbor as you would love yourself." Beside this passage is one brief penciled line, the only mark in the entire book.

Given Hitler’s legendary disdain for organized religion in general and Christianity in particular, I didn’t expect him to have devoted much time to the teachings of Christ, let alone to have marked this quintessential Christian virtue. Had this in fact been made by the pencil of Hitler’s younger sister, Paula, who occasionally visited her brother at the Berghof and remained a devout Catholic until her dying day? Might some other Berghof guest have responded to this holy Scripture?

Possibly—but though most of the spiritually oriented books in the Hitler Library were gifts sent to the Führer by distant admirers, several, like Worte Christi, were obviously well read, and some contained marginalia in Hitler’s hand that suggested a serious exploration of spiritual matters. If Hitler was as deeply engaged with spiritual issues as his books and their marginalia suggest, then what was the purpose of this pursuit?

In the spring of 1943, while the outcome of World War II hung in the balance, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services—forerunner to the CIA—commissioned Walter Langer, a Boston-based psychoanalyst, to develop a "psychological profile" of Adolf Hitler. As Langer later recalled, this was the first time the U.S. government had attempted to psychoanalyze a world leader in order to determine "the things that make him tick."

Over the course of eight months, assisted by three field researchers and advised by three other experts in psychology, Langer compiled more than a thousand typewritten, single-spaced pages of material on his "patient": texts from speeches, excerpts from Mein Kampf, interviews with former Hitler associates, and virtually every printed source available. Langer wrote,

A survey of all the evidence forces us to conclude that Hitler believes himself destined to become an Immortal Hitler, chosen by God to be the New Deliverer of Germany and the Founder of a new social order for the world. He firmly believes this and is certain that in spite of all the trials and tribulations through which he must pass he will finally attain that goal. The one condition is that he follow the dictates of the inner voice that have guided and protected him in the past.

In his summary Langer outlined eight possible scenarios for Hitler’s course of action in the face of defeat. The most likely scenario, he suggested in a prescient moment, was that Hitler’s belief in divine protection would compel him to fight to the bitter end, "drag[ging] a world with us—a world in flames," and that ultimately he would take his own life.

Langer based his assessment not only on Hitler’s repeated references to "divine providence," both in speeches and in private conversations, but also on reports from some of Hitler’s most intimate associates that Hitler truly believed he was "predestined" for greatness and inspired by "divine powers." After the war Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, one of Hitler’s chief military advisers, seemed to confirm the Langer thesis. "Looking back," he said, "I am inclined to think he was literally obsessed with the idea of some miraculous salvation, that he clung to it like a drowning man to a straw."

Experts since then have been of two minds on the matter of Hitler’s spiritual beliefs. Ian Kershaw argues that Hitler consciously constructed an image of himself as a messianic figure, and eventually came to believe the very myth he had helped to fashion. "The more he succumbed to the allure of his own Führer cult and came to believe in his own myth, the more his judgment became impaired by faith in his own infallibility," Kershaw writes in The Hitler Myth (1987). But believing in a messianic myth is not the same as believing in God. When I asked Kershaw in 2001 whether he thought Hitler actually believed in divine providence, he dismissed the notion. "I don’t think that he had any real belief in a deity of any sort, only in himself as a ‘man of destiny’ who would bring about Germany’s ‘salvation,’" he declared. Gerhard Weinberg, who helped sort through the Hitler Library back in the 1950s, likewise dismisses the notion of Hitler as a religious believer, insisting that he was driven by the twin passions of Blut und Boden—racial purity and territorial expansion. "He didn’t believe in anything but himself," Weinberg told me last summer. Most historians tend to agree.

