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.”

There were, of course, sound material reasons for doing so. As his intimacy with the Führer grew, so did the immensity of the commissions that fell to Speer—for the new Reich Chancellery in Berlin, for example; for the Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg, scene of the September party rallies; and, finally, for the reconstruction of the city of Berlin. In January 1937, Hitler named Speer Generalbauinspektor (GBI) for Berlin, a position very similar to that held during the reign of King Frederick Wilhelm III by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the greatest German architect of the nineteenth century.

The implied comparison should have been embarrassing, for Speer was at best only a competent architect; in the opinion of Leni Riefenstahl, who knew and admired him for his intelligence and drive, he was merely “run of the mill.” Schinkel had always been kept on the tightest of financial reins, and yet he was able to create such masterpieces as the New Guard House on Unter den Linden, the Royal Theater (now the Staatsschauspielhaus) on the Gendarmenmarkt, and the New Museum in the Lustgarten, which still delight visitors to Berlin.7 In Speer’s case, money was never lacking, yet all he accomplished was a handful of vulgar buildings that did not deserve to survive the Allied bombing and a series of plans of unprecedented grandiosity for a Berlin of avenues wider, arches taller, and domes more monstrous than anything seen since the time of Nero.

Happily, these were never consummated, but the preliminary work upon them, which extended into the war years, drew Speer deeply into the interdepartmental infighting that accompanied the constant struggle waged over the allocation of labor and material resources. Sereny tells us that at about the time Speer became GBI, Hitler suggested to Goebbels that it was time Speer got some uniforms. She says that Speer joked about this to her, but she adds shrewdly,

This decision of Hitler’s might have had some significance. The architect would not be expected to wear a uniform, but an office-holder would be. And if we look carefully at Speer’s life with Hitler between March 1937 and February 1942, when it changed radically with his appointment as Minister of Armaments, we can see how he was being slowly brought into the political involvement he was later so fervently to deny.

This began even before the ministerial appointment, when the GBI office began to concern itself with the question of Jewish property in Berlin. It must be said at the outset that with respect to the Jews Speer suffered from a defect of vision. Sereny, who had been a schoolgirl in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss and had seen elderly Jews being forced by jeering mobs to scrub the sidewalks with toothbrushes, once asked Speer, who had been there at about the same time, whether he had seen any Nazi atrocities.

“No,” he replied. “I saw nothing like that; I wasn’t there for long. I stayed at the Hotel Imperial, and did my work at the railway station, where the rally was to be held; I strolled along the Ring and the old streets of the inner city, and had a few good meals and lovely wine. And I bought a painting—that was nice. That’s it.”

Later in the same year, Speer had another attack of myopia when he passed through the Fasanenstrasse in Berlin on the morning after the dreadful pogroms of Reichskristallnacht, when synagogues and Jewish community houses were gutted or badly damaged, over seven thousand Jewish businesses destroyed, nearly a hundred Jews killed and thousands intimidated and beaten. He was conscious of the broken glass in the street, but incurious about what had caused it and what the human consequences were, and years later barely mentioned it in his memoirs.8

In 1941, Goebbels’s program to make Berlin Judenfrei was in full swing, and as a result thousands of empty flats were available. Charged with providing housing for people who had to be relocated because of its reconstruction plans or were homeless because of bomb damage, Speer’s GBI office was anxious to secure these apartments, as well as those of the 26,000 Jews working in the armaments industry when they became available. Although Speer avoided taking direct part in the administration of the confiscations, it was impossible for him not to have known about the evacuations. Sereny admits this, while writing that “it is virtually certain that he had no idea [the Jews] were going to their death.” It would be better to say, perhaps, that he did not ask himself that question. In his last book, Infiltration,9 he wrote:

When I think about the fate of Berlin’s Jews, I am overcome by an unbearable feeling of failure and inadequacy. In the course of my daily drive to my architectural office…I frequently saw crowds of people on the platform of the Nikolassee Railway Station. I knew that this had to be Berlin Jews being evacuated. I’m sure that at that moment [of seeing this] I must have had a feeling of unease, a foreboding of dark events. But—impossible as it is to understand today—I was so wedded to the principles of the regime that phrases such as “Führer: command, we obey,” or “The Führer is always right,” had a hypnotic effect, especially perhaps on those of us…in his immediate environment…. Perhaps too, our burying ourselves in work was an unconscious effort to…anaesthetize our conscience….

