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When Albert Speer died last September in London, his obituarists were, generally, kind. True, he had been Hitler’s friend, favorite architect, and arms minister. But after 1945 he had been consistently and dignifiedly repentant. He served his two decades’ imprisonment after Nuremberg with great fortitude. His memoirs of the Hitler era, Inside the Third Reich, and his Spandau Diaries, which recorded how he survived twenty years’ imprisonment, have achieved classic status. Speer was also very anxious to help journalists and historians. He was always being interviewed, often at great inconvenience to himself.
It was characteristic of him that he should have died in the course of one such venture. Although he was seventyfive, and not in good health, he agreed to travel from his country home in the Algäu to London for a television interview with the BBC. It was also characteristic, may it be said in passing, that he would not accept a fee for this. The money was to be paid to a charity which he supported—as he did with a considerable proportion of his royalties. The nature of the charity comes as no surprise. Indeed, the charity at first would not accept such gifts, until its managers had been convinced of Speer’s extreme sincerity.
For Speer appreciated, in a way that none of the other Nuremberg defendants did, that, regardless of details, anyone who had had a serious measure of responsibility in the Hitler era could not have a case. With Speer this was a matter of conviction, not of posing. He never bothered to find excuses; indeed, as his Spandau Diaries reveal, he irritated his fellow prisoners with his indifference to their self-pity and their futile debates over how the war might, after all, have been won. In the little world of the prison, this caused him trouble; sometimes, for weeks on end, he would be solemnly “cut” in the exercise yard by one or another of the inmates. Speer knew that he had spent his late twenties and his thirties serving an evil cause, and for the rest of his life he tried to find out why. He was haunted by his past.
This was obvious even on a cursory acquaintance. I conducted his final interview, on September 1. The evening before, to discuss its shape, we had dinner at Brown’s Hotel in London. The occasion passed well enough, on one level; we simply talked history, and he told me about his book, which was soon to be published in England. On another level, it was a very disquieting evening: you could not forget that this was a man who had spent twelve years serving Hitler, and then another twenty in close confinement. Speer was an extremely accomplished performer, who had of course been interviewed countless times before. In our interview just before he died he was at his best: helpful and authoritative, and less tired,…
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