The post-war rehabilitation of Hitler's architect was utterly undeserved
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.
But there was a much darker side to Speer’s role, both as Hitler’s architect and as minister of armaments. It was he who evicted and expropriated the Jews of Berlin — an audacious crime that had no basis in law and which made thousands of Jewish families homeless — and he who engineered their deportation — of which he later disclaimed all knowledge. It was he who, working closely with Himmler’s SS, played a key role in the creation of the Nazi concentration camp system, initially to provide stone for his building projects, later to make arms. The building of crematoria at Auschwitz was “Professor Speer’s Special Programme”. Not only did Speer know what lay in store for the Jews in the camps: he was one of the key individuals who made the genocide possible. His own anti-Semitic outbursts may have been less crude than other leading Nazis, but his empire employed millions of slave labourers, thousands of whom were deliberately worked to death. Speer lied about almost every aspect of his role in the Third Reich. But the biggest lie was that he had tried to prevent its worst excesses. Speer had been closer to Hitler, and had more opportunities to stop him, than anybody else. He never even tried. Kitchen argues that he remained loyal to the end because he hoped to succeed Hitler.
The debate about Speer began at his Nuremberg trial, was reignited after his release from prison in 1965 and the publication of his memoirs and Spandau diaries, and has continued since his death. One biographer, Gitta Sereny, interviewed him at great length, but never penetrated his carapace of vanity. Sereny, Kitchen mordantly observes, “spent twelve years of research and took 747 pages to come to the conclusion that Speer had rediscovered the ‘intrinsic morality’ he had in his youth. This was a singularly modest return for all the effort.”
Yet there is no great mystery about Speer. Like his Führer, he was a mediocrity who became a megalomaniac. As Kitchen says, he saw himself as Faust, but more closely resembled the cynical demon Mephistopheles. If Padre Pietro Lavini was God’s Builder, Speer was the Devil’s.