Hitler’s Master Builder

Inside the Third Reich

by Albert Speer
Macmillan, 596 pp., $12.50

Students Against Tyranny

by Inge Scholl
Wesleyan, 160 pp., $5.00

The Face of the Third Reich

by Joachim C. Fest
Pantheon, 402 pp., $10.00

Deutschlands Rüstung im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Hitlers Konferenzen mit Albert Speer

edited by Willi A. Boelcke
Frankfurt: Athenaion Verlag, 495 pp.


Long before Albert Speer was carried off into captivity on May 23, 1945, the Speer legend had begun to take shape. War is the young man’s opportunity, and the career of this particular young man, Minister of Munitions and Armaments in the Thousand Year Reich at the age of thirty-six, exercised a peculiar fascination over friend and foe alike.

As early as September, 1942, the London Times carried a respectful and knowledgeable account of Speer’s plans for the total mobilization of German manpower and material resources. In April, 1944, a couple of months before the Anglo-American landings in Normandy and the opening of the second front, The Observer asserted that Speer, the man who actually directed “the giant power machine,” was a more important figure in wartime Germany than Hitler himself. But his real significance, The Observer suggested, transcended the war. Speer was not merely the genius behind the German war effort. He was at the same time the prototype of a new social phenomenon not peculiar to Nazi Germany but increasingly prominent in all belligerent countries: “the pure technician,” the “classless bright young man” who would serve any regime which furthered his career. Hitlers might come and Hitlers might go; “but the Speers, whatever happens to this particular young man, will long be with us.”

Here, a year before the German capitulation, are the essential ingredients of the Speer legend. Since then it has grown and hardened. Speer himself contributed enormously to its propagation when in 1945 he was interrogated by English and American officers, and subsequent disclosures during the Nuremberg trials, together with analysis of captured German documents, filled out the contours. Now, with the publication and extraordinary success of Speer’s memoirs, legend has become orthodoxy. The reviews I have read, with a couple of honorable exceptions, take Speer at his own evaluation, hailing him as a “supreme technocrat” and the man who, as he himself artlessly confesses, “by my abilities and my energies” prolonged the war “by many months.” But for Speer, writes Joachim Fest, Hitler might have “had to admit defeat as early as 1942 or 1943.”

If it were only a question of Albert Speer and his personal reputation, the propensity of reviewers—including some who should know better—to swallow the Speer legend hook, line, and sinker, might not matter very much. Charitable readers—and a quarter of a century after the destruction of Nazi Germany most of us are ready to be charitable—will say that, after twenty years of more or less solitary confinement in Spandau, Speer has worked his passage home. And his disarming candor, his refusal, even at Nuremberg, to prevaricate and make excuses, sets him off from the other Nazis in Hitler’s entourage. Almost without exception reviewers have paid tribute to his “underlying decency of character,” his “honesty,” his desire to “atone for his mistakes,” and his freedom from “self-pity.”

These are judgments with which it would be petty to quarrel, though I am not sure that they are the whole truth. But, unfortunately, more is at stake than Speer’s reputation, and if I set myself against the consensus of critical opinion, it is not only because a careful reading of Speer’s memoirs seems to me to raise more questions than it answers, but also because the issues involved in the Speer legend transcend the individual and his fate.

For Speer’s book is not, as he would have us believe, simply an eyewitness account of his experiences. When, in his concluding paragraphs, he admits that his purpose was not merely “to describe the past” but “to issue warnings for the future,” he is—whether he realizes it or not—implicitly confessing that he was writing with an ulterior motive. And this motive, put quite simply, is to exonerate the German people by putting the responsibility for Nazism on technology and what he calls the depersonalization of man by “the automatism of progress.” It is the line he had already taken at Nuremberg, and he quotes with evident approval the passage from his final speech at his trial in 1946 in which he describes Hitler’s dictatorship as “the first dictatorship of an industrial state in this age of modern technology.” He himself, he adds, was “dazzled by the possibilities of technology” and “devoted crucial years” of his life “to serving it.”

An essential part of the Speer legend is therefore the view that Nazism was not, as Allied wartime propaganda alleged, a peculiarly German evil, with roots in the German past, but was rather the foretaste of a depersonalized technological age, to which—unless we take heed of Speer’s warnings—we are all foredoomed. “Every country in the world today,” he told his judges at Nuremberg, “faces the danger of being terrorized by technology”—the “nightmare” which was “very nearly made a reality under Hitler’s authoritarian system.”

Speer’s argument is, of course, very close to one of the most respected contemporary explanations of the Nazi phenomenon—the view expounded by Hannah Arendt in her well-known studies of the origins of totalitarianism—and I suspect that one, perhaps the main, reason for the enthusiastic reception his book has received is the way it fits in with currently fashionable trends in political exegesis. The question, needless to say, is not whether Speer was sincere in his argument—there is no reason why he should not be—but whether the picture of Nazi Germany as the prototype of technological society and of Speer himself as the prototype of technological man bears any credible resemblance to reality. Any useful analysis of Speer’s memoirs hinges on these questions.

Speer’s memoirs, we are assured on all sides, are a historical record of first importance. They are not merely a “moving personal confession,” but “the most revealing document on the Hitler phenomenon yet written.” The question of their documentary value we shall come back to shortly. For the moment it is sufficient to say that this judgment takes a lot for granted. When Eugene Davidson, in the Foreword he has contributed to Speer’s book, claims that it provides “as complete a view as we are ever likely to get of the inside of the Nazi state,” the answer is that it would be hard to think of a more narrowly self-centered perspective. All memoirs, no doubt, have a personal bias; but that does not make it necessary for Speer to write as though nothing existed or mattered unless he himself was personally involved.

Even his account of the conflicts within the Nazi party—the in-fighting between Goering, Himmler, Bormann, and the rest—is made to hinge almost entirely on how it affected Albert Speer and his insatiable lust for power. Anyone who relies upon Speer’s book alone will end up, in short, with a very one-sided picture of Nazi Germany, even of the upper echelon of the Nazi hierarchy with which Speer habitually associated. His views and judgments need to be checked and completed from other sources; they are no more to be taken at face value than Bismarck’s by now notorious reminiscences and recollections.

Specifically, Speer’s memoirs require checking and completing on three different levels. First, the level of factuality, the (relatively) simple question of the authenticity of Speer’s facts and figures; secondly, the credibility of Speer’s assessment of his own place in the Nazi machine; and thirdly—and certainly not least in importance—the veracity of the picture of Nazi Germany, particularly of wartime Germany, which Speer presents. For Speer’s memoirs are a book, as one reviewer has truly said, which “cries out desperately” for supplementation, particularly for supplementation by the stories of “people who were affected by Speer’s decisions, the millions who suffered as the price of this one man’s achievements.”

How characteristic, for example, that he passes over in silence the execution of the Munich students, Hans and Sophie Scholl and their comrades in the “White Rose” resistance movement, and the cells of opposition to the Nazis they set up in Hamburg, Freiburg, Berlin, and elsewhere. Yet this is a part of the reality of the Third Reich as much as, perhaps more than, the “barren evenings” in Hitler’s “small, pleasant, wooden house” on the Obersalzberg near Berchtesgaden about which Speer waxes so eloquent. But there was no place in Speer’s firmament for the Scholls and their like, and if he was aware of their existence (of which he gives no sign), their courage and self-sacrifice never for one moment gave him pause.

