My journey to Speer

This is the story of an extraordinary life and a remarkable book. It is the life of Gitta Sereny, among the most distinguished of present- day journalists, who was in her early teens when the Germans invaded her native Vienna. The subject of her book, published this month to great acclaim, is Albert Speer, one of Hitler's closest associates, designer of his great rallies and architect of his grandiose buildings. At the Nuremberg trials, he escaped the death penalty by denying complicity in the extermination of the Jews. Could he possibly have been telling the truth? In Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, Sereny proves beyond doubt that he was lying. This was in part the product of her unequalled pertinacity and formidable investigative powers. But there was another factor. Her life seemed to lead her inexorably to confrontation with Speer. And that, in this piece written for the literary magazine Granta, is the story she tells here.

Portrait by Peter Marlow

Albert Speer touched my life before I even knew of his existence.

My father, who died when I was two, was a passionately Anglophile Hungarian, whose greatest ambition for me was that I receive an English education. And so it happened that in 1934, I was travelling from my boarding school in England to my home in Vienna when the train broke down in Nuremberg. I was an 11-year-old girl, on my own, wearing my English school uniform - brown, as it happened, though I don't really think it influenced subsequent events. The German Red Cross, or its equivalent Nazi organisation, quickly took charge of me; within an hour, to my amazement and, it must be said, pleasure, I found myself in a spectator's seat at the Nazi Party Congress.

I was overcome by the symmetry of the marchers, many of them children like me; the joyful faces all around; the rhythm of the sounds; the solemnity of the silences; the colours of the flags; the magic of the lights (these, though I didn't know it, Speer's creation). One moment I was enraptured, glued to my seat; the next, I was standing up, shouting with joy along with thousands of others. I saw the men on the distant podium and heard their hugely amplified voices. But I understood nothing; it was the drama, the theatre of it all, that overwhelmed me. (Forty-four years later, Speer described to me his own feelings that day and said, resignedly, "To think that when I'm gone, that's what I will be remembered for: not the buildings I designed but that - theatre.")

A few weeks later, back at my peaceful school near the Kentish downs, we were given the subject for our first essay of the new term - not surprisingly, "The Happiest Day of my Holiday".

What else could I, not yet 12, have described other than that experience in Nuremberg? Although my essay was not chosen to be read out to the class (that honour fell to a lovely description of the birth of a foal), my teacher, Miss Hindley, told me that it was "a very good piece of work". She had a strangely formal way of speaking which I found very beautiful, and I thought her a marvel of erudition and adulthood. In fact she was in her early twenties, a slight, delicate, rather shy young woman, with a fine English complexion. She had a quiet sense of humour, was passionate about books and drama and had the wonderful gift of imparting that passion to her pupils, however cloddish.

"I think you need to understand what you were seeing," she told me. "Anyone who comes from your part of the world needs to understand." And she handed me a book. "Read this, or as much of it as you can."

The book was Mein Kampf, and I did read as much of it as I could. Years later, when people told me they had found Mein Kampf unreadable (in Speer's case, he said Hitler had told him not to bother, that it was outdated), I never understood what they meant. It was hard going, true enough; I skipped large portions, and certainly I wished that it had more paragraphs. But I understood what Hitler was saying and, above all, that his vision of a new Germany, a new Europe, could not be realised without war.

Was I particularly prescient? I don't think so. Throughout those hundreds of densely written pages, he repeated, again and again, Germany's need for Lebensraum in "the East". I knew nothing about politics and very little about the geography and tortured history of Eastern Europe, but it seemed to me obvious that no country would voluntarily give away any of its territory. How could anybody doubt that?

I also knew very little about anti-Semitism. "Why does he keep talking about 'the Jews'?" I asked Miss Hindley when I returned the book.

"He hates them," she said. And, as she so often did with all of us, she left me to think it out on my own.

I did not succeed. I knew, of course, that there were, in the school of my early childhood in Vienna, three classes of religious instruction - Catholic, Jewish and, my own class, Protestant - but I was really not aware of who among my classmates belonged to which group. This must sound strange, but I have since asked Viennese friends of my own age, from similar backgrounds, about this, and they too, I found, had little awareness of religious difference - which is perhaps a tribute to our schools.

For a privileged child like me, Vienna was paradise. I lived with my mother, who was beautiful and much courted, in a large flat overlooking St Stephen's Cathedral. She had been an actress when she was young, and her life revolved around the theatre, actors, playwrights and drama. Was St Stephen's Cathedral, with its powerful smell of incense, its monotonous singing and its silences, its bleeding or smiling statues, just drama to me? I don't know, but until I was sent to England, I went in there every day on my way to or home from school, leaving my irritated governess outside when I knelt there in a curious pretence of - or perhaps wish for - religious fervour.

My other passions were more prosaic: my mother, for her looks; a few of her gentleman friends, for their charm and elegance; the countless books I read, many on the sly by torchlight under my bedclothes at night; teachers - there was always a special one - for their cleverness and, as I was mostly lucky, kindness; the theatre, which obsessed me from my first visit at the age of four; and Vienna, because it was Vienna.

