WITH HITLER ON HIS CONSCIENCE

How did Albert Speer live with his guilt? He was one of the Fuhrer's inner circle, his architect and, as Minister of Armaments, 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 Independent Culture
ALBERT SPEER, whom I knew well and grew to like, might easily have been hanged the night of 16-17 October 1946, when, in the gymnasium of Nuremberg prison, 10 other of Hitler's men were executed after being tried by the victorious allies, some perhaps less guilty than he. The fatalistic part of Speer certainly expected that he would be sentenced to death, and many people afterwards thought he should have been.

The condemned men did not know the date of their execution, but Dr Ludwig Pflucker, the prison doctor, had been told and was very busy that night. On the first floor, the one above both the gymnasium and the cells containing the men sentenced to die, the seven men who had been given prison sentences had been issued the mild sleeping pills they were offered each night at Nuremberg. (Speer always accepted his.) And then, in a compassionate gesture by the Allied prison authorities, the doctor had been allowed to give a stronger sedative to the condemned men. Not all of them, it appears, had taken it: when at 1am Colonel Burton C. Andrus, the American commandant of the prison, accompanied by selected German witnesses, had gone from cell to cell and had read the death sentence ending with the words "death by hanging", the condemned men had all been dressed, but four of them, three almost somnolent, one nearly demented, had failed to stand up straight for the words.

It would appear that Speer slept lightly, for in the depth of that night he shot up in his bunk, hearing the calling out of names: "Ribbentrop" (Hitler's Minister for Foreign Affairs); then "Keitel" (Field Marshal and Army Chief of Staff at Hitler's HQ); "Kaltenbrunner" (Head of Reich Main Security Office); "Rosenberg" (Minister for Occupied Eastern Territories); "Frank" (Governor-General of Poland); "Frick" (Minister of the Interior); "Streicher" (anti-Semitic propagandist); "Sauckel" (Reich Commissioner for Foreign Labour); "Jodl"(General of the Army at Hitler's HQ); and last "Seyss-Inquart" (Reich Commissioner for the Netherlands).

He had known all these men very well; two of them, Jodl and Seyss-Inquart, he had liked. With Sauckel, his "unattractive working-class lieutenant in the slave labour program," as Airey Neave described him, Speer had, by necessity, worked closely. Goering, who was in a position to pay well to learn of the executions in time, had committed suicide a few hours before he was to be hanged. He had sometimes been almost a friend of Speer's, but became a venomous enemy at Nuremberg, where they fought a last bitter leadership battle.

Goering, insisting the trial was a travesty conducted by victors against losers, wanted all the accused to reject the validity of the court and claim innocence before the German law under which they had lived and which, he held, had legitimised their actions.

Speer, on the contrary, asked them all to join him in a recognition of a universal law under which they, as part of Hitler's leadership, had to accept responsibility for acts - crimes in the eyes of all of the civilised world - for which they, but not the German people, could and should be called to account. Whether they had individually collaborated in the crimes or not, in their capacity as leaders, he said, they had to accept a common culpability.

The morning after the hangings, the seven men who were given prison sentences - Admirals Erich Raeder and Karl Donitz (life and 10 years, respectively); Hitler's old comrade and deputy, Rudolf Hess (life); Minister of Economics Walther Funk (life); former Foreign Minister and Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia Konstantin von Neurath (15 years); Reich Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach and Speer, first Hitler's architect then his Minister of Armaments and War Production (both 20 years) - were moved down into empty cells on the ground floor and were then assigned to clean out those just vacated by the hanged men. Eight of the cells bore the signs of desperate men: papers strewn all over the floor, remnants of food on the tables, blankets balled up on the bunks. Only General Jodl's cell was spotless, his tin bowl and spoon washed, his blanket militarily folded. And on one wall of Seyss-Inquart's cell was a calendar with the last day of his life, 16 October, marked with a cross.

That afternoon Hess, Schirach and Speer were handed brooms and mops and taken to the empty gymnasium. One can't quite think why, for the gallows had been dismantled and the floor had been washed. None the less, they were told to clean and mop it again, watched closely by a GI and a lieutenant.

Speer wrote about this in his book Spandau: The Secret Diaries, but when he recounted this story to me years later he had still not got over that trauma. His face went red, then pale, and when he almost furtively wiped it, his clean, folded handkerchief came away wet. The gymnasium floor, he said, had been quite clean, except for one enormous dark spot that wouldn't budge. Hess, he said, finally stood at attention and saluted it with a raised arm.

