How deeply was Albert Speer implicated in Hitler's crimes? And how far did he really go in facing his guilt? Our final extract from the year's most talked-about book uncovers a tortured soul and a Great Lie , responsible for slave labour. Yet he escaped the hangman's noose. In the first of two extracts from a major new book, we examine the roots of his involvement in the horrors of the Third Reich
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THE MORNING of my first visit to him, in 1978, Albert Speer received this letter:

You pig of a traitor:

We have looked for you for a long time. You who as our Fuhrer's architect profited when he went from victory to victory. You, who planned to gas him... when he defended our Berlin.

You pig played the penitent, and barricaded in a villa guarded by dogs, betrayed us. Your lying scribbles show your true character... with speechifying, toadying to the victors and sending money to Jewish organizations... you are trying to get yourself readmitted to society... you money-grabbing pig.

When we put an end to you, no one will care. No one will shed a single tear. And we will put an end to you. Rely on it.

The letter was signed LP Hauptsturmfuhrer (the SS rank of Captain) and stamped with an eagle carrying the swastika. The back of the envelope identified the senders as "The victims of 16 October 1946", the day the major war criminals were hanged in Nuremberg.

Speer's "barricaded villa" had "A Speer" prominently displayed on a post next to the permanently open gates. "Just think what a bore it would be to get out of the car every time to open them, and, anyway, it wouldn't do for the children," he said. The grandchildren were "guarded" by one soppy Saint Bernard, their play companion, who loved nothing more than slobbering over visitors.

Speer and his wife,Margret, both 73 when I met them, occupied two floors of a beautiful patrician house on the hill above Heidelberg Castle; the top floor was rented to students, and a guest cottage in the garden was used by their youngest son, Ernst, and his family. "It's nice to have young people around," Margret said. "And it doesn't stand empty when we are up in the mountains."

There was an intense aura of loneliness about the Speers. Five of their six children lived scattered all over Germany. They saw them rarely. Speer's relationship with Ernst, who was one and a half when Speer was convicted in 1946 and 22 when he was released, was never good. "He is the one who could never say a word when he came to visit me in Spandau [jail]," Speer told me. "I too had nothing to say and - it's sad - I still don't."

Ernst, his pretty red-haired wife, and the Speers' second daughter and her husband were coming for dinner the fourth day I was there, and Margret, unusually merry, bustled around the kitchen much of the day. "Would you forgive us if we don't ask you to stay?" Speer asked. "It's the first time in three years we have several of the children here together"

The children wanted nothing to do with his past, or with his life after Spandau. They were close to their mother. "Do you see how she lights up when they come?" he asked. "How she changes when I'm not around, becomes girlish and gay?"

His relationship with the children was formal to a degree. He stood up when they arrived or left; they shook hands without otherwise touching - it seemed impossible for them to say even the word "Father". It was impossible to talk it out with them, he told me the next day. "Last night, after you left, we had supper. It was pleasant enough. We chatted until about 11.30pm, when I went up to bed. As soon as I got upstairs, I could hear peals of laughter. There had been no laughter while I was there; there never is. I weigh upon them." He was stating a fact, not expressing self-pity.

IN MAY 1953, when Speer was 48 and in his seventh year in Spandau, his then 17-year-old daughter, Hilde, wrote asking him to explain to her about his guilt. He replied:

You ask... about the Nazis... You say how could an intelligent person go along with such a thing. Let me say the hardest bit first: unless one wants, cowardly, to avoid confronting the truth, one has to say that there can be no excuse; there is no justification. It is in that sense that I am convinced of my own guilt. There are things, you see, for which one has to carry the blame, even if purely factually one might find excuses: the immensity of the crime precludes any attempt at self-justification.

As he would admit to me 25 years later when, unasked, he brought up the subject of Hilde's preoccupation with his morality, this letter was exceptionally disturbing to him. Before that, it had simply not occurred to him that any child of his - any young person - could ask him such a question, bringing him back so sharply to the state of mind provoked in him years before by Georges Casalis, the Protestant chaplain of Berlin's French community since 1945, who was put in charge of the spiritual care of the seven prisoners at Spandau soon after they arrived in Berlin in July 1947.

With this 30-year-old French intellectual, Speer had slowly gone further in his search of self and, had Casalis felt able to stay longer than the three years they knew each other there, might have got to the point of articulating his enormous guilt feelings.

