Smooth cog in Nazi machine

February 8, 2002

Brendan Simms pierces the truth about Hitler's favourite architect.

Virtually all of the Nazi leadership arraigned before the international tribunal in Nuremberg in 1946 disclaimed any guilt and responsibility for, or even knowledge of, Nazi crimes. Only two stood out. One was Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, the head of the Luftwaffe and for a long time Hitler's anointed successor: he freely admitted his responsibility for the policies of the Third Reich, but contemptuously rejected any notions of guilt as the propaganda of the victors. He was sentenced to death and escaped hanging only by committing suicide. The other exception was Albert Speer, Hitler's favourite architect and minister for armaments, the man who masterminded the colossal surge in German military production during the second half of the war. Uniquely among the major defendants, Speer acknowledged his guilt and his responsibility. He beguiled the tribunal with his charm, education, sensitivity and evident remorse; he received a 20-year sentence. His lower-ranking co-accused, the brutish and inarticulate Fritz Sauckel, the "general plenipotentiary for manpower deployment", was executed for his part in the recruitment and (mal-) treatment of slave labour.

Since then, Speer has continued to fascinate. His memoirs, Inside the Third Reich , still constitute the most important eyewitness account of the higher workings of the Nazi system. They also elaborated the Nuremberg picture of Speer as an unpolitical technocrat who sold himself to Hitler in a Faustian bargain. His soul-searching in Spandau prison has been splendidly evoked by Jonathan Smith's radio and television play, The World Walk . Ten years ago, Robert Harris brought Speer's designs disturbingly to life in his superlative thriller Fatherland , much of which is set in a reconstructed Berlin after a Nazi victory. More recently, he was imaginatively pressed into service in Esther Vilar's controversial play, Speer . In it the eponymous hero, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, was wooed by the Stasi with a view to revitalising the ailing East German economy. The fascination of Speer lay in his ability to unsettle and reassure at the same time: if his transparent ambition and early lack of scruples were troubling, his subsequent contrition and self-criticism were all the more redemptive. He was the magic Speer who could heal as well as wound.

It was only shortly before his death in 1981 that the Speer myth was subjected to serious scrutiny, and never really recovered from the battering in Mathias Schmidt's Albert Speer : End of a Myth . Not all of Schmidt's claims about Speer's "laundering" of the historical record in his memoirs were subsequently upheld, but their essence was indisputable and the damage had been done. In 1995, Gitta Sereny disentangled his evasions and half-truths about the murder of the Jews in her acclaimed Albert Speer : His Battle with Truth . She showed that Speer had not only attended - or at least known about - key meetings at which the genocidal policy was discussed, but that he had himself visited a concentration camp. She rejected his claim that "he could have known, should have known, but didn't know". Nevertheless, Speer continued to protest his ignorance of the Holocaust to his dying day. He battled with truth - and he won.

Joachim Fest's newly translated biography, Speer : The Final Verdict , is the latest and most comprehensively authoritative contribution to the debate. It would be difficult to imagine a more competent biographer: Fest is not only the author of several seminal works on the Third Reich, including his acclaimed study of Hitler, but is also fully conversant with the politics of memory in postwar Germany, in which the Speer myth nestled uneasily. In the 1960s, Fest was employed as Speer's historical "interrogator" during the preparation of Inside the Third Reich ; much of the new material in this biography is drawn from the copious notes made by Fest at the time. And while the author shows all the historical empathy necessary to the biographer, he firmly resists being inveigled by Speer. Fest retains a critical detachment throughout and is unambiguous about Speer's responsibility for the slave labour programme and the fate of the Jews, especially those deported from Berlin.

The result is a masterpiece. At 400 pages, The Final Verdict is not a short book, but it is nonetheless a model of compression. There is none of the scrupulous agonising, the repetitive parsing that - for good reason - characterised Sereny's work. Instead, Fest effortlessly situates the political biography of Speer in the broader story of Hitlerian rule and its attendant power struggles. The embattled bourgeois world into which Speer was born; the liturgical spectacles and "special effects" with which Speer first caught Hitler's imagination; the poisonous antechamber of power around the Fuhrer; the vistas of totalitarian megalomania, political and architectural; the selfless, almost reckless courage with which Speer broke with Hitler and set out to save Germany from complete destruction in the final months of the war; and the brilliant defence mounted by Speer and his lawyer Hans Flachsner, who was in many ways the creator of the "Speer myth" at Nuremberg - all this is evoked with unparalleled lucidity.

