TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 9 July 2011
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.