Didn’t he do well?

Richard Overy

  • Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth by Gitta Sereny
    Macmillan, 757 pp, £25.00, September 1995, ISBN 0 333 64519 7

Albert Speer, Hitler’s pet architect and wartime armaments supremo, has always been regarded differently from the rest of Hitler’s henchmen. The ragbag of embittered veterans and political terrorists, shadows of Hitler himself, had little in common with the respectable and prosperous Speer, too young to have fought in the First World War, too fastidious and bourgeois for street-brawl politics. After 1945 Speer played the part of the corrupted technocrat, the unpolitical expert blinded by Hitler’s light until it faded in the last year of war. At the Nuremberg Trials he was the clever corporate manager made to take the rap for the directors’ indiscretions. He fell into the role superbly: yes, he did accept his responsibility for aiding what he now saw as an evil cause; no, he was not a warmonger, a murderer or a racist. The Allied judges believed him, just. He was not hanged. He got twenty years in Spandau.

It was in jail that Speer drafted the manuscripts that were to make him famous again in the Seventies: his memoirs. Inside the Third Reich and Spandau: The Secret Diaries, a remarkably powerful expression of his prison existence. It was the second of these books that attracted Gitta Sereny to the Speer phenomenon. She sensed in him an inexpressible sadness. When in the course of her work as a journalist in the late Seventies their paths crossed, she began a series of conversations with Speer which lasted three years. They grew to respect and like each other. Sereny saw an opportunity to answer the Speer riddle: ‘how a man of such quality could become not immoral ... but, somehow infinitely worse, morally extinguished’.

She is in a better position than most to find the answer. To three years of notes from discussions in which Speer became unusually candid she has been able to add the drafts and notes for all his books, the 25,000 letters written from Spandau, and interviews with Speer ‘s family, former colleagues and associates from prison days. It has taken her 14 years – Speer died in 1981 – to get her material into book form. It is unlikely that anyone else will ever have access to so intimate and so frank a record.

The result is not a biography in any conventional sense. Unless I missed it, we are not even told the day of his birth. The year-by-year record is patchy; the book jumps between past and present, confusingly so at times. Speer’s own story matters only to the extent that it contributes to unravelling the central paradox. Nor is the book history in any accepted sense. There are brief historical asides which betray a rather hazy grasp of the context. Sometimes it is plain wrong (‘occupation of Czechoslovakia’ in July 1938; Hindenburg as ‘Hitler’s most illustrious supporter’). There are virtually no footnotes (a pity, given the value of the archive), and it is difficult to be clear from the text whether Speer is talking, Sereny is paraphrasing him, or a conversation or letter is being quoted. As a source for historians these things matter.

What we have is an exploration of the roots of Speer’s profound sadness and his struggle to overcome the moral crisis at the core of his being. This promises to be an exciting voyage. Few psycho-historians have their subject on the couch in front of them. There are nonetheless disappointments. The book is far too long for what it has to say, partly as a result of lengthy quotations from letters and conversations, some of them striking, some of them turgid. The style is prolix and the issues are blurred through repetition. Speer was not an exciting interviewee. There must have been times when Sereny wanted to make him shout, scream, sob, but the responses that she got were measured, sensible, often mocking. Speer was withdrawn and emotionally stunted and it shows time and again. Only once did Sereny find him use the word ‘love’.

The size of the book is dictated by its structure. Sereny follows Speer from early childhood through to the post-Spandau days, using her interview material to reassess the record while searching for clues to Sneer’s make-up. There are frustratingly few surprises here despite the alleged candour of his responses. We already know about the ‘emotionally deprived’ childhood, the unloved middle child desperate for approval from his cold, unyielding parents. The young Speer was bright and very ambitious. He displayed a clear, rational but rather narrow mind. He married early and settled down to establish an architect’s career in post-inflation Germany. Like thousands of other young graduates from conservative homes, he resented the Weimar political system (‘noise and vulgarity’, Speer called it), feared Communism, liked the sincerity and simplicity of Hitler’s nationalism, and joined the Nazi Party in the depths of the recession.

