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Hitler’s Pal

Speer: The Final Verdict

by Joachim Fest, translated from the German by Ewald Osers and Alexandra Dring
Harcourt, 419 pp., $30.00

Until the Nuremberg trial of the major war criminals, the name Albert Speer had made little impression on the Western world compared with those of other Nazis like Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, and Heinrich Himmler. The revelations during the trial of the extent of his powers as minister of armaments and economic czar during the war years, and his behavior during the proceedings—his professed willingness to accept his share of the collective responsibility for the actions of the Hitler regime, while denying allegations of complicity in specific crimes—awakened an interest in him as a person that was soon reflected in a number of books and articles, notable among them being Gitta Sereny’s Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth.1

There has, however, been no adequate biography—Sereny’s book was an extensive report on Speer’s personality that emphasized issues of guilt and responsibility—and it is gratifying to have that deficiency repaired now by Joachim Fest, the author of one of the most highly respected biographies of Adolf Hitler.2 On the basis of a full mastery of the sources, including Speer’s own works and letters, Fest has provided us with the first detailed account of his ministerial service, as well as a thoughtful analysis of his relations with Hitler and the other Nazi notables, his trial and imprisonment in Spandau, and the controversies that filled his last years. Whether this is, as Fest’s subtitle suggests, the final verdict on Speer’s career, it is perhaps too soon to tell, but most readers will probably find it a reasonable one.

It would be difficult to find anything in Speer’s early life to explain how he became a member of Hitler’s inner circle within a year of the Nazi takeover. The second of three sons of an upper-middle-class family in Mannheim, he had lived through the horrendous events that destroyed the Weimar Republic almost without noticing them, and it was only after his architectural studies, his marriage, and his appointment as assistant to his teacher Heinrich Tessenow that, almost as if driven by idle curiosity, he attended a meeting in Berlin that was addressed by Hitler. He had expected a kind of circus performance, filled with violent language and bizarre gestures, but instead Hitler gave a reasoned discussion of the causes of Germany’s present condition and the policies it must follow if it were to recover. The speech made a deep impression upon Speer, and in March 1931 he enrolled in the National Socialist Party.

Everything else followed from this almost accidental beginning. A well-placed acquaintance steered some architectural commissions his way, the most important of which was the renovation of Joseph Goebbels’s official residence in Berlin. It was Speer’s reckless promise to have this completed in two months and his subsequent meeting of that deadline that brought him to Hitler’s attention. A commission to help the prominent architect Paul Ludwig Troost renovate the chancellor’s residence in Berlin followed, and then a fateful invitation to lunch with the Führer, and the relationship that was to dominate the rest of Speer’s life was consummated.

In his biography of Hitler, Fest wrote of him at length as a nonperson, incapable of normal relations with other people. If Speer was a lonely exception, it was perhaps because Hitler recognized himself in the young architect, seeing him as an alter ego who was unaffected by the malevolent hand of fate, which Hitler blamed more than anything else for shattering his own dreams of becoming an artist. In Speer he found a kindred spirit, a friend, and even a possible successor, although these projections were always at the mercy of his mood swings. That Hitler’s affection may have been “tinged with eroticism” Fest acknowledges without exaggerating its importance.

For Speer, meeting Hitler meant, as he wrote later, that “everything changed,” and his whole life was “under constant high voltage.” As the first lunch was followed by others, the two men discovered common enthusiasms, especially about architecture, and out of these grew common projects for new buildings. Speer was soon being asked to undertake duties that appealed to the burning ambition that lay under his reserved exterior, and his considerable success made his name known and brought new commissions. In addition, he came to agree more and more with the national socialist principles of the regime, particularly the idea of reviving Germany through ambitious state-sponsored projects, while being insensible to its repulsive aspects. Moral and humanitarian considerations were never Speer’s strong point, and throughout his career he was always capable of talking himself into anything that was to his advantage and detaching himself from unpleasant realities.

His attitude toward anti-Semitism is a case in point. Speer always denied that he was an anti-Semite, and such was his reverence for Hitler that he preferred to believe that anti-Semitism was not one of Hitler’s essential traits but a holdover from his Vienna days. Evidence to the contrary he preferred to ignore, as he did manifestations of the abuse of the Jews in general, and on occasion his blindness was quite extraordinary.

