Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth
By Gitta Sereny
Alfred A. Knopf
757 pages, $35.
Soon after Albert Speer began serving a 20-year sentence for war crimes, he made a soul-searching request to the chaplain at Spandau prison. “Would you help me become a different man?” Hitler’s former architect and armaments minister asked George Casalis, a Protestant cleric who fought against the Nazis in the French Resistance. The chaplain did his best to comply. Eventually he concluded that Speer was “the most guilt-ridden, the most tortured man I have ever known. By the time I left Spandau,” Mr. Casalis told writer Gitta Sereny, “I saw him as the most repentant.”
Following his release in 1966, Speer repeatedly accepted a general responsibility for Nazi atrocities and spoke of being haunted by the Holocaust. But he steadfastly refused to admit he had known Jews were being killed while he served his F’hrer, just as he denied awareness of the horrendous maltreatment of millions of slave laborers under his own control.
That such a high-ranking official was uninformed about the fate of European Jewry seemed incredible. So despite Speer’s avowed contrition, a number of critics condemned his best-selling memoirs, “Inside the Third Reich” (1970) and “Spandau: The Secret Diaries” (1976), as laundered and self-serving accounts. In “Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth,” Ms. Sereny concurs that Speer sought to avoid facing the magnitude of his evil role. Yet she persuasively argues that “it is too easy to accuse Speer simply of lying….The truth, of course, is that lies are not necessarily simple, nor are the motivations which bring them about.”
The author, who spent more than a decade researching Speer’s life and crimes, came to share the Spandau chaplain’s assessment that Speer genuinely sought to become a better man. In her book she has made a judicious, exhaustively detailed attempt to understand why highly talented individuals like Speer threw their lot in with Hitler and how they managed to live with themselves afterward. But by no means does she aim to alleviate the burden of his guilt. Unfettered ambition prodded Speer to ecstatically enter Hitler’s service, she writes, adding that what she calls a missing emotional dimension and an instinctive anti-Semitism furthered his willingness to blind himself to murder.
If anything, Ms. Sereny probes Speer’s culpability with more rigor than it received at the Nuremberg trials. In extensive interviews with him three years before he died in 1981, she was able to coax out admissions that probably would have led to his execution rather than imprisonment had they been made before the court. “Of course I was perfectly aware that he had sought world domination,” the set designer of the Third Reich told her about the Nazi dictator. “That was the whole point of my buildings….All I wanted was for this great man to dominate the globe.” Speer had not always been so candid. It took weeks of persistent questioning by Ms. Sereny before he wearily conceded to her that, yes, he had “sensed…that dreadful things were happening with the Jews.” She replied, “If you sensed, then you knew. You cannot sense or suspect into a void. You knew.”
The author, a British-based journalist who witnessed the Nazi degradation of Jews in the streets of Vienna, first glimpsed Speer when she attended the Nuremberg trials as a youthful spectator. She went on to write widely about Nazism, and her latest book originated as a 1978 profile of Speer for the London Sunday Times Magazine. Heirs of both Speer and his former colleagues subsequently gave her access to hundreds of letters the former minister wrote from Spandau and the original drafts of his books, scribbled on toilet paper and smuggled out of the Berlin prison.
Ms. Sereny describes “drowning in documentation from his archive” and having been at pains to turn it all into a book. Her sometimes rambling narrative bears traces of this struggle, but the persistent reader is well-rewarded. Weighing Speer’s letters and drafts against his books and public statements, along with dozens of interviews with family, friends and surviving members of Hitler’s inner circle, Ms. Sereny shows how Speer at times tailored history to suit his needs. She also probes Speer’s complex personality and motives with greater breadth and balance than others before her. These include German historian Matthias Schmidt, whose 1982 book “Albert Speer: The End of a Myth” disclosed that Speer’s publishers prodded him to add paragraphs about Kristallnacht to his memoirs; otherwise he would have avoided mention of his indifference to the pogrom.
In 1971, a year after “Inside the Third Reich” appeared in English, Speer’s claim not to have known about the murders of the Jews came under heavy fire from a Harvard historian, Erich Goldhagen. He wrote in Midstream magazine that Speer was personally addressed by the chief of the S.S., Heinrich Himmler, in an October 1943 speech to a conference at Posen (now Poznan), in Poland, informing Nazi Gauleiter of the Final Solution. The Midstream piece spurred Speer into a frenzied search for evidence that he had left the conference before Himmler began speaking. But Ms. Sereny says that he was “trying desperately to avoid facing the truth. There is simply no way Speer can have failed to know about Himmler’s speech, whether or not he actually sat through it.”
Until Posen, she says that Speer had managed to compartmentalize his knowledge, looking away from what he preferred not to see. But Himmler’s remarks put an end to this and led to a turning point in Speer’s relationship with Hitler. It deteriorated further following Speer’s December 1943 visit to a secret rocket factory where he came face to face with skeletal slave laborers. A month later, Speer required hospitalization when he collapsed from exhaustion and, Ms. Sereny argues, a wish to die because he made an inner admission about Nazism’s reality. But Speer bounced back. Though he later countermanded Hitler’s orders to destroy civilian infrastructure at the war’s end and even dreamed of killing the dictator, he was never able to break entirely with the Führer as long as he was alive.
Once the Allies had won the war, Speer likened his emotional attachment to Hitler to Faust’s fatal bargain with Mephistopheles and said he faced great anguish over the Nazi effort to annihilate the Jews. “I awake with it, spend my day with it, go to sleep with it and dream it,” he told the author. She reports that he donated a portion of his book proceeds to charities assisting Holocaust survivors, and after his release from Spandau sought solace in meetings with an iconoclastic German Jewish rabbi who endured Buchenwald. Speer also retreated one or two times a year to a Benedictine monastery. “The ambivalence between his moral necessity to confront the long-repressed guilt of his terrible knowledge and his desperate need to deny — or `block’ — it was the great dilemma of his life,” she writes.
But blocking out the past proved no long-term solution. A few years before his death, Speer belatedly admitted involvement in the murder of European Jewry in an affidavit he provided to South Africa’s Jewish community for legal use against Holocaust deniers. “To this day I still consider my main guilt to be my tacit acceptance of the persecution and the murder of millions of Jews,” he wrote.
Speer’s torturous path to this 11th-hour acknowledgment, Ms. Sereny suggests, stemmed from a condition described by a Dutch Protestant theologian, W.A. Visser’t Hooft. “People cannot find a place in their consciousness,” he said, “or finally have the courage to face (or allow themselves to remember) unimaginable horror. It is possible to live in a twilight between knowing and not knowing.” By illuminating Speer’s own nebulous realm of moral consciousness, Ms. Sereny adds to our understanding of how unimaginable horror became reality.