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.
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. 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 …