By the time I was 14, I had left my English boarding school and was back in Vienna, studying at the Max Reinhardt Drama School. Although I had not inherited my mother's looks - I was a little girl with puppy fat - I somehow never doubted that they would give me a place, and for some reason I was accepted on the spot, as was another girl my age. She was delicate, with a cloud of silky, dark hair, and was most appropriately named Elfie. We were inseparable from that moment on.

The Max Reinhardt Drama School was a wonderful place, housed in the extraordinary setting of the Imperial Palace of Schonbrunn. Reinhardt, the greatest director of his time, who had had to leave Germany and his school in Berlin because he was Jewish, made a speech on the day the school opened in Vienna which was reprinted in a brochure we were given: "Use this place. Walk in the park on your own, think on your own, speak on your own, dream on your own: before you can know anyone else, in life or on the stage, you must know yourself!"

These were powerful words for young minds, and both Elfie and I followed his advice, conscientiously taking long walks on our own, speaking aloud as he advised, expressing our thoughts, our longings, our anger, on occasion, and our dreams.

Most of Elfie's and my life was spent together. We would meet every day half way between our homes, by the statue of Johann Strauss in the park. We would go together to our fencing or dancing lessons close by, or attend rehearsals at Reinhardt's theatre, the Josefstadt. Later on, we would take the tram to Schonbrunn and most nights - often very late, because many of our teachers were directors and could only take classes in the evening - we would walk home past the park, down the immensely long Mariahilfer Strasse and finally along the Ring with it's trees and baroque buildings. When we reached the Opera we parted, Elfie turning right and I left. No one ever bothered us; despite its many political conflicts and frequently violent demonstrations, Vienna was a strangely safe city for children.

This innocent, or insouciant, life ended shockingly and quickly in March 1938, when Hitler invaded Austria. At about 9.30 in the evening on 11 March, Elfie telephoned me. "Meet me at the statue," she whispered.

"Why are you whispering?" I asked.

"Just come," she said, and hung up.

While I waited for Elfie in the dark, deserted park, I heard for the first time a sound that was to echo around Vienna for weeks: the rhythmic chant of many voices shouting words I had never heard before: "Deutschland erwache! Juda verrecke!" - Germany awake! Jews perish!

When Elfie arrived, we stood stiffly in the darkness, listening. Then she said, "My father..."

"What's the matter with your father?" I asked, and then, to my own surprise, added, "Is he a Jew?"

Elfie looked at me helplessly. "A Jew?" she said, confused, her voice tight. "He is a Nazi. They told me tonight. He's been an illegal for years. He said I was never to speak to any Jews at school, and that anyway - her voice sounded dead - "the whole place will be... disinfected from top to bottom. What shall I do?" She sobbed, holding on to me. "How can I not talk to Jews?" Then, for the first time, she put into words the subject that had never touched us, reeling off the names of four of our teachers.

I was almost speechless. "But why?" I asked, and then, immediately, "How do you know they are Jewish?"

"He knows," she said, tonelessly. "He says they are Saujuden and that they will all be got rid of."

"Got rid of?" I repeated stupidly, and she cried out then, furiously, "Didn't you hear what I said? Disinfected, he calls it. The schools, the theatres, everywhere" - she spat out the word - "disinfected". The chanting from the street went on and on as we stood there under the trees. "What shall I do?" she said. "How can I live with them?"

She could do nothing, of course; well brought-up teenage girls in Vienna did not leave their families. (In the end, happily, she did manage to escape; by the time she was 16, she had become a big star.)

Two days later, I stood in a crowd underneath a hotel balcony and heard Hitler speak.

I had become terribly, achingly aware of wrong, wrong in my small world and in the world beyond it. But I don't remember Hitler saying anything outrageous; he was just lauding the Austrians for welcoming the Germans. And indeed, huge numbers of Viennese, and Austrians all over the country, did welcome them, and the air was full of excitement and joy. What I remember most clearly - to my horror - is how excited I felt myself as, part of this seethingly emotional crowd, I Iistened to that man. Four years earlier, in Nuremberg, I had sat high up in the stands and found myself shouting with joy. Small as I was, I was aware that my pleasure derived not from any person or words but from the theatrical spectacle. But now? I had heard the Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg announcing the plebiscite of 13 March, his voice breaking at the end: "Austrians, the time for decision has come." I had beard Elfie crying about her father's betrayal. I had heard those raucous voices, "Deutschland erwache, Juda verrecke!". And here I was, standing before this man whose orders had sent troops into Austria and who had followed those troops so as to seal the deed with his presence. What was it that made me join the mindless chorus around me, welcoming this almost motionless figure to our Vienna? What was it in him that drew us? What was it in us - in me too, that day - that allowed ourselves to be drawn?

