Article excerpt

A Question of "Culpability"

As intriguing as I found Paul B.Jaskot's article ("Anti-Semitic Policy in Albert Speer's Plans for the Rebuilding of Berlin," Art Bulletin, LXXVIII, no. 4, 1996) on the culpability of the urban policies of the GBI (Generalbauinspektor fur die Reichshauptstadt Berlin) and that of its head, Albert Speer, with regard to the Nazis' destruction of the Jews, I remain unconvinced that the facts he presented warrant his rather extreme conclusion.1

After a series of interviews that I held with Speer over the course of nearly a decade beginning in 1972, it became clear to me that he operated (at least in his architectural capacity, as opposed to his appointment as minister of armaments), to a large degree, as Hitler's architectural alter ego.2 Others, such as the psychiatrist Erich Fromm, have concurred. After extensive meetings with Speer, Fromm, in 1973, wrote that "Speer probably represented for Hitler the image of himself as an architect."3 Until Speer received his initial commission to redecorate a local Nazi party headquarters in 1931, the twenty-six-year-old architect had built nothing-a situation not uncommon for other young German architects who began their professional career in the depths of the Depression. Speer received his first commission from Hitler in 1934 to transform the temporary bleachers of the Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg (where the Nazi Party rallies were held) into a permanent stone structure. His ability to hammer the project through quickly and also capture the theatrical effects that the fuhrer wanted insured not only the successful completion of this project, but his future architectural association with Hitler, culminating in his appointment as general building inspector on January 30, 1937.

Hitler was intensely interested and involved in architecture, an enthusiasm that led Fromm to characterize architecture as "the only thing in life-apart from power, victory and destruction-that genuinely interested him . .. the only field in which Hitler had a real interest in something outside of himself, the only area in which he was alive."4 According to August Kubizek, a childhood friend, Hitler's architectural proclivities already manifested themselves by the age of fifteen.5 These included a more than adequate ability in draftsmanship, which allowed Hitler to render architectural details correctly and accurately (including cross sections and perspective studies to scale) of both existing buildings and those that existed only in his mind with a skill and fluency that impressed even professional architects.6 The personal qualities of Hitler that the world would later so disastrously encounter his megalomania, undeviating willfulness, and lack of contact with reality-appear to have initially manifested themselves in his early architectural activities. Kubizek recalls how the eighteen-year-old Hitler, without any architectural training or experience, thought nothing of redesigning Linz, Austria's secondlargest city, and subsequently, the imperial capital, Vienna itself.7 When Kubizek questioned certain aspects of his plans, Hitler flew into an uncontrollable rage, persuading Kubizek-like Speer and the Reichswehr generals later on-to keep his doubts to himself.8 Although Vienna was a veritable hotbed of architectural activity during the first decade of the twentieth century, Hitler-according to Kubizek-never seems to have sought out such important architectural figures as Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann, or Adolf Loos. In fact, Kubizek gives no evidence that Hitler was even aware of these individuals. It is thus understandable that in 1909, Hitler-lacking professional training and intolerant of questioning-was unable to find any architectural employ. It was then that Hitler turned his seething energies to politics. But while politics subsumed Hitler's earlier inchoate artistic urgings, architecture, as he declared in a speech on September 11, 1935, remained "nearest my heart. …