Hitler's best friend

The debate over Albert Speer's responsibility for Nazi war crimes rages on in a new biography of the Third Reich's master architect and planner.

Published September 26, 2002 10:55PM (EDT)

For people who spoke so ardently about Aryan beauty, the leading Nazis sure were a funny-looking lot. Of course, it all began with Hitler, the beady-eyed chap with the bristly little moustache and the greasy forelock flapping in the breeze of his own histrionics. The drug-addled Reichmarshall Hermann Goering, whose complacent decadence wrecked the Luftwaffe, had an icy stare peering out from a sallow, bloated face. The arch anti-Semite, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, was a diminutive, club-footed and rat-faced character. About SS Reichsfuehrer Heinrich Himmler, who calmly arranged the execution of millions, a snide associate once opined "If I looked like him, I should not speak of race at all." And from there, the view seldom improved.

But then there was Albert Speer, Hitler's principal architect and, later, the efficient organizer of the German war machine. While the rest of his cohort were case studies in every human weakness (and looked it), Speer's handsome face exuded cultivation and inner serenity. In fact, filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the director of "Triumph of the Will," said that it was a glimpse of him in a newspaper photograph that helped quell her doubts about the Nazis. "When I saw that photograph," Riefenstahl told Speer biographer Gitta Sereny, "I thought how extraordinary that a man with a face like that should be for Hitler -- if he was, I thought, then there had to be something to it all."

Joachim Fest's new biography, "Speer: The Final Verdict," which appeared in Europe last year and is now hitting American bookstores, picks up on the suggestion, made first by Sereny, that Hitler and Speer's relationship had a homoerotic (though not a homosexual) intensity. In either case, their mutual admiration and devotion shaped Speer's life. "If Hitler had any friends," Fest quotes Speer at Nuremberg, where he sat charged with war crimes, "I would have been his friend."

This, the fourth book-length biography of Speer, has many virtues. Its author, a historian who worked with Speer in editing the former Nazi's memoirs, packs the complicated conundrum into 300 pages and offers an even-handed assessment that dutifully surveys all the controversies. Nonetheless, it is the second-best book written on Speer, after Sereny's "Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth," a more extensively researched and readable book (if somewhat digressive and overlong at a sprawling 700 pages). Readers looking for a short, thorough review of Speer's entire career will find it neatly packaged here.

Riefenstahl surely exaggerated, in retrospect, both her doubts about the Nazis and the role that Speer's image played in dispelling them. But she scarcely exaggerated the impression Speer made on most of the people he met. Even the judges and prosecutors at Nuremberg, who sentenced Speer to a 20-year prison term for war crimes, concurred that he was a higher caliber of man than the rest of Hitler's inner circle.

The privileged scion of two generations of wealthy architects, Speer's manner contrasted sharply with that of the thick-neck arrivistes comprising both the Nazi rank and file and its leadership. But it wasn't only superficial traits that set Speer off from the "repulsive bourgeois revolutionaries" (the phrase is Speer's) that surrounded him. For, when it came to certain defining matters of grave consequence, as we shall see, Speer chose differently than the rest.

A latecomer to the Nazi Party, plucked from youthful obscurity by Hitler's personal favor, Speer, at age 28, replaced Hitler's deceased chief architect in 1934. The two jointly began to conceive a reconstruction of Berlin that would make it "the grandest and most beautiful city in the world."

It is easy to forget that Hitler ruled Germany in peace for four years before plunging into the foreign policy that ignited the war -- or that the Fuehrer could scarcely show his face in public for the adoring masses that hemmed him in wherever he went. Yet this was so, and during this period, Hitler treasured the company of the handsome young architect who made the Fuehrer's own thwarted artistic dreams come vividly to life.

Speer would later call the architectural vision he dreamed up with Hitler "monstrous," and indeed, its gigantic, pretentious pseudo-classicism expressed little beyond the worship of brute, despotic power. In any case, the onset of war smashed Hitler and Speer's dreamy idyll. By 1940, Hitler dominated all of continental Europe and was hailed by many, Speer among them, as the greatest conqueror in the history of the world.

Unfortunately, the weakness of Fest's book is one of its principal premises. Fest argues that Speer epitomized the naive nonpolitical technocrats whose obedience made Hitler's triumph possible. Although this exculpatory line is at least as old as Speer's Nuremberg defense and became a kind of orthodoxy ("the Speer legend" as Geoffrey Barraclough put it in an unsparing 1971 attack in the New York Review of Books) it fails to be convincing when accompanied by the record of Speer's career.

