Stoddard Martin reviews a new biography of Albert Speer
In the rogue’s gallery of National Socialism, good boy Albert Speer usually gets short shrift. As a rogue, he seems on the surface deficient – none of the public prancing of a Göring or Goebbels. He possessed neither the flair of slumming aristos nor the gangsta chic of working-class thugs who vaulted the Party to power. He was younger than most and of a privileged, though social-climbing middle class background. His rise was almost entirely as Hitler’s pet. His fall was padded by an excuse that he had fundamentally not been much more than an ‘artist’ – Hitler’s architect – and certainly no ideologue or principal policy-maker.
Martin Kitchen sets out to change an impression created by postwar Speer and by two influential commentators who knew and wrote about him: Gitta Sereny and Joachim Fest. The time has come, Kitchen believes, to demonstrate that the later Speer’s touted ‘battle with the truth’ is ‘unconvincing’ and that Sereny and Fest were more or less willingly ‘misled’. Kitchen’s case is probably convincing. He lays out evidence with lawyerly skill and in bulk, even at the risk of occasional repetition and less literary than lawyerly style. One is reminded that we are well into a second generation of writers about the War and related topics. Anthony Julius in his celebrated indictment of the gentlemanly anti-Semitism of T. S. Eliot was one of the first to inaugurate this lawyer-scholar equivalent of a ‘tough Jew’ approach. Oddly, just at the point in history when one might expect revisionists to flourish, less tolerance for the monstrosities of the mid-20th century seems to have obtained. Kitchen is to Sereny and Fest what Julius was to first generation postwar Jewish literary scribes such as the urbane John Gross. Understanding the odious becomes akin to pusillanimity in an era brought up on the politically correct.
That said, one does not cavil at this rerating of Speer. Almost a man without qualities, one has to pause to recall why he was a colleague so attractive to A. Hitler. The latter was of course petty bourgeois and provincial – not even German! – which made the higher bourgeois manners of the young Rhinelander seem admirable. And since young Speer dutifully admired in return (though how sincerely may be questioned), it was easy enough for the older fellow to feel flattered. Add to that or not as you will the scent of homoeroticism that swirls around so much Nazi posturing, especially as it relates to the arts. The number of nude statues, predominantly male, which Speer used to decorate the cavernous chancellery he designed for his Führer typifies this tendency in a Zeitgeist. But the architecture of that palace and of the ‘Germania’ project is key. Hitler was ‘an artist’. He longed for another, part acolyte, part executor, as pal. Speer rose from near nothing to, within short years, being ‘master builder’ of the Reich. What young man would not revel in such a rise, and truckle to the god who had engineered it? Only one who ‘doth ambition shun’. In student days Speer is said to have been ‘an amiable loafer’. But in a Depression-haunted Nazi New Age not even the most ardent former Wandervogel could afford to continue in that vein. Idlers, malingerers raus! – except when the Führer required companions for his lengthy, ruminative luncheons or country weekends in the Obersalzburg.
On Speer’s qualities as architect Kitchen makes a case that he was largely derivative, purloining or plagiarizing from Heinrich Tessenow and Paul Ludwig Troost. Kitchen’s thesis is that Speer mainly added theatrical touches to these masters’ ideas, flattering Nazi delusions of grandeur – the famous pillars of light for Nuremberg rallies – or elements of kitsch preferred by a Führer whose aesthetics were stuck in Vienna of the 1890s. Regarding the first Kitchen cites a Goebbels tale: when Hitler asked Troost’s widow what she thought of Speer’s work, she answered that if the Führer asked for a building 100 metres wide her husband would think about it overnight and return the next day to say that, for structure and style, it should be 96 metres, whereas Speer would retort immediately, ‘Mein Fuhrer, 200 metres!’ and get the job. Hitler apparently laughed. He would not have been so amused at Speer’s private comment on his artistry. As a gift for work on the chancellery, he presented Speer with a watercolour of a church in Vienna that he had painted in 1909. Ever a closet modernist, Speer would brand the painting ‘pedantic’, ‘lifeless’, ‘nondescript’ and ‘painstaking’. Nonetheless as young court favourite, he invariably incorporated the Fuhrer’s amateur architectural designs into plans for the new ‘world capital’ both fantasized for Berlin.
