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.
on 7 December 2008
This is a very interesting volume, written by someone who, for most of WWII, was second only to Hitler in terms of importance in Nazi Germany. Speer must have been a man of great talent and industry in order to accomplish what he did, even in the last months of the conflict: as well as managing to increase output of munitions to unprecedented levels, as the end closed in, he was also determined to prevent the implementation of the scorched earth policy which would have left post-war Germany in a state of utter annihilation. The fact that the country was able to recover so well and quickly afterwards must, in large part, be down to his efforts.
I found the book engrossing and very easy to read. At the start, it's a bit heavy on architecture, but that's what animated Hitler and Speer in the early days. There is a load of information about many of the main characters in the regime, about the continual back-biting and intriguing. There's not a lot about the fighting, although what little there is is interesting.
After the end, Speer writes about being staggered on hearing the details of the concentration camps. Earlier he wrote that Hanke, a friend and Gauleiter of Upper Silesia, had warned Speer never to visit a camp there because he had "seen something that he was not allowed to describe and indeed could not describe". Rather chilling.
First class read.
on 24 August 2007
Albert Speer's seminal work on life inside the highest echelons of the Third Reich is as historically controversial now as it was when it was released and indeed is still a fascinating read.
In fact largely `ghost written' by Joachim C. Fest who had a not insignificant impact on the style of the prose, Inside The Third Reich is a veritable Goldmine for anecdotal remarks for any student studying the history of Hitler's Germany.
Historical bias aside - there is plenty and the debate is seemingly endless - it is still worth the effort and the reader would probably benefit from having a copy of Sereny's biography to hand to see how Speer's `Mia Culpa's' developed in face of ten years of mixed reception to his work.
Every A' Level Modern History Student should have read at least the first half of this book.
One should also remember once this has been read that confidential personal correspondence written in Speer's own hand was recently sold in an auction for well over £10000, which admitted more explicit knowledge of the crimes. And in light of this, J C Fest had his private note on Speer edited and released, and consequentially greatly revised his conclusion regarding the character of Speer.
on 7 June 2009
Very interesting account of Albert Speer's time at the heart of Hitler's regime. The book gives an interesting insight into how a non-politital and unfanatical person was drawn into the Nazi environment despite his ongoing reservations. Also it portays Hitler in a different light from the usual, ie as a somewhat inept bungler rather than the usual one-dimensional view of him as pureley a megalomaniac. The writing is a bit awkward in spots and at times it can be hard to accept Speer's compliance with what he obviously felt was a criminal government but overall a very good read and highly recommended.
on 11 June 2010
This book give an insight into the man Albert Speer who trained as an architect yet ended up as Hitler's close confident and Minister of Armanents. It was an eye opener, the chaotic organisation of wartime Germany with incompetent officials in charge because they were NAZIs. How these leaders looked after their own high life whilst denying raw materials to the war effort. It was amazing that Germany never fully mobilised its women for industrial work and still allowed production of consumer goods to continue until quite late in the war. Unfortunately for the allies Albert Speer was so efficient in organising the Armanent industry that he doubled and trebled production which obviously did not help us. He has some telling insights about our bombing campaign and how it tied up hundreds of thousands of men and guns defending Germany that could have been used against the allies especially Russia. He also could not understand our lack of follow up attacks against special targets like the Ball Bearing works at Scweinfurt.
It is well worth wading through this very long book to get an Inside view of the Third Reich
This is a truly great book, by a man who was one of Hitler's most intimate associates for the entire duration of one of the most evil regimes in the history of mankind. As a deeply personal memoire, it is also a testament to human dignity that is written in a wonderful and highly literary style. I was utterly rivetted by the story and learned invaluable lessons about Hitler himself, viewed as a human being and not merely the monster that he certainly was.
