Wednesday, April 26, 2017

My Life With Albert Speer: Part One

I recently finished reading Speer: Hitler's Architect, a fascinating and highly critical biography of a historic figure who has interested me since high school.  I intent to write a review of that book.  It will be in two parts.  The new material mixed with my recollections of the older material in my library and this motivated me to review my modest collection on Albert Speer.  This new biography by Martin Kitchen is my fifth biography on Speer.

Let's start with the fact that I have read Speer's autobiography Inside the Third Reich several times in my life, though not recently.  I have read his prison memoirs, Spandau, twice.  His last work, Infiltration, was so boring and obviously self-serving that I never finished it.  I was always impressed with Speer as a genuinely intelligent, creative and introspective person, with a keen awareness of technology and productivity and dramatic affect.  His entanglement with the Nazis was a source of interest to me. Here was a man who obviously knew what he was doing.  He was never popular within the Nazi circles themselves, he was never political or racist enough for their tastes. How could such a man become so involved with world events that he served a 20-year prison sentence for force-ably working millions of slaves in the Nazi industrial war machine?

My biographies on Speer mostly dismantle the post-war mythic image that Speer cleverly created for himself, which I accepted at face value for many years.  My personal journey of discovery about Albert Speer began with me completely accepting his perspective of events.  Through many years I have evolved into a more sober understanding of the man. The initial hammer blow came from Matthias Schmidt who wrote Albert Speer: The End of a Myth, which revealed for the first time that Speer had been directly involved with the forced removal of tens of thousands of Jews from Berlin as part of his city planning for the massive building project he managed known as Germania.

Gitta Sereny wrote a humanizing biography of Speer entitled Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth.  It is critical of Speer but generally sympathetic to the idea that he was existentially wrestling with the guilt of his involvement in World War Two.  Sereny seems to draw things out of Speer, such as his genuine contrition while depressed at the beginning of his prison sentence and his absolute belief that Hitler was going to win the war.  Likewise, Joachim Fest, Speer's personal editor since Inside the Third Reich, apologetically writes in Speer: The Final Verdict of Speer as a capable, talented person caught up in the powerful political tide of Hitler, as the Fuhrer's closest friend.  He admits Speer was responsible for the eviction of 75,000 Jews from Berlin, but, importantly, their fate was not necessarily death at that point. The Final Solution was not a matter of policy when the Speer's eviction idea was initially implemented.  Speer didn't know (nor did he care at the time) what would happen to them.

With Dan van der Vat we reach the first comprehensively negative biography of Speer's life, The Good Nazi: The Life and Lies of Albert Speer. Van der Vat is proud of the fact that his work is “the first book about Speer over which he had no personal influence.”  At best, van der Vat finds Speer a master at improvisation, which led to his success within the realities of Third Reich.  For the most part van der Vat is critical, showing conclusively that Speer had to have known about the Holocaust (something Speer specifically denied during his life) even if he didn't directly participate in it himself.  The substance of van der Vat's polemic biography is more thoroughly elaborated in Kitchen's new biography so I'll save the specifics for there.  But, suffice it to say The Good Nazi opened the world's eyes for the first time to the greater depth and breadth of Speer's involvement within the Nazi regime. 

A few ancillary books round out my collection. Hitler's Engineers provides interesting insights into both Speer and his predecessor Fritz Todt and their supervisory roles in a wide range of architectural and engineering achievements (everything from the Autobahn to the V-2 Rocket) for Germany. Tales From Spandau delivers a factual account of Speer's prison life, along with the lives of the other Nazi's imprisoned there.  The Wages of Destruction is a brilliant book in its own right, dealing more broadly with the German economy under Hitler, but naturally including a lot of critical information about Speer as Minister of Armaments.  The primary conclusion of that book is that the so-called “Speer Miracle” in armaments production (Germany expanded rapidly and peaked in production very late in the war under Speer, despite heavy Allied bombing) was largely due to policies already established by Todt before Speer took over his ministry.

So, with all that in mind, I'll start with an overview of Speer's life as I understand it based upon all the information contained in these books.  Prior to 1942, Speer served as Adolf Hitler's architect having designed the Party grounds at Nuremberg in 1934, winning a gold medal for his design at the 1937 international exposition in Paris, and supervising the building and construction of the new Reich Chancellery 1936 – 1938.  Also in 1937 Hitler made Speer the General Building Inspector for the Reich Capitol - planning the details and supervising the initial demolition for Hitler's dream of transforming Berlin into the incredibly ambitious urban space known as Germania.

It was his close association with Hitler (said the be Hitler's closest friend, if he had any at all) that allowed him to become so intimately involved with the aesthetics of these massive architectural projects and to accumulate power within the Third Reich.  As Minister of Armaments he was infamously credited with having extended the war effort by a year or more, thereby costing many millions of additional lives, given the severity of the fighting in 1944-1945.