I SAW Speer in the dock at Nuremberg on three occasions when, by invitation of a friend, I was able to attend the trial. But I was very young, knew nothing about Speer, 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. Contrary to many of the other defendants, who pretended to be bored or asleep, read or fidgeted endlessly with their hands or in their seats, he invariably sat very still, listening intently, with nothing moving in his face except those dark, intelligent eyes.

But I never heard his voice until about 30 years later. By then he had served 20 years in Spandau prison and, released in 1966, then 61 years old, had written two extraordinary books.

Inside the Third Reich was very cool, very controlled, recalling to my mind's eye, that still, attentive figure I had observed in the Nuremberg dock in 1946.

I felt very differently about The Secret Diaries. Here he manifested not only a real literary talent but, between the lines, the sadness and loneliness I would find in him later. His handling of his long prison life - the reading, writing, gardening, his "Walk around the World", as he imagined the 31,936 km he walked over the last 12 years of his imprisonment - seemed to me astonishing, and his account of it deeply moving. By this time, however, I had repeatedly seen Speer on television, being interviewed in German and in English. Despite the remarkable intelligence of his books and the apparent sincerity there of his moral self-examination (unique among former high-ranking Nazis, as I by then knew from my own experience), he seemed to me unconvincing in person; his mea culpas appeared to flow too readily from his lips; his smile was condescending, his voice too smooth. On screen, he communicated no vestige of doubt, or of humanity.

When, in the spring of 1978, we finally met face to face for a profile I was to write of him, at his beautiful home above Heidelberg castle, my feelings were very mixed, ranging from curiosity and fascination to a troubling malaise.

Over dinner that first night, I told Speer and his wife, Margarete - he referred to her as Margret - about the ambivalence of my feelings toward him. I told him I had read everything I could find that had been written about him in three languages, and that I was as surprised by the similarity of the questions he was invariably asked as I was by his own almost monotonously uniform answers. I warned him that I would attempt, in my own way, to break through this pattern and through the defences he had manifestly set up over so many years.

Oh, yes, he shrugged, everybody came with that intention. All of them wanted to trap him into admitting the same thing. "Always the same thing," he said with weary resignation, and added meaningfully, "you will too."

I knew what he meant, of course; the subject that was always uppermost in his mind and in the minds of all those who questioned him was the murder of the Jews, the knowledge of which during the Third Reich he had always denied.

Conversations such as I intended having with him needed to be structured. His denial of knowledge of the murder of the Jews was of course central to the problem, but to my mind it needed to be left in abeyance, in a way refusing him the relief of denial until everything else had been said. There were two essential matters I wanted our conversations eventually to focus on: one, the origin of Hitler's evil (which to my mind went even beyond his obsession about the Jews and his worst crime, the gas chambers in occupied Poland); the other, Speer's realisation of - and participation in - it.

Hitler's genius in part was to corrupt others, but the evidence I have collected suggests that with extraordinary skill he deliberately protected those closest to him - who from 1933 on included Speer - from any awareness which could have disturbed them or the harmony of their relationship with him. But corruption is insidious. Speer, in the course of his growing relationship with Hitler, inevitably became a part of it. Speer, I was already convinced, had never killed, stolen, personally benefited from the misery of others or betrayed a friend. And yet, what I felt neither the Nuremberg trial nor his books had really told us was how a man of such quality could become not immoral, not amoral but, somehow infinitely worse, morally extinguished.

IT WAS in 1933, during the preparation for the first party rally in Nuremberg after the Nazis came to power, that Speer had his first encounter with Hitler. The rally organisers were having problems with the stadium decor and somebody remembered the architect who had designed the Templehof platform for the 1 May celebrations [Speer had joined the Nazi Party in 1931]. Speer was flown to Nuremberg and, not unimpressed by this signal honour, rapidly drew some sketches - "not very brilliant", by his own admission. "For a background there I just replaced those huge flags I had invented for 1 May with a huge eagle, about 20m across, nailed to a truss like a butterfly."

The organisers didn't dare decide when shown the drawing, and sent the unknown architect to see Rudolf Hess in Munich. "Only the Fuhrer can decide this," said Hess, and picked up the telephone. "He is here, you are going to his apartment."

"In Spandau I once teased Hess about his indecisiveness on that occasion," Speer told me. "He immediately said he would never have dared make decisions such as this on his own; that Hitler reserved all important decisions for himself."