Once he had become minister of armaments, it was impossible for him simply to avert his eyes from the unpleasant aspects of official life in Nazi Germany, and he became ever more deeply involved in the crimes of the regime. The exhilaration caused by the enormous expansion of his powers and responsibilities and his undoubted success in his job—his mobilization of heavy industry and gearing it to the necessities of the expanding war, the fivefold increase of tank production during his tenure, and the increase in the output of fighter aircraft from a monthly average of 849 in 1943 to one of 3,031 in September 1944—helped him to live with this. There is no doubt that Speer was the happy warrior, relishing his ability to solve the problems that baffled others and to defeat the intrigues of those who, like Martin Bormann, Hitler’s powerful personal secretary, were anxious to curtail his growing power. But his every success depended upon ever greater supplies of labor, and his failure to persuade the Gauleiters of the advantages of total mobilization (which would have necessitated the conscription of women) meant that workers would have to come from abroad. In consequence, the US deputy prosecutor at Nuremberg charged Speer with responsibility

for the determination of the numbers of foreign slaves required by the German war machine,…for the decision to recruit by force, and for the use under brutal, inhumane and degrading conditions of foreign civilians and prisoners of war in the manufacture of armaments and munitions, the construction of fortifications, and in active military operations.

Speer’s defense was that, while he was responsible in a general way for the conscription of foreign labor, all the violations of international law of which he could be accused had already taken place before he had taken office. He had no influence, he said, on the methods of recruitment, and it had not been his business to investigate the justification of the laws requiring the foreign laborers to work in Germany. He also insisted stoutly that the living conditions of the foreign workers had been adequate and the workers had been healthy and content. In at least one case, the camp at Peenemunde called DORA run by the SS, Sereny shows that he knew from personal inspection that this was not true and that the slave laborers had been abominably treated. He would, however, only admit that

the workers were…brought into Germany against their will. I had no objection to their being brought to Germany against their will. On the contrary, during the first period until autumn of 1942, I certainly used all my energy so that as many workers as possible should be brought to Germany.

Because of this, he was given a sentence of twenty years’ imprisonment. But Fritz Sauckel, the former Gauleiter of Thuringia, who had opposed the mobilization of women and, as chief of labor allocation, had undertaken to provide Speer with all the labor he needed, doing so with great energy and ingenuity, was sentenced to death.

Speer was not charged with complicity in the murder of the Jews and, as we have seen, he always maintained that he had had no knowledge of that until after the war was over. Sereny points out the inherent implausibility of that claim. After all, his involvement in the Russian war began when Operation Barbarossa was launched and continued to the bitter end, and it involved frequent trips to the front and the occupied territories. In view of his wide acquaintance among high-ranking officers, only a deafness as convenient as his well-established blindness could have shielded him from some sense of what was going on. Nevertheless, he persisted in his denials and was shaken in his obduracy only once, in 1971, when an article in the American Jewish journal Mainstream professed to prove that he had been present at the famous speech to the Gauleiters, Reichsleiters, and chosen ministers delivered by Heinrich Himmler in the Golden Hall of Posen Castle on October 6, 1943.

The assembly in Posen was an expression, Sereny writes, of “Hitler’s determination to make sure that his supporters were all implicated in the catastrophe he was bringing on Germany.” Without mincing words, Himmler told his audience exactly what had been happening to the Jews: that they had in fact been already exterminated in Germany and by the end of the year would be eradicated in the occupied countries as well, and that this was a responsibility that must be born jointly by all party leaders. No one who was in Himmler’s audience could possibly have come away with any illusions about his future if the war was lost, and it is understandable that a large number of those who heard him spent the evening drinking themselves into insensibility.

