[4 March 2009]
In the TLS Ritchie Robertson reviews Timothy W. Ryback’s Hitler’s Private Library, whose subtitle promises “the books that shaped his life.” Not surprisingly, these turn out to be mainly anti-Semitic screeds and pseudoscientific works of racial typology. Robertson makes special note of his apparent disinterest in imaginative fiction:
The other striking absence is literature. According to Oechsner, Hitler owned all the Wild West adventure stories by Karl May, all the detective fiction of Edgar Wallace, and many love stories by Hedwig Courths-Mahler (a German Barbara Cartland), but nothing that could send the imagination along unfamiliar tracks. Hitler’s mental world seems to have had no place for imagination. Instead, he relied on a naive conception of science, on which he claimed that National Socialism was based.
This struck me as humanistic claptrap, the sort of conclusion tailor-made for literature professors who believe that teaching students to appreciate, say, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and the Brontë sisters will prevent them from becoming little Hitlers themselves. We mustn’t lack the imagination to bathe ourselves in the comfortable moral truths extracted from the Great Books by tweedy pedants. The insult that reading genre fiction somehow proves one’s lack of imagination is especially gallling, as though all those Harlequin romance readers running their minds along “familiar tracks” are implicitly emotional fascists. Apparently, we are to believe that there is a good kind of imaginative projection that involves novelty, linguistic games, and catering to the upper-middle class tastes, and a bad kind that sticks close-minded readers in a vicarious rut. Could there be a better put-down for someone else’s tastes than, “Oh, that’s the sort of thing Hitler liked”?
I don’t know. There’s a good chance you can read and enjoy Jane Austen, or Charles Dickens, or whichever author is nominated as a standard-bearer for the human spirit, and still be a fascist. The more important question is whether Hitler would have considered this literary book worth reading.