Magazine | February 15, 2016, Issue

The Big Liar

Speer: Hitler’s Architect, by Martin Kitchen (Yale, 456 pp., $37.50)

In Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler discussed the use of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.” He said such a “Big Lie” was often more effective than a small one. For Albert Speer — a colleague of chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels who was Hitler’s architect and later, during World War II, served as Germany’s armaments minister — the notion of a “Big Lie” proved useful after the war ended.

As the Nazi regime collapsed around him, Speer fashioned a story about his role in it that saved him from the hangman at Nuremberg. After he served a 20-year prison sentence, his story helped him establish a last career as “the good Nazi” — an apolitical technocrat who, tempted by power and blinded by a charismatic leader, had fallen in with a genocidal and criminal gang. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams at building a new image for himself as, in the words of historian Martin Kitchen, the author of this new biography, “the gentleman among the gangsters.” He published two best-selling volumes of memoirs, which became a respectful Hollywood mini-series on his life, and gave interviews to everyone from the BBC to Playboy.

Speer died in 1981, at age 76, with many people believing his claim that he hadn’t known about the mass murder of the Jews, which in turn allowed other former Nazis to explain away their own failure to ask questions or bear responsibility. Historian Eugene Davidson, author of a popular 1966 history of the Nuremberg Trials, went so far as to write that in Speer’s “long, painful struggle for self-enlightenment . . . we may see that whatever he lost when he made his pact with Adolf Hitler, it was not his soul.”

But Kitchen, the author of a dozen works on 20th-century Germany, comprehensively disassembles Speer’s alibis and excuses in this new book. His mastery of the revisionist evidence against Speer is complete. He cites Rudolf Wolters, Speer’s closest outside confidant while in prison, as saying that Speer “had told him that his confession of guilt, his acts of penance, the hair-shirt, the public display of sackcloth and ashes and the professed yearning for atonement were nothing but ‘tricks.’”

Speer became famous at the Nuremberg Trials for being the only defendant to accept “collective responsibility” for the crimes of the Nazi government he served. But as Kitchen points out, Speer never actually said he was guilty of specific crimes; he was careful to accept only “overall responsibility for things that had happened while he was in office, but with which he was not directly concerned.”

What Kitchen convincingly shows is that Speer comprehensively constructed a Big Lie about his wartime activities. An ally excised sections of a record of his time planning the transformation of Berlin into Hitler’s new capital of “Germania” before turning the record over to Germany’s National Archives. The missing records would have shown that Speer approved the eviction of 70,000 Berlin Jews from their homes; most of them did not survive their “transfer” to the East.

Speer also claimed that, although a letter he wrote to SS chief Heinrich Himmler about the eviction of 40,000 Jews from the Bialystok ghetto had been sent under his signature, he had never seen it. He denied knowing that his staff helped the SS select slave labor from the tide of Jews arriving at Auschwitz’s train platforms in 1944. When it was discovered that he had attended a meeting in 1943 at which Himmler had explicitly announced a program to exterminate the Jews, Speer constructed an alibi, claiming he had left early and missed Himmler’s revelations — and had never been told about it by others later.

Speer’s prevarications didn’t stop at concealing guilt. Part of the Speer myth is that he was an organizational genius who engineered a miraculous increase in armaments production — including that of such wonder weapons as the V-2 rocket — that prevented Germany’s collapse for months if not years. Kitchen plows through the facts and demonstrates that, as a minister, Speer had two main talents: First, he recognized his shortcomings and readily delegated to people of exceptional talent and energy; and second, he was able to cleverly manipulate statistics “in order to appease Hitler.” As Kitchen notes, “this left the Wehrmacht wondering where on earth these weapons were that were listed in Speer’s public recitations of staggering production figures.”

In actuality, Speer’s almost religious belief in the value of central planning helped undermine the German war effort. Otto Ohlendorf, a top SS official who was also a trained economist, clashed with Speer. He believed that Speer’s overly bureaucratic approach was “totally Bolshevistic” and led to a regime of “hyenas and monopolists” that seriously weakened the state. Kitchen concludes that, under Speer, “a capitalist system in which firms responded freely to government requirements had been replaced by a command economy that was driven by either force or idealism, but, unlike the Soviet planned economy, it failed to maintain a stable monetary system, without which accurate accounting was impossible.”

After his release from Spandau prison in 1966, Speer continued in his gauzy belief in central planning but combined it with hackneyed warnings against technology that would please a Luddite of today. In 1979, he published a book Kitchen dismisses as “a muddleheaded hodgepodge of semi-digested ideas from radical ecologists and peace activists” that also included “some comments by John Kenneth Galbraith on increasing inequality.” It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Speer, once released from prison, was by no means a conservative. He still believed in socialism and told journalist Dan van der Vat that he proudly supported Germany’s left-wing Social Democratic party.

Speer’s career as an architect also doesn’t survive Kitchen’s searchlight. As a student, he latched on to Heinrich Tessenow, a noted architect who advocated modest buildings. As soon as fate delivered him a commission to renovate Hitler’s offices in Berlin, he found a new mentor in Hitler’s favorite architect, Paul Ludwig Troost, known for his penchant for luxury. After Troost’s sudden death in 1934, Speer became Hitler’s court architect at the astonishing age of 28. His job became to slavishly satisfy Hitler’s immense love of gargantuan projects. His construction of a new Reich Chancellery for Hitler resulted in a pompous pile that had little usable working space. Kitchen notes that “even his finest achievement, the Cathedral of Light [searchlight display] at Nuremberg, was probably suggested to him by the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and her cameraman.”

Kitchen demonstrates that Speer’s true genius manifested itself in an ability to ingratiate himself with whichever audience he had to persuade. He fooled most people, most of the time — but not all. Airey Neave, a British officer at Nuremberg who later became a top adviser to Margaret Thatcher, saw in Speer a “smooth hypocrisy” that made him “more beguiling and dangerous than Hitler.”

Neave’s assessment of Speer was remarkably similar to that of Sebastian Haffner, a German journalist who, in exile in Britain in 1944, wrote of Speer:

To a far lesser extent than any other German leader does he resemble anything typically German or typically National Socialist. He symbolizes indeed a type, which among all the belligerents has become increasingly important: the pure technician, the classless, brilliant man without a background, who knows no other goal than to make his way in the world, purely on the basis of his technical and organizational capabilities. . . . This is his age. We can get rid of the Hitlers and the Himmlers, but not the Speers.

Kitchen notes in chilling fashion that Speer took Haffner’s comments as a compliment, both during and after the war.

Kitchen does give Speer his due. He notes that Speer complained about the starvation rations given to slave laborers in his factories — albeit out of a desire that they work harder rather than from humanitarian concern. He also gives Speer credit for making frenetic efforts, at some risk to himself, to countermand Hitler’s “scorched earth” order to destroy German industry as the Allies advanced in 1945. He awoke from his moral slumber just before the Deluge.

The book ends with a discussion of the warning signals implicit in the career of Albert Speer. Any country that falls prey to authoritarianism needs people like Speer, to whom Kitchen refers as “the type that made National Socialism possible.” Kitchen sums up Speer as “a hollow man, resolutely bourgeois, highly intelligent, totally lacking in moral vision, unable to question the consequences of his actions, and without scruples.” As Sebastian Haffner noted in 1944, such smooth opportunists will always be with us, standing ready to serve whoever offers them power, prestige, or piles of money. Like Albert Speer, they are as dangerous as mass murderers but more insidious for being able to charm many into thinking they are less harmful.

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