Was Hitler’s architect the “good Nazi”? | by Adam M Wakeling | May 2022

Busting the Speer Myth

Speer (left) with Hitler in Paris, 1940 (Wikimedia Commons).

InIn January 1931, twenty-six-year-old architect Albert Speer went to see Adolf Hitler speak at the University of Berlin. Like many educated Germans, Speer was a little skeptical of the Führer’s demagoguery. But he was also disillusioned with politics, wondering why the leaders of the Weimar Republic could not explain the country’s problems in plain and simple terms.

Hitler knew how to perform in front of different audiences. Knowing he was catering to professionals and college graduates, he wore a dark blue suit instead of his uniform. He did not shout or shout, but spoke calmly about his plans for the future. He did not mention the Jews. Speer found himself liking the Nazi leader. “Here, it seemed to me, was hope,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Here are new ideals, new understanding, new tasks.” Speer joined the Nazi Party, becoming member number 474,481.

It rose rapidly and became a personal favorite of Hitler, who loved architecture and considered Speer a visionary. In February 1942, with the German armies pinned down in the snow outside Moscow, Hitler appointed Speer Minister of Armaments. The architect was now a member of Hitler’s cabinet.

Speer maintained an impressive level of production throughout the war – using slave labor from German-occupied territories to equip his factories. Speer requested workers from Fritz Sauckel, the head of the Nazi labor program. And Sauckel supplied them, often rounding up the entire population of villages from all over occupied Europe and shipping them to factories in Speer. By the end of the war he had enlisted more than one and a half million men, women and children.

With the collapse of Nazi Germany at the end of the war, Speer lost faith in Hitler. As Allied armies poured into Germany in March and April 1945, he refused to apply Hitler’s scorched earth tactics and destroy German infrastructure. Nevertheless, he remained loyal to the Führer, visiting him in Berlin shortly before his suicide. Like the other surviving members of the Nazi government, he was captured by the British Army at Flensburg and later tried as a major war criminal at Nuremberg.

Speer on trial in Nuremberg (Wikimedia Commons).

Speer was contrite. With tears in his eyes, he agreed to be part of a regime responsible for terrible crimes and accepted his share of collective responsibility for the defendants. But he denied having any personal knowledge of the Holocaust.

At a Nazi conference in Posen on August 6, 1943, Heinrich Himmler spoke of “wiping the Jews off the face of the earth.” Speer admitted he was at the conference, but claimed he left before Himmler spoke. In the summer of 1944, his friend Karl Hanke, Gauleiter [provincial governor] from Lower Silesia warned him never to inspect a certain concentration camp in Upper Silesia. Hanke was shaken, having seen something he was not authorized to describe and could not describe even if he was. “I didn’t investigate – as I didn’t want to know what was going on there,” Speer wrote. The camp, of course, was Auschwitz. Speer admitted that this “deliberate blindness” left him “morally tainted”.

In his final statement at Nuremberg, he warned of the dangers of totalitarianism in the technological age, but said nothing in his own defense. The Court admitted that he was unaware of the worst crimes of the Third Reich, acknowledged that he had disobeyed Hitler’s orders in order to limit further destruction in Germany and sentenced him to twenty years in prison for recourse to labor strength. Sauckel, who had procured the slaves for Speer, was less adept in his defense. He was also tried at Nuremberg and sent to the gallows.

“Twenty years. Well, that’s fair enough,” Speer wrote. “They couldn’t have given me a lighter sentence, given the facts, and I can’t complain.” He, like the others leaders who had been sentenced to prison, was sent to Spandau prison in Berlin, served his sentence and was released in 1966.

Speer turned his prison writing into two autobiographical books, Inside the Third Reich (1969) and Spandau: the secret diaries (1975). They became bestsellers and gave him financial security in retirement. Inside the Third Reich, in particular, remains the definitive insider account of the Nazi government. It has made itself widely accessible to historians and the media. In Spandau he had learned English and French from his guards and could therefore speak directly to his former enemies. He created a public image of himself as a technocrat who had found himself in over his head, someone who had never personally ordered an atrocity but was wracked with guilt for having deliberately blinded to the atrocities of others. Educated, courteous and introspective, without a trace of fanaticism, racism or brutality, he knew how to conquer the public. He continued to appear in public until the end of his life, dying on September 1, 1981 in London, where he had recorded an interview for the BBC.

By accepting guilt for a grave sin of omission, Speer was able to avoid guilt for even graver sins of commission. Historian Eugene Davidson wrote in the preface to a 1970 English language edition of Inside the Third Reich that “…Speer played no role in baiting the Jews or in the exterminations”. He added: “the Minister of Armaments and War Production had no business which obliged him to concern himself with the rumors of a possible death mill”. British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, author of Hitler’s Last Days (1947), interviewed Speer after his capture and found this intelligent and sophisticated man to be a stark contrast to the “morons” of the Nazi leadership. Joachim Fest, a German historian and acclaimed biographer of Hitler, was also impressed with Speer and collaborated with him on his writings. Speer was accepted as “the good Nazi”, the apolitical architect who was just trying to do a good job and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Speer being interviewed on British television, 1975 (Thames TV)

But after his death, historians began to separate the myth from Speer. How could a man who was so high in the Nazi hierarchy and so personally close to Hitler be so ignorant of his crimes? Over the years, it became more apparent that Speer had lied. He was not apolitical; he sincerely believed that the Nazis were protecting Germany from communism. He had inspected concentration camps. And in 2007, a letter surfaced proving that Speer had lied about his ignorance of the Holocaust. “There is no doubt, I was present when Himmler announced on October 6, 1943 that all Jews would be killed,” he wrote in 1971 to Hélène Jeanty, the widow of a Belgian resistance fighter. “Who would believe me that I deleted that, that it would have been easier to write all that in my memoirs?

A new image of Speer has emerged. A fiercely ambitious, manipulative, cunning, and utterly ruthless politician. A man who could not accept a quiet career as a provincial architect and was ready to work with anyone who promised him the status and recognition he dreamed of. A man who fiddled with production numbers and took credit for the work of his predecessors in presenting his handling of the arms industry in the best possible light, then let others take the blame for the use of slave labor that made its war production possible.

There is probably some truth in both images of Speer, the positive and the negative. He had lied to avoid being hanged, and his remorse over his involvement in the Nazi government was certainly sincere. But he had been content to use the Nazi Party to advance regardless of how many innocent people were trampled on for him to achieve his ambition. As Martin Kitchen concluded in Speer: Hitler’s architect (2015):

What makes Speer so particularly frightening is that this hollow man, resolutely bourgeois, very intelligent, totally devoid of moral vision, incapable of questioning the consequences of his actions, and without scruples, was far from being an outsider. . He was the type who made National Socialism possible. The Third Reich would never have been so deadly if it had relied on the adventurers, the thugs, the half-mad ideologues, the racist fanatics and the worshipers of the Germanic deities who make the people the public image of the regime. Speer is the outstanding representative of the widespread type who made the diet possible.

Or, as historian Sebastian Haffner put it, we can get rid of the Hitlers and the Himmlers, but not the Speers. They are still among us, instantly recognizable and just as dangerous. One of the people who saw this clearly was, interestingly, Speer himself. In a note dated October 11, 1946, he wrote:

It seems to me that the Himmlers, Bormanns and Streichers do not explain Hitler’s success with the German people. On the contrary, Hitler was sustained by the idealism and dedication of people like me. We, who put everything else first, made it all possible. The crooks and criminal elements are still there. They don’t explain anything.

Albert Speer could sometimes be surprisingly shrewd.

About Byron G. Fazio

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