For demanding the work of millions of slave laborers employed by the Nazi industrial efforts (though he was not directly responsible for supplying the slaves to Germany, that person was Fritz Sauckel - who was hanged), Speer received a 20-year sentence at the Nuremberg trials. His defense at Nuremberg was a gamble that worked. Speer shockingly accepted "joint responsibility" for the crimes of the regime he supported through his work.  In doing so, he cleverly distanced himself from the other Nazi's on trial like Hermann Goring, whom Speer despised.  He also claimed to know nothing of the Holocaust and to have served merely an administrative function within Hitler's circle rather than having any political or ideological affiliation.  He spent his sentence in Spandau prison with several elite Nazi's who had, like Speer, escaped being hung as a result of the trial, most of whom were serving lesser sentences.

There is much more to his story, as I will get show in my next post, but that, in a nutshell, was all I knew when I first read Speer's immensely popular autobiography Inside the Third Reich as a high school student.  My library features a first edition hardcover of that book today.  I have read the book 4-5 times; obviously Speer's life has fascinated me. Here was a man seemingly involved with creative pursuits when he was suddenly thrust into playing a critical strategic role in Germany's war effort.  He was close to Hitler and the book provides many intimate details about Hitler's inner circle as well as a front row seat to the collapse and eventual defeat of the Nazis. Speer professed to be aloof from the politics of the Reich, serving as a technocrat without any political convictions or aspirations.  Like so many others, I bought that story for many years.

His follow-up book, Spandau, was also interesting to me and I have read it a couple of times.  It is an account of his 20-year prison sentence, his interactions with the other Nazi officials imprisoned there, his struggle with guilt and depression, his therapeutic use of his hands and his imagination to build a lovely garden in a walled-off courtyard at the prison.  He walked the central path he constructed around the garden thousands of times as a prisoner, calculating the distance carefully so as to match his reading about various parts of the world which he "visited" through books and walked to in his imagination as a coping mechanism to ward off the monotony of his long sentence. 

The book also contains some details on how he secretly managed to write his memoirs on whatever scraps of paper he could find and have those writings smuggled out of the prison to be later edited after his release.  (Writing by the prisoners was severely limited to a few letters to friends and family now and then.  Such a large-scale biographical project was forbidden to everyone while imprisoned there.) Spandau fascinated me almost as much as Inside the Third Reich. Here was a man very different from the other Nazis, who were mostly unrepentant.  Speer was struggling with contrition, obviously more articulate and intelligent than his fellow prisoners, and interested in putting his mind and body to the best possible use within the confines of prison life.

Without exception my teen self unquestioningly accepted the view that Speer was ignorant of the Holocaust and was a "reluctant but effective" apolitical administrator over Germany's war economy. But gradually through the years it has become apparent that Speer, as most people do when writing their memoirs, cast himself in the best possible light. Through misdirection, omission, and outright decent, his cleverly constructed myth of an apolitical technocrat only responsible for the horrors of the Nazi regime through "joint responsibility" has given way to a much more personal and direct involvement with some of the crimes committed.  This was an eye-opening process for me taking place over a couple of decades.

The most recent contribution to Speer scholarship is Martin Kitchen's Speer: Hitler's Architect.  It is a thorough accounting of Speer's character and personal achievements and actions – placing this against sobering the backdrop of his full support for Hitler's regime.  It is a sharply critical summary of Speer's life, taking into account the research contained in most of the books mentioned previously while blazing new trails regarding Speer's guilt and individual responsibility. Ultimately, I find Kitchen's judgment to be somewhat unfair to Speer.  He seems to think the amoral Speer should have nevertheless acted differently; that is, morally.  I'll post more about that in part two.  Nevertheless, Kitchen's research is thorough, detailed, and thought-provoking.

Kitchen records that Speer wrote an essay in 1936 praising “the Fuhrer's buildings” (mostly Speer's designs) as an epitome of National Socialism.  The article, Kitchen implies, proves that Speer was more politically and philosophically ingrained with Nazism than he admitted in Inside the Third Reich. Further, Speer's claim to have built the new Reich Chancellery in less that one year was a lie.  It actually took two years to complete.  For Kitchen this is an example of the lying and myth-making engaged in by Speer that can be found in earlier research by Schmidt and van der Vat.  The one year claim not only made for a better story and greater prestige within Nazi circles, it also revealed how far Speer would bend the truth to make himself look “miraculous.”