Some non-historians, however, have different views. In the 1960s Friedrich Heer, a prominent and controversial Viennese theologian identified Hitler as a misguided "Austrian Catholic," a man whose faith was disastrously misplaced but nevertheless sincere. In a dense, 750-page treatise Heer saw Hitler the Austrian Catholic at every turn: the nine-year-old choirboy catching his first glimpse of a swastika in the coat of arms at the Lambach Monastery; the beer-hall orator whose speeches resound with biblical allusions; the Führer of the Reich who re-created the splendor of the Catholic mass at the annual Nuremberg rally. Even his virulent hatred of Jewry found sustenance in those roots. Fritz Redlich, an eminent Yale psychiatrist, asserts in his book, Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet, which Hitler acted from a profound belief in God. Noting Hitler’s own words "Man kommt um den Gottesbegriff nicht um" ("You cannot get around the concept of God"), Redlich told me last summer that he was certain Hitler believed in a "divine creature." He rejected suggestions that Hitler’s invocations of the divine were little more than cynical public posturing and insisted that we ought to take Hitler at his word: "In a way, Hitler was a terrible liar, but he was a tactical liar. In his essential line of thinking he was honest."

Traudl Junge, Hitler’s former secretary, would not go so far as to say that Hitler believed in God, but she did believe that Hitler’s repeated references to the divine were more than just for show. Junge—who died of cancer in February of last year—told me the previous summer that Hitler spoke of such things in private as well as in public. After two and a half years of daily contact with Hitler, she was convinced that he believed in some form of divine protection, especially after surviving a dramatic assassination attempt in 1944. "After the July 1944 attack," she told me, "I believe he felt himself to be an instrument of providence, and believed he had a mission to fulfill."

In my hands I hold a book about Nostradamus, the sixteenth-century French mystic whose predictions of epic calamities have fascinated generations, and whose stanza "From poor people a child will be born/ who with his tongue will seduce many people" has been interpreted as prophesying the rise of Adolf Hitler. Printed on high-acid paper, this volume, with its 137 brittle, crumbling pages, bears a publication date of 1921 but feels centuries older. The book promises to "decipher and reveal for the first time the prophesies on the future of Europe and the rise and fall of France from 1555 to 2200." Its final pages offer additional mystical edification in a series of advertisements for related texts: Memoirs of a Spiritualist, The Wandering Soul, How Can I Protect Myself From Suggestion and Hypnosis?, Soul and Cosmos, The Realm of the Invisible, and Human Destiny and the Course of the Stars. Pasted inside this moldering volume is one of Adolf Hitler’s bookplates.

The Predictions of Nostradamus belongs to a cache of occult books that Hitler acquired in the early 1920s and that were discovered in the private quarters of his Berlin bunker by Colonel Albert Aronson in May of 1945. As part of the Allied occupation forces, Aronson was among the first Americans to enter Berlin after the collapse of the Nazi resistance. "When my uncle arrived, the Russians took him on a tour of Hitler’s bunker," one of Aronson’s nephews recalls. "He said that the Russians had pretty much picked the place clean, but there were some pictures and a pile of books they let him take." According to the nephew, the books remained in Aronson’s attic until his death, at which point they were bequeathed to his nephew, who donated them to Brown University in 1979.

Today the eighty volumes are housed in the basement vault of Brown’s rare-book collection at the John Hay Library, where they share shelf space with Walt Whitman’s personal copy of a first edition of Leaves of Grass and John James Audubon’s original folios of Birds of America. According to Samuel Streit, the associate librarian for special collections, the Hitler books have attracted virtually no attention from scholars. Streit himself has examined the collection only once, and his most vivid recollection was the Hitler bookplate. "I know this sounds strange," says Streit, an amiable man in his mid-fifties, "but from the standpoint of bookplate design, it is quite tastefully done."

Like the Library of Congress collection, Brown’s eighty Hitler books constitute a hodgepodge: picture books, art journals, and an Italian libretto of Wagner’s Walküre, a 1937 edition of Mein Kampf, and two editions of Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century. The more than a dozen books on the occult include several devoted to Nordic runes, among them a 1922 history of the swastika, richly illustrated with nearly 500 diverse renderings—in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Greek pottery, Mayan temples, and Christian crosses. The Dead Are Alive delivers "incontrovertible evidence on occultism, somnambulism, spiritualism, with sixteen photographs of ghosts." Among the photographic images that fill the final pages of the volume is one of five people levitating a table at an 1892 séance in Genoa and another allegedly showing the ghost of a fifteen-year-old Polish girl, Stasia, being consumed by a "luminous, misty substance." A picture of a rather stately-looking Englishman is captioned "The Phantom of the English writer Charles Dickens who died in 1871 and is buried in Westminster Abbey. He appeared in 1873 and was photographed."