On the day after Reichskristallnacht, the nationwide pogrom in November 1938, for example, Speer was able to walk past the smoking ruins of the synagogue on the Fasanenstraße without asking himself what had happened to it. In later life he had various explanations for this lack of curiosity. Of the forced expulsion of the Jews from Berlin, for example, he wrote:

Often, during my daily drive to my architectural office I saw…the crowds of people on the platform of the nearby Nikolassee railway station. I knew that these must be Berlin Jews who were being evacuated. I was certainly overcome by a feeling of oppression as I drove past; presumably I had a sense of somber goings-on. But I was rooted in the principles of the regime to an extent that I find hard to understand today.

The key to Speer’s astonishing rise to eminence in the party was his architectural collaboration with Hitler in the years between 1937 and 1939. It has been pointed out—notably by Frederic Spotts in his remarkable forthcoming book about Hitler and the arts3—that the Führer was always the prime mover in this relationship, despite Speer’s later attempts to inflate his own role. In reality he built what Hitler told him to build, cheerfully sacrificing the principles of modesty and proportion he had learned from his teacher Tessenow and catering to his new master’s mania for size and grandeur. This contributed to his being appointed inspector-general of building for the Reich capital, a position once held by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, who in the first years of the nineteenth century transformed the face of Berlin and made Potsdam one of the architectural delights of Germany.4

Nothing comparable emerged from the work of his successor, and it is indeed fortunate that most of Speer’s building plans for Berlin were as impermanent as the spectacular domes of light that he designed for the annual party rallies at Nuremberg. But Hitler was impressed by his reliability and energy, particularly in the construction of a new Reich Chancellery, which was built on an impossibly tight schedule between January 1938 and January 1939 and which appealed to the Führer because it seemed to him to have a “deliberately intimidating character” that he believed would make foreign diplomats “learn to shiver and shake.” When Germany went to war in 1939, he urged Speer to push ahead with his plans for Berlin so that when total victory was won in the field it could become the capital of the new German Europe.

Even when the tide of battle turned against him, Hitler did not forget Speer, and in February 1942, when Fritz Todt, his minister in charge of arms industries, was killed in an airplane crash, he summoned the architect to him and, receiving him standing up, declared formally, “Herr Speer, I appoint you successor to Minister Dr. Todt in all his posts.” It was typical of Speer that he was only momentar-ily disconcerted. His self-confidence quickly reasserted itself, and he accepted, asking at the same time that Hitler sign an order promising him unconditional support.

This was a wise request, for he knew very little about the tasks required of his new job, and he was aware that he would have many rivals if he stumbled. Hermann Goering, for example, the former head of the Four-Year Plan, was bound to resent the diversion into Speer’s hands of the powers he had trifled away through indolence and lethargy, and would have to be appeased or otherwise dealt with. But for someone who was always proclaiming that he stood apart from and above politics, Speer proved to be a formidable politician, endlessly ambitious, skilled in the uses of guile and maneuver, and ruthless when necessary. He soon bypassed and disarmed potential rivals.

Meanwhile, Fest writes, it was “astonishing how quickly Speer found his way through the chaos of competences, figures, and reports.” It was clear to him from the outset that he had to reorganize the country into a war economy and that this would require the total mobilization of all manpower and resources before the onset of the second winter of the war with Russia. He proceeded with a vigor and boldness that left Hitler’s entourage bewildered, and within eighteen months had brought nearly all German economic affairs under his control and begun their reorganization. In September 1943 Hitler changed Speer’s title to Reich minister for armaments and war production and extended his authority to the territories occupied by Germany in the war. Speer was soon announcing triumphantly to his employees, “The entire production of the Greater German Reich is now being operated and directed from one single central post.” He had reason to be satisfied with what he had accomplished. For he had carried out an industrial revolution in Germany—what H.R. Trevor-Roper called the “Speer Revolution”—to complement the social revolution carried out by Hitler. Fest writes, “Not until the ‘Speer Revolution’ had the Führer state been accomplished.”

But success brought new problems and new adversaries. Throughout 1943 Speer’s name was constantly in the news, and there began to be talk of the possibility of his succeeding Hitler when the appropriate moment came. The Führer himself was said to have told Speer that he was “planning great things for him.” This rumor had an exciting effect upon Speer, who began to consult his colleagues about his suitability as a candidate for chancellor. Fest argues that this showed considerable naiveté on his part, since he had no power base of his own and, despite his economic successes, stood outside the party hierarchy. Inevitably his pretensions made him the enemy of Goering, long established as number two in the hierarchy, of Himmler and Goebbels, and especially of Martin Bormann, who had been promoted to the post of secretary to the Führer in April 1943 and who resented Speer because he was not subject to his authority. Against this combination Speer had no chance if it came to a clash.