The next day, Elfie and I went for a walk around the city. On the Graben, one of Vienna's loveliest streets, we came across band of men in brown uniforms wearing swastika armbands surrounded by a large group of Viennese citizens, many of whom were laughing. As we drew near, I saw that in the middle of the crowd, a dozen middle-aged people, men and women, were on their knees, scrubbing the pavement with toothbrushes. Horrified, I recognised one of them as Dr Berggrun, our paediatrician, who had saved my life when I was four and had diphtheria. I had never forgotten that night; he had wrapped me again and again in cool, wet sheets, and it was his voice I had heard early that dawn saying, "Sie wird leben" (she will live).

Dr Berggrun saw me start towards one of the men in brown; he shook his head and mouthed, "No," while continuing to scrub with his toothbrush. I asked the uniformed men what they were doing; were they mad?

"How dare you!" one of them shouted.

"How dare you?" I shouted back, and told him that one of the men they were humiliating was a great physician, a saver of lives.

Stunningly beautiful, her trained voice as clear as a bell, Elfie called out, "Is this what you call our liberation?"

It was extraordinary: within two minutes, the jeering crowd had dispersed, the brown guard had gone, the "street cleaners" had melted away. "Never do that again," Dr Berggrun said to us sternly, his small, round wife next to him, nodding fervently, her face sagging with shock and exhaustion. "It is very dangerous." They gassed them in Sobibor in 1943.

(When I told Speer, 40 years later, that I was in Vienna in March 1938 when he, too, as he had told me, was there to prepare a hall for a rally at which Hitler was to speak, I asked him whether he had seen the shop windows marked in white paint with the word "Jew", or noticed Nazi brutalities. He said no: "I saw nothing like that; I wasn't there long. I did my work...I stayed at the Hotel Imperial. I strolled along the Ring and the old streets of the inner city, and had a few good meals and lovely wine. And I bought a painting - that was nice. That's it." He hadn't known that people, Catholic and Jewish patriots, were being arrested in droves by then and that the first wave of suicides, mostly elderly Jews, had started? "No, I knew nothing about that. I still know nothing about that. Suicides?")

The schools and colleges reopened within days. I have tried to recall the changes in our lives. The main one, at least for me, was a sudden awareness of feelings I had not felt before, an excitement that I didn't understand, and didn't really want to feel.

Though Hungarian by nationality, I loved Austria and above all Vienna; even now, having lived in cities all over the world, I cannot recall ever having been so joyfully aware of the changing of the seasons as I was there. Is there another city in Europe where the scent of lilac lingers so heavily over the streets in May, or the leaves of the trees in the parks turn so golden and red in October, or the snow lies so thickly on roofs and streets in winter? I remember as if it was yesterday the hard, clean feel of the pavement under my shoes once the galoshes were put away: childhood memories of unimportant things that mattered. All this probably didn't change, but my awareness of it did. It was a warm and beautiful March, but I don't remember the sun or the buds on the trees or the smell of the lilac later that spring. It is people I remember: the first day we returned to school, two students wearing swastika pins, and a few days later, the school administrator, too, a man of great importance to us all, appointed by Reinhardt himself.

By now, we knew of course that there were three categories of people who were in real danger: Jews, Communists and Austrian patriots. For the rest, life could go on more or less as usual, although foreign embassies sent small pins in the national colours to their citizens, urging us to wear them. My mother and I received small Hungarian flags, and I wore mine not so much for protection as to separate myself from those at school who wore that other pin.

In the weeks that followed, people began, slowly, to disappear: one of my teachers, a small man of quite incredible kindness to fumbling young drama students, killed himself by jumping out of a fourth-floor window; two others left for the United States. Elfie and I no longer walked home because her parents and my mother forbade it. We no longer went to theatres, for rehearsals or performances. All of us came and went in groups, orderly, quiet and in many cases suspicious of each other.

A few months before the Anschluss, my mother had become engaged to Ludwig von Mises, one of the country's leading economists. He had been living and teaching in Geneva for several years, spending only his summer holidays in Austria, where he and my mother indulged their passion for mountain climbing.

Among my mother's many other admirers was a high-ranking German diplomat. One evening in May 1938, he appeared at our door and told her that the Nazis intended to arrest her and hold her as a hostage against von Mises's return; being both Jewish and a prominent intellectual with dangerous ideas, he was high up on their blacklist.

I don't know whether the Nazis would actually have taken my mother hostage, but she believed it and so we had to go. By 11 o'clock that night, she had packed our cases and arranged for friends to send on to Switzerland my father's collection of paintings and other valuables. Austrians, by then, needed exit permits for travel abroad, but we had our Hungarian passports and we left the next moming for Geneva.

I don't think I was bitter; just as Elfie could not leave her family and live on her own, I could not stay behind by myself in the political cauldron of Vienna. But having experienced the adult freedom of drama school, I was both sad and furious to find myself in a finishing school near Lausanne. I developed a particular loathing for the headmistress when, just weeks after my arrival, a little German Jewish girl was suddenly removed from the classes and our luxurious accommodation and sent to work in the kitchen; her parents, it transpired, had been sent to a concentration camp, and there was no money for her fees. My mother and my new stepfather, together with the mother of my co-conspirator, a wealthy New York socialite, came up trumps; they threatened not only our removal but the most unpleasant publicity for the school unless the child was immediately given a free place.