Sereny dwells a good deal on the nature of Speer’s subsequent relationship with Hitler. Speer had never denied his intoxication with the Führer. He added little in his conversations with Sereny about the nature or force of the bond. When he got his first commissions from Hitler, he told her, ‘I unreservedly admired him, could see no fault in him and honestly could hardly believe my luck.’ Contact with Hitler made him ‘dizzy with excitement’. Hitler, Sereny suggests, saw in Speer the young successful architect he never became; Speer saw in Hitler the father-figure his own father could never be. According to another of her interviewees, there was an ‘unspoken love’ between the two men. True or not, we shall never know. Speer craved acknowledgment; Hitler longed to build monumental cities. This much is certain.

One love the two men did share was architecture. Hitler was in a great hurry to transform his adopted country by rebuilding its cities in a style befitting the new German Empire. He wanted a man who could keep deadlines. Speer’s early projects for the Party, conversions of ministerial interiors, were finished promptly to the day and Hitler began to entrust him with more ambitious projects. By 1937 his can-do reputation had brought him his most exhilarating, most challenging commission: the rebuilding of Berlin. All Hitler said to him was ‘make a good job of it.’ Troubled by the thought of failure, Speer had repeated anxiety attacks. They were fuelled, he told Sereny, by the ‘terror of losing the favour of the man I considered the greatest in the world’.

Speer went to work with a will. He worked to Hitler’s brief, employing other architects to design the different elements of the new cityscape. He was the project manager, an artistic impresario whose skills were organisational rather than creative. He later claimed to be so absorbed by the work that the larger crisis passed him by. When Sereny asked him about a trip to Vienna he had taken shortly after German troops had entered the city, all he could recall was a few good meals, lovely wine and a shopping spree. Even Sereny found this too difficult to believe. She had been in Vienna that same month as a young girl and had bravely intervened when she saw a crowd of Jew-baiters at work. Perhaps Speer was capable of shielding himself one way or another – innocence or detachment or overwork – but it is remarkable that he could still talk about Vienna so guilelessly forty years after the event.

Speer considered the building of Berlin the high point of his life. He was to confess in the original draft of his Spandau memoirs that his eventual disillusionment with Hitler owed a good deal to his own disappointment that the new Berlin would never be finished. Not surprisingly this was expunged from the later version. It was something of a paradox that in the middle of the war this self-important innocent should have been chosen by Hitler to run the arms economy for him. Success in this endeavour made it more and more unlikely that the new Berlin would materialise. Indeed if Speer’s efforts had kept the war going six months longer Berlin might well have been obliterated before Hiroshima.

Of course Speer’s political innocence was one reason Hitler chose him. When in February 1942 the Munitions Minister Fritz Todt died in mysterious circumstances in a plane crash, there were plenty of power-seekers wanting his job, Göring the most notorious among them. Speer happened to be at headquarters and Hitler, who admired his management skills, appointed him on the spot. Over the next three years Speer trebled armaments output, an achievement he remained proud of to the end. He was very much Hitler’s creature, and, when talking with Sereny, seemed unaware that much of the groundwork for reforming the economy was laid in 1941 by Hitler himself. He was appointed because Hitler wanted a dependable and dependent lieutenant who would do what he wanted. When in 1944, under the hail of bombs, Himmler offered to do better, Hitler simply switched horses and unleashed the SS on the economy as well.

Both Speer’s jobs for Hitler owed a good deal to luck, to being in the right place at the right time. Another twist of fate and he might have remained a provincial architect all his life. Every now and again in his conversations with Sereny there is a hint of regret, ‘if only ....’ But Speer does not seem to have struggled against his fate. He enjoyed the power and responsibility and was, certainly as Armaments Minister, anything but a political innocent. He basked in Hitler’s approval. ‘If only Germany had won’ there would have been no struggle with truth.

