Tuesday, May 16, 2017

My Life With Albert Speer: Part Two

Martin Kitchen calls Speer's defense at the Nuremberg trials “masterly.”  Some of it was pure fabrication, such as the shocking contention that Speer contemplated Hitler's assassination by injecting poison gas into the air intake vents of Hitler's Bunker.  This had the added theatrical effect of bringing out arch Nazi Hermann Goering's rage at Speer for everyone to see.  This served to separate Speer from the other Nazis. 

But Speer went further than this by being the only defendant present to admit some form of responsibility (but not “guilt”) for the crimes under which he was tried.  Though this was definitely a calculated risk (any admission at all could bring a death sentence), it does not appear to be mere theatrics. Speer was battling depression at the time (a fact Kitchen implies was merely his nature and had little context with his specific actions or behavior – again, an unfair assessment in my opinion), struggling to accept that he, in fact, clearly aided and abetted the disaster that befell Germany as a result of the war.  The famous Berlin lawyer Dr. Hans Flachsner was his attorney.

“Speer gave a remarkable reply to Flachsner's question as to whether he felt that his responsibility was limited to his own area of competence.  'This war was an unimaginable catastrophe for the German people and caused a worldwide catastrophe.  It was therefore obviously my duty to admit my responsibility to the German people.  This obligation was all the greater because the head of the government avoided his responsibility towards the German people and the world.  As an important member of the leadership of the Reich from 1942 therefore I accept joint responsibility'.” (page 294)

For the risks he took to salvage Germany's infrastructure near the end of the war, for his admission of being basically an accomplice of the regime he served, and for his considerable cooperation with the American and British analysis of the war (particularly with regard to the effects of strategic bombing) immediately after Germany's defeat, Speer's life was spared.  He served a 20-year sentence for crimes against humanity, namely the widespread use of slave labor and for his part in sustaining Germany's war of aggression.  He served the entire sentence in Spandau where he tried to make the most of his imprisonment.

“To keep fit he became a passionate gardener.  The gaol had a large walled garden that had been left unattended for years. The prisoners were given individual plots.  Funk specialized in tomatoes, Donitz favored beans, while Speer grew a variety of flowers.  Gradually the other inmates lost interest or became too ill to keep their plots in working order.  At the British prison director's suggestion, Speer, who was the youngest and fittest of the prisoners, turned this space into an intricate garden with pathways, lawns, flowerbeds, shrubberies, a rock garden and fruit trees.

“In the summer he spent hours every second day watering it by refilling a watering can fifty times. He sowed four thousand square meters of lawn, which then had to be regularly mowed by hand. The garden was Speer's private world where he could do whatever he wanted.  Here he was free to use his imagination, to create and to dream.  But this was only one part of his fitness program.  He regularly made long walks around the garden, keeping an exact record of the distance covered each day.  His record was 24.7 kilometers. His fastest pace was 5.8 kilometers in one hour.  To make walking in a confined space more interesting he set out on an imaginary walk around the globe. (page 316)

“For years Speer continued his lonely walk around the world until, having walked 31,816 kilometers, he sent a message to Rudolf Wolters: 'please pick up 35 kilometers south of Guadalajara Mexico'.” (page 325)  I find this personal project and application of his mind and body to be fascinating.

Speer secretly completed the rough draft of his memoirs in November 1953 but he would have to serve 13 more years of imprisonment before he could work on the final draft, by which time he had several publishers interested in his autobiography. Kitchen is quick to point out throughout the biography that Speer made every effort throughout his life to obtain grandiose sums of money for his efforts – in terms of fees as an architect, through various business dealings while serving as Armaments Minister, as well as positioning himself for great wealth for his life story at the end of his prison term.  Kitchen harps on how this fails to jibe with Speer's mythic conception of himself as living a modest, even spartan, lifestyle – an idea he fostered to further contrast himself from most of the other principle Nazi's, who usually preferred to live in aristocratic style.  