The book starts with Speer as a young man, deeply frustrated by his lack of career prospects as a fledgling architect. While not necessarily original or brilliant, he was highly disciplined and cultured, from the upper middle class. Thus, you see him drawn to Hitler's magnetism, an inexplicable attraction that proved irresistable to this ambitious youth. As such, I do not believe we should so facilely judge him. He came to believe that Hitler was a great leader, capable of leading the nation to great things from the chaos of the inter-war years. So, he began to associate himself with the party. As a frustrated architect himself, Hitler viewed Speer with unusual and personal favor. And so bgean a remarkable career that ended when Speer was only 40, thus his prime youth.
Slowly, Speer worked his way into Hitler's intimate entourage, spending many hours going over megalomaniacal plans for fascist buildings and even entire city plans. Everything they did had to be bigger than anything ever done, either in Rome or the US, to reflect the "glory" of the regime. This is the first third of the book and in many ways is the most revealing and fascinating. From the start, he was struck at the crudeness of the culture of Hitler's inner circle, as they gathered around him and formed a kind of court to flatter the dictator's vanity and curry favor and power. Speer held himself aloof from much of this, but also found the power and prestige irrestible. He was seduced and in psychological thrall, which essentially lasted until Hitler's death.
What was most surprising to me was how little Hitler and the others actually worked prior to the War: what they spent most of their time doing was projecting their fantasies into the minds of Germans via spectacular architecture, propanganda gestures, and aggressive though bloodless diplomacy. It was a unique combination of mass-media technology and parochial isolation that is impossible to imagine today. To a certain extent, you feel you get to know all of Hitler's entourage, from Goebbels, Goering, and Hess to lesser figures like Eva Brown, Borman and Himmler. The portraits are complex and invaluable.
During this time, Speer claims, he had many intimations of the doom and destruction that were to follow, often from solemn pronouncements by Hitler that his gamble might leave him as one of the great villains of history - if he failed. Speer even developed a theory of how to construct buildings that would decay "well" - to reflect the power of the regime for all ages, as does the Roman Colosseum or Hadrian's dome - in spite of their modern technological requirements for higher maintenance than earlier stone-based monuments.
Then, with the war and his appointment as Armaments Minister, we witness Speer's complete corruption. It is here that he becomes the ultimate technocrat, enabling the regime to carry out its violence and destruction by any means possible, from technological wizardry to slave labor. Most fascinatingly, Speer dissects his own psychology: he chose to ignore his conscience, walling off his mind to the attrocities around him and continuing to believe in Hitler's genius and will as providential and even perhaps divine. He also reveals himself as a naif, believing that the right technical arguments should win the day rather than politics. Speer nonetheless describes himself as a seasoned political in-fighter, often basing his strong position on his access to Hitler; there were times that this endangered him, as when Himmler's doctor may have been attepting to assasinate or at least allow him to grow mortally ill by "misdiagnosis."
Once the war begins to go badly, Speer gets even closer to Hitler with detailed explanations of the working of totalitarian governmental machinery. Starting out with near-dictatorial powers (as the 2nd most powerful man in the regime for a time), Speer witnesses how his dependence on Hitler's approval dooms him to the sidelines as the Nazi party apparatus gains power, in large part to protect Hitler from the seeing realities of the war losses. Moreover, he depicts the limits of Hitler's vision, stuck as it was in his WWI experience and the mediocrity of his technical imagination. Thus, Speer catalogues his increasingly catastrophic decisions, from fundaamental strategic blunders like attacking the USSR to tactical ones, such as his insistence that the first jet aircraft should serve as bombers rather than defensive fighters. This is fascinating political science, showing both the strengths of the regime - Hitler in his amateurishness could surprise enemies with audacious and unorthodox tactics supported by new technologies, hence the Blitzkrieg - to the dangers of over-centralization as Hitler proved unable to delegate even the most mundane details. From efficiency of the Nazi killing machine, you witness its decline into incompetence, with the costs in German lives rising with stupid decisions. Speer also addresses many questions, such as the extent of the regime's pursuit of a nuclear weapon and other high tech secret weapons. It is singularly illuminating.
