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In Love With Hitler

Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth

by Gitta Sereny
Alfred Knopf, 757 pp., $35.00

In Molière’s Les Fourberies de Scapin, the valet Scapin, in order to help Léandre obtain the money that will enable him to get married, tells the young man’s father, Géronte, that his son has gone aboard a Turkish galley and that the Turks are now threatening to carry him off to Algiers unless Scapin brings them five hundred écus. Concerned for Léandre’s safety, Géronte is gradually persuaded to hand over the money, but he does so reluctantly, crying again and again, “Que diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?” (“What the devil was he doing in that galley?”)1

In the case of Albert Speer, that question has never gone away. Despite all of his disclaimers, the fact remains that he went aboard the galley early and voluntarily, was not persuaded to attempt to jump ship by any of the brutalities of its captain and crew, and was still at his post, doing his duty, when the vessel foundered. At Nuremberg, he professed a willingness to accept his share of the collective responsibility for the actions of the regime, while denying allegations of complicity in specific crimes, and he portrayed himself as a simple technician with no interest in politics. This probably helped him escape the more extreme penalties imposed upon defendants whose crimes were, in some cases, not obviously greater than his own, although the onset of cold war tensions also helped.

Bradley F. Smith has written that Speer’s fate was decided in an atmosphere in which the Western judges were willing to look with sympathy on “a clean-cut and apparently repentant professional man with strong anti-Soviet tendencies.”2 But after Speer’s memoirs were published in 1970,3 Geoffrey Barraclough pointed out in these pages that his claim to have stood apart from and above politics was the sheerest buncombe, since the record showed that

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…. His aim was to exercise economic dictatorship over the whole of Europe.

Nor did he hesitate to make ruthless use of his party connections.

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.4

The idea that anyone in Speer’s position, sitting at Hitler’s table and engaging in intermittent collaboration and rivalry with the other party satraps, could have been oblivious to the atrocities committed by the regime was to Barraclough absurd.

On the last point, Gitta Sereny was inclined to agree when in July 1977 she unexpectedly received a letter from Speer, expressing his appreciation for a recent article in which she had demolished an attempt by David Irving to prove that Hitler had not known, at least until October 1943, about the extermination of the Jews. Born in Hungary, Sereny had lived in Vienna until the Anschluss of 1938, and then in France and the United States. Since 1958, she has been a journalist in London, with two special passions: troubled children (she had worked with abandoned children in France in 1940 and been a child-welfare officer for the UN in 1946)5 and the crimes of National Socialism. Her book Into That Darkness, about Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, was a study of the extremes of evil of which human beings are capable. In a second letter, Speer wrote to say that he had read it and that it had caused him sleepless nights.

Sereny did not know much about Speer, except what she had learned from the two books he had written since being released from Spandau. She had been made uncomfortable by his public appearances, in which he always seemed too glib and assertive, and she was sure that he was lying about not knowing until Nuremberg about the murder of the Jews. 6 But she was too good a journalist to let an opportunity pass, and she telephoned Speer. Contrary to her expectations, she found him diffident, shy, and, in an intriguing way, somehow sad. There were other telephone calls and exchanges of newspaper clippings, and in the end she went to Heidelberg to interview him for the London Sunday Times Magazine. Before she wrote her article, she had spent three weeks talking with Speer for twelve hours a day and reading documents and letters that he produced for her. And this was only a beginning, for their relationship continued to be close until his death in 1981. During that period she conducted interviews with his family and associates and acquaintances that are reflected in the present book.

It is not a book that tells us much that we did not already know about the history of the National Socialist regime; nor is it a biography in a very systematic sense, for it pays relatively little attention to Speer’s work in his various offices and provides no critical examination, for example, of his accomplishments as minister of armaments. It is an attempt—certainly fascinating and by and large convincing—to understand Speer as a person, to see him through the eyes of those who were closest to him, and to discover the reasons for the tremendous burden of guilt and denial that she discovered lying under the self-assured surface of the public figure who emerged from twenty years in Spandau prison. Where this guilt originated, she was not quite sure. Later, Hans Flächsner, Speer’s lawyer, told her that Lord Shawcross’s powerful summing-up at Nuremberg, with its long description of the killing of a large number of Jews, including women and children, had absolutely devastated Speer, so that he couldn’t stop talking about it for days; and it was perhaps that speech which, while making his refusal to admit knowledge of such crimes more stubborn, afflicted him with a deep sense of personal responsibility. Georges Casalis, the French pastor in Spandau, told Sereny that when he had met Speer he was the most tortured man he had ever known, and years later, when Sereny knew him, he was still deeply troubled. She writes:

It was Speer’s profound malaise with his own conscience, his “battle with his soul,” as Casalis, who understood him like no other, called it, that essentially brought me to write this book. The ambivalence between his moral necessity to confront the long-repressed guilt of his terrible knowledge, and his desperate need to deny—or “block”—it, was the great dilemma of his life, and dominated it from the Nuremberg trials until shortly before his death.