This incident, which demonstrated that the Nazi poison was not limited to Germany and Austria, along with Elfie's carefully phrased letters, which clearly conveyed her unhappiness, convinced me that an expensive finishing school was not the place for me. At dawn one lovely Sunday, when I knew my mother and stepfather were away for the weekend, I ran away. I confided in two slightly older American girls who thought the plan mad but romantic, and gave me a large sum from their considerable hoard of pocket money. I packed a small bag; my American friends agreed to lock the door behind me (they also promised to telephone my mother that night, having told the teachers at Sunday breakfast that I had joined my parents for the day); and without great difficulty I got to Geneva in time for the early-morning train to London via Paris.

I knew nobody in London, having only been there on brief excursions from my school in Kent years before, but I had a plan. Either I would obtain a place at the Old Vic theatre school, where I would complete my training; or I would audition for Alexander Korda, Britain's top film producer, and get into films. Of course, neither plan worked. At the Old Vic, the suspicious school secretary, having seen the address I had written down of a fleapit hotel in a less than salubrious part of London, asked whom I was staying with and then added kindly, "It's none of my business, but don't you think you should go home, wherever home is?" Fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda, upon learning my name and that I came from the Reinhardt school, granted me an audition and talked to me for a long time about what was happening in the world, about books and about music. By the time we got down to my audition, his wife, Merle Oberon, had joined us, and he had managed to extract a lot of information from me. "You have some talent," he said, after hearing my Juliet (I had played the part in Vienna in a special English performance for the Duke of Windsor and Mrs Simpson). "I'll help you here, if you really want, but I suspect this is the wrong direction for you. You are too young, and you are uneducated. I advise you to go away, grow up, study, then come back and see me in a couple of years." Merle Oberon then took me to lunch, lent me a handkerchief when I cried and arranged for me to telephone my mother.

By early autumn, I was living in Paris with two young academics, sister and brother, in a wonderful old flat off the avenue Henri Martin. I had a pass for lectures at the Sorbonne, had signed up for a typing course at Pitman's and was taken on as a pupil by one of the most generous and awesome actresses in Paris, Madelaine Milhaud, the wife of the composer Darius Milhaud. Vienna, the Anschluss and the Nazis were suddenly far away.

When war broke out on 3 September 1939, I was in Les Baux en Provence, at that time not even a village, more a settlement of about 50 people who lived in caves dug out of rock on top of a mountain. There was one extremely basic hotel, the Reine Jeanne, which the conductor Pierre Monteux took over for a few weeks every summer for a seminar to which, that year, thanks to the Milhauds, I had been invited. There were about a dozen of us, French and American. We had been immersed in music for two weeks when we heard on the radio that the Germans had invaded Poland and that France and Britain had declared war. French mobilisation was incredibly swift - the young men in the valley were gone within days - and a request arrived from the mayor at the foot of the mountain that the maestro's young students should come down and help with the grape harvest.

The weather was glorious; it was fun to wash our feet and legs with rough country soap, rinse them in a stinging, green disinfectant and then walk, jump and dance on the grapes. We held hands and made a ballet of our first war-work. On the last evening, Monteux conducted his student orchestra in a piece by Brahms; "N'oubliez jamais," he said at the end, "lui aussi etait Allemand".

My mother and stepfather ordered me to return to Switzerland. When I refused to go, they stopped my allowance in an attempt to force me. But I was 16 and in love - with an English boy, with France and with my studies. Nothing would have made me leave and, after a few weeks during which I slept on friends' sofas, ate very little and walked wherever I had to go, they relented, at least for the time being. I was not an easy daughter or step-daughter; I suspect that they were almost relieved.

My return to Geneva soon became a moot point. Five months into 1940, the Germans, with almost unbelievable swiftness, occupied France. Thousands of refugees streamed into Paris, among them many children whose parents were dead or lost.

For the next year, I worked as a volunteer nurse for an aid organisation called the Auxiliaire Sociale. It established reception centres for abandoned children in Paris and homes for them in chateaux all over occupied France. I went to Villandry, one of the great chateaux of the Loire, which belonged to the American mother of Isabelle de la Bouillerie, the president of our charity. There were two young volunteers and one paid nurse to look after about 20 children between the ages of three and 14 in a hastily converted stable block. Downstairs was the kitchen with one tap, a huge, old, wood-burning stove and a long table with benches; upstairs was a dormitory with 20-odd iron bedsteads. I had a tiny room off the dormitory; the other helpers and a number of refugees from Paris, Isabelle's friends and staff, some of them, incidentally, Jewish, were lodged in the chateau.

My mother and stepfather had gone to the United States, and I had no money at all except for pocket money Isabelle sometimes gave me, particularly after I became her interpreter in negotiations with the Germans. It was an important function, given our desperate need for documents to facilitate the running of the centre and food for the children and, as a well-brought- up Viennese Hungarian, I was peculiarly qualified for it.

