– William Shirer on Albert Speer and his appearance at the Nuremburg War Crimes Trials.
Albert Speer was born on today’s date, March 19 in 1905, in the city of Mannheim, Germany. Herr Speer was an architect, the Minister of Armaments and War Production for Hitler. And the above quote from William Shirer’s book “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” has been the most widely held view of the man until recently when a revisionist view of Speer has appeared in some quarters. Whereas most of Hitler’s henchmen claimed that they didn’t know, or that they were only following orders, Speer acknowledged his guilt. But how to view the man? Is he a good man corrupted by a criminal regime, who tried to make up for it by attempting to undo some of the evil, and by admitting his guilt? Or is he just like the others, going along with the Nazis when they were winning, and simply feigning a guilty conscience when they lost in order to save his neck? Below, I will briefly present some of the evidence. But you, the readers of “Today in History” will have to decide for yourselves how to view the man. I must admit that I have not even fully made up my own mind about this. But this IS an important question for today’s world. For even as the crimes of the Holocaust begin to fade from living memory, we have crimes against humanity being committed throughout the world. And we face these questions once again.
Speer Rises to Become Hitler’s Confidant
Speer entered school as a student of architecture in 1923, winding up at the Technical University of Berlin wherein he studied under Heinrich Tessenow. In 1930 he was urged by some students to attend a speech by Hitler. Speer described himself as “a-political” at this time, but he was very impressed with Hitler and his ideas, and he joined the Nazi party in March of 1931. In July of 1932, Speer, who was in Berlin to help the Nazi Party during parliamentary elections, was recommended to Joseph Goebbels (Hitlers’ Propaganda Director) to help with the design of the Party’s Berlin headquarters. This soon brought him into frequent contact with Hitler, who as a frustrated artist saw Speer as a kind of kindred spirit. Eventually he became a member of the German Chancellor’s inner circle, and ultimately, Hitler’s friend. Hitler spoke of having “the warmest human feelings” for Speer, who testified at Nuremberg, “I belonged to a circle which consisted of other artists and his personal staff. If Hitler had had any friends at all, I certainly would have been one of his close friends.”
Speer was of course an intelligent man of excellent manners. unlike so many of Hitler’s henchmen. But he was also young and ambitious, and any reservations he may have had about Hitler and the men surrounding him took a backseat. Speer, as Hitler’s friend was swept up by the proximity to power, and the leadership over German architecture that came with it. In January of 1938, he was commissioned by Hitler to design the seat of his government, the Reich Chancellery (pictured above).
Speer Takes Over German War Production
On February 8, 1942, Franz Todt, the Minister of War Production was killed in a plane crash, and Hitler named Speer to take his place. At the time German war production was not fully geared for war production with many consumer goods still being produced. Further he found a situation in which five different ministries had authority over the production of war materials. With the backing of Hitler who said that he would sign anything that Speer sent him, Speer got all of the war production centralized in himself. He divided the armament production into areas for separate weapons systems, and had each factory producing a
single product. Each department was run by experts in the field instead of civil servants. His efforts brought results that left him with wide-ranging authority to get his way in any sector of the German economy that he wished. This of course earned him the jealousy of many other top Nazis. In June of 1943, Goebbels wrote in his diary with some degree of annoyance: “Speer is still tops with the Führer. He is truly a genius with organization.” But as the Allied bombing campaigns began to take their toll, Speer showed his true genius for improvisation by transferring much of Germany’s war production to underground installations (above), wherein he was able to keep up high levels of production until very late in the war.
Judgement at Nuremburg
When the war finally ended in May of 1945, Speer along with other top Nazi officials faced the Allied War Crimes Tribunal held in the city of Nuremburg. While most of the defendants plead “Not Guilty” claiming either that they had been following orders, or that they had not known of the worst excesses – the wholesale murders of millions of Jews and others, Speer by contrast accepted the overall responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime: “In political life, there is a responsibility for a man’s own sector. For that he is of course fully responsible. But beyond that there is a collective responsibility when he has been one of the leaders. Who else is to be held responsible for the course of events, if not the closest associates around the Chief of State?” This fairly generalized acceptance of responsibility was what ultimately
saved Speer’s life. When the verdicts were announ- ced on Oct. 1, 1946, Speer was found guilty, but (above, Speer at Nuremburg, top seated row, fifth from right) unlike most of the other top Nazi officials who were given the death penalty, Speer was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In the years since the Nuremburg trials especially in the years since Speer’s death in 1981 there has been considerable controversy about Speer’s precise level of knowledge about the worst atrocities of the Nazi regime. He had indeed accepted a kind overall responsibility, but denied knowledge of the specific details. In his book “Inside the Third Reich” (1970) he painted a picture of a basically honorable and decent young man who allowed himself to be seduced by the demonic personality of Hitler. While it is certainly true that Speer kept much of Hitler’s scorched earth orders from being implemented at the end of the war, and alone kept telling Hitler that the war was indeed lost, all of this at considerable personal risk, the exact level of his awareness, i.e. what Speer knew, and when he knew it has never been fully determined. So can his acceptance of guilt be taken as a true act of repentance? That is something that each reader must decide for themselves. For the moment, I shall close with the following passage from Gitta Sereny’s 1995 book “Albert Speer: His Battle With the Truth” :
“Speer talked for hours then about Hitler, and those around him, all of whom he appeared to despise…. Captain Burt Klein listened as we did for hours and then he suddenly said, ‘Mr. Speer, I don’t understand you. You are telling us that you knew years ago that the war was lost for Germany. For years, you say, you have been watching the horrible in-play among those gangsters who surrounded Hitler — and surrounded you. Their personal ambitions were those of hyenas, their methods were those of murderers, their morals those of the gutter. You knew all this. And yet you stayed, not only stayed but worked, planned with and supported them to the hilt. How can you explain it? How cam you justify it? How can you stand living with yourself?’ And Speer was silent for awhile. And then he said, ‘You cannot understand. You simply cannot understand what it is to live in a dictatorship; you can’t understand the game of danger, but above all you cannot understand the fear on which the whole thing is based. Nor, I suppose, have you any concept of the charisma of a man such as Hitler.’ Burt Klein just got up and left the room.”
“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” – William Shirer, 1960.
“Albert Speer: His Battle With the Truth” – Gitta Sereny, 1995
“Speer. The Final Verdict” – Joachim Fest, 1999