The life, death, resurrection and debunking of the Third Reich’s premier memoirist, Armaments Minister Albert Speer
He died, ironically, on Sept. 1, 1981, the 42nd anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, as the world pondered yet another possible violation of that then-unhappy country (by Russia), and in a city—London—that V-1 rockets produced by his industrial combine had once tried to reduce to rubble.
The man who had been with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler in the flaming capital of the Third Reich in 1945 expired in that of one of the Fuhrer’s greatest wartime enemies, Great Britain; and the British Empire died in the postwar era, largely as a result of the vast monies and energies expended to destroy Nazism.
Albert Speer, 76—Hitler’s former architect and Minister of Armaments and War Production, convicted Nuremberg war criminal, inmate of Berlin’s Spandau Prison for 20 years and, later, bestselling author three volumes of memoirs detailing his Nazi career—no doubt would have appreciated the irony inherent in his own demise, for his writings are full of a subtle sense of irony and the cruel jokes that fate often plays on mortals.
He would have appreciated, too, that—in death as well as in life—he would remain a controversial figure: damned by many, understood by some and acknowledged by most historians as the preeminent memoirist of his era in history. Even the obituaries published the day after his sudden, unexpected passing unwittingly reported as fact some mistakes about his life. For example, The Washington Post stated: “A courtly, patrician figure, he
never joined the Nazi Party…” He most certainly did, prior to the Nazis being appointed to power in 1933. The New York Times noted, “Mr. Speer was the only Nazi leader at Nuremberg…in 1945-46 to admit his guilt.”
Not so. Asserted Hans Frank, Hitler’s prewar personal lawyer and wartime Governor-General of occupied Poland, “A thousand years shall pass and still the guilt of Germany shall not be erased.” Frank, however, was a rather pedestrian sort with the blood of several thousands of slain Poles on his hands, who was almost predestined to be hanged by the victorious Allies at the war’s end, while Speer—a third generation architect of poise and polish, wit, charm and grace, and from a German university background—was a much more interesting paradox over whom journalists and historians could puzzle, so the legend of Speer as the sole penitent of one of history’s most hated regimes was born in 1946 and survives today.
How could a man like Speer serve a man like Adolf Hitler ? The question remains for many, too.
Speer himself seemed serene—perhaps resigned is the better word—concerning his place in the history of the Second World War. As he told the Post in 1976, he should be remembered as “One of the closest collaborators of Hitler. What I said at Nuremberg, that I was responsible for what happened to me, will stick with me, rightly. It will be my stamp. I hope it will also be remembered that I was capable of three other things: to be an architect, manager and writer.”
Indeed, he was all three. His career was profoundly influenced not only by his patron Hitler, but also by the timely deaths of two men. The first, Dr. Paul Ludwig Troost, the
Fuhrer’s original architect, died suddenly in 1934. Speer, 29, succeeded him as chief of most of Hitler’s grandiose building projects, such as the Party stadiums in Nuremberg and the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, the bunker of which was the scene of Hitler’s suicide in 1945.
In early 1942, Dr. Fritz Todt, prewar builder of the autobahnen (the world’s first automobile expressways) and Germany’s initial wartime arms tsar, died in a mysterious plane crash that Speer, in his memoirs, implies may have been an assassination. The next day, in a stunning upset to Reich Marshal Hermann Goring (who coveted the post himself), Hitler appointed Speer to succeed Dr. Todt, despite Speer’s protestations that he knew nothing about armaments production.
Hitler said merely, “I know you will manage it,” and he knew his man , for by the end of the war three years later, Speer had not only returned production to private industry from the bunglings of Nazi Party bureaucrats and regulators, but actually managed to produce more planes, tanks and guns in the last year of the conflict (as the Nazis lost) than in the first (when they were winning.) Allied historians credit him with prolonging the war by at least a year.
In the course of this phenomenal achievement, Speer employed millions of foreign slave laborers, including Jews, many thousands of whom died, and thus began his road to imprisonment and eternal damnation in history. As he plainly acknowledged—although he denied explicitly knowing during the war of the extermination of the Jews and others—“It will be my stamp.”
The last stage of his career—that as historian (some say apologist) for the Nazi
regime—evolved from his enforced confinement at Spandau, after the release in 1966 the home of but a single prisoner, Deputy Fuhrer Rudolf Hess, who died at age 93 in August 1987.
Speer produced the first of his superb books, Memoirs: Inside the Third Reich (published in the US in 1970) at least in part in prison, where the first draft was written, done on toilet paper and cigarette packs and smuggled out by friendly guards, and which was revised into book form upon Speer’s release in 1966. It is an unrivalled, close-up view of the top stratum of the Nazi leadership corps in victory and defeat.