No doubt Inge Scholl’s unpretentious little book about her brother and sister is as much in need of critical sifting as Speer’s more ponderous volume. So, equally certainly, is the bitter, almost psychotic diary of Reck-Malleczewen, the German aristocrat who hated Hitler and died in a prison camp. This is by all standards the most extraordinary paean of hatred to come out of Nazi Germany. No story is too improbable for Reck, no accusation too wild, if only it discredits the Nazis. But hysterical and overwrought as it often is, Reck’s diary is at least an antidote to Speer, evidence of what another type of German thought about the Nazis, a view of Nazi Germany as seen from outside the magic circle of the power elite.

It is characteristic of Reck that he immediately perceived the true stature of the Scholls, equally characteristic that he had no illusions about Speer. The Scholls won Reck’s admiration because they were the first people in Nazi Germany “to have had the courage to witness for the truth,” but for Speer—“that lout” with the “clean-cut expression…which is the epitome of this whole sickening, mechanical, little-boy-at-heart generation”—he had nothing but contempt. Reck was entirely immune from the contagion of the Speer legend. His judgment on Speer—“the most sickening face I know among Nazidom’s second string”—is startlingly different from the picture of a “well-intentioned, educated, principled” gentleman (the epithets are Eugene Davidson’s) so persuasively put before us in the memoirs. What is certain is that no serious estimate can ignore Reck’s judgment. There were—and are—two views of Albert Speer; and both demand a hearing.

If Reck-Malleczewen shows us the danger of seeing Speer only through his own eyes, Joachim Fest’s book is salutary because it so firmly puts him in his place in the Nazi rogues’ gallery. By the simple act of assigning him only eleven pages out of 300, Fest immediately cuts Speer down to size. In any case, Fest has no illusions about the shoddiness of the Nazi leadership, its “poverty of personality” and “lack of original ideas.” Only Goebbels “stood head and shoulders above the bizarre mediocrity of the rest,” and it is noteworthy that Fest refrains from singling out Speer as an exception. For him, as for Reck, Speer’s place is in “Nazidom’s second string.” He ranges him deliberately among the subordinates of the second rank, below the real “practitioners and technicians of totalitarian rule”—Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann—among the “functionaries” on a par with Baldur von Schirach, Rosenberg, and Ribbentrop.

This realistic assessment is useful because Speer systematically exaggerates his own importance. His claim that by 1943 he had risen to the rank of “second man in the state” is an illustration of his vanity, but little else. Speer never carried the same weight with Hitler as Bormann and Goebbels did, and it is not surprising that the Fuehrer more than once found it necessary to cut him down to size. “Herr Speer,” he exclaimed in January, 1944, “I will not have you trying once again to force your ideas on a conference.” It was an admonition he was constantly being forced to repeat. Speer was there to produce statistics, to “let me know your estimate of the armaments situation,” but (Hitler said) “you are to leave to me the conclusions I draw from the armaments situation.” It was a sharp reminder that Speer was a cog in the machine, not the man who pushed the buttons.

What, then, of Speer’s data, upon which in the end his credibility rests? Joachim Fest hints cautiously that the statistics published by Speer must sometimes be taken with a pinch of salt. In fact, the point had been demonstrated beyond all possible doubt a number of years before Speer’s memoirs appeared by Dr. Alan Milward, the foremost authority on the German wartime economy.1 While admitting that documentary evidence, where available, has more often than not confirmed Speer’s statements, Milward also points out that they are not free from “disparities” and “discrepancies.” Moreover, he suggests, Speer was able by careful selection to give “a false impression” without actually “distorting fact.”

It is therefore a singular piece of good fortune that a recent German publication—unaccountably ignored (to the best of my knowledge) by all reviewers of Speer’s memoirs except Willi Frischauer—provides the facts in profusion, as well as a careful, dispassionate appraisal of Speer’s achievement as Minister of Armaments between 1942 and 1945. The core of Willi Boelcke’s important book, described on the wrapper as “the reply of German scholarship to the Speer memoirs,” is a scrupulously annotated text of the reports of Speer’s conferences (ninety-one in all) with Hitler. Its importance lies in its completeness. It enables us, in other words, not only to check Speer’s facts and statistics, but also to inspect the whole range of his wartime activities, not merely those aspects he sees fit to emphasize. The result is a very considerable shift of perspective, a view of Speer’s work not totally but substantially different from that which the memoirs convey.


All this implies that Speer’s memoirs themselves require careful sifting. In fact, it is possible to discover a good deal about how they came to be written, and Speer himself has expatiated upon the subject at length in numerous interviews and television broadcasts.2 According to Speer’s account he first began to write, in the early months of his imprisonment, “to relieve some of the burden” weighing upon his conscience. Later, in 1953, he decided to set down his memoirs “in coherent form,” his purpose now being “to tell his story to his children” and try to make them understand how and why he had erred so grievously.

These “scraps of paper,” over 2,000 pages in all, were smuggled out of prison, and were “the basis” which he “re-worked” into his “present autobiography” after he was released in 1966. They were written, we are told, without reference to source material or to the voluminous literature about the Third Reich which appeared after 1945. Had he, Roger Jellinek asked Speer, refreshed his memory by reading such books after his release? “I started to,” was the reply, “but I soon stopped because it was confusing. Apart from checking facts and dates at the Federal Archives in Koblenz, I decided to restrict myself to my own memory, to be only a witness.”

So far Speer. No doubt what he says is true. But is it the whole truth? In the first place it is perfectly obvious, whatever he may say to the contrary, that Speer is extremely well versed in the relevant literature, including even specialized foreign monographs such as Edward Homze’s account of the conflicts between Speer and Sauckel over the control and allocation of manpower.3 Nor is it easy, with the best will in the world, to believe that a book so full of precise dates and figures—a book, indeed, whose structure rests upon an exact chronology—was written from memory and merely “checked” after the event.

Short of collating Speer’s prison notes and his published text, we can only guess how much of the final version derives from the former and how much from subsequent reading and research and from the documents of his ministry. But if the internal evidence is anything to go by, it would appear that the book as we have it was put together after 1966 on the basis of a considerable, carefully collated documentation. In other words, the relationship between the prison notes and the published text appears to be almost the opposite of that which Speer suggests: instead of the notes being the “basis,” it seems far more likely, for anyone approaching the text critically, that the archive material is the basis and that the personal recollections and explanations noted down in prison have been used to fill out and embellish it.

Does this matter? I think it does. The picture of a man writing from inner compulsion with no idea of publication is nicely calculated to win our sympathies, but it accords ill with what is otherwise known of Speer, who was never a man to hide his light under a bushel. There is an amusingly sardonic passage in Dr. Milward’s book in which he describes how Speer turned up in 1945 in the reception center for important prisoners “with a bulging briefcase of documents.” He had “an amazing story to tell. To whom should he tell it?”