I was, of course, passionately Franco- and Anglophile and - mainly, I suspect, to give myself an identity - furiously anti-German. As time went on, there were a few opportunities for minor practical acts of opposition - hiding a few shot-down British airmen, smuggling out documents - but there was not much opportunity for subversion; the most one could do was treat the visiting Germans with disdain. Hundreds of - rather polite - Germans, mostly officers, who came to see Villandry on their rounds of the chateaux of the Loire, were received very coldly indeed.

There were two in particular who came quite often, one an army doctor, the other a supply officer who had been a schoolmaster in civilian life. Both took an immediate interest in our children and helped us obtain medical supplies and food. They were - though I refused to see it at the time - good men and, I suppose because of that very fact, allowed themselves to be targets for my fury. For months, they accepted my railings and Isabelle's more elegantly phrased criticisms without demur. And then, without warning, they disappeared. The doctor, I later discovered, was soon sent to the Russian front, where be died within weeks; the former teacher, older and not very fit, was sent to a concentration camp. They had both been devout Christians and opponents of the regime.

We had never known. They hadn't told us; they had just tried to express it by showing affection to the children and helping us to care for them. Indulging our own feelings, we had abused their kindness. We had never sensed their pain and their dilemma, or that they desperately wanted to be and indeed were our friends. (Three years later, when France was liberated, Isabelle de la Bouillerie was imprisoned at the Sante, accused of collaboration - principally on the basis of her friendly relationship with those two Germans; she died there.)

It was another German who, some months later, undoubtedly saved my life. He was a Prussian aristocrat, head of military intelligence in the nearby city of Tours. He had helped me get assistance from official quarters for the children and had become something of a friend. I had suspected for some time that he was an anti-Nazi. One day, getting no reply when I knocked on his office door, I opened it. The room was empty, but the door to his living quarters was open. As I walked across the room to announce myself, I heard the radio, tuned to the BBC. For the average German, listening to the BBC was a crime. Perhaps this rule didn't apply to officers, but even so, he was startled when he saw me.

"You see," he said, spreading his fingers in a gesture of surrender, "I'm in your hands now. Will you spare me?" He was a charmer.

One night, about six months later, Marie, the oldest of our children, who had appointed herself my friend and assistant, tiptoed up to my bed and whispered that there was an officer in a car at the gate who had asked for me by name.

It was just before dawn; the air was sweet. I ran out to the gate. "You are going to be arrested this morning," he said, very quietly. "Get dressed quickly. Don't say goodbye to anybody. Hurry."

Not long before, we had hidden a British airman for a week or so, after which, disguising him with a nurse's cape and veil (he was very young and thin), I had driven him in a horse-drawn buggy Isabelle had lent me to a rendezvous from where he would be taken to safety. I had been stopped by a German security patrol, but the Auxiliaire passes I carried - issued with the help of the officer who now waited for me at the gate of Villandry - plus my Hungarian passport, got us through, and I had thought myself quite safe.

I sent Marie back to bed, swearing her to silence; dressed in my uniform; packed nothing except soap, a toothbrush, a change of underclothes, a spare shirt and my papers; and left. I had no money, but he gave me all the French currency he had and drove me to Orleans, from where I got an early train to Paris.

It sounds dramatic, but it didn't seem so at the time. I was grateful, but not that surprised that he'd come to my aid - I would have come to his, had the opportunity offered itself. As I rode on that train, it was a beautiful day; Paris, a few hours later, was still Paris; I had very good friends. Two days later, still in my nurse's uniform, I was taken over the Pyrenees by a mountain guide, and walked out of France and into Spain.

(When I told Speer about this German, I asked him, "If it had been you, would you have helped a young girl like me?" He thought for a long moment before he answered. "I don't know," he said, finally - he always tried to be honest, though he didn't always succeed. "I really don't know. Thank God, the question never arose." I said that wasn't quite so, that a number of people at risk, for political or "racial" reasons, had been offered a safe haven in his ministry. "True," he said, "but that was my ministry, not me: I knew, but I didn't have to know or do anything myself.")

Although I was sad to leave, and quite determined to return as soon as possible, I was also glad. I had many friends of my age in the growing French maquis who already knew of Gestapo cellars, particularly in Paris and Lyons, where people were subjected to appalling tortures. I fear I was not a heroine; I was afraid of physical pain.

The next three years I spent in the United States. This period has never seemed quite real to me; amid the incredible plenty and - even in wartime - peace, I never stopped feeling guilty and ashamed: guilty for having left Europe, ashamed for being safe. Everyone tried to make me feel at home - I had never experienced such kindness and generosity - but the only way I could deal with my grinding homesickness, which wasn't for one particular place but for all the places in Europe I so loved, was to work at things connected with my life there and so remain a part of the struggle.

For my first 18 months in the United States, I travelled across the country, lecturing in schools and colleges on the war and Europe's children. Still practically a child myself, and trained for the stage, it was not difficult for me to communicate with the thousands of young Americans I met. I gave, on average, three lectures a day, driving from town to town and city to city, travelling through about 20 states in all. It allowed me to get to know the country, and I grew to love it too. America touched, fascinated and also frightened me: that extraordinary mixture of innocence and chauvinism, kindness and incipient violence was utterly different from anything I had known before.