Though Speer may never have been either a devotee of the Nazi ideology or more than a casual anti-Semite, his uncritical identification of Germany with Hitler's aims infused him with a missionary fervor. It was his willingness, as an architect, to take on and meet seemingly impossible deadlines that confirmed the impression of a dedicated follower and convinced Hitler that he was suited for greater responsibilities.

In February 1942, Fritz Todt, Hitler's minister of armaments and the builder of the Autobahn, died in a suspicious and still-unexplained plane crash. The following morning, Hitler named Speer to assume the vacated post. The "nonpolitical" Speer's metamorphosis into a calculating political infighter was immediate.

Speer, who had no prior experience with armaments of any kind, transformed the "small and not very influential" ministry into a dominant one. Within a year, he was the undisputed dictator of the German war economy. "He had scarcely achieved one success before he extend his tentacles towards a further accretion of power," Fest notes.

This remarkable feat of political maneuvering brought immediate results: Tank production increased fivefold and plane production fourfold by the war's end. Two factors permitted Speer to succeed where his predecessors had failed: He had the full faith of the Fuehrer behind him, and he worked with fanatical zeal. Speer basically abandoned his wife and six children to work 18- to 20-hour days in his new job. Fest carefully describes how Speer brought about these political changes, but he lapses into shopworn formula toward the end of the relevant chapter:

"Speer never asked himself what the purpose of the 'Speer revolution' was or what it set out to achieve, nor did he face up to any of the many questions raised by his actions."

It makes more sense, however, to say that a man who strives to build more and better weapons for a war being waged by a leader he unreservedly admires knows exactly why he is toiling. He is building weapons -- yes, because he wants to win the war.

Fest offers no plausible rejoinder to this argument and resorts to evasion and omission to defend his thesis. For instance, Fest notes that Speer joined the Nazi Party in 1931, but not that he also joined the brown-shirted paramilitary SA, or that the Nazi Motor Corps he joined a year later was a wing of the SS. Speer was no jackbooted street fighter. But an SA membership surely raises doubts about his supposed nonpolitical detachment, doubts that Speer and Fest have both suppressed.

A few years before his death, Speer told Sereny: "Of course I was perfectly aware that he sought world domination. What you -- and I think everybody else -- don't seem to understand is that at that time I asked for nothing better. I wanted nothing more than for this great man to dominate the globe."

So much for nonpolitical technocracy. The Germans would have had to capitulate for want of ammunition by 1943 or even 1942, were it not for Speer's labors. At the height of his power in 1943, Speer was spoken of as a potential successor to Hitler. Although it is unclear how serious this prospect was, Speer avidly pursued all hints and rumors while they still circulated. This is hardly the behavior of a nonpolitical man.

Soon afterward, the tide of intrigue turned abruptly against Speer, as it often did against the power-hungry in Nazi Germany. At the Oct. 6, 1943, conference at Posen, his effort to enlist Himmler's aid in forcing local party bosses to comply with his total mobilization sparked dissension, marking the end of Hitler's unqualified backing.

Speer's memoir, "Inside the Third Reich," neglects to mention that later that same day, Himmler gave one of the most infamous speeches of the regime's history. In it, the SS head disclosed to the entire military and party leadership that the Final Solution to the Jewish question had been extermination. All of Speer's closest associates were present, and a strong case has been made that Speer was there, too.

Fest follows Sereny in concluding that Speer's claim to having remained ignorant of the Holocaust after the Posen speech (whether he was present or not) is scarcely credible. "The weight of the evidence about the extent of his knowledge of the crimes is indeed crushing," concludes Fest. The prosecution at Nuremberg never tried to rebut his avowal of ignorance of the Holocaust. He maintained this stance until the end of his life, and died a fearfully isolated man as a result.

After the bestselling success of "Inside the Third Reich," Speer had a second career as a kind of professional talk-show penitent. Speer's willingness to talk to almost anyone who sought him out was at least partially an attempt to compensate for the friends who abandoned him after the book's publication. Many of these unrepentant ex-Nazis called him a traitor playing to the peanut gallery of contemporary orthodoxy. For many of these people, Hitler's only crime was that he lost the war; they rejected Speer's acceptance of his guilt and criticism of the Fuehrer.