"He could never say it," Casalis told me. "And yet, when I first knew him, he was, under the extraordinary cool he affected, the most guilt- ridden, the most tortured man I had ever known.

"I was very, very worried when I was told about Spandau," he went on. "full of doubts whether I was the right man for the job. What could I say to them? What could I preach?"

At the end of Casalis's first service at Spandau, Speer asked to speak to him. "And I was glad he did," Casalis said. "I needed to speak with him too. I told him that I considered him more blameworthy than any of the others. First of all, because he was the most intelligent. But secondly, he was, to my mind, not only more responsible than the other six prisoners but perhaps more than anyone in Germany except for Hitler, for extending the war. Thanks to his efforts, I told him, this terrible war had lasted at least a year longer than it might, and as a result killed many of my friends." Speer thanked him for his honesty. "And then he said, 'I'll be as honest in return. I've been sentenced to 20 years and I consider it just. I want to use this time that has, in a manner of speaking, been given to me. What I want to ask you is, would you help me become a different man?' "

BY THE END of 1944 Speer was working at full stretch in two almost diametrically opposite directions. On the one hand, even though he knew that the end was imminent and that Hitler's programme was evil, he continued his efforts to produce arms for his war. He undertook three trips to the West, combining bolstering visits to industrial centres and conferences with the generals at the front. "How can one describe it?" said Hupfauer, the head of Speer's ministry's Central Planning Board, to me. "He cajoled, he reassured, he urged them to hold out and advised them how to go about it. I never understood it, but he carried us all along - the generals, the industrialists, the workers. He gave people the feeling that they were winning in defeat. I think he saved our self-respect." He smiled briefly. "I don't think anybody would have described Speer as an endearing or lovable man. He was too lofty for that. But in those months, people, all of us, felt something akin to love for him."

Speer needed all the support he could get. For even as he was encouraging arms production with one hand, he was determined to block Hitler's successive moves to make the German people pay for their failure.

First Hitler ordered that all rail transport be reserved for the transport of armaments; then the food industry (butchers, bakers, cheesemakers) was to be stripped to provide manpower either for the army or to produce armaments. The population west of the Rhine would just have to manage for food as best they could.

"He told me this one day in November," Speer said to me, " and I told Goering the same evening that I simply couldn't obey that order. Goering, matter-of-fact as he was, said that as long as I drew a salary as Hitler's minister I had to obey his orders. When I said again that I couldn't do this, he said, 'Well, then, you'd better get out, get abroad.'

"I told him that I couldn't do that either, but that I wouldn't do what Hitler ordered. The people of the Ruhr were going through hell. It was our duty to provide for them as far and as long as we could.

" 'Well, then, do what you must,' Goering said. 'Nobody is going to hear about it from me. I'm not an informer.' I was really impressed by that - that was elegant," Speer said. "Despite his dreadful decline, he did have character, and style. I never forgot that."

A critical point of change, both for Speer and for Hitler, had arrived. Even while Hitler was preparing the Ardennes offensive, his last major battle which was planned to start on 1 December, Below [Hitler's Luftwaffe adjutant] heard Hitler say for the first time: "The war is lost." This beginning of the end was when Hitler began to despise - perhaps even to hate - the Germans, who, he told Speer, "wouldn't, couldn't, didn't have the strength" to win.

"Until then, yes, even then," Speer told me, "Germany and Hitler had been synonymous in my mind. But now I saw two entities opposed to each other. A passionate love of one's country could no longer be reconciled with a leader who seemed to hate his people."

20 APRIL 1945, HITLER's 56th birthday, was the last time the top government people visited him. Goering, Ribbentrop, Himmler, Speer, Admiral Donitz, the generals - Keitel, Jodl, Krebs - and about 100 other officials came to congratulate him in the Bunker, just before the noon situation report. Most of them begged him to leave on the one road still open from Berlin to the south. He refused, but said that at this point all those not on his immediate staff who wanted to leave could leave, and about 80 of the remaining Reich Chancellery left that night and the next morning, as did Himmler.

"Ribbentrop stayed, surprisingly," Speer told me. "He said that Hitler might still need him." Only Donitz, who left on Hitler's orders, received a warm farewell.