“Speer's aim in the published version of the Spandau Diaries was to present himself as having lost twenty years of his life from ages forty to sixty, enduring a harsh prison sentence, in return for which he was absolved of all wrongdoing.  The entire book was in a sense an amplification of his answer to a letter that his daughter Hilde had written to him on her birthday 17 April 1953, asking him how he could possibly have served a regime that was so transparently evil.  Speer did not reply until 14 May.  He makes no mention of this painful exchange in his diaries.  He began by saying that: 
'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.'  He spoke here of blame.  At Nuremberg he spoke of 'joint responsibility'.  He purposefully avoided any mention of the word 'guilt', for fear to then having to justify himself.  He then repeated the familiar line that although he knew nothing of the 'dreadful things' that had happened, he blamed himself for not finding out about them.  He went on to compare himself with Oedipus, who was horribly punished by providence for transgressions for which he bore no responsibility.  He claimed to have been overwhelmed by Hitler's friendship, the power that he thereby gained, and by the limitless opportunities he was given to pursue his career as an architect.  He was blinded by a Faustian pact, a tragic hero enmeshed in inextricable fate.  He only began to question the regime when Hitler threatened to destroy what was left of Germany. His opposition, such as it was, was not to the persecution of the Jews or to an aggressive war.  In conventionally anti-Sematic terms he wrote: 'I really did not have any feelings of aversion towards them [the Jews], in other words no more than the uncomfortable feeling that all of us sometimes have when in contact with them.'

“This makes for painful reading now that we know that not only was Speer fully aware of what had happened to the Jews, but also played an active part in their persecution.” (pp. 321 – 322)

Kitchen concludes his biography with a summary critique of Speer as a Nazi.  “There can be no doubt that Speer did indeed help prolong the war longer than many thought possible, as a result of which millions were killed and Germany reduced to a pile of rubble.  To take pride in such an achievement did not quite fit with his public image as a public penitent, handing over a fortune to the victims of National Socialism, renouncing the material pleasures of life and living on locusts and wild honey.

“He argued that his guilt was based on omission rather than commission.  He clearly implied that guilt by omission was necessarily the less reprehensible.  His self-serving public display of scrupulosity sidestepped a confrontation with the nature of what he had done.  He had not merely looked away. This was not an argument over the validity of his ignorance, nor was it a question of due moral diligence.  He had been an active participant in Nazi crimes.” (page 364)
  
Evaluating Speer is a unique challenge compared with his Nazi peers.  That is why Kitchen's critique, while eye-opening and fascinating, is also overbearing to the degree that it loses objectivity in favor of his personal agenda against Speer.  One point, however, that Kitchen makes repeatedly (as does virtually all the other authors mentioned previously) is that the “hardcore” Nazis like Martin Bormann never trusted Speer and constantly conspired against him because he was not a “true” National Socialist.  This is an important and fundamental fact.  Although he was not in any way involved with the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler, the alliance felt Speer could be trusted enough to support them in forming a new government after the Fuhrer was dead. Why this distrust of Speer by the Nazi elites and trust of him by the planners of the would-be coup against Hitler?  Kitchen doesn't even pose this question because to do so would take him too far from his vendetta against Speer.

When you add all this up and ledger it against the crimes he was personally responsible for then you get a complex character that does not fit the mold of a Himmler or Goebbels or Goering. Speer was guilty of a lot but he did not possess an ideological or close social affiliation with the other Nazis.  He was definitely an outsider, even though he clearly took advantage of opportunities to solidify and perpetuate his own power within the scheme of the system.  The fact is Speer did not order nor did he supervise any act of genocide.  His alleged anti-Semitic nature was, in fact, merely a general pronounced indifference and amorality that he held toward almost everything that was not immediately useful to him.

It is easy to say that a person like this should have known better.  But it is difficult for any of us to step away from the entire cultural atmosphere that engulfs the circumstances of our lives.  Each of us lives in a society that seems self-perpetuating, one that dictates the circumstances of living, and that will likely continue after we are dead.  Thankfully that was not true of National Socialism, but living in Germany at the time it seemed Hitler would build an empire. Speer could have walked away from all that, but it was simply not in his character to do so; nor was it in the character of his entire nation, for that matter.

Van der Vat was proud that he wrote his biography outside of any personal interaction with Speer.  He felt Speer was thoroughly disingenuous and that he corrupted whoever interacted with him, making an objective historical assessment impossible. But, I wonder, is it necessarily wise to examine a life and cast judgment upon it without any consideration of the man himself? 

