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.

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy