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Balanced and perceptive account of a difficult subject
on 20 October 2009
Albert Speer was Hitler's architect during the 30's and Minister for Armaments during the Second World War, and after the war he was the only high-ranking Nazi to apologize and to renounce National Socialism. He was tried at Nuremberg, where he expressed contrition but always maintained that he himself was unaware of the genocide perpetrated by his party. He pleaded guilty to using slave labour in his arms factories and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. It was probably only his cooperative attitude, contrasting with most of his co-accused, that saved him from the death penalty. The British Chief Prosecutor Lord Shawcross later said:
My own view is one of great surprise that Speer was so leniently dealt with, and I still think it wrong that his subordinate Sauckel, who worked under his instructions, was sentenced to death while Speer escaped.
After his release, Speer wrote several bestselling books on the Nazis and often appeared on TV and in the print media, apologizing for the Nazi regime but always denying knowledge of the "final solution". Many applauded his bravery for attempting to confront the horrors of that time but others doubted his sincerity, claiming he must have known. In this book, Sereny weighs up the evidence. An important piece of evidence was uncovered in the early 70's, which indicated that Speer was present at a conference when Himmler spoke explicitly of "extermination" of the Jews. Speer claimed to have left the conference before that speech, but Sereny suggests this is untrue.
Speer was a very complex and interesting character, and this book is a very detailed portrait of him. Though his remorse was undoubtedly genuine, there was always a self-serving element to his character. It was this that enabled him to ignore what was happening around him in 1930's Germany. He seems to have had no sense of personal morality at this point, blithely accepting National Socialist doctrine as gospel. Had he been born in another country he would undoubtedly have been a valuable and upstanding member of the society, as a man of intelligence and uncommon organizational skills. But to play by the rules in Hitler's Germany meant to facilitate crimes against humanity. Later he developed a conscience about this, but too late, and even then, it seems, he was not quite able to admit the full extent of his complicity to others, or probably even to himself.
This book is well-written, well-researched, and non-judgemental, which is important when dealing with a character as ambiguous as Speer. It is based on many long conversations with Speer himself, and many others close to him. It gets to the very depths of its subject, and also serves to demonstrate how Nazism came to seem acceptable, and even necessary, to many intelligent, rational and responsible people in 1930's Germany. Truly fascinating.