From the very beginning of her work, Sereny was convinced that Speer’s life during the Third Reich could only be understood by close examination of his relationship with Hitler. The two men, she believes, were drawn together by their own deficiencies. Both were virtually incapable of expressing private emotions. George Casalis said of Speer and his wife that they had no idea of sexuality, and his secretaries and staff often talked of his coldness and self-centeredness.

Both [Speer and Hitler], though surrounded by people, remained alone. Both of them, capable of great charm and courted by women, could hardly respond, though neither of them was homosexual. Both not only shied away from but despised manifestations of feelings, and yet, for each of them in his different way, it was emotion that ruled their decisions and dictated many if not most of their acts.

In what the German psychologist Alexander Mitscherlich described as a complex homoerotic, but not sexual, relationship, each fulfilled the other’s needs, Speer representing for Hitler “a dream he might have had of himself; [while] Hitler for Speer was not only the instrument of realization of all his fantasies—that would have been too simple—but the hero, the strong and powerful protector he had sought since childhood.” By implication Hitler was the dominant partner and, in Sereny’s view, it was he who corrupted Speer’s moral sense by the seductive attraction of his grandiose visions.

But certainly, the seeds of corruption lay, as Barraclough suggested, in Speer’s own political ambition. Speer joined the Nazi Party in 1931, inspired by Hitler’s speeches and driven by a conviction that Nazism was the wave of the future. He was careful simultaneously to enroll in the SA, the activist and most visible branch of the party, and a year later transferred to the SS Motorized Corps, which brought him to the attention of Karl Hanke, the party’s organizational leader in Berlin. In July 1932, Hanke commissioned the young architect to build the new party headquarters in the Vosstrasse and, in the following March, to remodel the Ministry of Propaganda in the Wilhelmstrasse. From that time on he worked exclusively for the party, despite his statement at Nuremberg that he had been in private practice until 1942. Speer always had an eye for the main chance and the ability to work fast. His contributions to the décor for the First of May rally in the Tempelhof Field in 1933 and word of his success inside of eight weeks in redesigning Josef Goebbels’s private residence and adding a large reception hall to it seem to have come to Hitler’s ears, and before 1934 was far advanced, Speer was working on the rebuilding of Hitler’s Berlin residence and being taken to lunch by him.

Referring to the first time that this happened, Speer said to Sereny,

Can you imagine this?… Here I was, young, unknown and totally unimportant, and this great man, for whose attention—just for one glance—our whole world competed, said to me, “Come and have lunch.” I though I’d faint…. Here I was, twenty-eight years old, totally insignificant in my own eyes…elected—at least that day—as virtually his sole conversational partner. I was dizzy with excitement.

It was not a unique occasion, and as it became usual, onlookers noted that Hitler seemed more at ease in Speer’s company than with others, unrestrained and even gay. As for Speer, he was now overwhelmed with admiration of Hitler’s powers of insight and judgment. Years later, in a panel discussion on the BBC, he said:

It was remarkable how quickly he could grasp the meaning of a plan, how—as very few people can—he was able to think in three dimensions, and how his phenomenal memory enabled him to recall corrections he made months before…. It was amazing to me, because he was the head of state and had many other concerns and still he could deal with such small details in this, his private field…. At these times, when he was acting as an architect, he was really very relaxed, at his ease. You could contradict him, argue….

It seems clear enough that the odd friendship between these two intensely private men was born in these lively discussions of 1934, as was also Speer’s sense that the Führer knew best, and not only in architectural matters. In 1953, in the first draft of his memoirs, he wrote, “In those first years close to Hitler…I was ready to follow him wherever he led.”

  1. 1

    Molière, Les Fourberies de Scapin, Act II, Scene 7.

  2. 2

    Bradley F. Smith, The Road to Nuremberg (Basic Books, 1981), p. 248.

  3. 3

    Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs, translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston (Macmillan, 1970).

  4. 4

    Geoffrey Barraclough, “Hitler’s Master Builder,” The New York Review, January 7, 1971, p. 11.

  5. 5

    See Gitta Sereny, “My Journey to Speer,” Granta 51 (Autumn 1995), pp. 49ff.

  6. 6

    Gitta Sereny, “My Journey to Speer,” p. 70.

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