Unfortunately, Hitler never inventoried his books, and the only detailed accounting of his libraries comes courtesy of the former United Press correspondent Frederick Oechsner, who met Hitler repeatedly and was evidently able to acquaint himself intimately with the Führer's book collections. "I found that his personal library, which is divided between his residence in the Chancellery in Berlin and his country home on the Obersalzberg at Berchtesgaden, contains roughly 16,300 books," Oechsner wrote in his best-selling book This Is the Enemy (1942).
According to Oechsner, the biggest single share of Hitler's library, some 7,000 books, was devoted to military matters, in particular "the campaigns of Napoleon, the Prussian kings; the lives of all German and Prussian potentates who ever played a military role; and books on virtually all the well-known military campaigns in recorded history." Another 1,500 volumes concerned architecture, theater, painting, and sculpture. "One book on the Spanish theater has pornographic drawings and photographs, but there is no section on pornography, as such, in Hitler's Library," Oechsner wrote. The balance of the collection consisted of clusters of books on diverse themes ranging from nutrition and health to religion and geography, with "eight hundred to a thousand books" of "simple, popular fiction, many of them pure trash in anybody's language."
By his own admission, Hitler was not a big fan of novels, though he once ranked Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Don Quixote (he had a special affection for the edition illustrated by Gustave Doré) among the world's greatest works of literature. The one novelist we know Hitler loved and read was Karl May, a German writer of cheap American-style westerns. In the spring of 1933, just months after the Nazis seized power, Oskar Achenbach, a Munich-based journalist, toured the Berghof—in the Führer's absence—and discovered a shelf of Karl May novels at Hitler's bedside. "The bedroom of the Führer is of spartan simplicity," Achenbach reported in the Sonntag Morgenpost. "Brass bed, closet, toiletries, a few chairs, those are all the furnishings. On a bookshelf are works on politics and diplomacy, a few brochures and books on the care of German shepherds, and then—pay attention you German boys! Then comes an entire row of books by—Karl May! Winnetou, Old Surehand, Bad Guy, all our dear old friends." During the war Hitler reportedly admonished his generals for their lack of imagination and recommended that they all read Karl May. Albert Speer recounted in his Spandau diaries,
Hitler was wont to say that he had always been deeply impressed by the tactical finesse and circumspection that Karl May conferred upon his character Winnetou ... And he would add that during his reading hours at night, when faced by seemingly hopeless situations, he would still reach for those stories, that they gave him courage like works of philosophy for others or the Bible for elderly people.
No one knows the exact extent of Hitler's library. Though Oechsner estimated the original collection at 16,000 volumes, Gassert and Mattern assert that it is impossible to determine the actual dimensions, especially since the majority of the books were either burned or plundered in the final weeks of the war—an assumption confirmed in part by Florian Beierl, the head of the Archive for the Contemporary History of the Obersalzberg, in Berchtesgaden. According to Beierl, Hitler's Berghof experienced successive waves of looters: first local residents, then French and American soldiers, and eventually members of the U.S. Senate. Beierl showed me archival film footage (taken by the legendary World War II photographer Walter Rosenblum) of a delegation of American senators—Burton Wheeler, Homer Capehart, and Ernest McFarland—emerging from the Berghof ruins with books under their arms. "I doubt if they were taking them to the Library of Congress," Beierl said.