Albert Speer is a great enigma. An unemployed architect when Hitler came to power in 1933, he was soon designing the Third Reich's most important buildings. In 1942 Hitler appointed him Armaments Minister and he quadrupled production, an astonishing achievement that kept the German Army in the field and prolonged the war.
Yet Speer's life was full of contradictions. The only member of the Nazi elite with whom Hitler developed more than a purely functional relationship (he has even been called "Hitler's unrequited love"), Speer was always an outsider in Hitler's inner circle. He saw himself as an artist, above the crass power struggles of the roughnecks around him, but his enormous ambition blinded him to the crimes in which he played a leading role.
Brilliantly illustrated, this gripping account of one man's rise and fall helps explain how Germany descended so far into crime and barbarism.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Joachim Fest is the author of several widely respected books on Nazi Germany, including The Face of the Third Reich. Following Speer's release from prison in 1966, Fest worked closely with him as the editor of his memoirs, Inside the Third Reich and Spandau: The Secret Diaries. Fest lives near Frankfurt.
Any survey of a life inevitably starts at the end. Only when the actor has left the stage do the lines emerge from the tangle of existence to form a picture. Historians are easily tempted to describe as inevitabilities those strange accidents that are no more than part of every life. This applies particularly to figures who rose to the top in the Hitler period. It has been common practice to ferret out particular circumstances in their parental homes that appear to explain their career. A lack of attention, for instance, prevented self-esteem from developing, an authoritarian upbringing engendered submissive attitudes, parental severity led to emotional impoverishment, while excessive parental love produced egotists, and so on. The arbitrary rules of this kind of psychology allowed diametrically opposite conclusions to be drawn from identical states of affairs. A child who was beaten would develop into an aggressive type, and so would one who was never beaten. Ultimately any misdeeds were attributed to the damage done in the parental home. In truth, however, all such statements merely raise the questions to which they purport to be the answers.
Albert Speer, born in Mannheim on 19 March 1905, is a perfect illustration of how unpredictable life is. He came from what in his day was a "normal" privileged family, of the haute bourgeoisie. His early years followed the pattern of a regulated and uneventful youth in the provinces. There is hardly anything striking to report about it. His days passed in agreeable lassitude. Nothing upset the pleasant harmony between home and school, with adventure games by the water, sports clubs, and first love. Biographers have dissected many characteristics from the few incidental discoveries made about those years: the unapproachability of Speer's father, the apparent haughtiness of his mother, and the distant relationship between the three brothers were said, more or less, to have led to the second son's lack of emotion and the shyness that was apparent at an early age. But these simple conclusions tell us virtually nothing about how Albert Speer got into Hitler's entourage and then rose to his unique position at the dictator's court.1
Like his paternal grandfather, Speer's father was an architect who had made a name for himself with administrative buildings, luxury residences, and villas in the Mannheim area. He had acquired some affluence when, in 1900, he married the daughter of a Mainz merchant, who was descended from Wallenstein's field marshal, von Pappenheim, and who although a forester's son had become a successful entrepreneur. With typical circumspection Speer's father had invested his new wealth mainly in houses and building plots well beyond Mannheim's city limits, all the way to Heidelberg.
Speer grew up in an upper-middle-class world with the constraints typical of his day. His socially ambitious mother never quite got over having had to leave "golden Mainz" only to be marooned in the sooty industrial town of Mannheim. She tried to compensate for this misfortune with an extravagant lifestyle. In the fourteen rooms of her house she commanded a large staff with the cooks all in white, the maids in black dresses trimmed with white, and the male servants in purple livery with a made-up coat of arms. Everything was exaggerated and staged with a somewhat ostentatious penchant for grandiosity. There was also a chauffeur who looked after the family's two cars, a limousine for the winter and an open vehicle for the summer, as well as a French governess, Mademoiselle Blum, who was of Jewish descent. She used to march the three sons down the street in strict formation. In the entrance hall, heavy Dutch furniture was grouped around a sham fireplace with old Delft tiles; the reception rooms, on the other hand, were in the French style with lighter furniture, crystal, and Lyonnais silk furnishings. Even in the affluent town of Mannheim few families could have afforded anything like it, Speer later observed.2
For all its spaciousness the house seemed strangely crowded, however, and despite the large staff it was somewhat lifeless. It never really appealed to Speer, and he felt almost liberated when the family moved to Heidelberg in the summer of 1918. Among the plots purchased by his father there was one on the hillside behind the castle, originally intended for the family's summer residence. On the edge of a park-like forest of ancient beeches and oaks he built a villa in the heavy fortress style of the day. Far below lay the town, and beyond its silhouette a panorama of the Rhine plain opened.