The second tome—Spandau: The Secret Diaries (1976)—was essentially more of the same, interspersed with self-debates over the moral questions posed by the fate of the Jews and his own sellout to Hitler for a top spot among the chosen. The last book, Infiltration: How Heinrich Himmler Schemed to Build an SS Industrial Empire, was a rather plodding account of how the SS successfully invaded his production turf over the years.
His next was to be an overall look at German wartime arms production, and I personally hoped that a fifth might explore the contrasts between the Germany he left for prison in 1946 with the phoenix he found upon release in 1966 (and perhaps a manuscript on this topic will yet be discovered.)
Thus Speer entered the history books, and mainly as seen in his own published works, plus the long ,excellent Playboy Magazine interview by Eric Norden published in 1970, just before the release of Memoirs in English. The Playboy interview was superb.
The portrait that emerged was, by and large, that which Speer himself projected, i.e.,
the Fuhrer’s favored architect and Minister, who—by sheer brilliance and superhuman effort—more than doubled German wartime armaments production. As the war was lost, he separated his loyalty from Hitler, transferred it instead to Germany’s survival after the war (when he believed the Allies night entrust him with her rebuilding) and tried to bring the fighting to as speedy a conclusion as possible with the minimum of internal destruction.
Moreover, at Nuremberg, he denied all knowledge of the planned destruction of the Jews and others during the Holocaust, but nevertheless accepted full responsibility before an outraged humanity and the sober judgment of posterity for his role as a top figure in one of history’s most grisly epochs.
So far, so good.
In 1984, however, there appeared an English language edition of the German original—a well-researched and tautly-written account of this same career by Dr. Matthias Schmidt, an Associate Professor at the Friedrich Meinecke Institute for Historical Research in what was then West Berlin.
Having spent four years delving into Speer’s life, he produced Albert Speer: The End of a Myth, a well thought-out and presented challenge of some depth to Speer’s own view of his desired—and rehabilitated—place in history, especially in the postwar era. The volume was hailed by both traditional and revisionist historians of the period as a groundbreaking work in which Dr. Schmidt debunked Speer’s version of the Gospel according to Albert.
It is his last thesis that, far from being an “apolitical technocrat,” Speer participated up
to the hilt in Nazi grand power politics to the level that he could, strove to succeed Hitler as Fuhrer and worked in tandem with Reichsfuhrer (National Leader) SS Himmler to build and mainitain the extermination camps that promulgated the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” across German-occupied Europe during the latter years of the war.
Speer stuck close to Nazi Propaganda Minister Dr. Josef Goebbels during the anti-Hitler plot of July 20, 1944 to save both his neck and position, Schmidt asserted, but would have been just as prepared to join the new government if the coup had succeeded. Indeed, he was the only top Nazi on the conspirators’ list as a possible minister in their intended new regime.
Afterwards, Speer gave his all to prolonging the war and encouraging the German people to “stick it out,” even though, stated Schmidt, he must’ve known it was hopelessly lost long before his March 1945 memo to Hitler stating as much. Far from seeking to limit the Fuhrer’s “scorched earth” policy to provide a postwar life for the Germans, Schmidt translated this as merely Speer’s desire to maintain the Reich’s industry as the basis of his own, personal power in a life after Nazism.
As revealed at Nuremberg, Speer tried to pave his way to this new career by planning an ineffective assassination attempt on the Fuhrer by gassing the underground Berlin Bunker and, surmised Schmidt, by influencing Hitler to appoint Navy Grand Adm. Karl Donitz as his successor when it was clear that Speer himself would not ascend to the Nazi throne after Hitler’s death.
Named Reich Minister of Economy and Production by the new President, Donitz, Speer
sought to buy time under this “operetta government,” stated Schmidt, until the Western Allies themselves would name him to head the new Reich under their aegis! (a vain hope also shared by Rudolf Hess, Himmler and Goring, by the way.)
Speer’s indictment as a war criminal greatly stunned him, as he later admitted, but, as Schmidt drily noted, he adjusted, set out to survive and did.
During the two decades of his sentence at Spandau as a convict, Speer prepared, secretly, his later published books, all with the continuing aid of a prewar, wartime and postwar associate whose name never appears in any of Speer’s own writings: Dr. Rudolf Wolters, who knew Speer from their student days in 1924 and who kept the originals of the formal Speer Office Journal during the war. Schmidt produced photocopies of both the uncensored and later Speer-expurgated versions of these pages to show how the Nazi-turned-memoirist falsified his own actual history, which Schmidt called “The most cunning apologia by any leading figure of the Third Reich.”
