Albert Speer ( March 19, 1905 – September 1, 1981) was a German architect who was, for part of World War II, Minister of Armaments and War Production for the Third Reich. Speer was Adolf Hitler’s chief architect before assuming ministerial office. As “the Nazi who said sorry”, he accepted responsibility at the Nuremberg trials and in his memoirs for crimes of the Nazi regime. His level of involvement in the persecution of the Jews, and his level of knowledge of the Holocaust remain matters of dispute. [emphasis mine]
Speer joined the Nazi Party in 1931. His architectural skills made him increasingly prominent within the Party and he became a member of Hitler’s inner circle. The dictator commissioned him to design and construct a number of structures, including the Reich Chancellery and the Zeppelinfeld stadium in Nuremberg where Party rallies were held. Speer also made plans to reconstruct Berlin on a grand scale, with huge buildings, wide boulevards, and a reorganised transportation system.
As Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, Speer was so successful that Germany’s war production continued to increase despite massive and devastating Allied bombing. After the war, he was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the Nazi regime, principally for the use of forced labour. He served most of his sentence at Spandau Prison in West Berlin.
A note from Radarsite: Why bother to resurrect the troubled ghost of Albert Speer? Why now? What possible significance could this controversial character from our collective past have for us today, embroiled as we are in our so-called Global War on Terror? What lessons can be learned from the example of his life, and our subsequent interpretations of his actual involvement in the monumental horrors of the Third Reich?
At the risk of creating a blatant oxymoron, one could describe Albert Speer as the most attractive of the Nazis who filled the docks at the Nuremberg Trials. In the eyes of the victorious allies, Speer stood apart from his cohorts for being the only defendant to (sort of) accept responsibility for his involvement in that hated regime. It was his apparent (although later somewhat discredited) self-honesty, together with his dignified, even charming manner, his good looks, and his seemingly forthright and unequivocal testimony that subsequently endeared him to the Western media and to the majority of the American public, who were more than eager to find some reason, some tangible trace of humanity somewhere in the ranks of that brutal regime. For us he had become a much-needed symbol of fundamental German decency, the personification of the Moderate Nazi.
Only later, as we learned more and more about the inner workings of the Third Reich, and his undeniable, high-level involvement with it, did we begin to doubt his self-proclaimed moderation and human decency. As the veils of those comforting obfuscations proceeded to fall away, little by little the true nature of Albert Speer emerged. We could now begin to see a successful and ambitious bureaucrat, more concerned with his competition, SS head Heinrich Himmler’s inroads into his fiefdom, than with the brutal use of helpless prisoners to advance his production goals.
“My responsibility for the deportation of foreign workers was stated; then that I had opposed Himmler’s plans solely on the tactical grounds of their effect on production but had used his concentration camp inmates without protest and had requisitioned Soviet prisoners of war for work in the armaments industry. It added to my culpability that I had raised no humane and ethical considerations in these cases, thus helping to forge the policy of raising foreign laborers by force.”
So successful, in fact, was Speer in his role as Minister of Armaments and War Production for the Third Reich that it has been estimated that, despite Germany’s enormous losses to Allied bombing in 1944, he alone extenuated the monstrous bloodshed of WWII for an additional year or even longer. Despite his reputation for ‘coming clean’ at the Nuremberg Trials, when one reads his famous best-selling autobiography Inside the Third Reich, one slowly but inevitably becomes aware of a deeply- conflicted man, wrestling with his own interpretations of the truth of his life. Yes, he was aware of, and personally responsible for, the use of forced labor in German industry, but, he assures us, he had no idea of the actual appalling living (and dying) conditions which his charges endured. Yes, he knew about Hitler’s program to totally exterminate the Jews, but only indirectly, not through first-hand experience, and once again he is quick to assure us that he vehemently objected to this well-publicized primary goal of the regime which he so ardently served. Nevertheless, here in his own words he betrays his culpability:
“Nor, for one who wanted to listen, had Hitler ever concealed his intention to exterminate the Jewish people. In his speech of January 30, 1939, he openly stated as much. Although I never actually agreed with Hitler on these questions. I had nevertheless designed the buildings and produced the weapons which served his ends.”