When Speer looked back on his youth it was mainly images from his Heidelberg years that he remembered. The state school he attended after private tuition in Mannheim, the friends he made, and games of cowboys and Indians in the nearby wood opened the door to new worlds. Once outside the parental home, he was offered the leading place as a matter of course wherever he went. In the rowing club he was made cox of the four and, shortly afterward, stroke of the eight. Decades later he tried to note down impressions from those years, as they came to him. The first was of his nursemaid teaching him simple songs, then of his mother in grand attire and behind her the dark, dignified outline of his father. Another recollection was of a visit to Heidelberg Castle, with a zeppelin silently gliding above its venerable ruins. In between there were memories of poems, a performance of Weber's Freischütz, and his first visit to the theater to see Schiller's Maid of Orleans, of which he only remembered that it had been "a tremendous experience."3 On further reflection he realized that technological and romantic matters had stayed with him more than anything else-aircraft on the one hand, and poetical and musical experiences on the other.
Relations continued to be difficult with his parents, who were virtually strangers to him. Nor did relations improve with his brothers. They were noisy and robust, while Albert was physically delicate and of unstable health. He admired his father but found him too reserved to confide in him. The inhibitions that all observers later remarked on were already conspicuous in those early years. Speer's mother, who had sought refuge from various disappointments in a restless social life filled with receptions and house parties, remained aloof. All the possessions she accumulated failed to fill the void that surrounded her. By cultivating an ostentatious style she tried to perpetuate the circumstances and standards which had once made the middle class great. But now these trappings seemed like imitations, an empty spectacle on an overloaded stage set, revealing the very vacuum it sought to conceal.
Unlike his mother, Speer's father had strong principles. He was practical and always correctly dressed, with a gold watch chain, a twirled mustache, and his hair cut short. For all his sobriety, his background and his newfound family pride equipped him with a sure sense of middle-class values. On a visit to Berlin in the mid-thirties, he attended a theater première with his unexpectedly high-powered son, and Hitler invited him to his box in the intermission. No sooner had he been presented than he was overcome by a violent trembling. He turned pale, paralyzed by the torrent of words beating down on him. Speer later suspected that his father had sensed the frightening aura of otherness that Hitler radiated. It was, as the conservative historian Otto Hintze described the dictator, like suddenly finding oneself in the presence of a person with something "utterly alien" about them, "something of an otherwise extinct primordial race, which was completely amoral." Speer's father took his leave as soon as Hitler ended, bowing stiffly without a word of response.4
Speer's father regarded himself as belonging to that liberal tradition that had always championed the interests and libertarian views of the bourgeoisie. He particularly identified with Friedrich Naumann's social reformist views, although in the twenties he had abandoned Naumann's nationalist ideas for the pan-European ideals of Count Coudenhove-Kalergi. He always realized that no democratic order could survive on its own: the individual had to have and, if necessary, defend intellectual and political independence, and be determined to take responsibility at a professional level. No doubt he felt more upset than Speer's account suggests when, after passing his examinations with flying colors, his son expressed the wish to study his favorite subject, mathematics. With that, his father pointed out, he might possibly become a university professor or a teacher, but he would not attain that independence which would meet his personal expectations and social requirements. In the end he persuaded his son to follow the family tradition and study architecture.
Despite his independent judgment, however, Speer's father was also afflicted by the prejudices and the defensive attitudes so widespread among the middle class since the turn of the century. In his Mannheim years Albert Speer had already displayed a disturbing preference for the children of caretakers and for impecunious schoolmates outside his own social circle. At first his parents were dismayed when in 1922 he fell in love with the daughter of a joiner, only slightly younger than himself. Then they became increasingly indignant, although their social superiority over the master joiner Weber was far from great. After all, within a few years he had built up a prosperous enterprise employing some fifty workers. As a Heidelberg town councillor, he was one of the town's leading citizens. The Webers' social rise basically matched that of the Speers a generation earlier. But in keeping with the prejudices of the day, the Speers looked down on the Webers and were never able to forget the gulf between them.
The following year, when the young people announced their decision to get married as soon as possible, not only Speer's parents but, significantly, the Webers also did everything possible to foil this inte...
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