David Cesarani on a new life of Hitler's henchman

The Good Nazi: the life and lies of Albert Speer by Dan Van Der Vat Weidenfeld, pounds 20
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The fascination of Albert Speer's story is undeniable, even for generations born long after the war he did so much to sustain on the German side. Speer was a well-educated, cultured German converted to Nazism after witnessing Hitler speak. He entered the Party in March 1931, aged 25, and for the next 14 years his meteoric career was bound up with the party, the Third Reich and the Fuhrer.

Speer had good looks, intelligence, energy, charisma and luck. His life is a classic success story intertwined with a chronicle of evil, which is what makes it so piquant. We can easily identify with the charming, gifted and upwardly mobile young professional; the trouble is, he's a Nazi.

Two years ago, Gitta Sereny published a monumental study of Speer that probed the other endlessly fascinating aspect of his life. At the Nuremberg Tribunal, Speer was one of two defendants to accept responsibility for the crimes of Hitler's regime, although he denied specific knowledge of its heinous acts. He convinced the judges of his repentance but thereafter argument has raged about what he knew and whether his contrition was genuine. To answer these questions, Sereny interviewed Speer exhaustively and juxtaposed his oral recollections against a mass of other evidence.

Dan Van Der Vat began work on his book about Speer when Sereny's tome was already on the slipway. He decided to await the latter's publication so that he could use it as a "source", while deliberately eschewing the interview method which made it distinctive. Van Der Vat claims that anyone who got too close to Speer inexorably fell under his spell. In his bibliography he naughtily lists Sereny's biography under "Speer's corpus". But this device cannot deflect an inevitable comparison of the two works, in which Van Der Vat comes off the worst.

He presents little significant new information about Speer's life and work. In place of Sereny's penetrating psychological analysis, he delivers a few, commonplace observations about the effect of Speer's loveless upbringing. Whereas Sereny inquired deeply into the mutual admiration which Hitler and Speer displayed, he gives short shrift to the notion of a homo-erotic attachment and barely pauses to ask why the two struck up such an enduring friendship. "It was the participants, not their `relationship' or its well springs, that were extraordinary."

If Sereny devoted too much attention to the relationship, this was a result of her creditable effort to humanise both men and to understand their motives. Van Der Vat is content with shallow psycho-biography and stereotypes, which do the work of explanation. What his study lacks in depth is barely compensated for in its breadth.

He basically accepts Speer's version of the "production miracle" in 1942- 44, even though recent research has challenged it. Weapons output rose not because German industry became more efficient, as Speer suggested, but because he bullied industrialists into converting civilian production lines to armaments manufacture.

Van Der Vat merely confirms Speer's indifference to the fate of the Jews. The November 1938 pogrom had no impact on him. Speer brushed up against the Final Solution sufficiently often to render his denial of knowledge incredible; but he just didn't care.

Van Der Vat's central charge is that Speer was personally instrumental in evicting 75,000 Berlin Jews in 1941-42, thus ensuring their doom. He knew this was a crime and struggled to cover it up, arranging for the chronicle of his ministry to be "sanitised". While taking broad responsibility for the deeds of the regime, he omitted from his biography any reference to his own particular role. Van Der Vat argues that since his "confession" was incomplete, his famous remorse could not have been genuine. It was part of a strategy of self-preservation and manipulation that he began while awaiting trial in 1945.

Like Sereny's tome, this one is marked by long historical digressions. It is additionally marred by some sloppy writing, flippant asides and appalling word jokes. Puns cheapen what is otherwise a solid biography. Van Der Vat scores some hits, notably his demolition of Speer's claim that he seriously considered assassinating Hitler. His use of the secret chronicle is impressive. Ultimately, however, because his approach lacks psychological depth, the critique of Speer sounds peevish. Speer may have beguiled Sereny, but because she engaged with him, she produced a magisterial portrait of human folly which overshadows Van Der Vat's workmanlike effort.

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