Albert Speer
Albert Speer; drawing by David Levine

When Albert Speer died last September in London, his obituarists were, generally, kind. True, he had been Hitler’s friend, favorite architect, and arms minister. But after 1945 he had been consistently and dignifiedly repentant. He served his two decades’ imprisonment after Nuremberg with great fortitude. His memoirs of the Hitler era, Inside the Third Reich, and his Spandau Diaries, which recorded how he survived twenty years’ imprisonment, have achieved classic status. Speer was also very anxious to help journalists and historians. He was always being interviewed, often at great inconvenience to himself.

It was characteristic of him that he should have died in the course of one such venture. Although he was seventyfive, and not in good health, he agreed to travel from his country home in the Algäu to London for a television interview with the BBC. It was also characteristic, may it be said in passing, that he would not accept a fee for this. The money was to be paid to a charity which he supported—as he did with a considerable proportion of his royalties. The nature of the charity comes as no surprise. Indeed, the charity at first would not accept such gifts, until its managers had been convinced of Speer’s extreme sincerity.

For Speer appreciated, in a way that none of the other Nuremberg defendants did, that, regardless of details, anyone who had had a serious measure of responsibility in the Hitler era could not have a case. With Speer this was a matter of conviction, not of posing. He never bothered to find excuses; indeed, as his Spandau Diaries reveal, he irritated his fellow prisoners with his indifference to their self-pity and their futile debates over how the war might, after all, have been won. In the little world of the prison, this caused him trouble; sometimes, for weeks on end, he would be solemnly “cut” in the exercise yard by one or another of the inmates. Speer knew that he had spent his late twenties and his thirties serving an evil cause, and for the rest of his life he tried to find out why. He was haunted by his past.

This was obvious even on a cursory acquaintance. I conducted his final interview, on September 1. The evening before, to discuss its shape, we had dinner at Brown’s Hotel in London. The occasion passed well enough, on one level; we simply talked history, and he told me about his book, which was soon to be published in England. On another level, it was a very disquieting evening: you could not forget that this was a man who had spent twelve years serving Hitler, and then another twenty in close confinement. Speer was an extremely accomplished performer, who had of course been interviewed countless times before. In our interview just before he died he was at his best: helpful and authoritative, and less tired, after it, than I was. But it was impossible not to have a sense that there was a private Speer, revealed to no one, except perhaps to Hélène Jeanty, a heroine of the Belgian resistance who, though she had every reason to take a different view, befriended Speer and his family in the Spandau years and afterward.

Speer’s last book marks an effort on his part to find out what went wrong. He had written at length, before, about his relationship with Hitler. Unlike other defendants, he hid nothing: not for him, for instance, the oily equivocations of Papen or Ribbentrop. He acknowledged that Hitler had had a strange power over him: “In his presence we felt ourselves to be lords of the universe.” His architecture, which he himself later described as “monstrous,” was consciously designed to show off Hitler’s power: that vast Reichskanzlei with its huge, echoing marble corridors and ranks of heel-clicking, black-clad sentries, its huge “study”—in which Hitler felt extremely uncomfortable—and enormous Adolf-Hitler-Platz designed either for million-strong, cheering crowds or, Haussmann-like, to give a clear field of fire for the day when the regime became unpopular. It was also Speer who designed the searchlight “Cathedrals of Light” which marked the Party rallies. (I asked him if he had taken the idea from Catholic rallies; he replied, no, from the Weimar cinema.)

Hitler, in turn, was captivated by Speer, who was outstanding—certainly among Hitler’s cronies—for intelligence, good manners, and good looks. Here, at last, was a gentleman, a Herr Doktor, with whom Hitler could feel at ease; not a brute or a toady or a maniac of the kind Hitler usually collected in his entourage. Speer flattered Hitler adroitly. For instance, he took seriously Hitler’s ideas on architecture, and would quite willingly—as he himself confessed—simply turn them into concrete, although Hitler was bad on detail. Again adroitly, Speer managed to suggest to Hitler that he should have responsibility for the armaments effort. He himself regarded his performance there as his finest hour, since German arms output went up dramatically.


