Albert Speer: The Good Nazi?

By Pryce-Jones, David | New Criterion, October 2002 | Go to article overview

Albert Speer: The Good Nazi?

Pryce-Jones, David, New Criterion

Albert Speer was Adolf Hitler's intimate and trusted friend. Throughout the Thirties, the two met on an almost daily basis in Berlin or Munich. When relaxing in the Berchtesgaden mountains, they went by themselves on afternoon walks, rejoicing in mutual fantasies mostly about art and architecture. Among the grandiose projects they actually achieved were the Reich Chancellery in Berlin and the Nuremberg stadium for staging the annual rallies which expressed the power of the Nazi party. Inventing for Speer the post of General Inspector of Buildings, Hitler steadily promoted him to the point where other Nazi leaders and rivals believed that he might well become Hitler's successor. Nobody else in Hitler's circle, not even Josef Goebbels, was shown such favoritism. The relationship will always amaze.

Abruptly appointed Minister of Armaments in February 1942, Speer revealed outstanding managerial skills. He succeeded continuously in raising the production of all types of weaponry even when the Third Reich was foundering under ever more massive bombardments on its factories and supply lines. But it was the use of forced labor which permitted Speer to achieve these goals, and Nazism to continue fighting to the very end. Several million unfortunate men and women were press-ganged from all over occupied Europe for Speer's purposes, and huge numbers of them died. Speer probably did more than any other single person to try to win the war for his master. The favorite architect had become a monster like the rest of them.

Fritz Sauckel, a particularly brutish Gauleiter, was in charge of drafting the forced laborers, virtually slaves. He reported to Speer. At the postwar Nuremberg trials he was sentenced to death, and hanged. The American judge, Francis Biddle, argued that as Sauckel's superior Speer should also receive the death penalty. But Speer's defence in court had been extremely agile. Hitler's regime, he now claimed to understand, had indeed been criminal, and in a blanket confession he accepted his share of responsibility for what had been done, but pleaded that he had never known the full facts. Facts were not his domain; an artist, he had lived in the realm of the imagination. After two days of fraught discussion among themselves, the judges concluded that Speer's contrition at least was genuine, and they passed on him a sentence of twenty years in prison. His fellow-defendants, from Hermann Goering downwards, held Speer in contempt, partly for repudiating the Hitler on whom his career had depended, but more for what they were sure was flagrant lying. Most people have since suspected that he elaborated this strategy to save himself from the gallows he deserved.

In prison and out, Speer was to spend the rest of his life writing about himself and his career, and giving innumerable interviews. His autobiography, Inside the Third Reich (1970), is the most closely observed portrait of Hitler ever written. Unprecedented in a Nazi of such high rank, it is also a work of skilful apologetics, a general confession of guilt which carefully refrains from complete descriptions of the motives and actions which have given rise to that guilt. The reader is left to make what he can of it. Speer's last service to the cause was to contrive in this way the alibi of the "decent Nazi," that is to say, someone who did not realize that his ideals were necessarily criminal. This was a tortuous exercise in make-believe. Midway between an emblem and a scapegoat, he dramatized in person the difficulties of conscience--often amounting to outright denial of reality--which so many Germans experienced in coming to terms with Nazism.

Classical drama turns upon the responsibility of the individual for his fate. Perhaps the Furies are after him, and there is nothing he can do to be free from them. Or perhaps some fatal weakness of character impels him to make a choice which brings doom upon his own head. …

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