Those of us who had to do with such things at the time know only too well that he told it to all and sundry. Speer’s interrogations poured off the duplicating machine, were uncritically gobbled up, and became for a time a main “source” for the history of wartime Germany. Speer was evidently itching to get his version on record. One of the more extraordinary passages in his book recounts how, when the moment came to abandon Hitler’s sinking ship, Speer made plans to flee to Greenland with “boxes of books…writing materials and a great deal of paper”—“for I wanted to start on my memoirs without delay.”

This guileless confession tells us a good deal about Speer’s motivations. Why was it so urgent, with Germany and Europe lying in ruins, not least of all through Speer’s own efforts, that he should start forthwith to write his memoirs? The answer, evidently, is self-justification. The picture Speer put before his interrogators after his capture was that of a man who gradually saw the light and so was deserving of sympathy, who after being Hitler’s friend and the most powerful member of his government finished up a bitter and determined opponent of the Nazi regime. On at least sixty separate occasions between January and May, 1945, Speer told his interrogators, he committed acts of high treason; he even made plans (which, of course, proved technically impracticable) to assassinate Hitler in his bunker. These were the stories which saved Speer’s neck in 1946 and are now paraded again, at far greater length, to restore his public image. Rarely was a book written with a more single-minded eye on publication and on the impression it would make upon the public.

Nor had Speer any hesitation about modifying, or “improving,” his recollections, if it seemed that the impression might not be too favorable. As Eugene Davidson points out, there are at least two versions of Speer’s final visit to Hitler a few days before the Fuehrer’s suicide, and though we shall never know which, if either, to believe, it is significant that the one finally adopted puts Speer before us in the best of all possible lights: a man of deep and genuine feeling who, for all the repulsion he now felt for Hitler, was too warm-hearted to abandon him to his fate, but instead was driven by human compassion to undertake the perilous flight into beleaguered Berlin in order to bid farewell to his fallen leader.

Nor is this the only place where Speer reaches out for sympathy and respect. We have it on Jellinek’s authority that it was only after being warned that the American response to his book would depend on how directly he “confronted his responsibility” that Speer faced up to such unpleasant facts as the “final solution” and the concentration camps. Hitherto “he had not made much of that aspect.”

What changes in Speer’s manuscript resulted from this warning we can only surmise. But it seems likely at least that the passages in which Speer expresses remorse and contrition for the prisoners-of-war and concentratio camp inmates who labored under indescribable conditions in his factories passages which have won praise from reviewers as evidence of his “underlying decency”—were, in reality, inserted ex post facto as a sop to American susceptibilities.

These criticisms of Speer’s memoirs may seem pedantic and pettifogging, even ungenerous. I think not. No competent historian would think of using Richelieu’s memoirs or Talleyrand’s memoirs without first submitting them to critical analysis, and there is no reason why Speer’s memoirs should be treated differently. It is credible enough that Speer, under the shattering impact of his prison sentence, may have felt a genuine need to unburden his conscience. But his book is not the outpourings of a tormented soul but the carefully edited apologia of a singularly self-possessed and highly motivated individual. Nothing would be more misleading than to defer criticism because of Speer’s disarming candor, his willingness to admit his mistakes and accept responsibility.

If we were concerned with the personal aspects of Speer’s story, it would be necessary to test his credibility still further, to probe the ambiguities and prevarications which (as it seems to me) are only too evident in the concluding sections of his memoirs where he seeks to convince us of his repudiation of Hitler and his espousal of “open revolt.” I am bound to say that I find nothing he tells us on this score entirely convincing—of none of it would I care to put my hand to my heart and say that it is the whole truth and nothing but the truth—not least of all the almost obligatory story of his half-hearted plot to kill Hitler, of which the only independent witness (a certain Dr. Stahl) died in 1963. But Speer as an individual, and the picture he himself seeks to convey, are matters of small historical significance, scarcely more important than the tittle-tattle he retails about Eva Braun and other luminaries of Hitler’s court and household. Even his picture of Hitler, whom he knew so well, adds nothing substantial to Alan Bullock’s familiar portrait; while his descriptions of other figures in the Nazi hierarchy are so warped by spite and animosity that they should be treated with the utmost reserve.

All in all, the value of Speer’s memoirs as an historical source seems to me to have been greatly exaggerated. Their main interest, and the main reason for concerning ourselves with them, lies in the way they underpin the Speer legend; and to that, having cleared the ground, we may now turn.


The Speer legend hinges on Speer’s achievement as Armaments Minister after he succeeded Dr. Todt in this job on February 8, 1942; and it is therefore with Speer’s wartime record, rather than with the young architect who rose so rapidly after his first meeting with Hitler in July, 1933, that we must begin, for if Speer’s wartime achievement was not quite so spectacular as the legend suggests, the rest of the story also may stand in need of revision.

Not that Speer’s achievement was not remarkable. There is no need to go over once again the well-known figures which have been common knowledge ever since Speer turned up with his “bulging briefcase of documents” in 1945. The fivefold increase in German tank production during Speer’s tenure of office, the rise in the output of fighter aircraft from a monthly average of only 849 in 1943 to a record figure of 3,031 in September, 1944, and other increases of the sort are commonplaces which can be found in all histories of the Second World War. What is important is to put these figures into perspective and to assess Speer’s own contribution to the German war effort, and happily this is no longer difficult to do, because Dr. Milward and Dr. Boelcke have analyzed the facts and pointed the way.

Speer, like Hitler, was fascinated by the magic of statistics; he used them like a conjurer to impress the Fuehrer and make his own position more secure. But statistics, we all know, can deceive as well as illuminate, and Speer’s statistics are often deceptively optimistic. He may have had ulterior motives for telling Hitler in October, 1944, that the production of German fighter aircraft exceeded that of “England, America, Canada and Australia combined,” or for assuring the assembled Gauleiters a couple of months earlier that over 2,100 tanks and armored fighting vehicles had been produced in July—both of which statements were blatantly untrue—but the trouble with Speer’s statistics, as Dr. Boelcke has shown, lies deeper and consists essentially in putting the whole story of German war production in a falsely dramatic light.

In sober fact the over-all increase in output during Speer’s tenure of office was not dramatic. Between March, 1942, and the end of 1944 the total average monthly output rather more than doubled. But there is a very simple explanation for this, and that is that down to the end of 1941 there had been no expectation of a long war in Germany and the German war industry had been allowed to run in low gear. Hence it was not difficult, once the decision to go over to large-scale manufacture had been taken, to step up productivity, first by increasing the working week to sixty (and often to seventy-two) hours, and secondly by introducing shift work (though, significantly, the German industrial machine was not efficient enough to permit the introduction of the three-shift system in use in England).

If, in addition, we bear in mind the ruthless exploitation of the manpower and resources of conquered Europe—Speer openly spoke of reducing the occupied territories to “deserts”—the relative success of Speer’s policies is easily understood. But his success was only relative. The monthly rate of increase (4.7 percent in 1943, in 1944 only 2 percent) lagged far behind Speer’s own expectations. Furthermore, spectacular increases in one branch were only secured at the cost of corresponding decreases in others, with resultant imbalances. Speer himself, for example, states that a twenty-fold expansion of output of submachine guns was only obtained at the expense of heavy weapons; while the production of fighter aircraft rose from 17 to 80 percent, that of bombers declined from 62 to 5 percent.

