Hitler's Speer conned them all; 'The Nazi who said sorry'
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 29 March 2016)

Albert Speer was one of the strangest, most elusive politicians of modern times, a flim-flam man so charming that he conned everyone from Adolf Hitler to whole generations of historians and journalists. He emerged from the darkest corner of Nazi Germany with a pile of money and a reputation as an almost decent human being. He was smooth and well spoken. It was said that Speer was the one gentleman among the gangsters who populated the upper reaches of the Third Reich.

As a young architect in his 20s he heard Hitler speak and was so impressed that he signed on with the Nazi Party in 1931, two years before it took power. He designed the spotlight-strewn Nuremberg rallies, where flags the size of sails fluttered in the air as Hitler ranted. Speer's showmanship looked so good in Leni Riefenstahl's film that Hitler appointed Speer his Commissioner for Artistic and Technical Presentation.

That led to the most profitable relationship of his career, friendship with Hitler. In an intense charm offensive, he poured flattery into Hitler's ears, winning a place for himself in the inner circle. From 1942 to 1945 he was munitions minister of the Third Reich, angering his fellow cabinet members by flaunting his status as the leader's favourite.

Hitler said he felt "the warmest human feelings" for Speer. They took private walks often. Sometimes they would pass the time by studying together a book of architectural drawings. Speer's opinion of Hitler's intelligence was not high, but he agreed with every word Hitler spoke. Their friendship having made him untouchable, Speer grew rich through kickbacks from munitions suppliers.

This pattern of mendacity, corruption and self-promotion runs through Martin Kitchen's excellent biography, Albert Speer: Hitler's Architect (Yale University Press). A veteran historian at Simon Fraser University, Kitchen brings to this book an unrelenting appetite for the truth and a piercing style. But Speer was more than a corrupt sycophant manoeuvring upward. He was deeply implicated in the central tragedy of his time, a great nation's fall into racism and genocide. His lies, which continued till his death in 1981, became part of Germany's shame because Germany was so eager to believe them.

First he lied within the German government.

He had a talent for organization, and a parallel talent for public relations. As munitions minister he managed to improve productivity, partly by using slave workers drawn from concentration camps and prison-of-war camps.

The workers were starved and often worked to death, but the result was respect for Speer as a manager. As Kitchen persuasively recounts, Speer encouraged the myth of Speer as industrial miracle worker. His own statisticians kept announcing that the Speer regime had raised production to staggering heights. Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, who knew something about lies, was on to him. "I don't believe Speer any more," he wrote. "He makes up for the missing airplanes and tanks with statistical fairy tales. He makes us all drunk with his figures."

After the war ended, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey questioned Speer for a week. They found him wonderfully co-operative. The charm offensive worked again and members of the committee reported that he was indeed a miracle worker for the Nazis, just as he said. One member said he aroused their sympathy, "of which we were all secretly ashamed."

When he appeared before the Nuremberg war crimes trial, he had to come up with a more complicated story. He testified that he had only a vague idea what happened in the death camps. He simply didn't know about it. From then on, he accepted credit as "the Nazi who said sorry" without saying he had done anything important. Kitchen says that the record shows Speer "not only knew all about the mass murder of the European Jews, but took an active part in it." Building the camps was his department. But he presented himself as "a man who in terrible times had kept his hands clean."

He admitted a limited guilt: He had failed to learn what was really going on during the Holocaust. But he said he knew nothing about killing millions of Jews. He was so brazen that he lectured the assembled judges on the threat technology presented for the future, which could be escaped only by promoting "individual freedom and self-confidence." Educated Germans did not want to accept that someone so sophisticated as Speer could been willing partner in genocide. His lies, Kitchen says, were believed by many who needed to believe. "He provided a thick coating of whitewash to millions of old Nazis," according to Kitchen. They liked knowing that this man, closer to Hitler than anyone else, nevertheless maintained his own integrity. He "provided exculpation for an entire generation."

The Nuremberg judges sentenced him to 20 years in prison, for his use of slave labour -- a modest sentence when you consider that others (including Speer's own deputy) were executed. He spent those two decades in Spandau prison burnishing his alibis and dreaming that he could have designed a building to equal the Parthenon if he had not become armaments minister. He tended a prison garden and made notes for his bestselling autobiography, Inside the Third Reich.

In 1971, a Harvard historian, Erich Goldhagen, wrote that Speer had to have been aware of the death camps. Speer had attended a conference where Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, spoke of "wiping the Jews from the face of the earth." Speer replied that he had indeed gone to the conference but had left before Himmler's speech. Apparently no one told him what was said. Others reported that he was there all the time. Speer spent years insisting, not convincingly, that he was absent.

Like Hitler, Speer saw himself as an artist. A reader of Kitchen's intelligent and bracing book will understand that he was essentially a supreme artist of self-presentation. His public stature was an artifact he cleverly invented, perhaps his only notable creation.

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