In the afternoon, Hitler went out of doors for the last time. In the park of the Chancellery, a few steps from the Bunker entrance, he pinned the Iron Cross on the dirty Hitler Youth uniforms of some 14-year-old boys who had been fighting with the militia. The last photograph taken of Hitler shows him looking old and exhausted, clearly making an enormous effort to exert that old magic of looking people straight in the face. He stroked the cheek of one small boy, and, astonishingly, the photograph shows the faces of these children still lit up as if warmed by his presence.

Although Speer had been present during the ceremonial part of the day, following which Hitler had shaken hands with all those who were going to leave, he had not said goodbye to Hitler. "I could never explain this to myself later," he said when I questioned him on that curious omission. "It must be that I knew - though certainly not consciously - that I would see him again. Though it could of course also have been that I simply couldn't bear to say goodbye to him - like that." By "like that" he meant as one of many, rather than privately.

WHEN, on 23 April, Speer decided to return to Berlin, only 24 hours after he had joined his closest associates in Hamburg, it was, he would tell me, because he couldn't bear to be "on the outside. Somehow I had to be in on the end."

It was, as we spoke, a beautiful day in the Allgau: Speer and I had decided to take a long walk in the snow. It was only when we had reached a plateau at the end of a forest path and sat down on a bench that he told me about that last trip to Berlin.

"It was odd," he said, "because although I had announced my imminent arrival by phone, Hitler's adjutants appeared quite startled to see me."

"We were amazed to see Speer," Traudl Junge, Hitler's junior secretary, told me later. "There didn't seem to be any reason for his coming back, but we thought it was wonderful of him. And Eva Braun was really over the moon that he came, just as she had predicted. Everybody knew how much she liked him; he'd really been her only friend among the higher-ups for years. But more than that, she was so happy for Hitler."

"I must admit that I was apprehensive as to how I would be received," Speer continued, "until I found Bormann waiting for me at the foot of the 50 steps at the deepest level of the Bunker. He was unusually polite, the reason emerging very quickly when he suggested that, if the Fuhrer asked for my opinion on what he should do, I would - wouldn't I? - advise him to fly south. In fact, I had no intention of doing that, but I didn't bother to disabuse him.

"Well, I had a comparatively long time with Hitler then. He looked very old, very tired, but you know, he was actually very calm, resigned, ready for the end. First he asked me some very searching questions about Donitz. That indicated to me that he was going to name him his successor, which was fine with me: I considered Donitz an honest man and a patriot. And what I wanted to avoid above all was that he would name me.

"After that, it wasn't a personal conversation we had - and yet in a way it was. Not personal in that he showed any interest in me, but personal in that he talked about the past, the hopes he had had, the disappointments he had suffered. Now, everything he said was imbued with that feeling of the end, his planned suicide. And he assured me that he felt no fear of it but was glad to die.

"And then he went into all the details: that Eva Braun had decided to die with him, that he would shoot his dog Blondi before he died. And he was very precise about the orders he had issued about burning his body. In retrospect it all sounds very dramatic, but you know, it wasn't. He sounded - how can I explain? - empty, depleted."

Some time after midnight, when Hitler had retired for a brief rest, an orderly came to invite Speer to Eva Braun's room, which was entirely furnished with the pieces he had designed for her years before. "She told me that she had always loved my furniture," he told me, "and that she had wanted to have it around her now. But that was the only sentimental remark she made."

Saying she was sure he must be hungry, she ordered champagne and cakes and they talked about people they knew; the places they had visited together; her city, Munich; and her skiing trip with him and Margret (whom she still called "Frau Speer"). She told him how important it was that he had come, that Hitler had thought he too was against him. "And then she said, 'But you came. I told him you would. And that proved, didn't it, that you are with him.' I didn't know what to say, to her of all people, but I did tell her that I was not staying but leaving later that night. She said, very calmly, that of course I must.

"And then she put her hand on my arm, just for a moment, and said she was really happy to be there and that she was not afraid. Oh, that girl..."

Around 3am the orderly came in to report that Hitler was up again, and Speer bid Eva Braun goodbye. "She wished me luck and sent greetings to my wife. It was extraordinary. Don't you think it was extraordinary? On the face of it, a simple Munich girl, a nobody... and yet she was a most remarkable woman. And Hitler had known this. He never said it; I don't think he often made her feel it; but he had sensed it..."