To advance this project Hitler appointed Speer General Inspector of Buildings, a role which led to Speer’s first instance of complicity in Nazi anti-Semitic crime. To build ‘Germania’ thousands of buildings had to be demolished in Berlin’s centre, yet the city had a chronic housing shortage which the Party, especially its ‘socialist’ left, had long promised to address. Solution: a large Jewish population, which remained in the centre as late as 1938 and still had tenancy protected by un-repealed Weimar laws. Threat and pogrom were needed to speed clearance until more dispossessing legislation could be risked. Kristallnacht was part of this, and really only a beginning. Well into the ‘40s, Gauleiter Goebbels was complaining that some 70 or 80,000 Jews still lived in Berlin. Himmler’s assistance in relocating them to the ghetto in Litzmannstadt (Łódź) could only proceed at a logistically realizable pace – troop and armament transport was higher priority. Speer chafed at the speed-limit to his mandated project while at the same time profiting from the enforced labour he was offered by Himmler and temporary office space he was able to grant to Goebbels and other Party satraps eager to be close to the beating-heart of the wartime Reich.
Kitchen rightly regards the contention that Speer knew little of the ultimate fate of those he helped to dispatch on trains to the east as disingenuous at best. Moreover, even if this ‘gentleman’ among Nazis was not at home with a ‘vulgar’ element that promulgated the Final Solution, it is incontrovertible that he was complicit in dispossession of tens of thousands – indeed, a prime mover of it. That this was only in service of the Führer’s megalomaniacal building scheme is a threadbare defense given Speer’s role both in incepting that scheme and as supremo for its execution. When does a supposed instrument of policy become a policy-maker? This question, first apparent in Speer’s role in Berlin’s projected remaking, becomes core once his ‘soundness’ as Hitler’s lackey and perceived efficiency as ‘can do’ man earned him a role of minister plenipotentiary for armaments in 1942, the year Nazi victories ended and a nation settled down to what was billed as a long military struggle for survival.
The death of Troost had advanced Speer’s career as Hitler’s architect; a plane crash killing Fritz Todt vaulted him into position as ‘economic dictator of the Reich’. The story of this phase of his career involves the now well-known counter-intuitive truth of the so-called totalitarian state: envies, rivalries, passive-aggressive stances – the endless fissiparous forces which could only increase as defeat became the elephant in the room. Holding all together was a Führer who always made a specialty out of playing subordinates against one another, giving total powers to one and then blocking powers to someone else, failing to take decisions or taking and then rescinding them, given to tirade and personal prejudice – he suspected the military, disliked bureaucrats and often edged Party colleagues into the background in favour of mannerly parvenus. Speer succeeded in this fatally whimsical milieu, until he didn’t. He played as ruthlessly as another, sure in his knowledge of Hitler’s favour, until that unreliable backup was withdrawn. But during his ascendancy he was able to shift power crucially out of the hands of Party bosses and military planners and into those of the third force that made the Reich tick: the industrialists.