The canon of Hitler historiography declares that Hitler flirted with occultism in the early 1920s, and that he recruited some of his closest ideological lieutenants—Rudolf Hess, Martin Bormann, Alfred Rosenberg, and Heinrich Himmler—from the Thule Society and similar Nordic cults. "When I first knew Adolf Hitler in Munich, in 1921 and 1922, he was in touch with a circle that believed firmly in the portents of the stars," Karl Wiegand, a former Hitler associate, recalled in an article for Cosmopolitan in 1939.

"There was much whispering about the coming of ‘another Charlemagne and a new Reich.’ How far Hitler believed in these astrological forecasts and prophesies in those days I never could get out of the Führer. He neither denied nor affirmed belief. He was not averse, however, to making use of the forecasts to advance popular faith in himself and his then young and struggling movement."

Most scholars dismiss the notion that Hitler seriously entertained the ideas of these cults, but the marginalia in several of his books confirm at least an intellectual engagement in the substance of Weimar-era occultism. The Brown collection contains books by such figures as Adamant Rohm, a "magnetopathic doctor" from Wiesbaden; Carl Ludwig Schleich, a Berlin physician who pioneered the use of local anesthesia; and Joseph Anton Schneiderfranken, who wrote numerous books on reincarnation and otherworldly phenomena under the pseudonym Bô Yin Râ.

One of the most heavily marked books is Magic: History, Theory and Practice (1923), by Ernst Schertel. When I typed the author’s name into one Internet search engine, I scored eight hits, including sites on Satanism, eroticism, sadomasochism, and flagellation. When I typed his name into Google, I scored twenty-six hits, including sites on parapsychology, astrology, and diverse sexual practices. According to a Web site for Germany’s sadomasochistic community, Schertel wrote numerous books on flagellation and eroticism, and was "a central figure" in the German nudist movement of the 1920s and 1930s.

Hitler’s copy of Magic bears a handwritten dedication from Schertel, scrawled on the title page in pencil. A 170-page softcover in large format, the book has been thoroughly read, and its margins scored repeatedly. I found a particularly thick pencil line beside the passage "He who does not carry demonic seeds within him will never give birth to a new world."

One of the oldest volumes of literature still in the Hitler Library is a 1917 German edition of Peer Gynt, Henrik Ibsen’s epic of a "Nordic Faust" who cuts a swath of human suffering—betraying friends, abandoning women, trading in slaves, and committing cold-blooded murder—on his way to becoming "emperor of the whole world." When challenged to account for his sundry trespasses, Gynt declares that he would rather burn in hell for excessive sins than simmer in obscurity with the rest of humanity. Edvard Grieg set this cruel play to beautiful music. Hitler’s copy of Peer Gynt—handsomely illustrated by Otto Sager—bears a simple inscription by its German translator: "Intended for his dear friend Adolf Hitler. Dietrich Eckart. Munich, October 22, 1921."

Few people could call Hitler "Freund," and fewer still "lieber Freund." For Hitler, Eckart was both friend and family, a mentor and a father figure. When the two men first met, late in 1919, Hitler was a thirty-year-old political upstart a little more than a year out of the trenches, without a penny to his name. Eckart was a fifty-one-year-old playwright with a runaway hit (his adaptation of Peer Gynt), a paintbrush moustache, a morphine addiction, and a legendary hatred of Jews; one Munich newspaper described him as a "raging anti-Semite" who would "ideally like to consume a half dozen Jews daily with his sauerkraut." After working with Hitler at an early Nazi Party event, Eckart began grooming him for political life. He bought Hitler his first trench coat, gave him instruction in public speaking, and introduced him to members of Munich society, often with the icebreaker "This is the man who will one day liberate Germany." Hitler once called Eckart the "polar star" of the Nazi movement, and dedicated the first volume of Mein Kampf to him. "Follow Hitler!" Eckart allegedly exhorted on his deathbed, in 1923. "He will dance, but the music to which he dances was composed by me."