In the Fuhrer's apartment near Munich's elegant Prinzregen-tenstrasse, he was immediately taken in to Hitler. "And there I stood," Speer once wrote, "before Hitler, who, it would seem, had just taken a pistol apart that was lying in pieces on the table in front of him. 'Put your drawings down here,' he said without looking up, pushing the pistol parts aside. He looked at the sketches, but never looked at me. 'Agreed,' he said then and, ignoring my presence, turned back to cleaning his gun. I left."

Speer didn't remember if he had said anything to Hitler. "I don't know," he said. "Probably 'Guten Tag' ''

"No 'Heil Hitler' and 'Deutscher Gruss'?" I asked. "Isn't that what everybody was supposed to do?"

"Well, I was never much one for raising my arm, not later either. I mean, it was so silly. Still, I should remember this," he said. "I really think I just stood there," he went on. "I was pretty confused, and that gun gave me a strange feeling." He laughed it away, as he often laughed away embarrassing topics. "It's probably all nonsense: all in my head, retrospective panic. I was probably just overcome with reverence," he said, mocking himself.

Although Hitler knew nothing about him, Speer was now on his way. That autumn, Hitler commissioned Professor Paul Lud-wig Troost, one of Germany's grand old architects, to rebuild the Reich Chancellor's apartment in Berlin. "And here," said Speer, "I benefited from the fact that Troost lived in Munich and didn't know much about the Berlin building scene. Hitler remembered that some young architect in Berlin [Speer] had finished Goeb-bels's flat in record time. And he gave orders that I was to join Troost's team to assist the building supervisor with local matters."

This began with an inspection of the Chancellor's residence by Hitler, accompanied only, as would become the custom over the next months, by the building supervisor and Speer. "But you know," said Speer, "I had the feeling he didn't even see me; he never looked at me. During the many inspections he made, he never addressed me directly. I came to feel that was just his way; I accepted it as, well, normal. Why should the great man talk to me? It was enough for me just to be there.

"I must say," Speer said, "the way Germany's most powerful man walked about there, unguarded and apparently not a care in the world, did seem quite extraordinary, quite wonderful to me. It was - I can't call it anything else - an ideal picture of modesty.

"How to explain this," he said, "so that someone today can understand, can imagine what it was like? Here was this man, who, it seemed as if by magic, had already in a few months changed our country beyond recognition. Everything in Ger-many was flourishing. The unemployed were back at work; there were work projects everywhere - we lived and breathed optimism. I think it's true to say that his lack of affectation captivated me, and, yes, I enjoyed living in this aura of reflected glory."

And then one day, at the end of the usual noon visit, Hitler suddenly turned to him and said, "Come along to lunch."

"Can you imagine this?" said Speer. "Here I was, young, unknown and totally unimportant, and this great man, for whose attention our whole world competed, said to me, 'Come and have lunch.' I thought I'd faint. Just that morning, climbing about on the site, I'd got some plaster on my suit and Hitler noticed me looking doubtfully at my dirty sleeve. 'Don't worry about that,' he said. 'We'll fix it upstairs.' And upstairs he took me into his private quarters and told his valet to get his dark blue jacket. And before I knew it, there I was, walking back into the drawing room behind Hitler, wearing his own jacket.

"The party elite were assembled for lunch and Goebbels's eyes popped. He immediately noticed what I hadn't seen, Hitler's golden party badge, the only one of its kind. 'What are you doing?' he said sharply. 'What are you wearing there?'

" 'He is wearing my jacket,' Hitler said, and pointed to the seat next to him. 'Sit down here,' he said.

"Can you conceive what I felt? Here I was, 28 years old, totally insignificant in my own eyes, sitting next to him at lunch, wearing his clothes and elected - at least that day - as virtually his sole conversational partner. I was dizzy with excitement."

VERY SOON after that fateful lunch, Speer had become part of Hitler's small personal circle. He was expected to drop in at the beginning of Hitler's day in mid-morning for a brief chat or a bracing walk; was called in repeatedly to discuss architectural projects, or some of Hitler's sudden ideas and sketches; and had dinner with Hitler and his intimates every night. At the beginning of 1934, Speer received his first official appointment - as department chief on Rudolf Hess's staff. (Later, Goebbels, not to be outdone by Hess in this curious wooing of Speer, would confer the same rank on him on his staff.) Speer told me that it was because of this new appointment that, in the early spring of that year, he was for the first time invited to one of Hitler's official receptions to which Karl Hanke [Minister's Secretary to Goebbels, in his role as Propaganda Minister], as a matter of course, also invited Margret. "And that was going to be a bit of a surprise for Hitler," Speer said, smiling.