Speer was their paladin. Porsche, BMW, Thyssen, Krupp, Daimler, Siemens and other names which would continue as ‘household’ in West Germany of the postwar Wirtschaftwunder were given tax breaks, subsidy, supplies of cheap or forced labour, diktat over schedules – a kind of free rein in order to mount the total war that in their eyes was necessary to assure triumph of a ‘capitalist’ system over its arch-rival: Bolshevism. They did not believe that Stalin could match them in productivity or quality of product. They feared an apocalypse in social and economic structures if he did. That they would lose against him was unthinkable, though it happened, despite Albert Speer’s best efforts. Yet he was ‘one of them’: it could not have been his fault. So a case for Speer’s relative innocence began to be seeded just as his most egregious acts of culpability were taking place. Kitchen notes his encouraging presence at major speeches by Goebbels and Himmler promising a final solution to ‘the Jewish problem’. He records meetings Speer was looped into re construction at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. He catalogues Speer’s complicity in policies of slave labour and of working prisoners, foreigners and undesirables to death, along with the minimalism in nourishment, habitation and sanitation that assured it. Of course privation was advancing through all the beleaguered Reich as bombing shattered Hamburg, the Ruhr, Berlin and more; and of course Speer did what was practical to keep essentials available not only for German burghers, on whose faith the regime depended, but also on workers who – if too reduced in health – would be of no use. A manpower crisis became central to his struggle. He worked with Goebbels to hold morale up. He prevaricated about ‘secret weapons’. He lied. He intrigued.
There were plots against him – the ‘three kings’ Bormann, Lammers and Keitel resented his accumulation of power and access to Hitler. Göring, Goebbels and Himmler were inconstant allies – Speer would later suggest that the SS Führer’s doctor tried to murder him. Through 1944, as re-positioning took place, he oscillated from fantasizing himself Hitler’s successor to preparing a persona as demon’s dupe. Illness at the start of that year gave his enemies an opening. Documents suggesting that the Stauffenberg conspirators wanted to keep him as minister increased suspicion about him once their plot failed. Hitler’s own precipitous decline in health hardly worked in Speer’s favour. He became more and more the advocate for ‘industrial self-determination’, code for coterie capitalism after the regime collapsed, which by the end of ’44 all self-interested operatives expected. Jockeying for postwar position had commenced, yet still Speer would lie to maintain combatant morale. Came the brutal winter of 1944-5. How much damage was done to Germany in those months alone? how much need for eventual rebuilding assured, with all the architectural plans and construction contracts for Hochtief etc. to go with it? Did Speer foresee someone’s bonanza? There is no suggestion of it, but what intelligence trained in forward planning could have missed such an outcome? It is legend that Speer and industrialist friends helped block a mad policy of ‘scorched earth’ as Party fanatics tried to ignite Götterdämmerung at war’s end. It would seem a mitigation of crime in some quarters – a precious commodity in later 1945.
An ambiguous character it was who sat next to devils in the dock at Nuremburg. Speer was supposed to be the face of efficient production in the Reich, yet he had often sacrificed quality for quantity to impress or bamboozle a mad Führer. He was supposed to be the civilized one among many, yet he not only presided over a policy of dragooning workers from concentration camps but also of punishing shirkers by sending them there. He was meant to be a genius at developing new weapons, but the V1 was ineffective, the V2 never really operational and the so-called English Cannon unable to fire a successful shot. That Nazi Gauleiters and ideologues didn’t like him may appear in his favour, but they liked him least for opposing aspects of their programme which were local, socialist and partisan for the small businesses later called the ‘Mittelstand’, characteristics of a mixed economy of which postwar West Germany grew justly proud. Oddly enough, this un-flamboyant middle class fellow was at heart perhaps the most ‘totalitarian’ of the lot, which may be why great plutocrats and near monopolists remained his most reliable friends. Did they save him from the gallows? Did they have the power to do so?
