The oracle of evil

Did Albert Speer revile or relish his role as Hitler's architect? Michael Burleigh considers the evidence; Albert Speer: His Battle With The Truth by Gitta Sereny Macmillan, pounds 25
Returning to a subject she first explored in Into that Darkness, her journey into the mind of Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl, Gitta Sereny has spent 15 years grappling with Albert Speer. She has read his copious writings (ranging from jottings on prison lavatory paper to best- selling accounts of life inside the Third Reich) and repeatedly interviewed both Speer and virtually everyone alive who knew him.

This barely conveys the almost excessive intensity of Sereny's engagement with her subject. At one point, her eager host knocked on her door in the dead of night with yet more documents he wished to discuss at breakfast. By the end of her monumental study, Sereny admits having found "a great deal to like" about Speer. She feels - though in the end she does not persuade us - that had he lived beyond his role as the one sane and repentant leading Nazi, Speer would have been a different, better person.

Speer grew up in an affluent home in the Rhineland, characterised by "cold between the parents, cold between parents and children". In 1931 he joined the thuggish Nazi Party, in the conviction that Hitler "could save Germany, give us back faith in ourselves". He felt Hitler, whom he heard speak, "cared about me": the precise message was less important. Membership of the SS motor corps brought connections with Nazi leaders, and architectural commissions. Through the fluent stage management of Party rallies, he caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, who invited him to lunch. Speer became a member of Hitler's small private circle, from which vantage point - sitting at the table of power while pretending to be aloof from it - he grabbed at very public architectural commissions.

His job, as Hitler explained, was "to put up buildings for me such as haven't been built perhaps for two thousand years". A quasi-homoerotic attachment developed between the frustrated architect, Hitler, and the ambitious young man with whom he sought aesthetic relief from the grim business of running a brutal dictatorship. That aesthetics and the police state were not unconnected is apparent from Speer's awareness of the origins of the materials for his buildings (the kilns and quarries in concentration camps) and his cynical comment: "After all, the Jews already made bricks under the Pharaohs".

Mesmerised by his Fuhrer (terms such as "hypnosis" figure repeatedly in a book about mature, supposedly highly intelligent people), Speer drew no conclusions from the 1934 murder of the SA leadership. The 1938 pogrom against the Jews - towards whom he confessed an instinctual "slight discomfort" - made little impression beyond the charred buildings.Although the 1939- 1941 euthanasia programme agitated many Germans high and low, and was organised by the husband of his wife's best friend, Speer later claimed he knew nothing about it.

"Intoxicated with power", Speer moved into the viciously competitive game of the big political players such as Bormann and Himmler: a dog-eat- dog world, where one had to mark one's territory, and then defend it with bared teeth and low cunning. By 1942 he was Minister for Armaments and War Production, in which position he drastically rationalised the Nazi war economy, which relied heavily on foreign and concentration camp labour.

Despite having a finger in most pies across occupied Europe, Speer was oddly slow to apprehend the criminal downward spiral of the regime. The fate of Jews, whom his own agency were evicting to make room for Berlin's bombed-out homeless, did not interest him. Visits to Dnepropetrovsk in the Ukraine similarly sparked no curiosity as to the whereabouts of 30,000 Jewish people, who had been shot in anti-tank ditches a few months earlier. Visits to concentration camps by Speer or his staff left "an absolutely positive impression". According to Sereny, the psychological turning point probably came when Himmler gave a speech at Posen in 1943 on the extermination of the Jews, twice addressing "party comrade Speer" by name.

Shortly after visiting the Dora underground plant for V-2 rockets, where 30,000 slave labourers died, Speer collapsed under the strain of what he could no longer blot out. After months in hospital, he began to see his hero Hitler in a different light: "My God, this dreadful face, this ugly broad nose, this coarse pale skin. Who is this man?" Distance was reflected in his reports and in threats to resign over disputed policy issues. He knew the war was lost and, belatedly acknowledging that "Hitler is a criminal", began countervailing his orders to destroy everything. Failing to make Speer believe that the war could still be won, Hitler lost interest, as is apparent from his perfunctory "Oh, you are leaving? Good. Well, goodbye" when they parted in the Bunker.

Charming, in the manner of "an athletic university professor," and obliging towards the Allies, Speer avoided the death sentence at Nuremberg by a tactical admission of co-responsibility - though it is significant that Airey Neave, who served Speer the indictment, along with Kenneth Galbraith and Paul Nitze who debriefed him, remained uncharmed. The semi-literate ex-merchant seaman, Fritz Sauckel, who requisitioned forced labour for Speer, was hanged.

On Speer's release from Spandau in 1966, his adoptive pose was that of a blinkered technocrat, oblivious to the crimes committed around him. Liberty revealed an unattractive blend of self-laceration (the chaplains had been at him) and self-advertisement as living oracle-in-chief, best caught by the historian Norman Stone, who remarked, after interviewing Speer: "Of course, he loved talking about it all, didn't he?" In Sereny, he found a sympathetic listener - perhaps too sympathetic - although, doubtless, were he still alive, he would be raising yet more queries, propelling the myth, or the truth, of himself into the aeons.