Perhaps more significant still, numerical increases were bought by the sacrifice of quality. Already in March, 1942, Speer was writing of producing anti-tank rockets “on a more primitive basis”; by July, 1944, the aircraft industry was under orders to avoid “excessive mechanization.” It is scarcely accidental that the Heinkel I62 “people’s fighter”—the cheap, mass-produced jet aircraft upon which the Germans pinned their hopes in the last stages of the war—proved upon subsequent examination to be aerodynamically unsound and unfit for operational use.

Statistics with an arbitrary base line can be used to prove almost anything, and it is certainly not unfair to ask why, if (according to Speer’s figures) over 23,000 fighter aircraft were produced in 1944, the German Air Force had only 156 operational fighters available in the whole of the West to oppose the huge Allied airfleet (over 12,000 aircraft in all) when the invasion of Normandy took place. Allied bombing, no doubt, is part of the explanation, but the discrepancy is far too great to be accounted for by Allied bombing alone. As early as 1943, after a major setback in Russia, Goebbels asked pertinently: “What has happened to the increased production which Speer promised?” And Speer himself confessed a year later that no one believed his figures; “everywhere it is said that they are lies.”

Speer’s figures may not have been lies, but they were certainly assembled in such a way as to make the most of his achievement. The picture he paints is of a lagging war production which he galvanized into action, and his appointment in February, 1942, therefore stands out as the turning point in the whole German war effort. This picture, as Dr. Milward has shown, is simply not true. The real change had come earlier, and “the great increases…which started with Speer’s assumption of office”—59.6 percent, according to Speer’s figures, between February and July 1942—“were due to the period of reform which had gone before.” When Speer writes that “within half a year of my taking office we had significantly increased production in all the areas within our scope,” the simple answer, as Dr. Milward points out, is that this increase “began too early to be the work of Speer.”

What forced the Nazis to reorganize the armaments industry was the shock of failure when the German Blitzkrieg ground to a halt in Russia in December, 1941, the realization of the inadequacies of German equipment, and the appalling losses of tanks, guns, and aircraft; and both the decision had been taken and the new methods worked out before Speer came on the scene. If we knew as much about Speer’s predecessor, Dr. Todt, as we know (largely from his own mouth) about Speer, our whole picture of the latter would require substantial modification. Todt, not Speer, convinced Hitler of the need for thoroughgoing reform, and the directives Hitler issued on December 3, 1941, and January 10, 1942, marked the vital break. When Speer came along the crucial decisions had already been taken.

It is against this background that Speer’s activities as Armaments Minister have to be seen. His organizing ability is undoubted, but it certainly was not superlative. We naturally cannot know how anyone else would have done in his place; but when he writes that Hitler could not afford to dispense with his services because his “fall would have…endangered the war effort,” it is certainly possible to think of others—for example, Saur, who ultimately displaced him and whom Hitler regarded as a “genius”—who, given the circumstances, might have achieved as much.

Speer writes with pride of the “successful industrial apparatus” which was his “own creation” (though in reality, as Dr. Milward has shown, its originator was Todt). But when we look more closely at Speer’s much lauded organization of the armaments industry, what we see, as Dr. Boelcke points out, is not systematic over-all planning but a series of improvisations. In this respect Nazi Germany lagged far behind England and the Soviet Union, and for this Speer must take his share of responsibility.

Characteristically it was not until December 14, 1944, that he finally adopted the slogan “Planning, not Emergency Measures” (Planung statt Dringlichkeit) and then only with effect from March 1, 1945.

This failure to plan systematically ahead runs through Speer’s work. The reason, of course, is that like Hitler he still believed in Blitzkrieg tactics and the doctrine of the knock-out blow. Following renewed setbacks on the Russian front in the spring of 1942 he came out as an advocate of the total mobilization of all auxiliary forces, a step that was bound to have adverse repercussions on war production; but he justified this policy on the grounds that “we can only win with the weapons we have now, not with those we are going to have next year.”

The paradoxical result is that, although the necessity for refitting the German armed forces with modern equipment was painfully apparent from 1942 at latest, it was always subordinated to the immediate tactical needs of the moment. The abilities of German scientists and technicians were second to none, but they were squandered. One of the most hopeful and remarkable of their achievements was the ground-to-air rocket for defense against air attack; but Speer decided in agreement with Hitler to drop its development (he now says it was one of his most serious mistakes) although it had reached a point by 1942 where “mass production would soon have been possible.”

Similarly no firm and consistent policy was adopted, until far too late in the day, about jet aircraft. This was a field in which the Germans had a definite advantage, but the German Air Force ended the war to all practical intents and purposes with the Me. 109 and FW. 190 fighters which were the standard equipment in 1942. Quantity came before quality, and Germany found itself increasingly outclassed in weapons. For all Speer’s “technocratic genius,” the German war industry never achieved a technical breakthrough in any way comparable to the astounding American success in developing the Thunderbolt and Mustang long-range fighters, an astonishing feat of organizational and technical capacity which left the Germans gasping for breath.


A critical assessment of Speer’s wartime record is essential as a basis for evaluating current views of his role and importance. Though singularly unanimous, these seem to me difficult to sustain. They may be summed up in Arthur Schlesinger’s judgment that Speer was, like Lindbergh, “essentially” a technologist, “hopelessly at sea in the realm of politics.” This verdict is echoed by Joachim Fest who speaks of Speer’s “mixture of political innocence and restricted specialist outlook,” and even by so sober and cautious a historian as Alan Bullock. According to Bullock, Speer was “interested far more in the job he had to do than in the power it brought him”; he “disinterested himself in politics” and “stood apart from the contest for power which absorbed the energies of men like Bormann.” “A technician,” says Eugene Davidson; “a typical technocrat,” says Terence Prittie.

The essential fact about these judgments is that they take at face value the picture propagated by Speer himself both at Nuremberg and in his memoirs. I would suggest that it is a fundamentally misleading picture. Speer was no political innocent, and it seems to me that his career owes more to his political commitment than to his technical and organizational capacity, though both, of course, were present.

In his memoirs Speer consistently plays down his political involvement, even claiming that at the time he became minister he was “a complete outsider…to the party.” The facts tell a different tale. Many Germans joined the Nazi party in 1931 out of sheer opportunism. Not so Speer. He, on the contrary, was genuinely won over by its promise of “new ideals, a new understanding, new tasks,” and no one thereafter, as Dr. Boelcke says, ever doubted his “irreproachable Nazi convictions.” Moreover, he not merely joined the party but enrolled in the brown-shirted Storm troopers (or SA) in 1931 and the black shirts (or SS) in 1932, placed himself under the wing of Hanke, the Gauleiter in West Berlin, achieved high rank on the staff of Hess and Goebbels, and was awarded the Golden Party Badge as early as 1938.

These are facts we have to bear in mind when Speer assures us that he “had scarcely any contacts with party circles” and that “political events did not concern me.” If the struggle for power is an essential part of politics, Speer was as politically motivated as anyone else in the Nazi hierarchy. His ambition was enormous, his empire-building insatiable. According to Boelcke his aim was to exercise economic dictatorship over the whole of Europe. But the most arresting fact of all is his frank avowal that he hoped to step into Hitler’s shoes as his successor. No one, so far as I am aware, has attempted to reconcile Speer’s ambition for the highest position in the Nazi state with the picture of a political innocent who regarded his “work as architect” as his “life task”; and yet it seems to me to be an essential key.