There is no evidence of it that Kitchen brings to light. On the other hand, the eighteen months between Speer’s arrest and his sentencing to twenty years’ imprisonment was a crucial period of postwar repositioning. The Iron Curtain was dropping, and the Speer/industrialist fears that Western Europe was in danger were coming to be shared by the Allies. From the first Speer was seen by American interrogators as distant from ‘the primitives’ and a man from whom it might be possible to extract technical known-how, names of key personnel – in Mrs Thatcher’s phrase in a later context ‘a man with whom we can do business’. Kitchen demonstrates how the American prosecutor Robert Jackson treaded lightly on some points, such as Speer’s knowledge of and implication in the fate of Jews, and emphasized others, such as his efforts to counter the Nero Order (Hitler’s edict re ‘scorched earth’). The president of the court, Lord Lawrence, hardly damaged Speer’s cause by giving short shrift to the Russian prosecutor, most hostile of the four. British and French prosecutors, no doubt with the Stalinist spectre in mind, resisted putting Speer’s feet to the fire; and when the vote on sentencing came, their judges were able to persuade U. S. Attorney General Francis Biddle not to join the Russian in calling for Speer’s execution. What manoeuvres lay behind this Kitchen does not speculate upon. A dimmer view of Speer was advanced among Brits by lawyer Hartley Shawcross, journalist Sebastian Haffner and the major who was instructed to read his indictment, Mrs Thatcher’s later mentor Airey Neave. He thought Speer an embodiment of ‘smooth hypocrisy’ and ‘more beguiling and dangerous than Hitler’. In the end a kind of pragmatism prevailed.
Was this meant in part as a signal to other implicated yet educated, intelligent and socially well-placed Germans? No doubt most industrialists shed no tears at the death sentence handed down to eleven of the seventeen defendants – who at that point could defend the likes of Julius Streicher? But the Allies were perhaps wise to show discrimination and possibilities for clemency, given the Weltpolitik they were now facing. Speer went with Neurath, von Schirach, Funk, Raeder and Hess to Spandau, a former Gestapo prison. These five Nazi ‘bonzos’ were guarded by 400 soldiers and fifty gaolers. Visits from family were allowed but provided little comfort for Speer – the cold workaholic hardly knew his six children and had no capacity to be soul-mate to his neglected wife. He gave himself to gardening and to composing a diary; backbiting with fellow detainees faded as they departed prison or into their own dreamworlds. Speer’s assets, initially sequestered, were released by the West German government in 1953, rendering him a rich man, but he insisted that family expenses not to be paid out of them, rather from a ‘tuition account’ set up by friendly industrialists. The diaries were smuggled out to a former associate, whose Jewish mistress – her family had once been evicted from their Berlin home on the General Building Inspector’s order – set about to transcribe.
The aim of Speer as writer, Kitchen argues, was to suggest that twenty years in prison absolved the criminal of all crime. If Todt had not died, Speer opined, he might have become a great architect; but now his country was being rebuilt by ‘subaltern confectioners’, and there was no room for ‘the last classicist’. Speer mused about his identity as perpetual ‘stranger’ and cultivated an appearance of interest in theology – post-prison interlocutors included a pastor, a monk and a rabbi. Ego decreed that, as memoirist, the former ‘artist’ be seen as a new Benvenuto Cellini. There were interviews on television, with Der Spiegel and even Playboy. Speer alternated between a persona of wearing a hair-shirt and revelling in fees, royalties and celebrity as Germany’s runaway bestseller. It is tempting to see his lionization as part of the ‘springtime for Hitler’ of the early 1970s. Warhol admired his Germania, Bowie wore jackboots in Berlin and there was Cabaret. Homoerotic chic in black leathers and swastikas… that era, I suppose, was the real revisionist heyday. David Irving had not yet been unmasked. Fest and Sereny sat at Speer’s feet.
The point of Kitchen’s book is to remind us of the mendacity in spin and perversion of perception that allowed Albert Speer to become a kind of penitent pinup for decades. We don’t like to imagine that smooth, mannerly, educated middle-class technocrats can be the most dangerous and slippery individuals of the lot: it doesn’t sell newspapers or make good daytime TV. And where would the West be if we had to admit that the Soviet Union came far closer to nailing this banal Mephistopheles than we were willing to do?
SPEER: Hitler’s Architect, by Martin Kitchen, Yale University Press, 2015, hb, 456 pp, £20
STODDARD MARTIN is an author and publisher