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SpeerFinalVerdictAlbert Speer’s career is a microcosm of the decent (but philosophically agnostic) citizen living in an indecent (and ideologically fanatical) society. Speer served as Hitler’s chief architect, and during the Second World War was Germany’s minister of armaments. As such, Speer was a leading technocrat in a totalitarian state. While 21st century America is a far cry from the death camp regime, totalitarian aspirations are no longer a fringe phenomenon. Ideological despots are increasingly mainstream, and many individuals in power are bent on controlling the “totality” of national life. Their politicized morality is opposed to traditional beliefs, and it is growing more brazen and assertive. So if we are to avoid the desperate choices that faced people like Speer, we should be aware of these trends before they become “inevitable,” as they did during Hitler’s seizure of power.

Albert Speer (1905-1981) has been an object of controversy since he issued his best-selling memoirs in 1969. The chief accusation against this suave, intelligent and respectable man–who stood apart from the corrupt and thuggish Nazi inner circle–is that he was an accomplished opportunist who deliberately blinded himself to the dark side of Hitler’s genius. Certainly this was true of much of his career. But, as the late Joachim Fest pointed out, Speer opposed Hitler’s inhuman last-ditch scorched-earth policies at personal risk. Likewise after the war it would have easy for him to avoid the lingering and often fractious controversy over German guilt. But he chose not to.

In Speer: The Final Verdict Fest offers a realistic assessment of the former minister and the regime he served. Fest does not simplify historical issues. He points out that “even those who were worried” about Nazism in its pre-war phase thought it comparable to contemporary authoritarian governments, which were obnoxious but not murderous. Indeed, as Hitler biographer Eugene Davidson noted, in the early days of the regime some nationalistic Jews lobbied the Nazis for party membership while hoping that anti-Semitic measures could be dropped. Few Germans, says Fest, “could imagine how far the regime would go in depriving people of their rights, persecuting them, and committing mass crimes.” Fest sums up the attitude of Speer and his contemporaries: “Except for a vague and overwrought sense of patriotism… the program of the regime meant nothing to him at all. He really did not have a ‘crippled psyche,’ and like most people he viewed National Socialism as a matter less of conviction than of uplifting emotions.” The problem is that ideological systems lack safeguards that might restrain those emotions in favor of prudence and reflection. They give wide scope to hysteria  and violence.

These moral dilemmas are not unique to fascism. They exist under Marxist governments and even in ostensibly free countries that pursue increasingly unethical social policies. That is not to say that the ratio of opposition, apathy and collaboration is the same in all nations and at all times. Germany from 1933-45 let itself be seduced by one of the worst tyrants in history. Yet no country is immune to folly. In that respect it is important to have a chronicler who avoids smug judgments. Fest presents Speer as a man who was flawed, but not abnormally so. He had mixed motives (as we all do), yet was probably sincere in his repentance, doing more to make up for his crimes, morally and financially, than many other political offenders. Whatever his shortcomings, Speer’s detailing of the totalitarian temptation remains highly instructive.

Inside the Third Reich is perhaps the most important first-person narrative on Nazism, while Speer’s final work, Infiltration: How Heinrich Himmler Schemed to Build an SS Industrial Empire (1981), offers some further insights into the dilemmas of totalitarian power. While it is more technical than his memoirs, this economic history adds to our picture of political seduction in the name of personal ambition or convenience. As Speer explains

The aim of this book is not to defend my own work by saying: We were not so bad; the SS was the villain. After all, this was one system, and we all belonged to it. From the standpoint of responsibility, it makes no difference whether the individuals in power disliked one another. Hence, it would be wrong to present the SS as the sole embodiment of evil. Certainly, I was one of those co-workers of Hitler’s who are called “technocrats” today.

Another point that Speer carefully documents is the waste and corruption of state-run industry. This, perhaps more than any other factor, undermined Hitler’s long-term war effort. It is the innate incompetence of utopianism that gives one hope even today. Nevertheless, such ineptitude must take a terrible toll. Apart from lunatic racist policies, Speer does a good job of demonstrating that government controlled production (previously attempted, without success, by Germany in World War I) had a poor track record. It is also true that whenever the centralized dictatorship was sidestepped by non-Nazi business leaders–even for purely pragmatic reasons–lives were saved. Economic and social structures operating independently of the state are indispensable restraints on tyranny.

One of the more prominent rogues in Speer’s book is Otto Ohlendorf. The SS general frequently condemned Speer’s dependence on capitalism, while extolling the bucolic virtues of pre-industrial artisanship and local identity. But it is worth noting that before taking up his job as a Nazi economic advisor, Ohlendorf commanded one of the infamous Einsatzgruppen (execution squads) that murdered 90,000 people in Russia. Clearly this is the same sort of Rousseauian sentimentality that fueled the butchery of the Robespierre and Lenin.

