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I met Albert Speer
on 31 October 2011
I met Albert Speer...And this was book that made me want to meet him - this and "Spandau - The Secret Diaries".
Just after Christmas in 1979 I went to see Speer at his Heidelberg home in West Germany. I had gone to interview him for BBC radio. The trip was carried out in secret. Only a couple of BBC managers, who approved the enterprise, knew what I was doing. And I told no-one until the programmes were broadcast. I went alone - no companions, or production team - just me and Speer alone in his Heidelberg study with a tape recorder running. I met him four times, recording long interviews for six half-hour programmes called "The Hitler Years". You can hear extracts on the BBC website.
So why did "Inside the Third Reich" make such an impression and make me want to meet its author? Because the book changed the way I thought about Hitler. It was the first I'd read that made Hitler seem a plausible human being. Some people say this is wrong. They argue anything that humanises Hitler is improper. He was a monster. All that matters are his crimes.
The trouble with this argument is that it makes Hitler impossible to understand - just a raving lunatic who gormless Germans - not intelligent people like us! - mindlessly followed. But Hitler was more subtle and intelligent than people allow - an evil genius with a surprising amount of twisted knowledge, well read and an extensive interest in the arts. His only weapons to begin with were his voice - he was highly articulate and persuasive - and a superhuman will-power. Hitler claimed he was the greatest actor in Europe. One of his adjutants said even in private it was impossible to tell when he was acting, or sincere. The performance was flawless. He was very convincing.
Speer was aware of the problems after the war while languishing in Spandau jail. There he spent 20 years in prison for crimes against humanity. On 10 February 1947 he wrote in his diary, 'I get the impression that people are increasingly representing Hitler as a dictator given to raging uncontrollably and biting the rug even on the slightest pretexts. This seems to me a false and dangerous course. If the human features are going to be missing from the portrait of Hitler, if his persuasiveness, his engaging characteristics, and even the Austrian charm he could trot out are left out of the reckoning, no faithful picture of his will be achieved.'
He has a point. Decades later a British Member of Parliament, who was also a university lecturer, said to me, 'Hitler was mad.' And that's a common held view. Hitler was insane. But that's not the view of Albert Speer, or Hitler's doctors. Hitler was a hypochondriac. He had a number of doctors. None thought he was even mentally ill, let alone insane. Admittedly, Hitler had terrible rages and an increasing number of mental breakdowns towards the end of his life as his world collapsed around him. But none of his staff thought he was mad. His valet, Heize Linge, who knew him intimately in private, addressed the problem in his memoirs and said Hitler was sane. He, and everybody around him, saw Hitler as a 'genius', but a genius who had a different - we would say perverse and evil - view of the world. This is what makes Hitler so difficult to understand. Of all the villainous leaders down the centuries Hitler is one of the most difficult to fathom. He's a psychological conundrum. That's one reason so many books are written about him. People are trying to solve the puzzle - what was this man really like? Speer helps solve the problem and takes us inside the terrible mind of the dictator. Hitler, he told me, was a stange mixture of the normal and demoniacal.
Anti-Semitism may have been a driving force in Hitler's life, but initially he seemed to offer the German people much more - a glittering future. No more unemployment - stability, order. He would crackdown on Communists and introduce a Socialist-style state open to talent with no class divisions. Anyone, it seemed, could rise to the top (unless you were Jewish, gay, Slav, black, Asian etc). He was going to tear up the hated Treaty of Versailles and restore Germany's dignity and honour. There were wonderful ceremonies, designer uniforms, the Olympic games - a life of endless events and fun. A heady mix! Speer, like so many Germans, was carried away with the excitement and the architectural opportunities Hitler gave him.
Authors are sometimes different from the image they project in their books. So what was Speer like? The Albert Speer I met and spent hours talking to was exactly like the man in his books.
But how honest was Speer? Speer was honest where you'd expect him to be, and dishonest where you'd expect him to be. So don't expect the whole truth on slave labour, the persecution of the Jews, or the Holocaust. He would have ended up on the gallows if he'd revealed all. But Speer was good on the atmosphere round Hitler. He was good on the dictator and his Court, the feel of Nazi Germany, architecture, strategy and armaments. Here he provides real insights and makes a valuable contribution to history and our understanding of the Third Reich. Hugh Trevor-Roper used him as a major source for his book "The Last Days of Hitler".
'Did you like Albert Speer?' a Jewish friend once asked me. '"Like," is the wrong word,' I replied. 'Speer was amiable and easy to work with when I was interviewing him - more so than some of the people I've worked with in the BBC, Fleet Street and publishing, let alone my own father - a notably tricky character. There was none of the old arrogance people complained about when he was in power. He was modest, relaxed and had a good, if disconcerting, sense of humour.
But villains often appear quite normal. On the surface they're like us - not blood-drenched like characters in a Hammer horror film. Many of the senior Nazis had a good education. There was nothing in Himmler's background that suggested he would become one of the most horrifying and reviled men of all time. His daughter adored her kind, gentle, smiling, papa.
Yet you still hear people asking, 'Do you think there could ever be another Hitler?' as if the Nazi dictator were a one off. In truth he was a spectacular example of a type of leader who is always with us. Chairman Mao slaughtered even more people than Hitler - 70 million people. He was the greatest genocidal murderer in history, though for some reason people blame him less.
Speer's book should be read in conjunction with his "Spandau - The Secret Diaries" and Frederic Spotts's remarkable work "Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics" (which I've also reviewed here on Amazon). There the author argues Hitler's interest in the arts was as intense as his racism. It affected the way he behaved and ruled and explains why intelligent people such as Speer fell under his spell. Like Speer's books it will change the way you look at the Nazi dictator and make him more understandable.
At the end of my interviews with Speer a curious incident occurred. While we were waiting for my taxi to arrive and take me back to my hotel we sat back and relaxed. To fill in gap in the conversation I casually asked him a question. If he could live his life over again which would he prefer to be - a nonentity with and easy conscience, or somebody famous who was troubled by what he'd done? The reply seemed obvious and I never bothered to ask the question during our interviews. Speer's answer was startling. 'I would prefer to be famous,' he replied.
Strangely enough no-one, not even Gitta Sereny in her exhaustive 700-page book, picked this up even though it's been in the public domain since 1980. Anthony Howard, who then edited the BBC magazine called "The Listener", published it in the magazine along with extended extracts from the interviews.
I think it was a moment of revelation.