The question never resolved at Nuremberg was how far Speer’s intimacy with Hitler drew him into the racism and human exploitation practised by the regime. In his memoirs he denied that he was ever involved in anti-semitism or the slave-labour programme. At first Sereny didn’t mention any of these things to Speer, which he found unnerving, but she wanted to break down his defences before launching the attack. When after three weeks the subject finally came up, Speer had had time to prepare. Instead of giving a straight answer, Speer showed her an affidavit he had written for the South African Board of Deputies. In it he claimed that he shared collective responsibility, but that his personal fault was to ‘turn away’ from the fate of the Jews, not to participate in it.

Thousands turned away. This was a disingenuous answer at best. Speer was a Hitler crony. Anti-semitism was all around. He was involved in rehousing bomb victims in flats forcibly cleared of Jews. He knew Jews were moving east. He visited places where Himmler’s murderous regime of forced labour was in operation. No doubt he did turn away from the reality staring him in the face, and he continued to distance himself from the crimes with a fierce, almost obsessive determination for the rest of his life. Too much was at stake for Speer, both before 1945 and after, to own up. This was the heart of his moral crisis, the thing that ‘tormented him every day’. I agree with Sereny that he knew a great deal more than he said either to her or to others who won his confidence. I am not sure that he ever won his battle with truth. He was honest about so much else, but honesty here would have ended his new post-Spandau career as the Nazi who pleaded guilty. His readers would never have accepted complicity in genocide, even at one remove.

Sereny has a great deal to say about the 15 years between Speer’s release from Spandau and his death. A sad, closed figure, he missed being in prison. He found the reunion with his family impossible to take. When he met his wife outside the gates they shook hands. He had nothing to say to his children. His friends fell away, either dispirited by his endless mea culpas, or infuriated by his hostility to the leader he had once idolised, and whom many of them still did. He became a ruthless self-publicist, utterly absorbed in the past. Speer’s Third Reich lasted not 12 years but nearly fifty. He found consolation in religion; and in the Spandau diaries claimed that there was only one valid loyalty: ‘towards morality’. Pious and inhibited, he was a difficult man to get to know, let alone to like.

Has Sereny found the key to this strange man? When she asked him to his face how he could explain the paradox of a moral man who chose to extinguish morality, his answer was characteristic and infuriating: ‘it is a mystery.’ It isn’t even clear from this long account that Speer wasn’t in fact manipulating Sereny, retelling the story in such a way as to improve his case, changing the detail, embellishing, withdrawing. Speer’s testimony is suspect on all kinds of grounds. Sereny herself found endless examples of misrepresentation, distortion and massaging of the record. ‘Economical with the truth’ might have been coined for Speer. Because Sereny came to like him, this is not a book for the prosecution. Even from beyond the grave Speer has been able to keep the mystery alive.

I came to Sereny’s book after twenty years working on the German war economy. I was not a priori sympathetic to Speer but I was ready to be persuaded of the case for and I haven’t been. I find Speer from his own testimony cold, irascible, manipulative, ambitious, self-absorbed to an unusual degree – and instinctively difficult to believe. The moral torment was real enough, but Speer seems to have sought approval rather than cope with guilt. When a German rabbi wrote to him saying that he should stop torturing himself over the fate of the Jews it was, he confessed, as if a great weight had been lifted. He found approval again, late in life, in an episode that does him no credit. He began the most improbable love affair with a woman in her thirties who believed what he said and approved uncritically of his moral stance. His lonely wife, to whom he had had nothing to say since leaving prison, was compelled to endure one final humiliation. His lover gave him permission to have made mistakes; his wife knew of, and shared, his guilt.

It was during this last period of his life that Sereny got a most revealing telephone call from Speer. Obviously tipsy, he simply said that he had not done badly: ‘After all, I was Hitler’s architect; I was his Minister of Armaments and Production; I did serve twenty years in Spandau and coming out, did make another good career. Not bad after all, was it?’ The truth that Speer wrestled with was simply that he was proud of what he had done, not ashamed; he was ambitious, not humble; the real Speer, if that is what it was, still lacked that developed sense of moral discrimination whose absence allowed Hitler to exploit him in the first place. On balance Sereny’s Speer is not quite the sympathetic character she went in search of. Hitler was, perhaps, a better judge of personality than we might allow.