That the driving force of Speer’s life was intense personal ambition is already apparent in his prewar architectural career. At what stage it turned to politics we can only surmise; but it was certainly a more powerful factor in his career as Minister of Armaments than organizational skill. This is probably what Schwerin von Krosigk had in mind when he said that “Speer’s personality played a greater part in his successes than his technical knowledge or his talent for organization,” and there is clearly much truth in his view.

As Speer himself never tires of insisting, he was no “technician” in any ordinary sense of the word. He knew far less of the technology of armaments than either Hitler or Saur, and he even chides Hitler for his “recklessness” and “frivolity” in choosing him to succeed Todt as Armaments Minister. That is disingenuous, to say the least. Speer had already given ample proof of his abilities in this field during the early war years. As chief of construction work under Todt he had doubled the floor space available for aircraft production, and at the time of Todt’s death he was in charge of building and repair throughout the entire Ukraine. Hitler rightly saw in Speer a man of boundless drive and energy. But drive and energy, invaluable as they are in war, are not the same as technocratic genius, and to attribute to Speer the “technocratic amorality” and “political neutralism” of the “narrow specialist,” as Joachim Fest does, seems to me to ignore the mainsprings of his active career.

If one wishes to find in Nazi Germany an example of a man more interested (in Bullock’s words) “in the job he had to do than in the power it brought him,” it is to Todt that one should look, not to Speer. This is the essential difference between them and the reason for Todt’s (relative) failure and Speer’s (relative) success. Todt had neither the political expertise nor the political connections to push through the reorganization he knew to be necessary until the setback in Russia gave him his chance. Above all, he did not possess the ready access to Hitler which Speer had enjoyed ever since the palmy prewar days when, as Hitler’s favorite architect, he became a privileged member of the Fuehrer’s fireside circle.

From the moment he became minister in 1942 Speer pressed his advantages home. In fact, it can be said that he was successful so long as he retained Hitler’s confidence and lost control when Hitler withdrew it. He also made unhesitating use of his party connections. Speer prides himself in his memoirs on his “methods of democratic economic leadership,” but in fact we know that almost his first step after he became minister in 1942 was to enlist the support of Himmler and his SS thugs to dragoon German industry with threats of the concentration camp and the death penalty. The jackboot, as much the symbol of Nazism as the swastika, was his ultimate sanction.

All this suggests that Speer’s career is only intelligible in the context of Nazism and of his own intense Nazi convictions. This, rather than special technological skills, was what carried him forward. As a “technocrat” Speer was satisfied to fall back upon methods already employed by Rathenau during the First World War. Dr. Boelcke speaks of “dilettantism” and “a dilettantish economic direction” as characteristic of Speer’s stewardship. This verdict may be too strong. But what we look for in vain in the organization he built up in wartime Germany are the sophisticated techniques of management—of men, as well as of materials and money—which are the marks of postwar technocratic society. Of economics and sociology, the key sciences of modern administration, he was certainly innocent. His successes, both in his early career as Hitler’s architect and later as Armaments Minister, were based on a lavish, totally uneconomic use of men and money which was only possible in a robber state like Nazi Germany and which bears no relation to conditions in the contemporary world.

These are some of the reasons why it is difficult to regard Speer as simply a “typical technocrat.” That he had great personal abilities, perhaps even outstanding abilities, no one would deny. But the qualities of drive, youth, ambition, self-confidence, political commitment, and fanatical devotion to the Nazi cause, which drove him on, have no special aura of modernity, any more than the Nazi state which he served was a prefiguration of modern technocratic society. They are qualities we meet at every turn of history, and one has only to think of the great Carnot, who performed miracles in supplying and equipping the armies of the French revolution, to realize that the sort of results Speer achieved were no different from those which energetic, strong-willed men have achieved in all ages.

On the other hand, the failure to develop a German atom bomb or to capitalize on the remarkable achievements of the German rocket scientists, in spite of Speer’s admiration for Wernher von Braun, points clearly to his limitations. It is surely significant, as David Irving has pointed out,4 that it was Himmler who ordered, and Speer who opposed, the release from military service of the personnel engaged in atomic research. Here were revolutionary discoveries which heralded the future and foreshadowed a complete transformation of the art of war; but it was in the United States, not in Nazi Germany, that the scientific vision, the organizational skill, and the technological equipment were found with which to realize their potentialities.


When we turn back from Speer’s wartime career to his prewar career as Hitler’s architect, we find the same limitations. Just as his handling of the German war economy has nothing to teach us about the organization of industry in modern technocratic society, so the buildings he designed bear no visible relation to the architecture of reconstructed Europe or to the clean-cut functionalism of postwar American buildings. As Armaments Minister Speer was obsessed by quantity, by sheer output, and by statistics; as architect he was obsessed by size. Characteristically he took as his models the despots of the ancient world, Nero, Caracalla, Darius, Xerxes. His ambition was to outbuild them all, to ensure that Nazi Germany had the biggest, most massive, most enduring monuments of all time.

Even today Speer’s fascination with the sheer immensity of his projects is undiminished. Just as he bombards us with figures to show how successful he was in increasing armaments, so in describing his architectural triumphs he spares us no detail of length, height, area, volume, and cost. His only criterion is vastness. “The Statue of Liberty is 151 feet high; our statue will be 46 feet higher.” When he and Hitler designed a triumphal arch it was so big that the Arc de Triomphe in Paris would have fitted into it 49 times, and the reception room he planned for Hitler was to contain 741,510 cubic feet as compared with only 57,600 cubic feet in the White House.

Today, it is true, Speer attributes “this love of vast proportions” to Hitler and his “megalomania,” implying that he was only the executant of Hitler’s ideas. The truth is otherwise. It was he, not Hitler, who conceived of a structure “twice the length of the Baths of Caracalla,” and he showed his model to the Fuehrer “with trepidation,” fearing it might be rejected because “the design went far beyond the scope of my assignment.” The grandiose plans for rebuilding Berlin were Hitler’s, but it was Speer who took the initiative in designing the “giant complex” of party buildings at Nuremberg. It was his contribution to the Nazi dream, the expression of his total commitment to Nazi ideology, which he later carried with him to the Armaments Ministry. He was “intoxicated,” as he tells us, by the idea of creating “stone witnesses” to testify for all time to the power of the Thousand Year Reich, as the pyramids of Egypt testified to the power and splendor of the Pharoahs.

Speer seriously believed he was on the way to becoming one of “the most famous architects of history.” He could not have been more wrong. But a few words on his architectural career are necessary because of the light it throws on the basic attitudes and motivations of the man who was later to play so important a role in the Nazi war effort. One sees, in the first place, the same overweening ambition, the same self-assurance, and the same genius for improvisation which carried him forward as Armaments Minister.

