Nazis and the Search for Truth

By Munson, James | Contemporary Review, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Nazis and the Search for Truth


Munson, James, Contemporary Review


Gitta Sereny's biographical study of Hitler's Armaments minister, Albert Speer, is one of the most fascinating books about Nazi Germany to have emerged. The work the author put into researching and writing the book is prodigious. In parts it is the biography of a fascinating man; in parts it is a study in the psychology of a man and of a race. The central question is this: how could a well educated, moral and intelligent man become an indispensable cog in the great Nazi terror. The book is based on weeks of interviews with Speer and with those who knew him. In addition, the author examined and then correlated the various versions of Speer's most famous work, Inside the Third Reich. This allowed her to see what had been 'doctored', what had been changed completely and what had been left out. She put this against what others told her, what others had written, and what Speer himself said in conversation.

Speer has fascinated historians since 1946 as much as he intrigued Allied lawyers during the Nuremberg trials. He was educated, refined, and a gentleman. He was a real catch for the Nazis. Alone he admitted responsibility - if not guilt. For that he was hated by his co-defendants and by many thousands of Germans. Miss Sereny is careful to point out that while admitting 'responsibility' Speer did not admit 'guilt'. The heart of her search lay in one question: did Speer know what was being done to the Jews, to the mentally ill, to slave labourers and to POWs from the Soviet Union? He always said he had not known but had he lied? By the end of the book she has built up a very convincing case that he did lie and that it was this lie that caused him so much heartache. In proving her case she makes many valuable points. One is based on her knowledge of the German language: she points out that Speer could use the verb ahnen and not wissen for know. Ahnen means to foresee, to have a presentiment or foreboding, to suspect or to have a hunch. Wissen means to know in the sense of knowing the multiplication table or knowing how to do something. Speer would only admit that he 'knew' in the sense of ahnen and not in the sense of wissen.

Part of Speer's fascination lies in his childhood - a lack of love from his austere parents - and in his nature as an intellectual. Intellectuals, more especially, German intellectuals, are very peculiar creatures at the best of time. Because they live in a world of abstract ideas and semantics they can use their knowledge to build a wall between them and the word, between themselves and the things they do, between their actions and the moral law. They are often emotionally immature and normally self-centred. It is perfectly in keeping with an intellectual's view of himself and the world to claim that he was 'responsible' but not that he was 'guilty': to be 'guilty' is too simple, manly and straightforward. Guilt identifies a man as the doer of a deed. Speer was, above all else, an intellectual. His yearning for the love denied him as a child may have drawn him to Hitler, but it was his intellectualism that allowed him to save himself at Nuremberg and to build a wall between what he did and what he felt responsible (if not guilty) for. In the end his house of cards came tumbling down and it is the glory of this book to take the reader, albeit with many twistings and turnings, to that collapse. …

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