Raindance 2023: The Books He Didn’t Burn

A look at the books contained in Hitler’s library offers little information that we didn’t already know about the genocidal Nazi leader.

The ‘he’ in question in The Books He Didn’t Burn is Adolf Hitler, and you might be forgiven for letting out a groan at this point because, let’s face it, there is no shortage of documentaries about Hitler. There are so many, in fact, that entire TV channels seem to exist simply in order to show them. What could there possibly be about Hitler, his life and his legacy, that has yet to be told? What about his book collection – that’s new, right? At least, that must be the hope of directors Jascha Hannover and Claus Bredenbrock, who have made this feature-length study of Hitler’s surprisingly expansive library of 16,000 books. How successful this study is feels open to question.

Now, let’s be clear – there is value and importance in looking at the ideas and philosophies that inspired Hitler. He didn’t emerge out of nowhere with his Nazi philosophy fully formed. His racial and social philosophies were inspired by (or sometimes directly lifted from) the writings of others – the ‘intellectual thinkers’ of the Far Right and the scientific nonsense that spawned eugenics and the belief that the human race was somehow made up of different species according to skin colour and facial attributes. Hitler was far from unique in his beliefs – if he was, he would never have achieved the power and influence that he did. He was, perhaps, the right man in the right place – a thuggish doer rather than a thinker revolutionary thinker. Even his bloated and self-important autobiography/manifesto Mein Kampf was little more than a hodge-podge of ideas that other, better-educated people had already written. But as a populist ‘man of the people’, Hitler was perfectly poised to push what might have otherwise been philosophical ideas and brooding resentments of Jewish culture and wealth into the mainstream. We all know what that led to, and so the value of a film like this is in exploring the journey rather than the destination.

But that’s the problem because the journey itself is hardly one that has been undocumented. To tell us something new about how Hitler became the monster that he was – to seem more than just another opportunist Hitler documentary like the hundred already out there –  the film needs to find stories and connections that have previously been undiscovered, and it fails to do that. In fact, it fails to really explore his book collection at all. It looks at a tiny selection of titles from an already small sampling of less than 1,500 of his books that are still held in archives, where they are treated with a combination of historical reverence and fear as if the very fact that he owned them makes them more dangerous than other editions of the same books. This extends to the whole collection, even cookery books and nature guides that were gifted to him by admirers and sycophants, books that we have no idea if he even read.

Perhaps because of this, the film spends a curiously brief amount of time on the actual books and more time repeating the same thing that we find in every other Hitler documentary. There is some in-depth study of a handful of the authors and their beliefs – notably Renaud Camus’ ‘Great Replacement’ theory of expanding minorities (be they Jews, Muslims, Blacks…) displacing the existing (white) population, an idea that continues to have great currency today amongst racist conspiracy theorists – and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a novel that explores the idea of the triumphant little man conquering all – a theme that would certainly appeal to Hitler as he dreamed of a rise from nobody to world leader – but the film often can’t decide if it wants to explore the influences on or the legacy of Hitler, and so tends to muddle things quite a bit. We might reasonably say that both are relevant – but perhaps not within the same story. The film’s chapter headings also announce subjects that are then barely explored – there is the suggestion of an exploration of Hitler’s fascination with the occult and supernatural, for instance, that fails to go, beyond telling us that he owned a Nostradamus book, even though there is extensive literature about the Nazi fascination with occultism.

The problem with all Hitler documentaries is that there is really nowhere new for them to go. There have been several documentaries about Hitler and the Nazis that we could reasonably call ‘definitive’. We all know that Hitler was an unbalanced, genocidal madman, and we know how he rose to power and what he inspired – whatever else anyone adds to the story these days is just padding. What a film like this does manage, however, is to open up a new and rather more difficult area of debate. We see extensive footage of the Nazis burning books and are left in no uncertain terms that this is A Bad Thing – something I would hope all readers here would heartily agree with. Even now, the idea of book burning and book banning remains a sign of a repressive and ignorant society that is scared of intellectualism, education and challenging ideas. We believe this even as people across the political divide demand that certain books be withdrawn, rewritten or banned, even as we have books that have been declared obscene, hateful or dangerous by political leaders outlawed.

This is a problem. Book burning and book banning, it seems, is only bad when bad people do it – but who gets to decide who those bad people are? The Nazis, as an extreme example, as easy to condemn. But what about other governments and pressure groups, school boards and police forces, religious bodies and booksellers, the ones around today demanding that certain books be banned? The call for the banning of bad ideas comes from both sides of the political divide, so this is not a partisan issue in that sense; the choice of which books should be banned is more split according to political belief – though not always.

If we have to have our freedom to read controlled, who do we trust to make those choices? The film does not address this, but surely the argument being made here – rather opaquely – is that some books are uniquely dangerous. But what, then, should we do with those books? The film has no answer – in fact, it doesn’t really pose the question. The books that Hitler owned are kept hidden away by the archives that house them and there is no discussion about whether or not that is the right thing to do – or what we do about other editions of said books. We might instinctively think that yes, these terrible ideas should no longer be available for general consumption, where they might incite anti-social behaviour. But of course, that’s also why the Nazis were burning books to begin with – because they believed them to be a threat to society. I think that we should be very cautious about saying that certain books and certain ideas must be suppressed, edited or outlawed – especially when we allow those in power, be they governments or pressure groups, to make that decision for us. My instinct is that when you ban something, you simply give it the allure of the forbidden. Surely it is better to have counter-arguments, to educate and inform, even to ridicule? If you declare an idea too dangerous to be heard, you simply give it power.

And at what point do we decide that a book is dangerous anyway? Let’s be honest here – the various holy books of different religions have probably been the cause of more death, destruction, social unrest, hatred and abuse than The Anarchist Cookbook. If we ban bad ideas in print, that doesn’t mean that they go away. Hitler may have been inspired by the books he read, but who then inspired the authors of those books? At some point, we have to accept that awful beliefs and hatred came long before anyone got around to writing it down. I’m not sure how we ever tackle the tribal instincts and blame culture that takes us from condemning the actions of extremist organisations and governments to holding everyone within that group – Muslims or Jews, Catholics or Protestants – as somehow culpable for the actions of people in countries that they have never even visited. As we can see today, unfathomable hatred of entire races and religions can spread quite easily without the hysterical writings of fanatics – all it takes is a belief that you are fighting a great evil that wants to conquer the world. Such ideas are easy to buy into and make the believers feel righteous and pure, willing to do anything to the groups that they have effectively dehumanised. I’m not sure that burying away the books Hitler read – or any other books for that matter – will make any difference to that.


Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!