He had an unerring eye for the main chance when it arrived a few weeks after the Nazi victory in 1933. There was to be a great night rally to celebrate the victory, but when Speer’s patron, Gauleiter Hanke, showed him the original designs they “outraged” his “revolutionary feelings.” “If you can do better, go to it,” said Hanke. Speer needed no encouragement. Within a few hours he improvised a scheme—platforms, searchlights, banners “taller than a ten-storey building”—which thereafter became his trademark and stock-in-trade.

It also showed how completely he had absorbed Nazi ideas and attitudes. Speer specifically denies that there was any such thing as a “Fuehrer style.” But one has only to look at Speer’s designs for the Nuremberg party rallies to see how perfectly they expressed the shallow, meretricious, theatrical spirit of Nazism. The odd thing is that he still looks back on these sickening show pieces with pride: his “cathedral of light,” he tells us, remains for him his “most beautiful architectural concept.”

It was not as an architect in any real sense of the word but as a sort of impresario providing a stage setting for Nazi rallies that Speer emerged from the brown-shirted rut into the Nazi limelight. After his first improvised success—a quickly patched-up job of wooden struts and swastikas—he could do no wrong, and one commission followed another. His quickly extemporized plans for the first Nuremberg rally in 1933 brought him into contact with Hitler, but it was less his talent for improvisation than his drive and energy that won the Fuehrer’s heart.

What impressed Hitler about Speer, and was to impress him again during the war, was his self-confident willingness to accept schedules no one else would entertain and his ability to deliver the goods. It was, the Fuehrer said, “a unique achievement.” Nothing, perhaps, weighed more with Hitler when he appointed Speer to the Armaments Ministry in 1942 than the speed with which he had completed the building of the new Chancellery in 1938; and if it was accomplished through a sovereign disregard of ways and means (“the cost is immaterial”), this also was a part of Nazi philosophy.

Nevertheless Speer’s intimate relations with Hitler also expressed a more fundamental affinity. If Hitler chose Speer to carry out his “greatest architectural task,” it was because both shared the same architectural vision. Architecture for both was a symbol of political ideology, an expression of German power and of German aspirations to world dominion. A new Berlin was necessary “to adapt it to its great new mission.” Both thought in terms of gigantic proportions to exorcise their inferiority complex and prove that “we are the complete equals of every other nation”; both craved for massive, monumental buildings which, “even in a state of decay,” would “speak to the conscience of a future Germany centuries from now.”

This craving for permanence betrays the inner uncertainty of Nazi Germany. So also does its failure to find a style of artistic expression of its own. As Joachim Fest observes, “The ambitious artistic efforts of the Third Reich never passed beyond classical limitations to an original aesthetic.” This is certainly true of Speer, who aspired at best to a derivative Doric neoclassicism which allegedly expressed the affinities between the Dorians and the Germanic race. In actual fact, the main characteristics of his buildings, as he now admits, were “ostentation,” “pomp,” “excessive ornamentation.” When the American expatriate, Chips Channon, in all other respects a fervent admirer of the Nazis, saw the palaces Speer had built for Goering and Goebbels in 1936, their tastelessness horrified him.5 They were “vulgar,” “theatrical,” “too large,” and “unimpressive,” and when someone remarked, “There has never been anything like this since the days of Louis Quatorze,” Channon retorted, “Not since Nero!”

If Speer’s architecture deserves consideration it is not for its own qualities—for it had none—but because of the insight it gives us into his character and limitations. Nothing reveals more clearly the mainsprings of his career. It also casts light on the Nazi phenomenon as a whole, its poverty of inspiration, and in particular its coarseness and mediocrity. Speer was the second-rate architect of a second-rate replica of the empire of Attila the Hun. If his architecture expresses anything beyond brute force and the need to impress, it is the will of the Nazi leaders to elevate themselves above the social realities of their time. As Harold Rosenberg has written,6 “The heroic figures of Nazi painting and sculpture carry on their faces a peevish emptiness directed, like Nazi politics itself, against every fact and idea of the twentieth century.”

It is right that Speer’s buildings, particularly the Chancellery he built for Hitler in Berlin, should have perished almost without trace; for they have nothing to contribute to the world in which we live. In art and architecture, as well as in ideology and politics, the face of Nazi Germany was turned to the past, not to the future.


Nazi Germany inherited an immense potential, and few things in its history are more paradoxical than its failure to exploit this potential systematically. The simple explanation is that the Nazis were second-rates—“beer-cellar rowdies,” as Goebbels called them—but this explanation, though true, is inadequate. The explanation of the failure of the Nazis to meet the challenge of a technological age is more complex.

The efficiency and success of German industry are proverbial. It had stormed ahead with extraordinary speed and self-confidence ever since the founding of the Second Empire in 1871. But the German industrial revolution (unlike, for example, the industrial revolution in England) carried within it—like a malignant internal growth—a counterrevolution which fed on the tissues of industrial society and grew larger and more painful the further industrialization proceeded. Weimar Germany was permeated by anti-industrial yearnings, shared alike by proto-Nazis and those, like Reck-Malleczewen and the Scholls, who were later to lay down their lives in opposition to Hitler; and the initial Nazi success owed much to its ability to capitalize on them.

National Socialism took its place on the stage of history as the supreme expression of this counterrevolution, which was so deeply rooted in the German past. Behind the panoply of power and the monolithic façade which Speer’s architecture was intended to symbolize were not only a structural chaos and an almost pathological contempt for rational administration—for the sort of administration necessary for coping with the immense complexity of modern industrial society—but also a repugnance, deeply imbedded in Nazi ideology, for technology and the consequences of living in a technological age.

It is in this sense that Nazism, with its cult of the heroic, is rooted in the past. Goering, according to Joachim Fest, was skeptical of all technical developments and insisted that ramming enemy aircraft was “the most dignified way of fighting.” Hitler himself still thought of war in terms of fortitude, endurance, and the “toughness” of the individual soldier. According to Speer, who should have known, he was “filled with a fundamental distrust of all innovations.” His technical horizon was limited by his experience in the First World War, and for all his interest in armaments his central concern was the improvement of existing weapons, not systematic development of new ones. His attitude to rockets, the possibilities of atomic energy, and the whole range of “secret weapons” was (in Dr. Boelcke’s words) more like that of a seventeenth-century alchemist, searching for a magic formula to turn defeat into victory, than of a modern scientist.

It would, of course, be wrong to tar Speer with the same brush as Goering and Hitler. The admiration he felt for Wernher von Braun was certainly genuine. But the fact remains, as we have already noted, that he did not use the immense powers he claimed to possess to give priority to rocket development, although he still believes that, employed as a ground-to-air missile, it could have “beaten back the Western Allies’ air offensive.” Dr. Milward’s considered judgment, after surveying all the evidence, is that Speer had “very little interest in scientific development” and that “the German war economy suffered throughout from a lack of skilled scientific direction and fundamental scientific research.”

If true, this judgment casts a good deal of light on Speer’s claim that he was “dazzled by the possibilities of technology.” In reality, his attitude toward science was not much less amateurish than Hitler’s. What attracted him about Wernher von Braun, then twenty-seven years old, was a romantic vision of youth at the helm. Speer was deeply imbued with the euphoria of youth, another characteristic Nazi obsession. His admiration for von Braun expressed the fellow-feeling of a young man who believed that anyone over forty-five should be pensioned off and who deliberately filled the leading positions in his ministry with persons of his own age group. Von Braun and the circle of young scientists around him appealed to his deepest instincts because they were “mathematical romantics” with “fantastic visions.”