We were walking in the woods above his Heidelberg house when he made that remark. What did he mean, I asked, and he replied, a little impatiently, that as he had never yet mentioned Margret to Hitler, she was bound to be a surprise.

I stopped dead on the path: I could see, I said, that in an ordinary patron-artist (or employer-employee) relationship the artist's private life could be immaterial. But this surely was different: here he had been talking for hours about the joy of Hitler's "total" interest in him, his many questions about his life for what was now almost nine months after that first lunch. How was it possible that his marriage of six years had never come up?

He looked puzzled. "I don't know," he said. Perhaps, he added, he hadn't mentioned Margret because he had been put off by Hitler's behaviour toward Eva Braun, his mistress. "He hid her from everybody except his most intimate circle but at that point, even there, denied her any social standing and constantly humiliated her. It was a painful thing to see. She was really a very nice girl," he said, "young, shy and modest. I liked her right away and later we became good friends; she could use a friend."

He sounded sad about Eva Braun, and warm remembering her. Even so, his concern didn't seem an adequate reason for his having virtually concealed Margret's existence. Without realising it, Speer allowed me a glimpse of his complicated feelings for Hitler. Clearly, Hitler's ill-mannered conduct toward Eva Braun wasn't what had stopped him from mentioning his marriage. The real reason was that he had been in an emotional uproar ever since that first lunch. Speer was not - I emphasise - a homosexual, but he was a deeply repressed romantic; Hitler created a strength of feeling in him he hadn't known he was capable of. His not mentioning his marriage to Hitler was part of this complex storm of emotions into which, without ever making a conscious decision, he avoided injecting anything extraneous which might affect it, such as the fact of his marriage.

There had been a receiving line at the reception, Speer said, just Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and Hess, with an adjutant to make the presentations.

"When we came up to him and I said, 'My Fuhrer, may I present my wife, Margret?' he looked taken aback, but then he just kissed her hand, as he did with all the ladies, and made one of his heavily gallant remarks to the effect that I had no doubt good reason for hiding my wife. But a little later he came up to me and said in what I thought was a curiously serious tone of voice, 'Speer, why didn't you tell me you were married?' I remember blushing, and I stammered something like I didn't know, and then he asked, 'How long have you been married?' I said, 'Six years, my Fuhrer.' And then he asked how many children we had, and I said none. [Speer was obviously unwilling to say that Margret was then five months pregnant.] 'Six years married, and no children?' he said. 'Why?'

"All I could think was that I'd like the floor to open so that I could disappear... Anyway, as you know, after that we had five children in fairly quick succession, and Ernst, our sixth, in 1943 - or 1944, I'm not quite sure." (It was September 1943.)

It almost sounded as though he had the children for Hitler, I said. Speer looked up sharply but then deflected my impulsive remark with a shrug. "One might say so," he said. "Ah, well..."

ON ONE of the many occasions when Speer talked about how at the outset he could not see Hitler for what he was, he described his own process of reassessment. "In the spring of 1937," he said, "Hitler said something that should have made me realise the extent of his megalomania. He came to look at the 7ft-high model of the [Olympic] stadium. I pointed out to him that the athletic field did not conform to the proportions prescribed by the Olympic Committee. 'That's immaterial,' said Hitler. 'In 1940 the Games will be held in Tokyo, but after that, for all time to come, they will take place in Germany, in this stadium. And then it is we who will prescribe the necessary dimensions.'

"Thinking of this later, it was almost incredible to me that this didn't open my eyes. I was after all a sportsman, passionately interested in the Olympic Games since childhood, and I knew perfectly well that the whole universal concept of the event presupposed a change of venue every four years. How could he have thought he could bend the powerful world of sports to his will? I can almost still see myself smiling in admiration at his prophetic words. He had drawn me into his madness."

In 1937, Speer said, he had no idea where he was being led. He did not even realise that almost imperceptibly his role was changing when he received the honour of being named Generalbau-inspektor [Inspector General] for the reconstruction of Berlin.

We still do not know to what extent Hitler acted intuitively or tactically. Around the time he appointed Speer GBI, Hitler suggested to Goebbels that it was time Speer got some uniforms. Speer joked about this to me, but this decision of Hitler's might have had some significance. The architect would not be expected to wear a uniform, but an office holder would be. And if we look at Speer's life with Hitler between March 1937 and February 1942, when it changed radically with his appointment as Minister of Armaments, we can see how he was slowly being brought into the political involvement he was later so fervently to deny.