For all the vitriol Hitler spewed upon Judaism, he came to hold Christianity in equal disdain. "Christianity is the worst thing that ever happened to mankind," he declared during an after-dinner rant in July of 1941. "Bolshevism is the illegitimate child of Christianity. Both are an outgrowth of the Jew."

Hitler was the classic apostate. He rebelled against the established theology in which he was born and bred, all the while seeking to fill the resulting spiritual void. As the Hitler Library suggests, he found no shortage of latter-day prophets peddling alternative theologies. Mathilde von Kemnitz, the wife of Erich Ludendorff, the venerated World War I general who joined Hitler in the Munich putsch, promoted a neo-Teutonic pagan cult that called for the destruction of churches and the creation of forest temples and places of sacrifice. A 1922 volume of her writings, Triumph of the Will to Immortality, bears a bizarre and cryptic inscription to Hitler.

Now don’t forget you young, blessed soul,
If you never leave the afterlife
You will thus be a perfect God
For as long as you live.

Hitler tolerated Kemnitz’s neo-pagan looniness until Ludendorff’s death, in December of 1937. In the autumn of 1939 the Nazi government, invoking wartime rationing, terminated paper supplies for Kemnitz’s publication At the Holy Well (Am Heiligen Quell), effectively silencing her movement. Kemnitz, who survived the war, never forgave Hitler the betrayal.

Guida Diehl, a prolific Weimar writer who fancied herself the "female Führer," showered Hitler with titles, including Burn! Holy Flame! and The Will of the German Woman. In a handbook on how to conduct a German Christmas in "times of need and struggle," Diehl wrote to Hitler, "We struggle for the German soul, which fashioned the German Christmas from Christ himself! Sieg heil!" There is no indication that Hitler ever opened, let alone read, any of Diehl’s books.

Unquestionably the most significant unread volume in the Hitler collection is a 1940 edition of Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century, the Nazi classic that, with more than a million copies in print at the time, was second only to Mein Kampf for the Nazi movement. In the course of its 800 pages Rosenberg delivered the theological framework for a National German Church intended to subsume "the best of the protestant and catholic churches" and eliminate the "Jew-infested Old Testament." Denouncing the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as a "counterfeit of the great image of Christ," Rosenberg envisioned a "fifth gospel" depicting Jesus as an Aryan superman—"The powerful preacher and the raging prophet in the temple, the man who inspired, and whom everyone followed, not the sacrificial lamb of the Jewish prophets, not the man on the cross."

This particular edition of Rosenberg’s legendary anti-Semitic screed has a handsome dark-blue linen cover and contains a full-page black-and-white photograph of Rosenberg standing before a shelf of leather-bound books. Dressed in a three-piece suit, he looks more like a Boston banker than the ideological fanatic who wrote some of the most offensive and impenetrable prose of the Nazi era before being hanged in Nuremberg in 1946. The book bears the Hitler bookplate but is in mint condition; the binding cracked when I opened the cover.

Despite Rosenberg’s repeated attempts to establish his Myth as official party doctrine, Hitler insisted that the book was a "private publication" that represented Rosenberg’s personal opinions. In conversations Hitler admitted that he had read only "small portions" of it and described it as unreadable. Joseph Goebbels concurred, calling The Myth an "intellectual belch."

Hitler’s selective reading—or nonreading—of the pseudo-theological texts in his library makes those books he did read, and especially those in which he left marginalia, all the more significant. Here is where the Hitler Library is most useful. In the Fichte volumes given to him by Riefenstahl, I encountered a veritable blizzard of underlines, question marks, exclamation points, and marginal strikes that sweeps across a hundred printed pages of dense theological prose. Where Fichte peeled away the spiritual trappings of the Holy Trinity, positing the Father as "a natural universal force," the Son as the "physical embodiment of this force," and the Holy Ghost as an expression of the "light of reason," Hitler not only underlined the entire passage but placed a thick vertical line in the margin, and added an exclamation point for good measure.