Speer sued, unsuccessfully, to block publication of Dr. Schmidt’s book; to our good fortune, his suit failed. Whatever one thinks of Albert Speer: The End of a Myth, it renews a very worthwhile historical debate.
The same year that Speer died produced a second book about him entitled Albert Speer and the Nazi Ministry of Arms: Economic Institutions and Industrial Production in the German Wart Economy by Professor Edward R. Zilbert, Associate Dean of the School of Business Administration and Economics at California State University at Fullerton.
In his preface, he stated, “The Allied strategic bombing offensive against Germany
during World War II marked the first organized attempt in the history of warfare to crush the economic foundations of a modern industrial nation by attack from the air. Despite concentrated attacks on cities and towns and industrial facilities, the German people continued to work and the economy turned out war equipment at increasing rates until the end of 1944. The reasons for this remarkable performance should, I think, be of interest.
“…The basic question asked is: why was Speer better able than his predecessors to increase production dramatically in those industries singled out for destruction by bombing ? In seeking the answer, the book treats the reasons for the successes and failures of both Speer and the Allies during the strategic bombing campaign in a framework of economic institutions and political-military decisions. A detailed examination of Speer’s methods is given in an analytical treatment of the two industries singled out for destruction: submarines and aircraft.
“…Much of the material used is unique…In essence, the study examines the record as it existed before the various principals were charged with war crimes and placed on trial at Nuremberg. This provides a look at history through the eyes of the participants prior to any colorization, editing or self-serving rewriting of events as defendants liable to punishment by death at the hands of the International Military Tribunal…In Albert Speer’s case, this early material accords remarkably well with both his testimony at Nuremberg and the material presented in his Memoirs.”
In 1995 there appeared the excellent work by Gitta Sereny entitled Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth in which she challenged—successfully, in my view—his own self-portrait of his life’s work, virtually paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word.
It was a devastating contest of writers and, in the end, he lost.
Two years later there appeared yet another blow at his carefully-crafted image in the form of Dutchman Dan van der Vat’s 1997 book The Good Nazi: The Life and Times of Albert Speer, which was more of the same, but less so; still, a worthwhile addition to the literature.
The latest work on the growing bookshelf is the blockbuster tome Speer: The Final Verdict (New York, Harcourt, Inc., 2003, $ 30) by German author Joachim C. Fest, whose previous works Hitler , The Face of the Third Reich and Plotting Hitler’s Death were all best-sellers. This one promises to be no less than its predecessors.
What sets Herr Fest’s work apart from the others is his interesting details on young Albert’s early family life. He grew up to be a man of no fixed principles and an opportunist—the type who can be found in virtually any American corporate board room today. On the other hand, as he points out, “Unlike nearly all the members of Hitler’s close entourage, Speer was never servile or undignified,” which probably gained him a measure of respect in the Fuhrer’s eyes.
He also notes out that it was Speer who was given the task of “Arranging a Harvest Festival on the Buckeberg near Hamlyn” that annually drew over a million peasants and farmers in their colorful garb, no mean feat. Unlike all the other Speer books, he notes that Speer was not the Fuhrer’s only architect—that Hermann Giesler (whom the Fuhrer also took with him to Paris on June 28, 1940 for a single tour) was his grand rival, a fact that Speer never acknowledged in his trio of books.
Thus, only Nuremberg and Berlin were Speer projects, while Martin Bormann—
Speer’s most malevolent enemy—saw to it that Giesler got the much sought-after commissions of buildings on both the Obersalzberg and at Linz, the site of Hitler’s planned tomb in Austria that would never be built.
Still, Speer sought to build the “highest skyscraper for Hamburg, the greatest seaside resort for the island of Rugen and the world’s most powerful radio transmitter for Lower Lusatia.” On the purely military side of the ledger, Fest asserts that “After the conclusion of the Norwegian campaign” (in 1940) “Hitler commissioned him to take on the plans for the new town that was to arise near Drontheim. With shipyards, docks and a quarter of a million inhabitants it was to be the largest naval base of the future Reich.”
None of it was to be, however, and in its place was what was. We know what history’s verdict is today on Albert Speer, but what will it be in 25, 50 or 100 years ? I suspect that then—like some of the Roman Emperors we recall now—he, in concert with the late Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, will be more remembered as the premier chronicler of the system in which he served than as one of its highest satraps.
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