Critics like writers Erich Goldhagen, Matthias Schmidt and, later, Dan van der Vat in his 1998 biography "The Good Nazi: The Life And Lies Of Albert Speer," called Speer's confessions a cynical ruse; they rejected his avowal of ignorance and discovered several holes in Speer's account of himself. Both groups agreed that Speer was an opportunist whose credibility as a witness to the era was tainted. Both groups claimed that he seduced the Allies with his looks, charm and clever strategy. The difference, of course, was that while the diehard former Nazis would have preferred to see Speer defend Hitler, the second group would rather he had been hanged.

Yet Speer's defense at Nuremberg, which was sometimes evasive and underhanded, cannot be dismissed as merely a ploy. Alone among the accused, Speer never hid behind the legality that he was merely "following orders," even if he did claim that his own naiveté prevented him from fully grasping what those orders meant. The complicated truth about Speer, it seems to me, is that he was both scheming to present himself in the most sympathetic light at Nuremberg and also coming to a uniquely principled acceptance of his own guilt at the same time.

This remarkable stance won him the respect of even his prosecutors and just may have saved his life. Speer was convicted for his use of millions of slave laborers brought in from occupied territories to build armaments in German factories. Thousands of these 5 million workers died from illness, malnutrition and overwork. The stocky, coarse-mannered, blunt-featured subordinate who actually seized the workers Speer requisitioned was hanged.

The criteria for judgment at Nuremberg seemed disturbingly arbitrary to some. Many former Nazis went to their deaths for less than what some of the Allied generals had done. But the principle established there, however imperfect its realization, was sound: Those who serve governments that sponsor atrocity should expect a day of reckoning. On this point, Speer alone of his peers achieved moral clarity.

For the peaceful years from 1933 to 1939, which Speer spent immersed in architectural fantasy with Hitler, were, after all, also the years in which the concentration camps and the most fearsome police state in world history were built. And they were the years in which the Nuremberg Laws steadily tightened the noose around the necks of Germany's Jews.

By 1942, when Speer took over as armaments minister, the order legalizing the slaughter of innocents on the Eastern Front had already been issued in advance of the Russian invasion. Hitler was finally turning toward his great historical task, the enslavement of Russia.

Such were the ambitions of the man Speer saw fit to serve, admire and love until the late autumn of 1944. Such was the man that Speer felt he needed to risk flying through Allied controlled skies to bid farewell to in an underground bunker in besieged Berlin. The responsibility for having been seduced into believing in and working for such a man cannot simply be pinned on the seducer. The seduced had choices too, choices of action and inaction, and these choices cut to the heart of what every German must confront when asked: What did you do during the war?

In the last few months of the war, Speer did take a stand against his patron and friend. When an embittered Hitler ordered the destruction of all German industry in advance of the Allied armies closing on Berlin, Speer openly defied him. He traveled the country, convincing local officials to ignore the orders at the risk of his own life. This action stands alongside the failed July 20, 1944, army plot to kill Hitler as one of the shamefully few brave and conscientious acts of a Nazi leader.

That he made no similar stand in 1942 or in October 1943, was Albert Speer's great crime. And he knew it. And, as Fest notes in his concluding chapter, this awareness makes Speer unique in the bloody history of totalitarian politics. It should not trouble or surprise us that Speer's Nuremberg defense and memoirs were in some ways self-serving or misleading. Rather it should astonish us that this man, alone among the thousands who passed the buck in a century of atrocities, came to a reckoning, however imperfect, with his conscience.

And while it should also not surprise us that many who prefer simple moral certitude will find appalling the discernment, affability and dry wit lodged in this Nazi war criminal and try to make Speer's exceptional qualities proof of his insidiousness, the truth is not simple. Speer served out his 20-year sentence to the last day, returned to society a penitent. He died a tortured man. He anonymously donated much of his book's profits to Holocaust survivors, keenly aware of how pathetically inadequate such gestures were in the face of the passivity he showed when it counted.

In Spandau Prison, where his fellow war criminals ostracized him, Speer kept a diary smuggled out bit by bit on scraps of toilet paper. Published as "Spandau: The Secret Diaries," it is one of the best prison diaries ever written and very nearly a great work of literature. It is, on one hand, the literary equivalent of the handsome face that Speer presented to the world. But it is also a moving document of a criminal helpless before the enormity of his failings.

In the end, despite the equivocations and self-deceptions, even some of the fundamental untruths that Speer maintained -- Speer really was different.

And that should be the final verdict.

By Wesley Yang

Wesley Yang lives just outside of New York.

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