One witness to this was Karl Hettlage. There were about 85 on the staff of the GBI, and one of Speer's early appointments was Hettlage, who from 1934 had been in charge of Berlin's financial affairs, and who would after the war be State Secretary for Finance in German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's government.

In those pre-war days, said Hettlage, Hitler clearly considered Speer his architectural alter ego. "I don't think this was because of Speer's talent as an architect; there were other architects he admired and gave big commissions to. Hitler's whole being was political - in the sense of being primarily or entirely orientated toward political manipulation. Somehow something grew between him and Speer that enabled Speer to understand and respond to that inner core. It was this capacity - this empathy - that brought about Speer's immense power."

Wasn't that contrary to Speer's claim, both at Nuremberg and in his books, that he was not a political man?

Hettlage shrugged. "These are very subtle matters," he said. "They can't be categorised into Speer's having been or not having been 'a political man'. He could respond to Hitler, who was a political man, in the way Hitler needed because he needed to respond to him. That's about all one can say. Nothing is ever just black and white, is it?"

It was Hettlage who put his finger on a strange truth as early as the summer of 1938, as Speer had told me: "He had watched Hitler with me in front of the model of Berlin, and after Hitler had gone, Hettlage suddenly said 'You know what you are? You are Hitler's unhappy love.' And you know what I felt? Happy. Dear God, I felt happy." When I asked Speer if he had felt flattered, he looked startled. "Flattered?" he repeated and pondered the word: "No," he said. "Joyful."

"AT FUHRER HQ in early 1943," wrote Speer in Spandau - he had by now been Minister of Armaments for one-and-a-half years - "the two shorthand- writers whose duty it is to record every one of Hitler's words... are looking paler and paler as [their idol] continues to pour dishonour on the army. The fact that Stalingrad, with 108,000 soldiers prisoners of the Soviets, the others missing and presumed dead, was entirely a result of his orders, appeared entirely forgotten: day after day he rails against the 'lazy', 'cowardly', 'unimaginative' generals who are to blame for that defeat, for those in Africa, and as that awful winter went on, for the continuing setbacks in the ice and snow of Russia..."

It is true that 1943 was a decisive year for Hitler, militarily and politically; it was the year Rommel began to lose in North Africa, the Allies won in Tunisia and landed in Sicily, and in Russia Manstein lost the great tank battle for Kursk, while in Germany itself carpet-bombing reduced Hamburg to ruins - a shattering blow to Germany's morale.

Extraordinarily, in his writings Speer emphatically downplayed the importance of 1943 in his own life. It was the year when it became clear to him that a number of politicians, generals, and finally, apparently, even Hitler himself, were considering him as a possible successor. It was not a possibility he had envisaged before, but once it was in the air it had, I believe, an enormous effect both on his actions and on his inactions.

For this was also certainly the year when Speer was brought face to face with the slaughter of the Jews in Poland - if almost certainly not the method of their murder there - and the horrors suffered by the slave labourers, millions of whom were under his direction as Minister for Armaments. To acknowledge the reality of these crimes, first within himself and then to Hitler, would without a doubt have brought about a radical change in his life. Given the unique nature of his relationship with Hitler, the inexplicable emotional side of it might just have survived such confrontation. As he was by now indispensable to Hitler, I doubt that he would have been harmed, and indeed might have even retained his job. But to identify as crimes what Hitler considered to be legitimate political acts would certainly have cost him Hitler's intimacy - and with it any possibility of the succession which was suddenly dangling before his eyes.

THE ASSEMBLY of the Reichsleiter and Gauleiter (Nazi leaders of administrative districts) in Posen on 6 October 1943 was part of Hitler's determination to make sure that his supporters were all implicated in the catastrophe he was bringing on Germany. Hitler had told Speer and his closest army advisers months before that the "bridges behind us are burnt". (According to Speer, "I felt a cold shiver go down my back; I remember very clearly, I had a dreadful foreboding... I now think that he meant what had been done to the Jews.") Now he charged Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, with making the most faithful in the party privy to the guilty knowledge. The Allies had announced in October 1942 their intention to proceed against war-crimes suspects, and in December linked this to the German government's "bestial policy of extermination of the Jews of Europe". Himmler's orders from Hitler would have been to draw everyone in the upper ranks of Nazis into the net, so no one could henceforth dare to break ranks, claiming innocence or ignorance.