But the centrepiece of the work, of course, is Speer's personal relationship with Hitler. At one level, Fest sees Speer as representative of German bourgeois society as a whole, and its capitulation to totalitarian temptations. His facility for separating his "public" commitment to the new order from any "private" disdain for Nazi crimes was certainly not unusual. "Hitler," as Fest reminds us, "came from nowhere... Speer on the other hand, was, by origin and upbringing, the product of a long process of civilisation." Stressing the uniqueness of Hitler, and the representativeness of Speer, far from exonerating German society, actually inculpates the educated bourgeoisie in the Nazi project yet further.

At the same time, and in some ways contradictorily, Fest sees the relationship between Speer and Hitler as singular in its emotional intensity. He speaks of an "unmistakably erotic motif... hurt feelings, jealousy, defiance and disappointment were involved as well as a lack of inhibition". This affair was mutual, of course, but Fest shows that it was unexpectedly unequal: Speer was the dominant partner. "Hitler," he writes, "could merely take certain powers away from Speer, whereas Speer could withdraw his affection."

Fest's picture of Speer is supplemented and to some degree modified by the transcript of the very first interrogation carried out by allied intelligence officers in the "Dustbin", the holding centre for Nazi VIPs in the mountain retreat of Kransberg in the Taunus. These have now been edited by the German historian Ulrich Schlie in a German-language book whose title translates as "Everything I Know". As Schlie points out, this document has been almost entirely ignored by all previous students of Speer. Its importance lies in the fact that the questioning was carried out in the late summer of 1945 - three months after the end of the war - at a time when Speer was not yet on notice that he would appear at Nuremberg and before he had had a chance to refine the myth that he elaborated with such success after 1946.

The overall impression is of a less smooth, altogether more star-struck Speer, who had yet to find the critical distance from Hitler and the painful self-awareness that were to serve him so well at Nuremberg and after. There is comparatively little outright condemnation of Hitler's crimes and no sense of his own responsibility for them. Strangely, his interrogator, Captain Hoeffding, never asked directly about or even mentioned the murder of the Jews. Instead, what comes across is not so much Speer's evasiveness - so abundantly obvious in the matter of deported labour - as what appears to be a genuine absentmindedness about Nazi anti-Semitism.

For example, Speer professed in his first interrogation to have forgotten the date of the Kristallnacht pogroms in November 1938. As Schlie points out, Speer subsequently had to be prompted by Fest to expand on these events in Inside the Third Reich . There he described the memory of the Kristallnacht as "one of the most doleful of my life, chiefly because what really disturbed me at the time was the aspect of disorder that I saw... Did I sense, at least for a moment, that something was beginning which would end with the annihilation of one whole group of our nation? Did I know that this outburst of hoodlumism was changing my moral substance? I do not know." As we now know, the whole event made little impression on him at the time.

In short, a great deal of the "classic" Speer of 1946-81, of Inside the Third Reich , was not merely his own (re-)invention but that of his interpreters. One is left - to borrow Hannah Arendt's terminology - with a sense not so much of a Mephisto, but of the "banality" of Speer. The Dustbin interrogation shows his infatuation with Hitler to have been more ordinary and less complex than the stylised later myth allowed. In this context, the portrait painted by Sebastian Haffner in The Observer in 1944, at the height of the war, and cited by Fest, becomes at once more pertinent and more chilling: "Speer is not one of the flamboyant and picturesque Nazis... He is very much the successful average man, well dressed, civil, non-corrupt, very middle class in his style of life... Much less than any of the other German leaders does he stand for anything particularly German or particularly Nazi. He rather symbolises a type which is becoming increasingly important in all belligerent countries: the pure technician, the classless bright young man without background with no other aim than to make his way in the world and no other means than his technical and managerial ability... the Hitlers and Himmlers we may get rid of, but the Speers, whatever happens to this particular special man, will long be with us."

Brendan Simms is lecturer in international relations and a fellow of Peterhouse, University of Cambridge.

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