I learned, when giving my lectures, that the most effective way to engage people, whether they are children or adults, is through emotion. This was a great lesson. I often had to remind myself to hold back, to go easy when I felt waves of emotion coming from my audience in response to my accounts of what was happening in Europe, and I grew to understand that people's need to feel must never be abused. Many years later, when Speer explained to me how Hitler had exploited people's emotions, I remembered my own temptations on stage in America, and was glad I had resisted them.

For the rest of my time in the States, I worked at the Office of War Information, writing anti-Nazi propaganda and broadcasting it, via England, to German troops.

Four months before the end of the war, I finally managed to return to Europe. I had joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration as a child welfare officer, working in the displaced persons camps in what would become the American zone of Germany. I had arrived in the States in the navy-blue uniform of an Auxiliaire Sociale nurse; I left just over three years later in the khaki uniform of UNRRA.

My very first assignment in the field, which lasted only two weeks, was the care of child prisoners from Dachau concentration camp. For someone like me, arriving with only the shortest of briefings, it was traumatic. There was, I now know, no comparison between the condition of the prisoners at Dachau and those at Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald (and of the camps in Poland we knew absolutely nothing, not even their names). But Dachau was bad enough those first few days - especially meeting those people who had been force-marched south for weeks from other camps, and then, of course, the children. Was it thinkable that they would have sent children to these places? It was: children of all ages, all religions, many nationalities, including Germans.

There were very few Jewish children - most of them, we found out later, had been killed - but many from Eastern Europe: young children who had been taken away from their mothers when they were sent for forced labour; older ones who, even during that last year of the war, had been taken away from their countries to work in Germany and who, at the end, had been marched south to end up in concentration camps. And then, perhaps more incomprehensible still, were the German children who, curiously isolated from the others, looked less worn but were, if anything, the most helpless of all. These were victims of the Sippenhaft, the imprisonment of families accused of treason, frequently the children of high-ranking officers and diplomats, some of whom had doubtless attended Nazi elite schools.

My job was to help the American army authorities to get all the children out of Dachau as quickly as possible, to their homes, if that was feasible (it almost never was), to hospitals if necessary but in most cases to the UNRRA reception centres and camps which were being set up all over Germany in expectation of many thousands requiring care.

I would eventually work in three camps, the first in Neumarkt, a small town in Bavaria not far from Nuremberg, looking after 6,000 Poles. After that, I was sent to Regensburg, to a camp which housed about 20,000 Ukrainians. Most of these people had been slave labourers, but hidden among them were men who had served as SS auxiliaries in the worst of the Nazi camps. This was an immense installation which, over the years, would turn into a loosely fenced-off township with its own, highly politicised administration, its own churches, schools, playgrounds, meeting halls and thousands of barracks, where men and women would live, court, marry and have children. These people, most of whom had been brought to Germany by violence, now didn't want to go home, where they feared more violence awaited them.

My third assignment was the finding and care of children from Eastern Europe whom the Nazis, having decided that they were "racially desirable", had kidnapped from their families and brought to Germany to be brought up as Germans. I found 47 such children and, in the summer of 1946, was able to return 38 of them to their families in Poland. By this time I was about as deeply immersed as anyone could be in the misery the Nazis had caused. My wish - indeed my need - became more intense with every day to find out how it could have happened.

It was at the beginning of that year that a friend of mine, George Vassilchikov, one of the first two simultaneous interpreters in the world, obtained a visitor's pass for me to attend the Nuremberg trials.

This was the first time I saw Albert Speer. I knew nothing about him and only noticed him among the 21 accused because, then 40 years old, he looked young and, with his smooth face and strangely shaped, bushy, black eyebrows, startlingly handsome. In contrast with many of the other defendants, who pretended to be bored or asleep, or who read or fidgeted endlessly, he always sat very still, listening intently, his face immobile except for those dark, intelligent eyes.

"Who is Speer?" I asked George one night at the Grand Hotel where we were dining and dancing.

"The second most important man in Germany," he said, leading me, a rather bad dancer, expertly around the floor. "It was because of his requests for ever more workers that the people you are looking after now were shipped to Germany as forced labour." I remember feeling an odd sense of surprise. It was hard to reconcile the terrible treatment of the slave labourers with the interesting, chiselled face I had become aware of in the dock.

"You mean, he was responsible for the way they were treated?" I asked.

Georgie was always precise in his answers. "We can't really know yet about the nature and extent of people's individual responsibility," he said. "But of course, he had to know."

Later, I learned that if it hadn't been for Speer, Hitler would have had to give up at least a year earlier than he did. A year. How many people died in that year? It was then, I think, that Speer entered my subconscious. The next two times I attended the trial, I looked harder, focused more on that silent figure, that attractive face in the dock.

