January 2009 | Nicholas Basbanes

Hitler's Library

A book I chose last month as one of my Nick's Picks for 2008, Timothy W. Ryback's Hitler's Library, finally got noticed a few days ago by the New York Times Book Review--long gone are the days when America's newspaper of record reviews newly issued books of importance in a timely fashion--and the piece, published some three months after the book's official release, has occasioned a sudden flurry of comment among members of the ex libris news and discusssion group, an online forum made up mostly of librarians, booksellers, collectors and other assorted book people, and an essential window, in my view, into what's going on in the book world.

Of initial interest to the contributors was surprise among so many of them not only that several thousand of Adolf Hitler's personal books had survived the destruction and looting of Berlin in the aftermath of World War II, but also that a good number of them are housed today in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Early into the thread, one contributor mentioned my book, A Gentle Madness, and the profile I wrote of Walter Pforzheimer, an extraordinary bookman and lifelong Central Intelligence Agency officer who died in 2003 at 88 (see New York Times obit, or far better yet, read my take on him in AGM, pp. 362-368.)

Pforzheimer's name came up in the ex libris thread by virtue of an admission he made to me in a 1990 interview I had with him concerning five books he said he had taken from HItler's Chancellery office in August 1945. He told me he gave one of the books to the Army officer who had cut his orders for the assignment to Berlin, donated another to the Grolier Club in New York, of which he was a grateful member, presented a third to his alma mater, Yale University, where several notable collections he built are now housed, and kept the remaining two for himself, one of which--Robert Allmers's Kampf Battle Um Thurant--he showed to me, and which I photographed. (My guess is that these two volumes from the shelves of Pforzheimer's remarkable Watergate apartment--the floors had been reinforced to his specifications with extra steel beams to support the heavy load of books--went to the Beinecke Library at Yale along with the 15,000-volume "spy" collection he gave to the university, arguably the best of its kind anywhere.)

Without getting too specific here--those who are interested in the various arguments being put forth should check them out on the ex libris site--I would like to address briefly a question that has been raised regarding the propriety of Pforzheimer having taken a few books from the chancellery, and his justification for doing so. I went back to the tape I made of the interview, and Pforzheimer is pretty clear in what he said to me. (As a condition of granting me the interview, I might add that he insisted on seeing what I wrote about him before publication, something I very rarely agree to do, but did so in this instance, given the highly sensitive nature of our discussion--and because I really wanted to talk to him about his collecting.)

Pforzheimer told me that each of the books he took were not works of any apparent rarity, that all bore the personal bookplate of Hitler, and that most contained a personal inscription to Hitler from the authors--meaning that they were not the property of the defeated (and by then defunct) Nazi government, but the private property of the deceased former dictator, a subtle yet significant point, I think, in this context. "I was in this fellow's office in Berlin, and a few of these things were lying around," Pforzheimer said, dead-pan. "I didn't think the Fuhrer was going to be needing them anymore," and so "I took five out with me." End of story.

As a coda to the story, I should note that none of these books were ever sold on the open market, and other than the volume that went to the officer who cut Pforzheimer's orders--of which we know nothing--it can safely be said that all are now in institutional collections. "I was acting instinctively," he explained, "that's all."