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Albert Speer: Not a mystery, merely a megalomaniac (illustration by Michael Daley)

Albert Speer was as fortunate in death as he was in birth. In 1981, on a visit to London — the city that, four decades earlier, he had tried to obliterate with the world’s first missile bombardment — he had dinner with the historian Norman Stone at Brown’s Hotel, chatting and carousing until 2 am. Next morning Stone interviewed him for the BBC. Stone found Speer “haunted by his past”. Perhaps he was; but the septuagenarian boasted that he had an assignation with a younger woman — an affair that finally disillusioned his loyal wife, Gretel — and seemed to be enjoying an Indian summer. Before Speer could take his lover to lunch, however, he had a stroke, dying later at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington.

The obituaries were respectful, of course: Speer had always enjoyed a good press. But did he deserve it? Or was his reputation for integrity a shameless fabrication? Journalists, academics and clergymen were complicit in Speer’s construction of an image — the senior Nazi who was innocent of the Holocaust but who admitted his guilt anyway — that was convenient for millions of his countrymen, because it enabled them to be economical with the truth about what exactly they too had known or done. Speer: Hitler’s Architect (Yale, £20), a new biography by Martin Kitchen, paints an unsparing portrait of this “hollow man”.

Speer has always been seen as the most decent, or at any rate the least vicious, of Hitler’s courtiers. He presented himself as an apolitical technocrat, young enough to be “seduced” by Hitler. The Führer took a fancy to the young architect who could turn his megalomaniac dreams into reality. Speer finally turned against Hitler and sabotaged the latter’s “Nero Order”, which would have left nothing but scorched earth to the conquerors of the Reich. In an influential postwar report, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith endorsed this self-image: Speer had engineered a miracle as Hitler’s armaments minister, enabling Germany to fight on for years despite Allied bombing. Most historians have echoed this orthodoxy, but Kitchen demolishes it, showing that Speer cooked the books to make his achievement look better.

Above all, Speer was an artist. Educated Germans did not want to believe that such a cultured man — friend of the pianist Wilhelm Kempff and patron of sculptors such as Georg Kolbe — could have been tainted by the regime he served. Surely this cool, elegant, handsome professor was no gangster, let alone a war criminal? Kitchen shows that he was both. Speer owed his career as an architect entirely to the Nazis: lacking originality, he plagiarised Weimar design, from Max Reinhardt’s theatre to the Bauhaus, to create spectacles for the party. His “cathedral of light” at the 1936 Nuremberg rally was really Leni Riefenstahl’s idea and he was eager to flatter Hitler by promising to turn Berlin into “Germania”, a neoclassical monstrosity on an inhuman scale. As Inspector General of Buildings, he soon became rich by creaming off a 2 per cent commission on public building projects.

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sd goh
September 24th, 2015
4:09 PM
"Educated Germans did not want to believe that such a cultured man -- friend of the pianist Wilhelm Kempff....". Are cultured people immune to being influenced by fascism or any other toxic beliefs? It has been said that in the concentration camps, some Nazi officers (mainly Austrians than Germans?) after discharging their duty during the day in sending the inmates to oblivion, would play Schubert after dinner. Back in the late 70's, my German friend, a cosmopolitan who had friends from all over the world, suddenly became an apologist for David Irving, when the latter gained notoreity for denying the Shoah. I was flabbergasted, but that aside, I am forever indebted to him for having introduced to me Kempff's revelatory recording of JS Bach's Das Wohltemperierte Clavier. (I has only known of Glen Gould's then.) What struck me when I heard it the first time, was the Lutheran fervor throughout the playing which perhaps was not surprising, considering that Kempff grew up in the same tradition as the immortal Bach and if there were any pianists who understood Bach well, then Kempff must surely be one of them.

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