The question is whether Speer was present when the speech was delivered. He was in Posen on October 6 and had given a speech of his own in the morning, warning the Gauleiters that their attempts to violate the restrictions on producing consumer goods would no longer be tolerated. But he insisted that he left before Himmler’s speech was delivered and was driven to Rastenburg for a conference with Hitler. Subsequently, he went to enormous efforts to find witnesses who could testify to the truth of this claim, with imperfect success. Sereny tracked some of them down and found that they had corroborated Speer’s story only because it seemed to mean so much to him.

Whether Speer heard the Posen speech or not seems irrelevant to Sereny, and his desperate attempt to prove that he didn’t strongly suggests his knowledge of the ongoing genocide. Moreover, she writes, “however far removed he himself was from these systematic murders, once he knew of them and yet continued to work for Hitler, he became an active participant in the crime.” Speer himself, after long years of denial, came to realize this. On the last day of Sereny’s interview with him in 1977, he showed her a letter that he had sent to the director of a Jewish organization, the South African Board of Deputies, who had written to ask his aid in refuting the argument of a recent book purporting to prove that the Holocaust was a myth. Speer had sent him an affidavit, describing the background of the campaign against the Jews and citing admissions about its execution made at Nuremberg by those directly implicated. With respect to himself, he repeated the statement of general responsibility that he had made to the tribunal, but with a significant addition.

However, to this day I still consider my main guilt to be my tacit acceptance (Billigung) of the persecution and murder of millions of Jews.

If he had said as much at Nuremberg, Sereny believes, he would have been hanged.

There remains the question why he continued to serve Hitler after he knew the truth. Aside from the fact that he loved power and did not wish to relinquish it, there were practical reasons for this. Just as Hitler needed Speer if his dreams of victory were to come true—“Speer is still the best we have,” he said to Walther Funk when things began to go badly—so did Speer need Hitler, or the power vested in him by Hitler, to prevent the implementation of the scorched-earth policy that Hitler ordered when he realized that the war was lost.

But, apart from that, Speer’s emotional tie to Hitler was as strong as ever. It is true that his relations with the Führer had become more formal after he was appointed a minister, and once the Germans lost the momentum in the east the intimate lunches of the past became painful occasions, with long silences broken only by comments about the excellence of Hitler’s vegetarian chef and tirades against the army. But the bond between them survived, and even when, in the last critical months of the war, Speer became convinced that he must oppose the Führer’s scorched-earty policy, he was always longing to assure him of his loyalty. In the earlier prison version of his memoirs, he wrote of the meeting at the end of March 1945, which Hitler called to resolve their differences.

When I got down to the Bunker Hitler stood waiting, now looking weary rather than tense. “Well?” he asked—just that one word—and so I lied, and yet again at that moment did not lie; anyway, the answer came to me instinctively. “My Führer, I stand unconditionally behind you.” His eyes brimmed and he held out his hand, which he had not offered when I came in.

Speer wrote that he then asked Hitler to reconfirm his authority to carry out the policy, thus giving him the power to block it (which he in fact used), and that “he complied at once, still visibly moved.” However that may be, the striking aspect of the meeting was the emotion that charged it. Sereny is certainly correct in writing:

His love for Hitler took a long time to wane, and granting himself that time, indulging those emotions, was probably his gravest compromise. For it allowed his final act of self-deception—that he could not give up, could not leave, could not take that all-important moral stand because, so he told himself, all he could do was to work ever harder to try to save the country, the people, from destruction, from dishonor; for Hitler, from Hitler—he no longer knew which.

Some readers of Gitta Sereny’s book may be made fretful by its excessive length and frequent repetitions. But it is engagingly written, and it fulfills its purpose admirably. It tells us what Speer was doing aboard the galley, and in doing so it corrects the picture that he painted so carefully in his books. In addition, it is filled with unusual pictures of life in the upper echelons of the Nazi party. Most striking are glimpses of Margret Speer, Eva Braun, and Anni Brandt, the wife of the director of the euthanasia program, having tea together in the Berghof, going swimming or on small excursions, and very carefully talking about nothing.

This Issue

November 2, 1995