The story appears to be more complicated; the latest West German research tends to show that Speer did much to discredit his own predecessor, Todt, and that his “miracle” was somewhat less than he claimed it to be. But Speer was almost the only highly placed figure in Hitler’s court who could be trusted to deal with businessmen in a businesslike way. He was the ideal “honest broker,” with unimpeachable credentials with the armed forces, businessmen, and Hitler. There was virtually no one else in a high position who could square circles in this way: not Hjalmar Schacht, whom Hitler mistrusted; not Goering, whom businessmen, rightly, distrusted because of his leanings toward outright nationalization; not Walther Funk, a lachrymose do-nothing; and certainly not Himmler, who knew nothing at all about economic matters and precious little about anything else.

What was Speer doing in this galère? Hitler had rescued him from an ill-paid and insecure university tutorship, and had given his ambition full rein. But there was more to it. Gitta Serényi got into hot water some years ago for suggesting a homosexual undertone. That suggestion is not far-fetched. Hitler was an extremely lonely man. Eva Braun, after 1936, was at most a maîtresse en titre; Hitler himself said often enough that he could not bear his own company, and he preferred to stay up until all hours, showing off before a motley crew of secretaries and adjutants who would sycophantically put up with the ravings of his “table talk.” Nazism consciously strove for a harshly masculine world, of uniforms, lists, acronyms, “ice-coldness” (to use Hitler’s favorite expression). Can it have been that Speer was Hitler’s emotional outlet? The suggestion is far from implausible, given that the only two men with whom Hitler used the familiar du were Ernst Röhm, the notoriously homosexual leader of the SA, and Rudolf Hess, who in his early years was known as Fräulein Anna.

But if Speer’s role was that of Brutus, he was a Brutus who refused to plot against his Caesar. His arguments for not having done so are obvious enough: he had no idea of the regime’s grosser cruelties; he was a patriot, anxious to win the war; he felt that the mass of the people stood behind Hitler. The latter two arguments, and Speer’s loyalty to the man who had made him great, were intelligible. But a great deal turns on the first one. How much did Speer know of the campaign to exterminate the Jews?

In his last book, he goes into the question rather more deeply than before. It purports to be about the infiltration, by the SS, of the German economy during the war. Be it said, in passing, that this portion of the book (roughly two-thirds) is not particularly new or successful. Himmler’s efforts to build up a slave empire are already well-enough documented, as are the resulting quarrels with capitalists. It was a situation of grim irony, in which SS men of impenetrable stupidity would devise ways of extending their power by setting up some cover organization which could then acquire competence beyond the original aim; and Himmler himself would contribute fanciful suggestions, such as for using geraniums to create synthetic fuel. The concentration camps in Germany and in occupied Poland were used to house slave labor for SS economic enterprises: one of the camps at Auschwitz, “Monowitz,” was part of the chemical industry (and, to judge from the outside, it still is). It was because of this that at least some of the Polish Jews survived the war: they were kept alive as slave laborers.

Speer knew that slave labor was used in the camps, for which his ministry had to allocate building materials. In this book, he reproaches himself for not guessing that there were death camps as well. The figures for deaths in the labor camps were, he says, self-contradictory. His friend Hanke, Gauleiter of Lower Silesia, told him not to go to the camps, for “horrible things” happened there. He also knew that Jews from Germany were being deported to the east, and although he did nothing more than discreetly delay this, he claims he did not know that the Jews were being sent to their deaths. Of course it is extremely difficult to believe that a man in charge of a ministry whose responsibilities extended all over Germany, the occupied countries, and even the Allied countries, would not have known what was after all commonly appreciated in the Vatican and, if we are to accept Walter Laqueur’s evidence, in the West: that there was a systematic plan to destroy the Jews of Europe.


Speer says that he was always too busy to know more, and that is believable enough in its way. The “final solution” was always kept quite secret; Speer would not have learned of it from Hitler, who, as he says, never told his interlocutor more than he needed to know. But it was Speer who was ultimately responsible for the economic effort in the occupied countries, and the army authorities in Poland knew how far they depended on Jewish labor. SS efforts to remove the laborers had an obvious point; and it is impossible to believe that the army authorities were not well informed about what was going on. It is also impossible to believe that they did not tell Speer. He would not take responsibility for death camps; also, he would not impede them beyond a certain limit. Anti-Semitism seems to have meant nothing at all to him; he could not understand what the fuss was about. He passed by on the other side. “The burden which I have to carry as a member of a regime like that of Hitler’s is so great that even twenty years [of imprisonment] cannot make it easier to bear,” he said.