His position weakened further in October 1943, when at a party conference called by Bormann, Speer addressed himself to the current crisis in munitions production, accusing the assembled Gauleiters of sabotaging his program by their refusal to do anything that would jeopardize consumer goods industries and threatening to use the SS against them if this continued. This caused a scandal of major proportions with appeals to Hitler, whose loyalty to his old party comrades was well known. From this point on, Speer could no longer count on the Führer’s unvarying support and, sensing this, some of his own staff began to intrigue against him. Because of this episode and a sudden reduction of his responsibilities as a result of it, Speer suddenly offered to resign if the status quo could not be restored. This apparently stunned Hitler, coming as it did on the eve of his birthday in April 1944. He regarded Speer’s action as “impertinent” and as confirming Bormann’s complaint that Speer was a stranger to the party and did not understand the rules of the Führer state, perhaps because, as an artist, he believed they did not apply to him.

This incident had no immediate consequences, however, and Speer continued in office with his powers unaffected. But it strengthened the im- pression, Fest writes, that Speer regarded the Führer’s orders “as mere recommendations to be implemented according to his own judgement,” and this was to be confirmed only a few months later during the protracted crisis over Hitler’s scorched-earth policy.

Speer was profoundly shocked to hear Hitler declare at a conference in Posen in the fall of 1944, “If the German people were to be defeated in the [war], it must have been too weak, it would have failed to pass the test of history and would therefore only be destined for destruction.” Hitler’s equating of the country’s future with his own existence seemed to strike at everything important in Speer’s life—his hopes for the future, his dedication to the war effort, and his emotional friendship with Hitler. When the Führer began to demand a systematic destruction of industry, commerce, and agriculture in areas threatened by enemy occupation, Speer resolved to use his own considerable powers to resist this policy, by failing to pass on orders, by persuading front-line officials and Gauleiters to disregard them, and by other forms of sabotage. This effort, which in large part voided the scorched-earth policy to the immense advantage of his country, Speer later called “the crisis of his life.”

Conducted in a land that was rapidly shrinking in size because of the advance of enemy armies in the east and west, Speer’s campaign had some very odd features. Although he made little effort to hide his actions from Hitler and on one occasion provided him with a list of his deliberate breaches of orders, the dictator at no time considered dismissing him, confessing on one occasion that to do so would have devastating political effects at home and abroad. On the other hand, although Speer briefly considered advancing his own policy by assassinating Hitler and actually entered into a bizarre, and unworkable, plan to introduce poison gas into the ventilation system of the Reich Chancellery, he never stopped regarding Hitler as the legitimate head of state and wishing that their friendship could be preserved. Their last meetings were marked by kitschy scenes in which Hitler demanded from Speer an acknowledgment that the war could still be won, while Speer sidestepped the question but brought tears to his master’s eyes by saying, “My Führer, I stand unreservedly behind you.”

Speer did not die in the bunker, as the loyal paladin Joseph Goebbels did with his whole family. Instead, he made his way to Glücksburg and made himself useful to the new Dönitz government, and here his busy mind was soon fabricating new scenarios in which he would play leading parts. In May 1945 a team from the American Strategic Bombing Survey turned up and asked whether he would be willing to supply information on the air war and its results, and this led to extensive interviews. The amicability of his questioners impressed Speer, and he began to dream of a political future in postwar Europe, perhaps as a “minister of reconstruction” appointed by the Allies. To his consternation, he found that instead he was to be tried for war crimes, and despite his skillful efforts at self-exculpation he was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment.

Fest gives an incisive account of Speer’s last years, which were haunted by a sense of guilt that he could neither articulate nor escape, as was evident from his memoir, Inside the Third Reich. The great problem of Speer’s life, Fest writes in conclusion, was the multitude of his gifts, which were on call for anyone who laid claim to them. But he had neither the independence of judgment nor the moral conviction that would have enabled him to discriminate between claimants. When asked late in life whether he would have behaved differently had he known what he now knew about Hitler and the system he was creating, he seemed puzzled by the question and answered, “I don’t think so.”

  1. 1

    Knopf, 1995; reviewed in The New York Review, November 2, 1995.

  2. 2

    Hitler, translated by Richard and Clara Winston (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1974); reviewed in The New York Review, April 18, 1974.

  3. 3

    Frederic Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics (to be published in January 2003 by Overlook Press), p. 312.

  4. 4

    See “The Master Builder,” The New York Review, June 11, 1992.

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