Himmler's speech would be the main - and last - address of the conference, late in the afternoon. But the programme started at 9am with brief talks by Speer's industrial experts, the last by Walter Rohland, Germany's steel tsar. Goebbels wrote that night in his diary:

"They didn't say much that was new for me, but... their black

on black descriptions of the state of the war... and war production... were a good introduction for Speer's own 50-minute address... Based on solid facts and figures, he demonstrates as clearly as can be that nothing will now help... except... total effort for total war... as - for all the good it did - I already said in my speech at the Palace of Sports... "Speer told them very bluntly that no arguments would deter him [from converting all plants to war production]. He is, of course, right: The Fuhrer has ordered him to transfer a million workers into armaments at once and, furthermore, to release sufficient young men from the armament industry to form about 20 divisions. The Gauleiter are screaming holy murder, for of course it means the end of most of their flourishing industries. But they'll have to go along with him..."

Himmler arrived at 3pm, listened to speeches from Admiral Donitz, Field- Marshal Milch and the New Chief of Staff of the SA, Schepmann. Then, from 5.30 to 7pm, he delivered his ominous lecture. It was almost an hour - 17 typewritten pages - before he arrived at the core of his message.

Himmler said:

"I want to speak now, in this most restricted circle, about a matter which you, my party comrades, have long accepted as a matter of course, but which for me has become the heaviest burden of my life - the matter of the Jews. You all accept happily the obvious fact that there are no more Jews in your province. All Germans, with very few exceptions, realise perfectly well that we couldn't have lasted through the bombs and the stresses of the fourth, perhaps in the future the fifth and even sixth year of war, if this destructive pestilence were still present within our body politic. The brief sentence: 'The Jews must be exterminated,' is easy to pronounce, but the demands on those who have to put it into practice are the hardest and most difficult in the world.

"I ask that you only listen but never speak of what I am saying to you here today. We, you see, were faced with the question 'What about the women and children?' And I decided, here, too, to find an unequivocal solution. For I did not think that I was justified in exterminating - meaning kill or order to have killed - the men, but to leave their children to grow up to take revenge on our sons and grandchildren. The hard decision had to be taken to have this people disappear from the face of the earth.

"I considered it my duty to speak to you, who are the highest dignitaries of the party, of our political order which is the Fuhrer's political instrument, for once quite openly about this question... to tell you how it was.

"By the end of this year, the matter of the Jews will [also] have been dealt with in the countries under our occupation... You will not doubt that the economic aspect presented many great difficulties, above all with the clearing of ghettos: in Warsaw... because that ghetto produced fur coats and textiles, we were prevented from taking it over when it would have been easy: we were told we were interfering with essential production. 'Halt,' they called. 'This is war production!'

[Then came a remark, apparently addressed to Speer himself:] "Of course, this has nothing to do with party comrade Speer: it wasn't your doing. It is precisely this kind of so-called war production enterprise which party comrade Speer and I will clean out together over the next weeks. We will do this just as unsentimentally as all things must be done in this fifth year of the war: unsentimentally but from the bottom of our hearts, for Germany...

"And with this I want to finish about the matter of the Jews. You are now informed, and you will keep the knowledge to yourselves. Later perhaps we can consider whether the German people should be told about this. But I think it is better that we - we together - carry for our people the responsibility... responsibility for an achievement, not just an idea... and then take the secret with us to our grave..."

I had always believed that, given Speer's presence in Posen that day, his presence at Himmler's speech was inevitable. But I had specifically planned to avoid this subject, and the whole question of his denial of knowledge about the Jews, until the last few days of our first concentrated three weeks of conversations.

When he brought it up, the last morning of our second week together, it was, curiously enough, the first day when there was no sun and, with snow falling thickly and covering the window, the kitchen where we sat was strangely dark.

SIX-AND-A-HALF years earlier, in October 1971, a Harvard historian, Professor Erich Goldhagen, had launched a bitter attack on Speer in the American magazine Midstream. In an article titled: Albert Speer, Himmler and the Secret of the Final Solution, Goldhagen had claimed that Himmler's direct address to Speer in his Posen speech was clear proof that he was present when it was given, thus giving the lie to his continuing claim of ignorance about the murder of Europe's Jews. In the notes section at the end of his article, Goldhagen added what purported to be an additional sentence from Himmler.