His goodbye to Hitler a few minutes later took seconds, no more. " 'Oh, you are leaving? Good. Well, goodbye,' he said. His words were as cold as his hand," Speer said. "No good wishes, no thanks, no greetings to my family..."

Did he not think, I asked him, that it was extraordinary for him to expect a warm goodbye from Hitler?

He shook his head. "I see I disappoint you," he said.

ON THE NIGHT of 1 May, when the news of Hitler's suicide was received, Donitz's headquarters [where Speer was] was ruled by confusion rather than despair. The radio signal which transmitted the part of Hitler's Political Testament which named Donitz his successor and Goebbels and Bormann his principal ministers was considered unacceptable. "Just imagine," Donitz said to Speer, "what on earth do we do if Bormann really gets here. One can't work with that man." The decision was made to destroy the signal, as if that could have destroyed Hitler's intention, Bormann's obedience to it, or the knowledge of what the testaments contained. The next day, Donitz said, he would begin negotiations with Field Marshal Montgomery.

"That night," Speer told me, "I was assigned a small room in the navy barrack. When I unpacked my overnight bag, I saw that Annemarie Kempf [his secretary] had put in Hitler's portrait, which he had signed for me on my 40th birthday six weeks before. I was quite all right, you know, until - I don't know why - I opened the case and stood the photograph up on the night table. And then suddenly, standing there, I started to sob. I couldn't stop; it just went on and on until, still dressed, I fell asleep on the bed."

For a while, Speer felt that had been a kind of watershed that liberated him, but it wasn't. "That's when the dreams began," he said, "dreams of his knowing what I did, dreams of his saying that I wanted to kill him. They went on for years, and even now they sometimes come back. Sometimes he isn't even in the room in these dreams, but he is in the dreams, or he is the dream."

ONE OF THE great psychological mysteries about the Third Reich has always been Hitler's ability to convince a nation of culturally sophisticated men and women that wrong was right.

It is too simple to say, as many Germans do, that they "didn't know what was being done", or that they were all benighted and hypnotised. In truth it was, and is, more complicated. Whatever they did not know - and there was much of it - they all knew something. The real phenomenon was not that Hitler persuaded the Germans that wrong was right, but that they should accept the legitimacy of forbidden knowledge. Awareness of "these details" - as Hupfauer gratingly referred to the specifics of the SS crimes - of course lurked in the recesses of many minds, but it was determinedly and decisively suppressed until and even beyond the Nuremberg trials.

My research into all the circumstances concerning Speer and the events and consequences of Himmler's speech at Posen in October 1943 [in which Himmler spelt out the policy of the genocide of the Jews and for which Speer claimed not to have been present] was greatly complicated by the fact that no one still alive who had attended Himmler's speech was willing to admit to their presence there that day. In their refusal to confront that memory, they were, of course, not unlike Speer. The difference between him and almost all of them, however, was that they denied not only hearing this dreadful speech and all personal knowledge of these murders, but any suggestion that Hitler had committed any wrong - except the one of losing the war. Speer, on the other hand, who did more than any other man to help him win that war, ended up shattered by its futility, convinced of Hitler's crimes and determined to share the overall responsibility for them. Although, alone among the 21 accused at Nuremberg, he had been determined from the beginning of the trial to accept a share in the responsibility for all Nazi crimes, this had been a gesture he felt honour-bound to make as a member of Hitler's government. But - so he wrote in Spandau - it had only been during the trial, listening to the specific testimonies about the murder of the Jews, that this formal acceptance of responsibility became an emotional awareness of personal guilt.

This, I believe, was the beginning of the Great Lie of Speer's life. For while he may indeed not have known about the gas chambers until Nuremberg, and until then, as he told me, may not have been able imaginatively to visualise whole families being killed, I believe that after Posen he knew about the long-planned and almost completed genocide of the Jews. And however far removed he himself was from these systematic murders, once he knew of them and yet continued to work for Hitler, he became an active participant in the crime.

Speer's tragedy, a paradox of Greek dimensions, manifested itself clearly during the illness that beset him in 1944, after the Posen speech. After Posen, recognising both the crimes and, intolerably, his own involvement and thus his guilt, he essentially needed and longed to die. But his will to live was stronger than his need to atone. His strength was his weakness.