Fest speaks of Speer’s “very German, romantically tinged enthusiasm,” and there can be no doubt that romanticism, in combination with driving ambition and self-assurance, was a fundamental trait of his character. It places him firmly in his time and place. Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was full of young men and women who shared his romantic illusions, and Speer’s youthful reminiscences could be those of many other young middle-class Germans of his day. His obsession with Nature and “the harmony of Creation,” his need to withdraw to the mountains, his “contempt for luxury and comfort” and preference for battling with “storms, icy rains and cold,” above all the sense of “escaping from the demands of a world growing increasingly complicated,” were no less characteristic, a dozen or more years later, of Hans Scholl.

And the ideas Speer imbibed from his mentor, the architect Tessenow, belief in “the importance of the peasantry as a mainstay for the state,” in the virtues of handicrafts and small town life and the demoralizing effect of the metropolis, meet us again, in even more crass exaggeration, in the diary of Reck-Malleczewen. Germany, Reck proclaims, “must avoid the expedients of industrial expansion” and “base itself on agriculture and pastoral economy.” It was a nostalgia which the Nazis appropriated and exploited, and more than half believed.

One of the paradoxes of the German resistance to Hitler lay in the fact that it sprang from the same roots as Hitlerism itself. This explains its ambiguities and contradictions. Not for nothing did Speer and Scholl and Reck-Malleczewen all read Rilke and Stefan George and Nietzsche and Spengler. Not for nothing did they commune with nature on the mountain tops and gaze down with dreamy eyes at ruined castles and the tangled streets of Germany’s medieval cities.

Speer’s obsessive concern with the architecture of the late Roman Empire is curiously paralleled by Reck, who returns again and again to the theme of Rome’s decline as the “precedent” for the contemporary situation. It was the theme of Spengler, the spiritual godfather of them all—the embodiment in Reck’s eyes of “the stoicism…of a late-Roman emperor”—and not least among the reasons for Speer’s conversion to National Socialism was his belief that in Hitler “Spengler’s dark predictions” had been “refuted and his prophecy of the coming of a new Roman emperor simultaneously fulfilled.” Germany’s fate was to be a new Rome staving off the future; this was its historic mission and in a curious way it was as hopeless and “tragic” as Rome’s had been.

This common spiritual ancestry explains the strength of the German attachment to the past. It did not, of course, imply a common political line. Spengler himself, until his death in 1936, had been an unrelenting opponent of the Nazis; hence his affinity with Reck. The Scholls had begun as normal members of the Hitler Youth and their lives are the story of their pilgrimage, step by step, from this unlikely beginning to the scaffold. The courage and steadfastness with which they pursued it is astounding. Nothing could have sustained them but faith and conscience; but if this was their strength it was also their limitation.

It is possible, as Peter Stern has suggested, that Hans Scholl had come to the conclusion that the evil of Nazism could not be remedied but only redeemed.7 The fact remains that the White Rose group was concerned essentially with the moral problem, and though a moral stand against Nazism was necessary, it was not in itself enough. In thinking that it was, in stopping at this point, the members of the White Rose showed how far they were emmeshed in their German past. They too were unable to make the transition to the future.

What does my death matter,” said Sophie Scholl, “if through us thousands of people will be stirred to action and awakened?” But the dreadful fact is that no one was stirred, least of all the students upon whom their hopes were pinned. And the reason was not simply the “cowardice and lethargy” of the German people, which Reck bemoaned and castigated, nor even enthusiasm for the Nazi cause, but more fundamentally that the Scholls had nothing to propound beyond the example of individual self-sacrifice. Above all, they had no coherent program. The leaflets they distributed, with their long quotations from Schiller and Goethe, from Novalis and Lao-tzu, are painfully inept, their message fumbled and indistinct. “What was to come afterward,” says Inge Scholl, “was more a presentiment than a firm concept”; they were content to hope that the defeat of Nazism “would in time show the way to a programme for the future.”

The same defect runs through Reck-Malleczewen’s diary entries. For all his invective, what strikes one most is the dearth of constructive ideas. It would be hard to find, even in the writings of Nazi philosophers such as Rosenberg and Darré, a more preposterous farrago of incoherent and often selfcontradictory notions (which does not mean that Reck did not occasionally have profound flashes of insight). But when finally, in August, 1943, he formulated a positive plan, all that can be said of its content is that it is shockingly naïve and irrelevant.

Shorn of verbiage, Reck’s proposals are, first, to “release Germany from Prussian hegemony” and, secondly, to get rid of “senseless over-industrialization.” What strikes one about these propositions is their total irrelevance to the immediate reality of Nazi terror. The first betrays Reck’s idealization of the Bavarian peasantry, who we now know were Hitler’s most consistent supporters. With the second the cat is out of the bag. The real evil was not Hitlerism, which was “only a symptom” of “a deep disturbance of cosmic proportions,” but “technology,” which for Reck meant everything that had happened since 1870, if not since 1789.

Reck’s solution, in short, like that of the Nazis, was to turn his back on the present and future. Like them, he rejected “the cabinet system” and believed that the Germans “need a master.” The only difference was who the “master” should be, and over that no one was likely to lay down his life. “Technology,” Reck proclaimed in the middle of the war, was “playing out its last grim moments.” He even foresaw a time when it would be “sent to the Devil” and “science, if it does not actually disappear, will be relegated to the periphery.” Could a prophet ever have been more wrong?

But among so much which is not only wrong but wrong-headed, Reck’s intuitions on other occasions enabled him to hit the nail on the head. His judgments on the Nazis are devastating. National Socialism, for him, was “nothing more than one last desperate attempt to prolong the nineteenth century”—a judgment which expresses a central truth about Nazism and one that can be confirmed from many different points of view. Fest, for example, points out that the philosophy of Nazism (if the term is permissible) was nothing but the Social Darwinism of the dying nineteenth century writ large, and Speer himself observes that Hitler “remained arrested” in “the world of 1870 to 1910” which “stamped its imprint” not only upon “his artistic taste” but upon “his political and ideological conceptions” as well. And since his ideas were formed at the height of the imperialist age, inevitably they included a crude, backward-looking imperialism which looked back beyond the British Empire to ancient Rome and the predatory conquerors of the ancient Orient.

It would, of course, be a mistake to exaggerate the archaism of National Socialism. It is always possible to combine a romantic yearning for the past with the uninhibited use of means and materials provided by the present, and in Germany the strong anti-industrial and anti-modern undercurrent went side by side with advancing industrialization. Hitler was always willing to jettison cherished Nazi tenets, such as the mystique of the peasantry and anticapitalism, when it was expedient, and in one respect at least Nazi Germany cast its shadow forward into the future. This was its use of propaganda, in Fest’s view “the genius of National Socialism” and “its one and only original contribution.”