Speer also chronicles how he began to fight Hitler, particularly after he ordered a scorched earth policy for inside of Germany, which would have destroyed its industrial base. Here Speer acts the hero, attempting to preserve factories and bridges as all order crumbles around them. In a startling transformation of loyalty that Speer cannot completely renounce, he recognises Hitler as a man devoid of human emotion and empathy, a kind of sociopathic murderer like those around him, though Speer exempts himself from these crimes in his deepest heart. This is a story of psychological deterioration and the acceptance of death as the only way out. While he fails to fully explain or comprehend Hitler, perhaps we never will; at any rate, Speer avoids simplitic psychological labels.
Finally, there is the Nuremberg trial, in which Speer claims he was truthful and accepted his guilt. While the reader must remain suspicious of Speer's persona here - it appeared nakedly self-seving to me, yet with an honest voice of remorse - he makes a good case for Germany's new course and the end of the Hitler myth.
All in all, this is one of the best historical memoirs I ever read. Warmly recommended.
on 1 February 2004
Albert Speer knew exactly what was going on in the forced labour camps that first supplied the stone for his building projects and then the arms for him as Munitions Minister. That said he also tried his hardest to stop Hitler's scorched earth policy at the end of the war and was a wholly better man than those around him (but that wasn't exactly hard).
Inside is Speer's attempt to spin himself out of all the negative aspects of his Nazi past. This he does with style and class. If you accept this and realise that a lot of the judgements and some of the facts (especially about the Posen conference) are plain lies then this book gives interesting insights into the mind of one of the few Nazis who knew they were doing wrong.
This book is a fascinating insight into Nazi Germany and its key personalities, written by one of them. It contains the first explanation I have ever read of why intelligent and conciable individuals became caught up in Nazism, and is valuable for that reason alone.
The bulk of the book describes key people and events at first hand, and frequently surprises with a very different view to the common one. For example Hitler is portrayed as a bumbling amateur, but with an amazing personal ability to inspire and lead. The Allies' victory was assured mainly by a catalogue of mistakes by the German leadership, some almost incredible. At the same time, Speer identifies several Allied mistakes which lengthened the war - for example failing to follow through and capitalize on the Dambuster raid, or those targeted at ball bearing production.
Although a long book, it's well-written and easy to read, and I found it difficult to put down. Amazingly, given the writer and subject matter, there are even some humorous overtones. Related stories and incidents are grouped together rather than in a strict chronology - this takes a little getting used to. More disappointing is the absence of any diagrams or maps. Architecture was Speer's key skill and Hitler's abiding interest, and it is frustrating to read a lengthy description of their projects to be told "these plans survive", but not to be shown them.
A reader is likely to end up with some sympathy or even admiration for Speer. His successes as armaments minister early in the War were matched by humanitarian achievements as he led opposition to Hitler's "scorched earth" policies during the War's closing stages.
However, the reader must also consider some questions: History is written not necessarily by the victors, but certainly by the survivors. Is the fact that only the relatively decent Nazis survived to write their memoirs cause, effect, or the writers' own self-advancement?
Similarly, there is little or no mention in the pre-war and mid-war sections of Nazi philosophy and Hitler's own established hatreds - is this Speer trying to prove how little he knew about the war crimes and genocide?
This is an important book, revealing the other side of the Second World War. History may judge Albert Speer to be one of the few "decent" Nazis. His own book cannot do that alone, but it definitely deserves to be read...
A fascinating book for the student of WW2 history or general interest reader
Speer was the so-called 'Good Nazi' who escaped the hangman's noose with a 20 year jail sentence at Nuremberg. History has viewed things rather differently: Speer was notoriously economical with the truth in his memoirs (and subsequent interviews) and though he may not have been directly implicated in the Holocaust (though his claim that he knew little or nothing about it is clearly nonsense) his involvement is slave labour to keep the Nazi war effort functioning is a criticism that he could not shake off.