Reinhard Heydrich, the subject of Günther Deschner’s biography, was an out-and-out Nazi, quite different from Speer. He was one of the authors of the “final solution,” having begun his career as Himmler’s most efficient assistant. He was made the head of the administration in Bohemia and Moravia in autumn 1941 to deal with Czech restiveness. His success there was such that the exiled Czech government made a great and successful effort to have him assassinated—an event (late in May 1942) which caused terrible reprisals by the Germans. Deschner has taken some of his information from Heydrich’s widow, and there are times when his book sounds curiously apologetic—as, for instance, when he dwells on Heydrich’s success in calming the discontent of the Czech working classes by his forthright attitude toward the black market in food (he simply had the black marketeers hanged, whether they were Czech or German). It does seem to be the case that the output of the war industry both in Belgium and Bohemia increased remarkably during the war, whereas in occupied France muddle and sabotage prevented the same from happening.

Heydrich was an outright monster. He rose together with Himmler in the 1930s, and in 1941 he took charge of the execution squads which roamed through western Russia to kill Jews. All the while, he worked in an atmosphere of self-conscious bureaucratic super-efficiency: hence all those security departments and subdepartments, issuing their murderous orders with all of the appurtenances of bureaucratic correspondence. The Nazis, on occasion, could be painfully “correct” and fussy; it was rather typical of the inmates of Spandau that they should still be calling each other “Herr Hess” and the like even after two decades’ imprisonment together.

In reading this Heydrich biography, I was struck by the obvious ways in which Nazis modeled their behavior on what they took to be the practices of the British Empire. Heydrich, as head of Himmler’s “security” or “intelligence” in Munich in 1931, self-consciously aped the manners of the British Intelligence. Although at the time he was operating from a small back room, eating vegetable stew and having his telephone cut off for nonpayment of bills, he would strike such attitudes as signing himself “C” for “Chief,” much like the head of British Intelligence. Once he had settled in Prague, he became a self-conscious imperial proconsul, complete with fancy dress, playacting, changing of the guard, etc. It was also typical that Hitler’s favorite films were Westerns, which he had specially imported through Sweden, and which he would watch of an evening. It would be interesting if, some day, someone wrote about German ideas on how the British Empire worked.

Heydrich was true to a strange pattern that the Nazis developed. Like most of the Nazi leaders, he was a Catholic by origin (although he also had Protestant ancestors). Yet most of the Nazi voters, as Martin Broszat shows in his important survey of the 1930s, were Protestant. The non-Catholic and non-Nazi middle-class parties took over two-fifths of the vote in 1928, less than a third in 1930, and barely a tenth in July 1932: the defectors obviously switching to the Nazis, and, in effect, bringing Hitler closer to power. Oddly enough, Albert Speer himself did not appreciate the religious factor in Nazism: even though he came from Heidelberg, the vantage point from which Max Weber wrote his work on the differing economic manifestations of Catholicism and Calvinism, he was quite taken aback when I told him that most of the Nazis’ voters were, by origin, Protestant. He had supposed, from the leadership, that most had been Catholic. Heydrich was in many ways typical of the Nazi leadership. In his native Saxony, he counted vaguely as an “outsider,” at least in the elite, because he was a Catholic, and in his case this was complicated again because he had a step-grandfather called Süss, which caused him—Deschner says, wrongly—to be regarded as partly Jewish. His career in the (largely Protestant) navy was cut short because he made himself unpopular; he never really “belonged.” Men such as this had to conquer Europe in order to conquer Germany.

Martin Broszat’s book, which first came out in 1968, was a characteristic product of the Munich Institute of Contemporary History. It offered no thesis: it merely described what had gone on in the 1930s. Broszat knew the subject inside out and was used as an expert witness in the German concentration-camp trials of the Sixties and Seventies. As a description of the Third Reich the present translation of his book is well worth having.

Still, the book does not touch on what, for a Western observer, must count as a central matter, the economics of Nazism. Hitler’s popularity stemmed, in large measure, from his overcoming unemployment. But we still don’t understand why unemployment was so rapidly defeated. There is no satisfactory account of the slump in Germany and we need a good book on Hitler’s economy. The old version, that Hitler “caused” recovery by spending on armaments, or simply by public spending generally, no longer carries much conviction, beyond old-fashioned Marxists. The recovery was already under way in August 1932, some months before Hitler came to power; in September the stock exchange index, for instance, went up 20 percent. Even in Hitler’s early years, “deficit spending” did not amount to a very significant percentage of the GNP. Oddly enough, Hitler’s deficit was smaller than the Weimar Republic’s; and in any case, with recovery the government’s revenues rose and wiped the deficit out. Spending on armaments, at least up to 1936, was, in the words of the American expert B.H. Kline, “largely a myth.”