Speer provides another telling vignette. In the last weeks of the war, as the surviving Nazi leadership cowered in the isolated Berlin bunker, Adolf Hitler devoted much of his time to rambling monologues:

When I realize that the species is in danger, then ice-cold reason takes the place of feeling: I see only the sacrifices demanded by the future if a sacrifice is not made today….We will absorb or drive away a ridiculous hundred million Slavs. If anyone speaks of taking care of them, he’ll have to be put in a concentration camp right away.

The Nazi plan was to resettle 20 million Germans in the eastern territories, which meant exterminating or enslaving the indigenous inhabitants. Hitler felt driven to this eugenic “necessity” for much the same reason that people today urge eliminating the unborn, the unfit or the elderly. They speak in Nazi-like terms of making “hard decisions.” The irony is that these are actually easy decisions for the ethically weak. The truly hard decision is enduring the difficulties, sacrifices and uncertainties of human imperfection.

You cannot make agreeable feelings the basis of an ethical system. According to Speer, the Fuhrer was undoubtedly capable of much superficial benevolence. He liked animals and children, so long as they were sufficiently subservient and made no demands of him. “I love people so much!” he would say. “I wouldn’t want to see anyone suffering or to hurt anyone….Beauty should have power over people….I never enjoyed maltreating others, even though I realize that it is impossible to assert oneself without violence….”

Speer remains relevant. With the passage of years I find the unsettling psychological atmosphere of his reminiscences are no longer so remote and quaintly curious. Today I am struck by the tone of contemporary public opinion and its parallels with the desperation and fanaticism of Weimar Germany on the eve of the Nazi takeover.

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8 replies to this post
  1. Mr. Anger: There is no doubt that cautionary lessons can be drawn from the experience of 1930’s Germany, though not everyone draws the same lessons. In any case, I wonder if you could specify who or what you had in mind when you wrote “totalitarian aspirations are no longer a fringe phenomenon. Ideological despots are increasingly mainstream, and many individuals in power are bent on controlling the “totality” of national life.” I follow the news quite closely and am unaware of any such “despots” with “totalitarian aspirations” on the national scene–what have I missed?

    Also: when you link Otto Ohlendorf’s criticisms of capitalism to his butchery of 90,000 and conclude “this is the same sort of Rousseauian sentimentality that fueled the butchery of the Robespierre and Lenin,” you’re not suggesting (I hope) that all critics of capitalism and all advocates of “artisanship and local identity” are equally inclined toward such butchery?

    • Mr. Shifflett — re: Ohlendorf, I gave that example simply to provide a contrast, or highlight a paradox (within limited space). Even today one finds some people urging us to “buy local” and who condemn the big box stores who are sorely compromised on serious issues and are inconsistent, for ex., in their support of big gov’t. I don’t deny the appeal of many “anti-capitalist” criticisms, but also (as a former Distributist), it seems that some attacks on the market are based on poor data or faulty interpretation. No epoch was idyllic; there are always trade-offs; smaller is sometimes better and frankly, based on my experience, sometimes not. Honest greed is better than dishonest greed or pride (disguised as idealism). Beyond that, I certainly don’t condemn any economic position that is fair and realistic. In our circles it is presumably the case that we seek similar ends by different means. Best wishes….

      • Mr. Anger: thanks for your response. I’ll concede your point that “Honest greed is better than dishonest greed,” and I’ll grant that capitalism possesses that “virtue” if nothing else; I just hope those aren’t our only options. And certainly you’re correct that “No epoch was idyllic; there are always trade-offs; smaller is sometimes better and frankly…sometimes not.” I assume that latter point applies to government as well, which is why I distrust ideology and pat answers from either the left or the right; I tend to favor a sort of prudential and pragmatic calculus, as opposed to imposing First Principles onto every situation.

      • Greed is, by its very nature, NEVER honest. This is true of any vice. When the Clinton’s defenders claimed that “everyone lies about sex,” they were really making the connection between the sin of lust and the sin of lying. One sin, even a “little” one like eating a forbidden apple, can lead to any other sin.

        If even the DEFENDERS of a system admit that it is based on any of the Seven Deadly Sins and requires that sin to work, it’s time to look for another solution.

        • Howard: “If even the DEFENDERS of a system admit that it is based on any of the Seven Deadly Sins and requires that sin to work, it’s time to look for another solution.”

          Thank you for making that point.

  2. “While 21st century America is a far cry from the death camp regime ….” That remains to be seen. There’s still a lot of time left in the 21st century. You may or may not remember how certain everyone was that EITHER the Soviet Union would endure for centuries OR would confront us in a massive nuclear exchange; NO ONE expected them to quietly and peacefully go out of business, let alone to do so with so little warning. There was no hint of it 5 years beforehand. That’s the most prominent example from my lifetime, but a brief glance at history shows that change is often as fast, violent, and “unexpected” as an avalanche. The snow may not be sliding yet, but it is alarming how deep it has gotten on these hills.

  3. Jack and Howard. All good points. I am entirely with Jack in distrusting ideology, regardless of its source. Unfortunately, a short essay can’t always take in every nuance. So thanks for the clarifications!

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