Nonetheless, if you take even 80% of Speer's 1969 book at face value and as broadly accurate, it is nonetheless a fascinating insight into Hitler and the Nazi war machine, by one of the few top Nazis to survive the War (or not go into hiding). He wrote this book in Spandau prison. During his 20 years in prison (he was released in 1968), he learned to speak English but the original book was published in German first but the English version was published almost immediately to a skeptical international audience. This is a newer translation with some academic footnotes. Speer died in London in 1981. Judge for yourself - whatever your feelings on Speer, this is a very important historical document....
on 20 June 2011
By far, the best autobiographical book to come from World War II. Albert Speer was Hitler's architect, personal friend, and from 1942 on, a key part of Germany's war effort, as minister of armaments. After World War II, he was tried at Nuremberg, being one of the few of the accused to make a semi apology for having served in the Third Reich. He was sentenced to 20 years in jail, mainly because of the use of slave labor from the East in the building of armaments. He served every day of his sentence, being released only in October 1966. In 1969 he published his acclaimed, best selling memoirs, which appeared in English in 1970 as "Inside the Third Reich". The title of this long but extremely interesting volume is fitting, since in the book he gives many intimate, tantalizing details into the workings of the Nazi dictatorship. He gives very interesting portraits of the main leaders, Hitler, of course, but also of Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann, Doenitz, Keitel and even Eva Braun.
Speer came from an intellectual, upper middle class family, which was in contrast (as he is quite keen to note) with the working class, sparsely educated background of much of the Third Reich hierarchy. Speer, who writes very well, comes off this book as an intelligent, cultivated and hard working bureaucrat, but also a bit of an opportunist, and with an obvious lack of moral anchor.
The book starts with his childhood, but the early years are dispended rapidly. Soon, we are in 1930, the young Speer already an assistant professor of architecture, is impressed when Hitler comes to his university to make a speech (he came in a blue suit and tie instead of in military fatigues, and his speech was calm and professorial instead of rambling). He decides to join the party, and through his work as an architect to various Nazi party members, starts making contacts within the party. Eventually, he comes to known Hitler personally in 1933, soon after being named chancellor, when he is asked to do some designing work for the Fuhrer. Hitler soon is enchanted with Speer and makes him a part of his inner circle. Perhaps, as Speer himself speculates, Hitler, a frustrated architect in his youth, sees Speer as a bit of an alter ego, the kind of person he would have wished at one time to become. In the following years, Hitler made him design great urban projects, including the monumental redesigning of Berlin as Germania, the imperial capital of the Reich (most of these projects never came to light because of the war).
More or less accidentally, after the previous minister of armaments died in a mysterious plane crash, Hitler named Speer, who happened to be in his headquarters at that time, his successor (Goering rushed to see Hitler to get the vacant post, but to no avail). In his new post, Speer is quite successful in boosting armaments production, mainly by ways of centralizing decision making. However, he is soon the target of intrigues and nasty backstabbing from other Nazi leaders: from 1943 on, Bormann in alliance with Himmler and Goebbels try hard to convince Hitler of firing him. If we are to believe Speer, Himmler even tried to kill him by assigning to him a quack SS doctor, who made a relatively minor illness he had a serious one. The book ends with Germany's defeat, his sentence in Nuremberg, and the start of his long sentence in Spandau prison (a later memoir would cover his years of imprisonment).
While the book is very informative, I think the reader should be careful in not believing everything Speer says. Did Speer really try to kill Hitler late in the war by throwing nerve gas into the ventilation system of the Reich chancellery? Did in their last meeting Speer really confessed to a tearful Hitler that he has sabotaged his scorched earth decree? More importantly, did he really not know about the Final Solution until after the war has ended? This last point is very important and controversial. In this memoir, Speer denies knowing anything about the Holocaust until after the war. However, after the book came out, it was discovered that Speer attended the so called Posen speech, where Himmler, in analyzing the war situation, admitted in passing to the high dignitaries attending that the final solution involving killing the Jews (after this revelation came about, Speer argued, unconvincingly, that he left the speech before Himmler made this comment). It is important to note in criticizing Speer, though, that he didn't exactly come off lightly of World War II: after all, he got 20 years in jail, for God's sake. Summing up, a very interesting and very well written book, but to be read with a certain degree of skepticism.