"Speer," he quoted Himmler as saying, "is not one of the pro-Jewish obstructionists of the Final Solution. He and I together will tear the last Jew alive on Polish ground out of the hands of the army generals, send them to their death and thereby close the chapter of Polish Jewry."

Speer's face had gone deep red and then very pale as - not knowing that I had long known about this attack - he told me about the Midstream article. I got up to get him a glass of water, and I opened the window to let in some fresh air. He was sitting on his straight chair, for a moment resting his head on his hands and then turned toward the open window breathing deeply.

"You see, I was in Posen the day of that speech," he said then. "I addressed the Gauleiter that morning. But I could not for the life of me remember hearing Himmler's speech. And yet, I immediately looked it up in the archives and it was true; he had given that speech, except for that last sentence Goldhagen quoted. That I couldn't find."

I now told him that I had read Goldhagen's article, and that I, too, checking it against Himmler's speech, hadn't found that last devastating quote. I told him that I had telephoned Goldhagen at Harvard to ask him about it. Goldhagen told me that this had been an unfortunate mistake. "In the note," he told me, "I merely wished to clarify further what Himmler meant. The editor of Midstream mistakenly put it in quotes, and I never got around to correcting it.

"But if you read Himmler's speech carefully," he had added, "You'll agree with me that that was his meaning."

I told Speer then, as I had told Goldhagen on the telephone, that I didn't agree and that it seemed a rather daringly dramatic interpretation, whether in or out of quotes.

Speer was almost speechless when I told him this. "Oh, my God," he finally said, "My God... I can never, never thank you enough for that." His voice had suddenly gone hoarse. "For me," he said, "reading Goldhagen's article was devastating. Do you know that for two days I really thought I had gone our of my mind? I kept thinking: Was I mad?" He paused. "It was my worst two days in many, many years. And then, quite by chance, I talked to an old friend, Walter Rohland, and he said immediately, 'But you weren't there. Don't you remember? You left with me immediately after your speech, before lunch, and we drove to see Hitler at Rastenburg.' "

Subsequent to this, Speer said, he had also received a letter from the man responsible for the organisational side of the conference, the Posen Gauleiter's administrative aide, Harry Sieg-mund, saying that he remembered their leaving "before lunch".

He went to his study to get the two affidavits these men had given him. By the time he returned, his hair brushed and his face pink, the snow had stopped, and the sun was out. Margret came in to the kitchen. "Come on, get those papers off the table," she directed. "Go and sit outside in the sun for a bit - do you good the both of you. I'm getting lunch."

The atmosphere had totally changed. Speer and I, both of us wearing anoraks and armed with apple-juice spritzers, went outside. He cleaned the snow off the end of their big refectory table in front of the house, and we sat in the suddenly brilliant midday sun. By the time Margret's soup was on the table, his eyes were clear, his skin smooth. The emotional storm I had witnessed might never have been.

After lunch we parted, as always, for a rest. Would he mind, I asked, if I took the two affidavits upstairs to read? He handed them over without a word.

The two statements were indeed persuasive. By the time Speer and I met again, as every day, at 3.30pm for coffee, I had had ample time to reflect upon that morning's emotion, so extraordinary a display for that cool, cool, man.

Margret always joined us in the afternoon for coffee and cake, after which she withdrew to her room while we remained at the comfortable kitchen table. I told him that afternoon, after Margret had withdrawn, that I had read the statements. Given all these confirmations, I said, I could accept that he wasn't there the afternoon of Himmler's speech. But did it really matter? Sixty Gauleiter were there, including three of his friends.

"Yes," he interrupted, "Kaufmann [Gauleiter of Hamburg] told me that Himmler had used my name."

Exactly, I said, and yet he would have us believe that neither Karl Kaufmann, nor his old friend Hanke [by 1943 Gauleiter of Lower Silesia], nor anyone else told him in what context Himmler had used his name? Was that likely, or even possible? Baldur von Schirach, I said, wrote later in his book that everyone was so depressed after Himmler's speech that "when Bormann offered us a snack after the end of the speech, we sat wordlessly, avoiding each other's eyes." So his friends had been "deadly depressed" about this enormity but said nothing, absolutely nothing to him the next morning, or ever?

He didn't answer, only shook his head.

SPEER HAD one more shock that year of 1943. On 10 December, he travelled to the Harz Mountains, not far from Buchenwald, to visit the underground installations (called "Dora") where the V-2 rockets were being produced.