Kitchen builds a strong case for Speer's manipulations of facts but he goes a bit too far in my opinion when he critiques Speer's colossal gold-medal winning German Pavilion design for the 1937 international exhibition in Paris.  Kitchen points out that the Soviet design was erected directly across from Speer's and it also won a gold-medal.  Kitchen claims Speer's design was “inferior” to the Soviets.  This may or may not be the case.  But the argument is knit-picky.  Kitchen takes every opportunity to put down Speer as a fraud and a swindle, without artistic talent.  On this particular point, among others, Kitchen overplays his hand.  The fact is Speer won a gold medal.  To argue that his design was inferior is little more than the sour grapes of neo-liberalism.  It is an unnecessary argument.  Speer can be accountable for other “crimes” without being a “bad” architect. His architectural talents are a matter of style and taste, not a matter of honesty or competence.

On the other hand it is fair to note that Speer chose the titles “Our Empire Style” and “The Globe” for the chapters about his work on Hitler's Germania project as presented in Inside the Third Reich, indicating a sense of arrogance regarding this massive building project. Of this Kitchen writes: “Germania was designed to be the backdrop for a permanent display of the regime's awesome might. Its architecture was intended as a power-political instrument at the service of National Socialism.” (page 71)  It is fair to conclude that Speer's efforts were not just artistic but had the intent to convey the strength of Hitler's movement.  Speer admittedly was enraptured with Hitler's world-dominating bid for a Great German Empire.  

Kitchen shows how closely Speer worked with the notorious SS on many of the Germania-related projects, including the eviction of Jews from Berlin. This began in late 1938 when the demolition of certain sections of Berlin were scheduled to commence for the eventual construction of what would have been the largest architectural achievement of any capital in the world.  The demolition work would displace a large number of German residents.  Speer's solution was to evict the necessary number of Jews from their apartments and, in turn, make those available for the resettlement of the affected German citizens.

“By the time Speer was appointed Minister of Armaments on 8 February 1942 his plans to rebuild Berlin had created a nightmare.  In close collaboration with the SS, he ruthlessly exploited the labor of concentration camp inmates in quarries, brickyards and factories producing building materials....Speer made thousands of Jewish families homeless, most of whom were handed over to the Gestapo to be shipped to what was delicately described as 'the East'.” (page 96) By November 1942 almost 24,000 apartments involving 75,000 Jews had been cleared for German Berliners displaced by the Germania project. (It is important to note that the Germania project actually never got passed the planning phase.  Nothing more than some test elements were ever built.)

Kitchen also points out that by the time Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 (Operation Barbarossa) Speer had tens of thousands of workers formed in special units to build prisoner of war camps in Poland and Russia.  Many of these prisoners were used by Speer as labor for works in Berlin. “In his first address as Armaments Minister Speer claimed that 'until recently I lived in a world of ideals'.  He was constantly to harp on this theme as he made himself out to have been nothing more than an architect, who was suddenly thrust into the armaments industry, an artist who overnight had to transform himself into a technocrat.  He used this line of defense at Nuremberg so as to disguise the more sordid aspects of his career....The brutal treatment of Berlin's Jews and the construction of a number of concentration camps for the slave labor he required for his mammoth building projects were a significant part of this ideal world.” (page 121)

More damning, perhaps, is the fact that Speer's organization was directly involved in the expansion of the notorious concentration camp at Auschwitz, expanding the housing facilities there as well as constructing the crematoria.  This was known within the SS as “Professor Speer's Special Program.”  While not directly involved in the project (in order to accumulate his vast powers he delegated almost everything), Speer was personally informed of all the details by his key subordinates “whereupon Speer told Himmler that he agreed to all of Hoss's demands.” (page 156)

Speer's influence gradually came to be felt throughout more and more of the Nazi war economy.  He rose to incredible power over almost every aspect of raw materials, factory maintenance, war goods manufacturing, technical research, and the production of firepower.  Speer exploited labor from every conceivable source, including the Nazi concentration camps.  “By 1944, 500,000 concentration camp inmates were working for Speer...Speer was later to claim that working for him gave prisoners 'a chance to survive'.  This is a shameless perversion of the truth.” (page 221) In fact, the conditions were often horrific and many died as slaves to Speer's war economy, although Speer did express general concern over the need for nutrition in order to maximize productivity.

But even Kitchen finds some redeeming aspects to Speer's actions.  When Hitler came to see that all was lost in early 1945 he ordered that all industry and transportation assets (factories and bridges, etc.) be destroyed in areas lost to the conquering allied armies so that they would be of no use the liberators.  “It has to be said, however, that it is to Speer's credit that he put a significant amount of effort, and ran considerable risks in doing what he could to countermand Hitler's orgy of destruction.” (page 272)  Kitchen also refers to Speer as “an outstanding organizer and manager.”

In part two I will complete my review of the Kitchen biography and look back on 40-plus years of interest in the humanity of this enigmatic man. Where lies his guilt?

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