Albert 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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