The following article will be published as the cover story in the upcoming April/May issue of History Magazine.
“The previous leadership of the German nation bears a collective guilt for the fate that now hangs over the German people. Each member of that leadership must personally assume his responsibility in such a way that the guilt which might otherwise descend upon the German people is expiated.” ~Albert Speer, writing to Johann Schwerin von Krosigk, the chairman of the ministerial cabinet in 1945~
Albert Speer is known to history as both “the Devil’s architect” and “the Nazi who said sorry.” These two conflicting monikers would appear to suggest Speer was a willing participant in the plans of Adolf Hitler – that is, until he realized the war was lost for Germany and tried to distance himself from the dictator. However, the truth is far more complicated than the simple notion that Speer tried to save his own skin by turning on Hitler at his hour of need.
It’s a rare thing for society to be granted unlimited access to historical events that would have, arguably, remained shrouded in secrecy had they not been documented in a memoir. When Speer sat down to write his story while incarcerated in Spandau Prison, he set out to reveal the whole truth – both the highs and lows in his remarkably rapid rise from architecture student to one of Hitler’s most trusted companions.
What has inspired generations of history buffs to pick up his Inside the Third Reich memoir is not only for a glimpse of Hitler in his darkest hour, but to witness the decisions made by Speer – a man who admitted to his mistakes and errors in judgment and accepted his later lot in life. His brutal, uncensored honesty enabled Speer to admit his hatred, fear and love for one of history’s most reviled figures.
An Unlikely Nazi
Berthold Konrad Hermann Albert Speer was born on 19 March 1905 to a wealthy middle class family in Manheim, Germany. The second of three sons born to Albert and Luise Speer, he had a passion for math that didn’t sit well with his father’s desire to see him become a fellow architect.
Speer set off to the University of Karlsruhe in 1923 to study architecture and appease his father. In 1928 he married Margarete Weber, a woman from a lower class family of whom his parents did not approve. All in all, Speer led an average life. The recently married young man began his career as an architect, leading a quiet life away from the growing turmoil in Germany and without any admitted political views.
So how did someone as educated and morally sound as Speer get caught up in the political furor enabled by Hitler? How did this average young man, leading a perfectly regular life, get himself involved in a political and social whirlwind known for its secret police, concentration camps, Aryan ideology and anti-Semitism? Speer had quite a few Jewish friends and admitted, in his memoir, that he initially attributed anti-Semitism as nothing more than “a children’s disease” – something no self-respecting adult actually fell sway to. Speer was not one of the poor, unemployed and angry young men who wandered the city streets.
In 1931, Speer encountered Hitler for the first time. He had just finished reading Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. Within the text, Speer saw parallels between the current state of Germany during inflation and unemployment and the fall of the Roman Empire. Therefore, when he first heard Hitler speak at a beer hall amongst university students, Speer was finally starting to take notice of the political unrest in his country. In his impassioned speech, Hitler scorned Jews and Communists, using them as scapegoats to explain away the current financial problems within Germany. It was the power and passion of that speech that ignited the long-dormant political nature within Speer, a self-proclaimed “apolitical” German. He saw Hitler’s speech that day as the perfect anecdote to Spengler’s more cynical outlook for the future of the western world. Although uncomfortable with Hitler’s anti-Semitism, Speer believed Germany may have found the right man to lead them from the darkness they suffered ever since the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. For all intents and purposes, Hitler appeared to be a man of action. He had mapped out a blueprint for Germany’s recovery and it was blueprint Speer felt he could support.
On 1 March 1931, Speer joined the Nazi Party and was given membership number 474,481. His first job was with the Nazi Party’s motorist association in which he was assigned to drive Hitler around.
It was Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s fiery Minister of Propaganda, who first took notice of Speer. He heard of his degree in architecture and hired Speer to design the first Reichsparteitag on Zeppelin Field in Nuremberg, which would become the annual Nazi rally party. Hitler, a failed architecture student himself, was fascinated by Speer’s work and, in order to impress Hitler, Speer tailored his style to suit the dictator’s grandiose tastes. Speer rapidly moved up the ranks, continuously impressing Hitler with his artistic talent and grand-scale vision for Germany, including his creation of the Zeppelinfield Stadium and the Third Reich Chancellery. He became the official architect of the Nazi Party and was named the Minister of Armaments and War Production for the Third Reich. Speer had the ambition, but did he sell his ethical beliefs for wealth and fame?
Hitler Under Ground
Some of the more remarkable passages in Inside the Third Reich deal with Speer’s detailed descriptions of Hitler’s final days hidden in a bunker in Berlin. Speer recalled a conversation with Hitler only a few short weeks before the dictator’s death in which Hitler admitted he planned to commit suicide. “A brief moment and I am freed of everything,” Hitler told Speer. “Liberated from this painful existence.”
Without Inside the Third Reich it is unlikely the world would have been provided with such an intimate glimpse of the downfall of a dictator. It’s fortunate for historians that Speer wrote his memoir so soon after his initial imprisonment, when memories of what occurred were still vivid in his mind.
Speer wrote that he took that particular moment when Hitler spoke of his impending sui- cide to admit that he had betrayed him. In the months leading up to April 1945, Hitler had issued the Nero Decree, a “scorched earth policy” in which he ordered his troops to systematically destroy all buildings and camps related to Nazi Germany in an effort to prevent the Allies from discovering the Nazi’s darkest secrets. Speer begged to be put in charge so that he could intentionally go against Hitler’s orders and preserve as much as he could, to avoid further mayhem and cover-up. As of 1944, Speer had started questioning his alliance with Hitler.