It was - it seems incredible - 31 years later, in the second half of July 1977, that I received a letter from Speer, who had been sentenced to 20 years in Spandau prison and released in 1966. He was writing, he said, because he wanted to thank me for an article I had written in the London Sunday Times.

A great many things had happened to me in the intervening years. I had got married in 1948 to the American Vogue photographer Don Honeyman, and we had had two children; we had lived in Paris and New York and, in 1958, had decided on London as the place where we wanted to bring up our children and work. I had written a novel, The Medallion, about a little boy who was kidnapped from America and taken to four-power-occupied Vienna, and had decided that writing would be my life. I worked as a journalist, and remained passionately interested in two subjects: the Third Reich and troubled children. (In 1969, I was to write a book on the case of Mary Bell, an 11-year-old girl in Newcastle who killed two little boys.)

In 1967, I went to Germany to attend some of the Nazi war crimes trials which, virtually unmentioned in the foreign press, had been going on for several years. Despite my experience in the UNRRA camps, I found the testimony I heard during the four trials I attended harrowing. But those six weeks I spent in Germany reinforced my feeling that there was a great deal missing, not so much in our knowledge of the past as in our understanding of those who enacted it. This feeling led to my writing my third book, Into that Darkness, the story of Franz Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka, as he told it to me during weeks of conversations in Dusseldorf prison after he had been sentenced to life imprisonment. I wanted to understand how a perfectly normal man with average gifts and of presumably average morality could be made into a monster, and whether, under slow moral pressure, he could be brought to recognise his guilt.

It was an extremely difficult book to write, at times nightmarishly so. And when it was finished, I promised myself that I would stop exposing myself to Nazi horrors. But I never quite succeeded in suppressing my involvement with the Third Reich and its aftermath. I often succumbed when editors asked me to undertake commissions in or about Germany. It was one such commission that resulted in my letter from Speer.

The article Speer had read was written in collaboration with a colleague, Lewis Chester. Its subject was a book, Hitler's War, written by the British revisionist David Irving. He claimed to have discovered that Hitler had not known about the genocide of the Jews until October 1943 at the earliest. On first reading, his arguments were plausible - just; his proof, in the form of quotes from Hitler, Himmler and others, was intriguing. Revisionists all over the world had for years been trying desperately to clear Hitler of the gas-chamber murder of the Jews. If they could prove that Hitler had not been involved in the order for genocide and indeed had not known for years that such genocide was happening, then they would have succeeded in changing Hitler's image and, with it, the history of the Third Reich.

Our method of investigating Irving's claims was to follow the trail he himself laid. Irving himself was surprisingly helpful: "This is my Jew file," he said, pointing to a long box filled with meticulously cross- indexed cards. "Everything is in it; you can borrow it." He was so generous and persuasive that I almost thought he might have something.

I spent just under two months talking to survivors from Hitler's circle and checking in German archives every document he had registered in his "Jew file". By the end of our research, we understood the devices Irving had employed to support his thesis, and our long article completely discredited his claims.

In his letter, Speer wrote that it was "ludicrous" for anyone to claim that the genocide of the Jews could have been anyone's idea but Hitler's: "It shows a profound ignorance of the nature of Hitler's Germany, in which nothing of any magnitude could conceivably happen, not only without his knowledge, but without his orders." The fact that there was no documentary evidence of such an order from the Fuhrer meant nothing, he said. He knew from personal experience that many of Hitler's most critical orders were issued only verbally. "From the historical point of view," he wrote, "the matter has now, thanks to your expose, been dealt with. Nonetheless, unfortunately, Irving has provided fodder for the abominable efforts of those whose aim is to create a new Dolchstoss Luge (war-guilt lie), as it was called after 1918, in order yet again to deceive the German people. It appalls me."

Although I knew a great deal about Speer, had read his two books and had seen him many times on television, I had never wanted to meet him. I had admired his books, the second one, Spandau: the Secret Diaries, even more than the first. This story of his 20 years imprisonment - his bitter relationships with at least four of his six co-prisoners; his extraordinary personality change under the tutelage of the French chaplain Georges Casalis; his transformation of the prison yard into a flowering park; the thousands of letters he wrote to his best friend and his children; his organised reading and study programme (he read 5,000 books, taught himself English and French and by the end of his imprisonment could probably have obtained degrees in literature, ethics and even theology); and, finally, his "walk around the world", carefully measured hikes he took daily around his "park", supported in his imagination by maps and descriptions, walking from country to country and city to city over deserts, plains and mountains until, 12 years after he had started, he had walked just under 32,000 kilometres - all this made it the most extraordinary prison memoir I had ever read.

But none of this had emerged from what I saw of him over the years on television after his release and read in countless interviews where, too glib, too smooth, too sure, he appeared only to repeat himself endlessly, above all in denying that he had ever known anything about the Nazi crimes. He made me uncomfortable; I didn't like him; I didn't want to know him. Then, the day after receiving his first letter, another one arrived. He had forgotten to mention, he wrote, that a year or two previously, he had read Into that Darkness, which had caused him sleepless nights. If I was ever in the vicinity of Heidelberg, would I perhaps care to come and talk?