But even when this is granted, we are left with the fundamental ambiguities in the Nazi position and their inhibiting effects which—with the sole exception, perhaps, of Goebbels—affected all the practitioners of National Socialism, including Hitler and Speer. Because, in Ralf Dahrendorf’s formulation, “the entire cloudy National Socialist ideology seemed to demand the recovery of the past,” the Nazis were inhibited from taking the road to modernity.8

This not only explains why they never resolved the technical problems involved in the large-scale coordination of modern industrial society, why the refinements of organization necessary for military victory were neglected and Nazi Germany remained until the end a jungle of competing and conflicting authorities despite its surface unity. It also explains the recourse, so characteristic of Speer, to a series of related emergency improvisations instead of a coherent system with a rationale of its own. The shortcomings of Nazi practice were bound up with the ambiguities of Nazi ideology, and one does not have to support the view that German history represents a single consistent path to National Socialism to see that these ambiguities were the outcome of attitudes which many who were not Nazis, and even were active anti-Nazis, implicitly shared.

Since 1945 the situation has changed. The paradox of National Socialism, as Ralf Dahrendorf has pointed out, is that it accomplished through its failure the revolution it set out to stem. By exposing Germany to devastation, by destroying the very foundations of the old social structure, by sweeping aside the Reck-Malleczewens and all they stood for, the Nazis pushed Germany into the technological age. It was an unintended result, the very opposite of what they set out to do; but it drew a line across the ledger of history which decisively separates us from them.


The temptation to derive lessons from the past is great. It is perhaps also necessary. Why else, it may be asked, study history at all? But we must be sure that they are the right lessons, and my quarrel with the lessons which have been drawn from the Speer story and from the history of Nazi Germany is that this does not seem to be the case. When, for example, Paul Rubens, the translator of Reck-Malleczewen’s diary, tells us that what impelled him to translate the book was “the parallels between that time and this,” and that “the problem Reck-Malleczewen faced is our problem,” I would answer (and I hope the foregoing analysis has shown the reasons why) that the differences are far more significant than the (in my view somewhat specious) similarities.

The reaction I have after reading Joachim Fest’s book is much the same. It is in most respects an admirable book, but the one thing I do not derive from it is the “explanation of modern man’s vulnerability to totalitarianism” which is the lesson he wishes me to learn. For one thing, I am not so sure about this alleged vulnerability; “modern man” seems to me to be able to take care of himself as well as men have done at any other time in their history. And secondly, Nazi Germany seems to me to have been too much of an aberration, too much sui generis, to provide general lessons which we can readily transpose to other times and places.

When Fest argues that Nazi Germany represents “merely one complex of causes,” which might under “different preconditions” lead “to the same or similar totalitarian phenomena” elsewhere, the simple answer is that in fact this is precisely what it did not do. Just as a slump every bit as severe as that which hit Germany in 1930 did not produce a totalitarian solution in the United States—though theoretically it “might” have done so—so in England the war produced not a Speer but an Ernest Bevin, and it soon became clear that democratic methods were every bit as successful as Nazi methods of mobilizing the forces of technology. If FDR was the American reply to Hitler, Ernest Bevin (in other respects no hero of mine) was on all scores Speer’s superior as an organizer of the war economy.

I know, of course, that the view I am propounding is unfashionable. It is apparently more congenial to suppose that we are all—Germans, Americans, Englishmen, and others the whole world over—in the grip of what Reck-Malleczewen liked to regard as “cosmic forces.” I am aware, naturally, that what may occur in some indefinite future is something no one can foretell. And I am not foolish enough to think that “technocratic society”—in this no different from all other forms of society—is without serious problems of its own. But when Speer seeks to convince us that the ultimate significance of “Hitler’s authoritarian system” was that it “very nearly made a reality” of a world “dominated by technology,” I am not only skeptical but outraged. What Hitler threatened, and Speer abetted, was not terrorization by technology but terrorization by gangster rule and terrorization by brute force.

To regard Hitler’s dictatorship as “the first dictatorship…which employed to perfection the instruments of technology” does it too much honor. No technological expertise was required to run the concentration camps, to shoot Reck-Malleczewen in the back of the neck with a revolver, or to behead the Scholls, and even the infamous “gas chambers” can hardly be scored up as a startling technological discovery. What distinguished the Nazis was their primitivism, not their modernity, and the tendency to sheer away from this unpleasant fact and blame everything instead on technology and the depersonalization of man is a typical piece of German double-think.

Nazism was not a product of runaway technology but of human will—and, some would say, of human wickedness. It was not, as Speer would have us believe, “the instruments of technology” that made “eighty million persons…subject to the will of one individual,” but (in Joachim Fest’s words) an “atmosphere in which hostility to reason, brutalization of life and corruption of ethical standards required only to be crystallized in a political outlook and expressed by an eloquent speaker in order to unfold their destructive violence.” What made Nazism effective was not organization and a peculiarly devilish skill in manipulating the machinery of technological society—for, paradoxically, the more we know about Nazi organization, the more defective and inefficient it is seen to have been—but a brutal lack of moral scruples and a rejection of all traditional moral sanctions.

This was something the Scholls and Reck-Malleczewen had no difficulty in perceiving, though Speer did not. And even today it is evidently something he only half comprehends, otherwise he would not write as though his worst crimes were “frivolity and thoughtlessness and breaking with tradition.” That is why, whatever credence we may attach to the facts he retails, the whole tenor of his memoirs is so misleading.

The picture the Speer legend presents, both of Speer himself and of the regime he served, is a distorted picture—whether deliberately distorted or not perhaps hardly matters. That is the justification for analyzing it at what may seem inordinate length, for taking it apart and examining each component to see exactly what it is made of. The business of the historian is certainly not merely to clear away the myths which clutter the past; but when they impinge on the present, as the Speer legend does, they cannot be ignored.

And yet the final impression left by Speer’s crowded pages is not their nearness but their remoteness. The world in which Speer moved is one which history has passed by, and what strikes one most after twenty-five years is the distance which separates him from us. His preoccupation with the Nazi past may be natural for him, but it is not natural for us. We have other, more important things to exercise our minds, and if all he has to tell us is that the corridors of power are filled with ruthless, unscrupulous men at all times and in all places, it was something we knew before Albert Speer arrived on the scene and drove the lesson home.


The Nazi Disease July 1, 1971

The Nazi Disease July 1, 1971

  1. 1

    The German Economy at War by Alan S. Milward. London: Athlone Press, 1965. 214 pp., 35s.

  2. 2

    Most of what he said was gathered together in Roger Jellinek’s article, “A Talk with Albert Speer,” in The New York Times Book Review, August 23, 1970. There are further details in The Listener (London), October 22, 1970.

  3. 3

    Foreign Labor in Nazi Germany by Edward L. Homze. Princeton, 1967, 350 pp., $11.00.

  4. 4

    The German Atomic Bomb by David Irving. Simon & Schuster, 329 pp., $6.95.

  5. 5

    Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon, edited by Robert Rhodes James. Penguin Books, 607 pp., 15s.

  6. 6

    In The Academy (Art News Annual XXXIII), edited by Thomas B. Hess and John Ashbery. Macmillan, 176 pp., $6.95.

  7. 7

    The White Rose” by J. P. Stern, German Life and Letters, vol. XI (1958), pp. 81-101; this is still by far the best account of the movement.

  8. 8

    Society and Democracy in Germany, by Ralf Dahrendorf. Doubleday, 482 pp., $6.95.