Speer revealed to Hitler that he had disobeyed his order and prevented the demolitions he had ordered, leaving buildings standing and still filled with documents and other evidence. Speer wrote that Hitler’s eyes filled with tears, but he made no comment.
Speer recalled a broken, trembling man in place of the fiery dictator Hitler once was. The chapters in Inside the Third Reich that deal with the final weeks of Hitler’s life are among the book’s more compelling sections. As Speer wrote, “I was convinced that it was urgently necessary, although already much too late, for Hitler’s life to come to an end.” His anger towards Hitler and his refusal to follow orders contrasted with Speer’s renewed emotional bond with Hitler during the final days of the war. After all, he wrote, they had been friends for 12 years.
When Speer went to visit Hitler in the bunker for what he knew would be the last time, the dictator simply said, “So, you’re leaving? Good. Auf Wiedersehen.” With that, Hitler shook Speer’s hand and turned his back on the man who had ultimately betrayed him in the end.
Spandau Prison and Inside the Third Reich
Spandau Prison was once situated in western Berlin. Built in 1876, it was demolished in 1987 after the death of its last remaining pris- oner, Rudolf Hess, in order to prevent it becoming a shrine for neo-Nazism.
On 18 July 1947, the Spandau Seven arrived at the prison from Nuremberg after their war crimes trial. Speer was jailed with fellow Nazis Hess, Walther Funk, Erich Raeder, Baldur von Schirach, Kon- stantin von Neurath and Karl Donitz. Sentenced to 20 years, Speer separated himself from the others, preferring his own solitude to the company of his former allies. The other prisoners disliked him anyway because he admitted his guilt during the trials at Nuremberg and revealed that he had disobeyed Hitler’s orders on more than one occasion.
The prison kept a rigid schedule for the incarcerated men. They rose at 6 AM, cleaned their cells, shared a breakfast and spent a large portion of the afternoon in the garden before lunch at 5 PM After dinner, the remainder of the evening was spent in their indi- vidual cells. The four occupying powers rotated guard duty in the prison. The months spent under guard of the Russians was dreaded by the Spandau Seven, Speer later wrote, because they were only fed bread and potatoes by order of the Russian director. However, Speer still bonded with some of the guards from Russia, as well as Britain, France and the United States.
Speer prepared a mental and physical workout regime for him- self. He checked out travel books from the prison library and went on “walking tours of the world.” He would, essentially, go on laps around the prison, visualizing whatever route and destination he chose from a book on any given day. Meticulously organized, Speer later wrote that he “travelled” around 24,000 KM in Spandau.
An avid gardener, Speer requested that his work detail be spent in Spandau’s garden, an unkempt wilderness that became what one American guard called “Speer’s Garden of Eden.”
When it came to Inside the Third Reich, Speer originally meant for it to be read by his wife and children only. He started out scrawling the tiny words on pieces of toilet paper and torn bed sheets until some of the British, French and American guards found out that he was documenting his time with the Nazi Party and agreed to smuggle him some paper.
In what was eventually published as his memoir, Inside the Third Reich, Speer candidly explained why it took him so long to see the error of his ways. His honest self-analysis, combined with the secrets he provided on Hitler and the Nazis, made his book an instant bestseller when it was published in 1970.
“I had participated in a war which, as we of the intimate circle should never have doubted, was aimed at world domination,” Speer wrote. “At the lowest ebb of my existence, in contact with these ordinary people (the prison guards at Spandau), I encountered uncorrupted feelings of sympathy, helpfulness, human understanding; feelings that bypassed prison rules …”.
Speer was as unrelenting to himself as he was to his fellow collaborators, writing about the slave labour that occurred in factories under his command and his partnership with SS guards from concentration camps, which would provide him with prisoners to work on the production lines. Although Speer, like many Germans, were not aware that concen- tration camps were death camps that harbored Jews instead of actual convicts until weeks after the end of the war, he did not let himself off the hook and wrote that he could have easily learned more about the camps but chose not to.
Written on more than 20,000 pieces of paper, Speer completed Inside the Third Reich in 1954. There was still more than 10 years left on his jail sentence.
On 1 October 1966, Speer was released from Spandau after serving his full 20-year sentence.
Inside the Third Reich likely served as a form of therapy for the reflec- tive Speer, a way for him to assuage some of his guilt and come to terms with his decisions through the sharing of his experi- ences. As he wrote after his release, “my intention was not only to describe the past, but to issue warnings for the future …At the time I was often startled by the ruthlessness with which I judged others and myself.”
Regardless of how one might interpret Speer’s intentions in writing his memoir, what is undeniable is that he has provided his- tory with a unique, insider’s perspective on a tragic war that may have been lost forever and never fully understood.
As historian and author Eugene Davidson wrote in 1970, “It is in this long, painful struggle for self-enlightenment that we may see that whatever he (Speer) lost when he made his pact with Adolf Hitler, it was not his soul.”
Recommended Reading and Viewing
-Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1970.
-Sereny, Gitta. Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
–Downfall (original German title, Der Untergang), 2004. Directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. Available on DVD.