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Hitler in the Hay stacks

Shelved in the walk-in basement vault of the John Hay Library is a second-edition copy of "Mein Kampf." A yellowing bookplate on its inside cover features a menacing eagle with wings outstretched and a banner spread above its head reading "Ex Libris."

With its talons, the eagle clutches a branch and a circular medallion inscribed with a large swastika. Below the image, a harsh, angular font spells out the name of the book's owner: "Adolf Hitler."

Tour groups parading past the Hay are told of Abraham Lincoln's funereal flowers and the extensive toy soldier menagerie, but rarely is it mentioned that Brown possesses the nation's second-largest collection of books from Hitler's personal library.

The collection was a gift from the nephew of Colonel Albert Aronson, who arrived in Berlin in May of 1945, one of the first Americans to reach the German stronghold. Russian soldiers had already liberated the city and collected many of the Third Reich's possessions. Within the Fuhrerbunker - Hitler's last known hideout - Aronson found 80 assorted volumes remaining from Hitler's extensive book collection.

The colonel "liberated the books, so to speak," said Samuel Streit, director of special collections at the Hay, and brought them home to the United States with him.

For decades, the volumes lay in Aronson's attic. He died in the mid-1970s and bequeathed the collection to his nephew. A Brown alum who elected to remain anonymous in all library records, Aronson's nephew contacted the Hay. Joking that the titles were "not exactly coffee table books," according to Streit, Aronson's nephew acknowledged the historical value of his collection. But he was "understandably nervous," Streit said. "He wanted them to be used responsibly."

Placing his trust in the rare book specialists at the University, Aronson's nephew donated the collection to Brown in 1979. The 80 volumes were catalogued and shelved at the Hay, just like any other books. There was no press release about the new acquisition, "but it's not a secret that we have them," Streit said.

Even after three decades, the books have attracted little attention. One scholar, however, recently paid Streit and the collection a visit.

Timothy Ryback, a historian of the Holocaust and the deputy secretary general of the Academie Diplomatique Internationale in Paris, has studied Hitler's private collection extensively.

In his recent book, "Hitler's Private Library," Ryback analyzes the works Hitler owned, the frequent notations he made within them and what this information reveals about the Fuhrer himself. Hitler was known for his vast collection, which included nearly 16,000 volumes. The bulk of the collection found its way to Moscow after World War II and has since disappeared. The Third Reich Collection at the Library of Congress houses 1,200 of the surviving books, and others are scattered across the nation.

Ryback closely examined the "hodgepodge" collection, as he called it, at the Library of Congress before coming to the Hay. Within the 80 volumes, he uncovered picture books, art journals, political works and nearly a dozen volumes on the occult, a topic that fascinated Hitler.

Among the occult volumes at Brown is "Magic: History, Theory and Practice," written by Ernst Schertel in 1923. According to Streit, this is the only of Hitler's books requested "frequently." Scholars are interested in the volume itself, he said. The original owner adds "creepy association value."

The book - which, according to an article by Ryback, touches on "Satanism, eroticism, sadomasochism and flagellation" - bears a handwritten dedication to Hitler from the author. The book was evidently well-used: the edges of the pages are frayed, the spine is faded beyond legibility and the cover is tearing. Though there is no proof Hitler himself read the book, the margins are well marked. Perfectly straight red lines, about an inch from the text, denote the reader's favorite parts. Some chapters are left untouched, others are marked heavily. Ryback noted that one particularly highlighted section, with a wider line than other passages, reads in German: "He who does not carry demonic seeds within him will never give birth to a new world."

Streit said the library has been criticized for its collections, but he feels owning Hitler's books is "very important," because they document the "dark side" of history.

"If you don't preserve this kind of thing, where's the evidence that it happened?" he asked.

"Their significance lies in what they tell us about the kind of books Hitler owned," Streit explained. Hitler may or may not have read them; most of them he did not even buy for himself. But all of the volumes bear his signature bookplate and most have been marked. Ryback has analyzed the marginalia carefully, finding that Hitler annotated his books with fervor, underlining heavily the words he agreed with and leaving exclamation points to denote his enthusiasm.

Many of the books contain dated inscriptions from those who gave the books, creating a literary timeline: Brown's collection includes a well-worn copy of a Friedrich Nietzsche book, given to Hitler by a friend in December of 1933. Also among the books is a 1922 history of the swastika, filled with nearly 500 illustrations of its different renderings.

Streit said the library has made every effort to respect the sensitivity of Aronson's nephew toward the collection. "He wanted them to be used," Streit reaffirmed, just not for the wrong reasons.

By piecing together the subject matter, "it does tell us something about Hitler and his mental processes," Streit said. The collection offers insight into what "might have informed Hitler's opinions."




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