Why, despite this, the armed forces did so well in 1939-1941 is the subject of Wilhelm Deist’s authoritative study. The author is co-director of the West German Institute of Military History and editor of the official history of the war, which is currently being published. On the basis of the archives he shows how military leaders responded to Hitler’s encouragement. Before 1933 they had been working out plans to expand the army and some of these plans took effect even in 1932. Hitler told them to go on although he did not have very large sums of money to give them. They sorted out the difficulties of conscription quite well but could not give satisfactory training to all potential conscripts. There were generals like Guderian who, although quite old, appreciated that mechanized forces, used in the right way, could make up for the lack of trained infantrymen. The air force, unlike the British or French, took a similar view and developed short-range bombers, not long-range or even medium-range ones, because they could assist the army directly. Much of Germany’s success in the early years of the war came from this close collaboration of tanks and aircraft. In this way, although the army did not have the resources that Hitler claimed to have given it, its technical inventiveness could carry the day. Oddly enough, it was economic recovery that stimulated the military effort; not the other way around.

Hitler profited from the capacity and industry of the Prussian tradition. Why that tradition should have lost its moral content is another much-discussed subject that still needs clarification. Peter Matheson’s little book is a collection of documents about official Church attitudes, Catholic and Protestant. Apart from a small group of Protestants, austere North Germans, the Protestants’ record is not good; and although the Vatican did make protests, your view of its behavior really depends on your opinion of the proper tactics for an institution that seeks to survive. Protestants supplied the Nazis with most of their votes (though not usually their leaders), while the Catholics went on voting either for their own party, the Center, or for the Social Democrats. Why? Here we are able only to speculate. In the current ecumenical climate Max Weber is not fashionable. But he took his ideas on the different economic outlooks of Catholicism and Calvinism essentially from southwestern Germany of the 1890s, where Catholics and Protestants coexisted uneasily, and from the Polish provinces of Prussia, where there was a similar unhappy mixture. In Franconia, the (mainly) Protestant part of Bavaria, the difference between Catholic and Protestant communities was about as obvious as it was in Northern Ireland. By 1930 the Protestants in mixed districts were becoming strongly Nazi: in Westphalia, the Protestant and Catholic villages, although neighboring, were voting overwhelmingly Nazi and Center respectively.

How are we able to explain this difference in political attitudes? Truisms about the role of priests apart, is it too fanciful to suggest that the difference came to some extent from different approaches to debt? Protestants took on debts and improved their farms. In 1931 they faced interest charges which almost wrecked them at a time of agrarian slump. The Catholics disliked debt, preferring to hide the money under the bed or at least to put it into a savings account. They developed their properties less—which was visible to any observer. It also mattered in mixed districts that the Catholics were far better at creating political machines, the study of which is relatively new.1

When it came to resisting the Nazis—who were themselves a political machine—the Catholics, apart from a few well-documented cases, were apparently less spectacular than the Protestant Prussian officers who tried to kill Hitler in July 1944. Even so, they were much more difficult to govern than Protestants. In Bavaria income taxes often went unpaid and pigs were illegally slaughtered on a scale which has allowed the publication of volumes with the ironic-seeming title, “The Bavarian Resistance.” Of course the German army did produce its resistance groups, who acted, to tragic non-effect, in July 1944. This has been extensively covered in the past, most recently by Peter Hoffmann.2

Pierre Galante’s book, based on the recollections of General Heusinger, adds very little. Heusinger was in the staff hut when the bomb exploded. He says in effect that he was in the staff hut when the bomb exploded. Most of the German officer corps remained quiescent: and the background to this is shown by Wilhelm Deist. The army got most of what it wanted from Hitler, and regarded him as a miracle-worker. This was a view that survived well into the war, as Albert Speer showed in his extraordinary memoirs.

It is said that Wagner has had more literature devoted to him than any other modern subject. But Hitler and the Nazis must fast be catching up. “Inspirons-nous de l’Allemagne,” said Madame de Staël. I wonder if she would still think it was healthy.

This Issue

May 13, 1982