I telephoned him after receiving this second letter. His voice came as a great surprise, and was partly responsible for me changing my mind about meeting him. In the interviews I had read, perhaps because the questions and answers had essentially always been the same, his replies and obvious evasions had irritated me; on television, particularly when he spoke in his heavily accented English, he had almost always sounded arbitrary and arrogant. But on the telephone, he sounded hesitant, shy - not of me, specifically, but as a person. What intrigued me most, however, was that I sensed a great sadness in him.

At the beginning of 1978, the editor of the Sunday Times magazine agreed that I could do a profile of Speer, and that Don, my husband, could take the pictures. By the time we went to Heidelberg in April, Speer had telephoned me many times - we had already talked for hours, and my feelings about him had changed: I no longer regarded him with active dislike, though I could not say that I liked him or, above all, trusted him. Even if he had been truthful about everything else in his books and interviews, he was, I was sure, lying about not having known until Nuremberg about the murder of the Jews. But I had no idea what he felt, admitted or denied about Hitler's other crimes; nor did I know about his family, about his friends and enemies during the Third Reich and since, about what his life had been like before the Nazis.

To find out about the background, motivations and feelings of Franz Stangl was one thing. To try to discover how a man of Speer's talent and immense intelligence could have been convinced by the arguments of National Socialism and become - as far as was possible - Hitler's friend, how he could have stood by him until the very end and probably through his efforts prolonged the war by a considerable period, was quite another.

Over the years, I have established a way of dealing with these professional encounters. When I am talking to someone whose past is immensely controversial, my rule is to tell him at the very start how I feel about him. I do not pretend to come as his friend, to help or console him. If he has murdered, I want to find out what has made him do it; if he has cheated, I want to find out why; if he is a ruler of an industrial empire or a country and I find his rule suspect I tell him so. In the case of people involved with the Third Reich, I tell them what I feel about the Nazis and how I feel about them personally.

For me, this is a kind of insurance policy: I want none of them to be able to say afterwards that, in order to get him to talk, I pretended to be other than I am. And quite aside from feeling that this is, morally, the right approach, I have also found that making such a statement creates a special atmosphere: people respond to it, speaking more openly, saying, perhaps, things they would not otherwise have said. This was certainly the case with Speer.

Speer's house was large and comfortable but, except for his study, which was full of papers and books about the Third Reich and was dominated by a large painting of his mother, it was curiously impersonal: "good" furniture, carpets and paintings; ornaments on the tables; expensive curtains and lots of flowers. It could have been the home of any upper-class German family. It conveyed no sense of Speer, or even of his wife, who had lived in it throughout his imprisonment and raised their six children there. It was later, at their house in the mountains, that I got more of a sense of him; he had created it himself, from an old farmhouse. It was very simple, almost spartan, but everything it contained - the old pieces in the bedrooms and the kitchen, and the new ones Speer had designed for the huge living-room, converted from the former stables - was beautiful.

By the end of that first evening, Speer had made friends with my husband. He had almost immediately suggested that they call each other by their Christian names, which is very unusual in Germany. With me, he was - not reticent, but much cooler. It would be some time before we, too, called each other by our first names.

By the time we left that night, though knowing no details, I knew that Speer had had a miserable childhood and hated the Heidelberg house because it reminded him of it, and that he and his wife and he and his children were and always had been miles apart. I knew that he was deeply nostalgic for Spandau, though I didn't know why; and I knew that he had loved Hitler, though not to what extent. What I didn't yet know, and wasn't to learn until much later, was that he was consumed with guilt by the murder of the Jews. It was a long time before I grew to like Speer but by the end of our first three weeks together, I fully believed, and loved, that feeling of guilt in him.

Albert Speer died in 1981. By then, we had talked a great deal, and I have often asked myself how I really felt about him. Perhaps my reaction to his death goes some way towards providing an answer: I was shaken, because it happened so unexpectedly, in London, while we were away, and because there was a message from him on our answerphone when we returned, by which time he was already dead. But I was not sad. He had given me a great deal of himself, of knowledge and of understanding, and I was grateful to him for that. No one else could have given me what he did; there was no one else who knew and understood as much as he did. But when he died, I thought that his death was right and, in a terrible way, overdue; fate had given him 35 years after the Nuremberg trials, at which he should probably have been sentenced to death, as were others perhaps less guilty than he.

What Speer gave me was a new perspective on Hitler, on his personality, his actions and his goals; a new understanding of the significance, in political events, of human emotions. The book I now wanted to write was the book, I suddenly realised, that I had always wanted to write, ever since finding the imprisoned children at Dachau and the stolen children in southern Germany, ever since learning about the dead children in Treblinka, Sobibor and Belsen. Speer had given me the gift of himself, against whom I could place, consider, deplore and mourn all those events, and all those human beings who had lived and died in my time

My Journey to Speer by Gitta Sereny appears in the latest issue of Granta magazine, which is published next week (available in bookshops from Thursday or by subscription, freephone 0500-004033)

Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth is published by Macmillan at pounds 25

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