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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.

I

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.

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