For over 40 years I have been as interested in Speer, the person, as I was in Speer, Hitler's architect. Kitchen supplies several interesting examples of areas of affinity I have with Speer the person.  For example, Speer's interest in classical music has always been one area of personal interest for me. In Inside the Third Reich he details how, before the war, he accompanied Hitler to various operetta performances. Kitchen records how, as the war was coming to a close, Speer again turned to classical music.  In Kitchen's eyes this is an example of Speer's extravagance and decadence. Again, this is an instance where I feel the author has overplayed his hand.  Speer was an architect and had a sophisticated appreciation of literature, art, and music.  Regardless, as the war was ending, on 4 April, 1945:

“He organized a highly successful concert in Berlin with Brahm's first symphony and the Schumann Piano Concerto, with Wilhelm Kempff as soloist. He then hosted a musical evening at the villa on the Wannsee.  Speer chose Kempff, the young virtuoso violinist Gerhard Taschner and his pianist wife Gerda Netta Taschner.  Admiral Donitz, who was also a music lover, was the guest of honor. Kempff began with some Handel, then at Speer's request he played the Kreutzer Sonata with Taschner.  This was followed by the Taschners playing the Cesar Franck Violin Sonata.  Then Kempff played pieces by Schumann, Chopin and Lizst.  Champagne having been served during the interval, Taschner and Kempff entertained Speer's guests with a display of virtuoso pieces. This lavish soiree does not quiet square with Speer's expressions of indignation in his memoirs at the comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by the Nazi elite at a time when ordinary Germans were suffering such deprivation.” (page 272)

Then “...on 12 April, at Speer's instigation, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Wilhelm Furtwangler gave a final concert in the Philharmonic Hall in Berlin.  The audience was treated to Beethoven's Violin Concerto, Bruckner's “Romantic” Symphony  - Speer's favorite – and, appropriately enough, then end of Gotterdammerung.  Speer had told the orchestra, as well as a number of friends and colleagues, that when Bruckner's fourth appeared in the program the end was near.  It would then be prudent to go into hiding.  It is reported that members of the Hitler Youth held baskets full of cyanide tablets that were offered to the audience as they left.  Speer professed to be horrified at this macabre spectacle, which he attributed to some unknown party functionary.” (page 274)

I see no reason to doubt, as Kitchen does, Speer in this instance.  This was weeks after he had defied the Fuhrer's “Nero Order”.  Hitler's spell was broken. Admittedly a bit late in the game for Speer but broken nevertheless.  Who was it that regained who he was before the spell was first cast? Who was this person who suddenly became horrified by the macabre death-throes of Nazism?  Kitchen and van der Vat would claim it was just an act like so much else about Speer we now know was an act.  But I think there is a genuine person there and that justice was served with a 20-year sentence punishing that person.  

I have to go looking for the person.  Kitchen doesn't think any of it is important compared with the clinical nature of, say, being aware of and authorizing the construction of the crematoria at Auschwitz.  Admittedly, such guilt is heavy and tangible and Speer lied a lot to keep that fact from seeing the light of day during his lifetime.

Kitchen is sterile, legalistic, detailed and factual to a degree that we can no longer even see who Speer was before Hitler cast his spell.  Speer disappears into the bureaucracy and body politic of a great tide that swept up the entire German nation throughout the 1930's. I think there is a person there that is not evil, he is not like Hitler even if he did befriend one of the great mass murders of the twentieth century.  Speer was a person, like you and me.  Maybe we would be more honest than he was.  Maybe we wouldn't be. 

In my opinion, Sereny does a much better job that either Kitchen or van der Vat of reminding us of who we are dealing with, not just what this person did.  The person lies in the what but not in the what alone.  The what is taken out of context if it not balanced with the who.  I do not believe everything Speer revealed was disingenuous.  The garden at Spandau was not a lie.  The books he read, the music he appreciated were not lies.  His natural self-centered introspection was not a lie though it might have the source of some of his subsequent lying.  After 40 years of reading and studying him, I relate to Speer on his introspection and creativity more so than on his other traits and crimes.