As I traced the penciled notations, I realized that Hitler was seeking a path to the divine that led to just one place. Fichte asked, "Where did Jesus derive the power that has held his followers for all eternity?" Hitler drew a dense line beneath the answer: "Through his absolute identification with God." At another point Hitler highlighted a brief but revealing paragraph: "God and I are One. Expressed simply in two identical sentences—His life is mine; my life is his. My work is his work, and his work my work."

Among the numerous volumes dealing with the spiritual, the mystical, and the occult I found a typewritten manuscript that could well have served as a blueprint for Hitler’s theology. This bound 230-page treatise is titled The Law of the World: The Coming Religion and was written by a Munich resident named Maximilian Riedel. During the first week of August 1939 the manuscript was hand-delivered to Anni Winter, Hitler’s longtime Munich housekeeper, with the request that it be passed to Hitler personally. An accompanying letter read,

Mein Führer!

Based on a new discovery I have been able to prove, with incontrovertible scientific evidence, the concept of the trinity of God as a natural law. One of the results of this discovery is, among other things, the seamless relationship between the terms: Truth-Law-Duty-Honor. In essence, the origins of all science, philosophy and religion. The significance of this discovery has led me to ask Frau Winter to hand to you personally the enclosed manuscript.

Heil mein Führer!
Max Riedel
Oberhachingerweg 1

Riedel made a smart tactical move in delivering his manuscript to Hitler’s Munich residence. Whereas at the Berghof, Hitler received hundreds of books, and at the Reich Chancellery all such correspondence went through secretaries’ hands, in Munich the only filter was Hitler’s housekeeper. Based on the marginalia, it seems that Hitler not only received the Riedel manuscript but also read it carefully with pencil in hand. Individual sentences and entire paragraphs are underlined, sometimes twice or even three times.

In this densely written treatise Riedel established the groundwork for his "new religion," replacing the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost with a new tripartite unity, the "Körper, Geist und Seele"—"body, mind, and soul." Riedel argued that traditionally mankind has recognized five senses, which relate only to the physical aspects of our existence, and that this hinders our ability to perceive the true nature of our relationship to God and the universe. He offered seven additional "senses" that every human being possesses, which are related to the subjective perception of the world; among them Riedel included our inherent sense of what is right and wrong, our emotional sense of another person, our sense of self-preservation. On a two-page centerfold he illustrated his theory with a circular diagram in which various concepts—"soul," "space," "reality," "present," "past," "possibility," "transformation," "culture," "afterlife," "humanity," "infinity"—are connected by a spider web of lines. "The body, mind and soul do not belong to the individual, they belong to the universe," the author explained.

Riedel’s "trinity" seems to have attracted Hitler’s particular attention. A dense penciled line parallels the following passage: "The problem with being objective is that we use objective criteria as the basis for human understanding in general, which means that the objective criteria, that is, the rational criteria, end up serving as the basis for all human understanding, perception and decision-making." By using the five traditional senses to achieve this "objectivity," Riedel declared, human beings exclude the possibility of perceiving—through the additional seven senses he identified—the deeper forces of the world, and are thus unable to achieve that unity of body, mind, and soul. "The human mind never decides things on its own, it is the result of a discourse between the body and the soul," he claimed.

The sentence not only caught Hitler’s attention—beneath it is a thick line, and beside it in the margin are three parallel pencil marks—but was echoed two years later in one of his monologues. "Mind and soul ultimately return to the collective being of the world," Hitler told some guests in December of 1941. "If there is a God, then he gives us not only life but also consciousness and awareness. If I live my life according to my God-given insights, then I cannot go wrong, and even if I do, I know I have acted in good faith."

As I sat in the rarefied seclusion of the Jefferson Building’s second-floor reading room one day, listening to the muffled roar of traffic and the distant wail of police sirens in late-summer Washington, I attempted to comprehend the full significance of this sentence to which Hitler seems to have responded so emphatically. Back in 1943 Walter Langer had concluded—correctly, to my mind—that in order to understand Hitler one had to understand his profound belief in divine powers. But Hitler believed that the mortal and the divine were one and the same: that the God he was seeking was in fact himself.



Copyright © 2009 by the Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.

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