Review

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The Independent Culture
"Can you imagine what I felt?" said Albert Speer, explaining to Gitta Sereny the enchantment of finding that he had been admitted to Adolf Hitler's inner circle. Sereny's strength as a writer is that she treats this question as central to an understanding of the Holocaust; she doesn't recoil from its unnerving implication of a potential common ground. In her book about Speer, and in Into That Darkness, the great book which emerged from her conversations with the commandant of Treblinka, she attempts to empathise with the human motives of men whom some have too simply dismissed as "inhuman". Understanding is not forgiveness though: hers is a project designed to increase our vigilance about ordinary feelings - ambition, indifference, fear - not an attempt to reconcile us to extraordinary ones.

Reputations' film (BBC2) about Albert Speer was clearly based on Sereny's recent book, and she featured as one of the more thoughtful witnesses in the film - possessor, almost, of the secrets of Speer's soul. The programme began with the young architect's capitulation to Hitler's power and glamour, but its real subject was Speer's post-war reconstruction of his own character, a project he pursued with the same zealous efficiency he devoted to the planning of Germania, a new capital for the Thousand-Year Reich. He was as ambitious in remorse as he was in power: he wanted to be a penitential star, the very personification of German contrition.

For various reasons, this suited the Allied powers (though the Russian judges at Nuremberg wanted him hanged along with the co-defendants he disowned); Speer's limited confession - "I didn't know, I should have known, I could have known" - underwrote the legitimacy of the court, and it was, besides, a story everyone could recognise. Speer was Faust to Hitler's Lucifer, tempted by the dizzying vistas from the Adlerhof, a promise of power and knowledge for which he traded his eternal soul. In this version, of course, Faust was given a second chance, but that deal was dependent on the sincerity of his repentence. And increasingly, it seems, there were grounds for doubt. Though Speer consistently denied knowledge of the Holocaust, it was not only clear that he had direct knowledge of the slave labour programme, but also that he had probably been present at Himmler's infamous speech of praise for those who had shouldered the burden of extermination. It seems inconceivable that he did not know what was happening to the Jews, and knowing, he chose to look elsewhere.

By the end of his life, he appears to have absolved himself - either because he believed his project of remorse had been completed, or because he had become too tired to maintain the gruelling regime of guilt (he exposed himself to the relatives of Holocaust victims, as a monk might scourge his flesh). He died without ever confessing his true guilt, perhaps because recognition of the truth would have been unsustainable. Then the question would have been "Can you imagine how I feel?", to which almost no one could offer an answer.

Airport (BBC1), a new series about Heathrow, begins with a soap convention - short sequences of various characters which end in a freeze-frame as they look towards the camera and their names appear on the credit sequence. I don't know whether we will get to know Dennis, Garth and Cath better in the weeks to come, but this opening sequence was fairly interesting, particularly the long face-off with two suspected drug-smugglers, women who had valiantly not let unemployment stand between them and frequent international air travel. They had around pounds 3,000 in cash and attitude to spare, and they eventually walked free after an internal examination proved that they were guilty of nothing more than a dubious taste in jewellery. Cath, who had talked rapturously of "the adrenalin rush you get from finding drugs", was philosophical about being deprived of her fix.

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