Becoming a Different Man: Inside Albert Speer

By Jones, L. Gregory | The Christian Century, May 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

Becoming a Different Man: Inside Albert Speer


Jones, L. Gregory, The Christian Century


ALBERT SPEER, the Nazi architect and minister of armaments, was sentenced at Nuremberg to 20 years in Spandau prison. At the end of a worship service in Spandau, Speer asked to speak with chaplain Georges Casalis. Before Speer could speak Casalis told Speer he considered him more blameworthy than any of the other Nazi prisoners, both because of Speer's intelligence and because he had been more responsible for extending the war than perhaps anyone but Hitler. Speer thanked Casalis for his honesty, then explained his reason for wanting to speak with him: "I've been sentenced to 20 years, and I consider it just. I want to use this time that has, in a manner of speaking, been given to me. What I want to ask you is: Would you help me become a different min?"

Speer's seriousness about becoming a different man is one reason people have continued to be interested in his life. A seemingly ordinary and decent man, he participated in a horrifying, death-dealing ideology, and then sought to repent by telling the truth and becoming a new person. Understanding the twists and turns in his life can help us discern whether and how we, too, might become different men and women.

Did Speer really tell the truth about his past? That question has haunted readers of his memoir Inside the Third Reich. Central to that question is the issue of what he knew about the murder of the Jews and when he knew it. Speer claimed to have learned about the Final Solution only after the war was over--and to have understood its full significance only during the final speech by Britain's chief prosecutor at Nuremberg. That speech, which included graphic descriptions of the exterminations, had a devastating effect on Speer. He acknowledged that he felt "personal guilt" for what had happened, and he accepted responsibility for it because he had been part of the Nazi regime. Indeed, he concluded that the Russians were right to demand the death sentence for him. As he put it some 30 years later, "How could we--just we--be allowed to remain alive after that?"

But Speer was allowed to live. His sentence, which surprised many and has been severely criticized, was determined only after significant debate among the judges. At least one of the reasons for his comparatively light sentence was the judgment that Speer had not directly participated in the extermination of the Jews. This seemed implausible at the time because Speer was one of the most powerful figures in the Nazi regime. How could he not have known? But there was no hard evidence linking Speer to the actual extermination policies, and Hitler had always been careful to tell his deputies only what they needed or wanted to know.

Questions about the extent of Speer's knowledge have persisted; indeed, they came to preoccupy Speer himself These questions intensified in 1971 when an article by Harvard historian Erich Goldhagen charged that Speer had been present for Himmler's speech in Posen, on October 6, 1943, when Himmler unambiguously explained the details of the Final Solution to the party faithful. Speer claimed that while he had been in Posen earlier that day, he had left before Himmler's speech. His notes for that day do not include any reference to the speech. Goldhagen claimed that Himmler's direct address to Speer in his Posen speech was clear proof that Speer was there, establishing the man's full complicity in the murder of the Jews and the hypocrisy of his generalized confessions. Though Speer was haunted by Goldhagen's charges, he remained convinced that he had not attended the speech, and until his death in 1981 he claimed that he did not know about the murder of the Jews until after the end of the war.

Gitta Sereny is not persuaded, nor are her readers likely to be. Sereny concludes that Speer must have known about the Final Solution at least by the time of the Posen conference, whether or not he was actually present at Himmler's speech. She bases this judgment on extensive conversations with Speer, analysis of his published and unpublished writings, and interviews with Speer's family and colleagues.

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