But even that was not all. For even though, when he was lying gravely ill, morality had reawakened in him, and he confronted his personal culpability, there was still this link, this tie to Hitler, the deepest - perhaps the only real - emotion he had ever felt. "Who is this man?" he asked himself when he saw Hitler again. "How could I never have seen how ugly he is, the sallowness of his skin, his broad nose?" Thus, for a moment, he tried to reduce the profoundly disturbing moral condemnation he had arrived at, not only of Hitler but of himself, into a question of aesthetic perception rather than of shared guilt.

The moment passed. It is almost grotesque to think that, with untold thousands dying, emotion continued to rule Speer's actions. His love for Hitler took a long time to wane, and granting himself that time was probably his gravest compromise. For it allowed his final act of self-deception - that he could not give up, could not leave, could not take that all- important moral stand because, so he told himself, all he could do was to work ever harder to try to save the country, the people, from destruction, from dishonour; for Hitler, from Hitler - he no longer knew which.

His fight against Hitler's "scorched earth" plan was waged not in anger, but in sadness and despair. Neither this nor even Hitler's death freed him from his terrible attachment. It was only years later, in the monastic peace of Spandau and with Casalis's help, that morality and repentance became the ruling factors of his life.

In a review Speer once brought out to show me, Lucy Dawidowicz had written, "What his Diaries do not mention, are any sleepless nights... or dreams about Auschwitz."

"But that is exactly what does give me sleepless nights," he said, sounding very weary. This was the last day of the original three weeks we spent together in 1978 for a profile I wrote.

"I think I know what you knew about the Jews," I said. "But could you yourself not go a little further?"

He had known that this question would come up that day. "I can say," he said slowly, "that I sensed... that dreadful things were happening with the Jews..." This was no longer the man I had found glib, smooth and almost theatrically charming when we first met. He was deadly serious, deeply tired; there was not a shred of glibness left.

"But if you 'sensed'," I said, "then you knew. You cannot sense or suspect into a void. You knew."

He was silent for a long moment, then got up, went to his study and came back with a piece of paper. "Read this. Do as you wish with it; and then let us speak of it no more."

In April 1977, Speer had received a letter from D Diamond, director of the South African (Jewish) Board of Deputies, asking him to assist the Board in their legal action against the publishers and distributors of the pamphlet Did Six Million Die? The Hoax of the Twentieth Century.

The request to Speer was that he should affirm on oath: (a) that contrary to what the pamphlet claimed, there had indeed been a plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe; (b) that he had heard of this plan and could testify that it existed; (c) that it was implemented and how he knew that it was implemented.

Speer's affidavit in reply, which I translated from his original German for inclusion in my profile, consisted of three pages in which, point after point, he described the background to the exterminations and the devastating admissions of the directly implicated accused at the Nuremberg trial. He ended with the most revealing words he had ever written:

I still recognise today that the grounds upon which I was convicted by the International Military Tribunal were correct. More than this, I still consider it essential to take upon myself the responsibility, and thus the blame in general, for all crimes which were committed after I became a member of Hitler's government on 8 February 1942. It is not individual acts or omissions, however grave, which weigh upon me, but my conduct as part of the leadership. This is why I accepted an overall responsibility in the Nuremberg trial and reaffirm this now.

However, to this day I still consider my main guilt to be my tacit acceptance [Billigung] of the persecution and the murder of millions of Jews

With those words, especially the hard-to-translate Billigung, Speer associated himself for the first time directly with the murder of the Jews. Three months later, when Die Zeit Magazin obtained the German rights to my profile of Speer, the contract provided that the retranslation into German be rechecked with Speer.

Just as he had not registered any objection when I had given him the English draft to read, here again he accepted the profile as written, except that in a handwritten note to Die Zeit he asked for a footnote to be added in which he explained the term "Billigung", which I translated as "tacit consent", to mean "looking away, not by knowledge of an order or its execution. The first," he wrote, "is as grave as the second."

"Why did you say this so directly now, after denying it for so long?" I asked him. He shrugged. "For this purpose, and with these people," he said, "I didn't wish to - I couldn't - hedge."

If Speer had said as much in Nuremberg, he would have been hanged.

! Adapted from 'Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth', by Gitta Sereny (Macmillan, pounds 25).