Hitler’s Erudition, Beethoven’s Arrogance

Two fine English-language articles about famous Germans have crossed my path recently. First up, Anthony Grafton has an excellent review essay in the New Republic about a controversial Austrian statesman's reading habits:

Hitler's own words make clear–clearer, in fact, than the surviving volumes [of his library]–just how much some writers meant to him. His lifelong favorites–leatherbound copies of which he kept in the study of his alpine villa–ranged from the Western adventure novels of Karl May to the plays of Shakespeare. May's novels, from The Ride Across the Desert on, "overwhelmed" Hitler as a boy, claiming his attention so powerfully that his grades suffered "a noticeable decline." During the war, Hitler told his generals to study May's books, and even had a special edition issued for soldiers at the front. He considered Winnetou, the Indian chief of May's tales, a master of "tactical finesse and circumspection," and a model for his own love of cunning tactics and surprises. Reading at night, he told Albert Speer, "when faced by seemingly hopeless situations, he would still reach for these stories," because "they gave him courage like works of philosophy for others or the Bible for elderly people."

Shakespeare seemed to him much greater than the classic German writers of the eighteenth century. After all, Shakespeare had brought the imperishable character of Shylock to the stage, whereas Lessing had created Nathan the Wise, the Jew who taught Christians, Muslims, and Jews a lesson of tolerance. Hitler quoted Shakespeare as more highly educated Germans quoted Goethe, threatening opponents: "We will meet again at Philippi."

 The Fuehrer read by night…

Late at night on the Obersalzberg, Hitler read for hours a time, sometimes until dawn. He worked in his study, outside of which hung a sign that demanded ABSOLUTE SILENCE, reading with intense concentration–so intense that he became furious one night when Eva Braun interrupted him, and sent her packing, red-faced, with a "tirade. " At breakfast, as Traudl Junge, his last surviving secretary, recalled to Ryback, he "would reprise his previous night's reading in extensive, often tedious detail." Even at the end, as a photograph of the Berlin bunker shows, unidentified thick books took up some of the scarce space in his tiny bedroom.

…but not like an 'intellectual':

In a famous passage in Mein Kampf, Hitler made clear that he rejected the scholar's deferential approach to texts. Intellectuals read supinely, allowing books to lead them: "Naturally, I understand by 'reading' something other than that which the average member of the so-called 'intelligentsia' understands," he wrote. "I know people who 'read' an endless amount, who go from book to book, from letter to letter, yet I would not want to call them 'well-read.' They possess an abundance of 'knowledge,' only their brain does not understand how to process and organize the material it has taken on board." Such readers "lack the art of being able to divide the valuable from the valueless in a book." In the end, Hitler explained, "reading is not something we carry out for its own sake, but an instrument used for a purpose," a "tool and a building material that one needs for one's calling in life."

And in Slate, music writer Jan Swafford has a short piece on the influence of the Illuminati on the young Beethoven:

By the time [Illuminatus] Christian Neefe arrived in Bonn and started teaching Beethoven organ and composition, the 10-year-old was as good a keyboard player as anybody in town. Soon Neefe got into print some variations Ludwig had written, one of his first pieces—slight and conventional, still not Mozart but impressive for his age. In a newspaper article, Neefe cited the variations and said the magic words: With proper nurturing, this boy will "surely become a second Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart."

By his midteens, Beethoven was a court musician in various capacities and making huge strides as a composer. His father had pulled him out of school after a few years so he could concentrate on music. (Beethoven learned to add and subtract but never learned to multiply. If he had to multiply 65 by 59, he wrote 65 in a column 59 times and added it up.) Meanwhile his father was promoting him relentlessly, mounting concerts in the house and taking him on tours around the Rhineland. By that point, there was little question in Ludwig's or anybody else's mind that he was headed for big things. One day when his landlord's daughter accosted him with, "How dirty you're looking again! You ought to keep yourself properly clean," he told her, "What's the difference? When I become a gentleman, nobody will care."

2 thoughts on “Hitler’s Erudition, Beethoven’s Arrogance

  1. “Shakespeare seemed to [Hitler] much greater than the classic German writers of the eighteenth century. After all, Shakespeare had brought the imperishable character of Shylock to the stage.”

    Some say “The Merchant of Venice” is anti-Semitic. There are indications that this is so, and yet:

    “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

    And Portia in the court–isn’t this a play on appearance and reality? Might Shakespeare be suggesting that stigmatization as a Jew depends not on what is, but on what the perceiver chooses to perceive?

    Of course, anti-Semites will see what they wish to see, even in Shakespeare, and elsewhere as well:

    During a recent visit to the Cologne Synagogue, I was informed that in 1349, when plague struck Cologne, Jews were largely spared. This led to conjecture that the city’s Jews had allied themselves with Satanic forces. The Jewish quarter was set on fire, and its many inhabitants, to the extent that they had not already committed suicide, were murdered.

    The reason the Jews weren’t infected wasn’t sorcery, but the better hygiene they practiced, a part of their religious traditions.


  2. Billy Wilder said about the Austrians that they had managed to convince the world that Beethoven was an Austrian and Hitler a German. Only a partial success here, but nevertheless…

    Didn’t know that Beethoven was in it, too, but anyone interested in cranky Illuminati conspiracies theories, computer hackers and plenty of 80ties zeitgeist should check out the movie “23” (it’s quite good, despite all of that)


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