“And then one day, at the end of the usual noon visit, Hitler, who had never seemed to notice him, suddenly turned to him as he was leaving 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 – just for one glance – 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's 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 – soon afterwards I should discover he always had large groups for lunch – and Goebbels 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 there.' 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 imagine what I felt?' Speer said again.  'Here I was, twenty-eight years old, totally insignificant in my own eyes, sitting next to him at lunch, wearing his clothes and elected – at least for that day – as virtually his sole conversational partner.  I was dizzy with excitement.'” (pp. 102-103)

“Hitler had never discussed his future plans with him, said Speer, except 'in connection with building.  In his closing speech at the 1937 Nuremberg Party Congress he emphasized his plan for 'a Germanic Reich of German nationals.'  I happened to be present afterwards when his adjutant told him that Field Marshal Blomberg was so moved by this sentence, he had begun to cry.  I saw Hitler accepted this emotion as a confirmation of the Field Marshal's fundamental agreement with him in this matter.

“'Very shortly after that evening in Nuremberg,' Speer continued, 'Hitler stopped me as we were going up the stairs to his flat in Munich.  He told his retinue to go ahead, and when we were alone he said, 'We are going to create a huge Reich combining all Germanic people, starting in Norway and going down to northern Italy.  I must still achieve this myself; nobody else has the experience or the will.  If only I can keep my health.  And your Berlin buildings will be the crowning achievement. Do you understand now the need for their huge dimensions – the capital of the Germanic Reich?'” (page 185)

Soon after this Hitler authorized Speer to begin construction on Germania.  So you can see Speer's perspective of the necessity of what he was doing to Berlin and its citizenry.  It justifies nothing, but it does bring it into higher resolution.  

“'Of course I was perfectly aware that he sought world domination,' Speer said.  'What you – and I think everybody else – don't seem to understand is that at the time I asked for nothing better.  That was the whole point of my buildings. They would have looked grotesque if Hitler has sat still in Germany.  All I wanted was for this great man to dominate the globe.'” (page 186)

Sereny, as I said, pulls a great deal out of Speer that is revealing and honest.  When she catches him backtracking over something he has told her she calls him on it.  She watched him with her own eyes struggle with what he had done as a person.  She made him struggle with her clever questions and extended exchanges of dialog with Speer, not always allowing him to have his way.  She observed all this and, to me, gives us a more complete portrait of Albert Speer. But the Kitchen book is a must-have as well. Second only to Sereny, Kitchen gives us a fascinating matrix of documented details on how closely associated Speer was to the inner Nazi circle. 

Speer claimed to be a misfit among mass murderers. Kitchen shows us how Speer contributed to the mass murdering (not just to forcing millions of slaves to work resulting in the deaths of thousands more from horrific work conditions) by authorizing the building of the crematoria at Auschwitz.  This was his high tide of sin where the Final Solution was concerned.  Otherwise, he wanted to save the most skilled Jews.  He needed their labor and craftsmanship.

In both cases, the crematoria and the skilled Jews, Speer was completely indifferent to what was happening.  As long as projects were built and productivity was maximized, Speer really was more interested in classical music than he was in the ideology and politics of National Socialism.  In April 1944, recovering from illness and the war now probably lost, he became enraged at Hitler's handling of an encroachment on Speer's authority. Speer shouted in front of several witnesses “The Fuhrer can kiss my ass!”  Now how many people got away with that in Nazi Germany at this time?

Kitchen seems to claim these moments are not genuine but I disagree.  The person of Speer was indifferent to everything except for whatever could be of use to the task at hand.  Even the Fuhrer could be a jerk and piss Speer off.  His priorities, right or wrong, were his own, and he was not a product of National Socialism; he wanted to build things, he wanted to feel the immense power of the grand neo-classical style, he wanted to live a dignified and privileged lifestyle.  Outside of those types of things, he felt nothing at all.  

Should Speer have been hanged along with Sauckel and the others at Nuremberg?  If all that Kitchen documents in his biography were known at the time of his trial he would undoubtedly have hanged.  But I am glad he wasn't.  20 years is no mild sentence.  Speer caused great suffering by his actions, but genocide was something he simply observed. He did not work for it and certainly he did not work against it. He had the moral cowardliness, or at least apathy, to distance himself as much as possible from it, as did most Germans during that horrible time. His sentence was just, in my opinion.  And I think the world is a richer, wiser, more diverse place because Speer served his time and got away with creating a mythic self-image before his death.

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