It is astonishing that Speer was ever allowed to see this. "I virtually forced my way in after my ministry's medical director told me it was Dante's Inferno," he told me. In Nuremberg, Speer was to tell the court that he had never visited a labour camp, and this, possibly the most hellish of any, was apparently the only one he ever saw. (Mauthausen, which he had visited in March 1943, was, of course, a concentration-cum-labour camp.)

The creation of this underground camp was a direct result of a meeting between Hitler, Speer and Himmler on 22 August 1943. Himmler had arrived that morning with an offer. He would undertake to guarantee complete secrecy about the rocket production if the work would be entirely produced by concentration camp prisoners, all of whose contact with the outside world would be eliminated. He offered to provide all the necessary technicians from among the prisoners. All industry would have to provide would be the management and the engineers.

Speer writes in Inside the Third Reich that "Hitler [who after initial scepticism was now convinced that the rockets were the miracle weapon which would win the war] agreed to this plan." Speer had no choice but to agree, as he had no alternative to offer. The man Himmler cannily chose to handle the rocket programme was Brigadefuhrer Hans Kammler.

The factories, Kammler proposed, would be built in the caves of the Harz Mountains; there they would be safe from prying eyes. The workers would be drawn from the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp and would be under the authority of the SS.

On 23 August 1943, the first 100 prisoners from Buchenwald were brought to the site and construction was started that very morning. Two-and-a- half weeks later, on 10 September, Hitler formally approved the mountain complex and gave it its name; Central Works, code named Dora.

Jean Michel, a French slave labourer at Dora, was born in Paris in 1906. He was thus 38 to Speer's 39 in 1943, when Speer came to inspect Dora.

"It was a cold day in December when I went there," Speer told me. "I was entirely unprepared; it was the worst place I have ever seen." It was the morning. Margret had gone skiing; again we sat at that comfortable kitchen table; again, his face went pale; again he covered his eyes for a moment with his hand. "Even now when I think of it," he said, "I feel ill." The prisoners, he said, lived in the caves with the rockets; it was freezing cold, humid.

Jean Michel described it in his book, Dora:

"The missile slaves... from France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Russia, Poland and Germany... toiled 18 hours a day... for many weeks without tools, just with their bare hands... ammonia dust burnt their lungs... they slept in the tunnels in cavities which were hollowed out: 1,024 prisoners in hollows on four levels which stretched for 100 yards..."

"I was outraged," Speer told me. "I demanded to see the sanitary provisions..."

Michel in Dora:

"The latrines were barrels cut in half with planks laid across. They stood at each exit from the rows of sleeping cubicles. One of the SS guards' favourite jokes was to watch the slaves sit on the plank, laugh and push them into the barrel. We all had dysentery. They laughed and laughed when we tried to get up and out of the shit..."

"I walked past these men and tried to meet their eyes," Speer said, despair in his voice. "They wouldn't look at me; they ripped off their prisoners' caps and stood at attention until we passed.

"I demanded to be shown their midday meal," Speer said. "I tried it; it was an inedible mess." After the inspection was over he found that thousands had already died. I saw dead men... they couldn't hide the truth. And those who were still alive were skeletons." He had never been so horrified in his life, he said. "I ordered the immediate building of a barracks camp outside, and there and then signed the papers for the necessary materials..."

When I asked Speer what he had felt at Dora, it was the only time he admitted feeling something for the millions of slave workers he made use of as Minister for Armaments.

"I was appalled," he said. "Yes," he repeated, almost as if in retrospect he was surprised at having given way to feeling. "Yes, there I was appalled."

MEMORY, one knows, is not immune to the influence of emotions and therefore can play strange tricks. It is too easy to accuse Speer simply of lying - about his knowledge of the fate of the Jews, about his involvement in the horrendous maltreatment of the slave labourers and about aspects of his relationship with Hitler and of his work. Many facts do suggest that he lied and most of his critics have accused him of it for what is now 50 years.

The truth, of course, is that lies are not necessarily simple, nor are the motivations which bring them about. Speer's lies, I think as they reflect his life after that key date of 6 October 1943, are a demonstration of his ever-increasing need to schematise his life into an alignment of feelings and fears he could live with. "How can a man admit more and go on living?" said his daughter Hilde.

Perhaps. But after Posen, I believe, Speer was living a lie, saw no way of ending it and - I think his one great merit - suffered atrociously under it.

! Gitta Sereny's 'Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth' will be published by Macmillan on Friday, pounds 25.

Next week: Speer, Spandau and Hitler's deadly attraction

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