Vancouver Sun

Hitler’s UNTOUCHABL­E architect

- ROBERT FULFORD National Post

Albert Speer was one of the strangest, most elusive politician­s of modern times, a flim-flam man so charming that he conned everyone from Adolf Hitler to whole generation­s of historians and journalist­s. He emerged from the darkest corner of Nazi Germany with a pile of money and a reputation as an almost decent human being. He was smooth and well spoken. It was said that Speer was the one gentleman among the gangsters who populated the upper reaches of the Third Reich.

As a young architect in his 20s he heard Hitler speak and was so impressed that he signed on with the Nazi Party in 1931, two years before it took power. He designed the spotlight-strewn Nuremberg rallies, where flags the size of sails fluttered in the air as Hitler ranted. Speer’s showmanshi­p looked so good in Leni Riefenstah­l’s film that Hitler appointed Speer his Commission­er for Artistic and Technical Presentati­on.

That led to the most profitable relationsh­ip of his career, friendship with Hitler. In an intense charm offensive, he poured flattery into Hitler’s ears, winning a place for himself in the inner circle. From 1942 to 1945 he was munitions minister of the Third Reich, angering his fellow cabinet members by flaunting his status as the leader’s favourite.

Hitler said he felt “the warmest human feelings” for Speer. They took private walks often. Sometimes they would pass the time by studying together a book of architectu­ral drawings. Speer’s opinion of Hitler’s intelligen­ce was not high, but he agreed with every word Hitler spoke. Their friendship having made him untouchabl­e, Speer grew rich through kickbacks from munitions suppliers.

This pattern of mendacity, corruption and self-promotion runs through Martin Kitchen’s excellent biography, Albert Speer: Hitler’s Architect (Yale University Press). A veteran historian at Simon Fraser University, Kitchen brings to this book an unrelentin­g appetite for the truth and a piercing style. But Speer was more than a corrupt sycophant manoeuvrin­g upward. He was deeply implicated in the central tragedy of his time, a great nation’s fall into racism and genocide. His lies, which continued till his death in 1981, became part of Germany’s shame because Germany was so eager to believe them.

First he lied within the German government. He had a talent for organizati­on, and a parallel talent for public relations. As munitions minister he managed to improve productivi­ty, partly by using slave workers drawn from concentrat­ion camps and prison-of-war camps. The workers were starved and often worked to death, but the result was respect for Speer as a manager.

As Kitchen persuasive­ly recounts, Speer encouraged the myth of Speer as industrial miracle worker. His own statistici­ans kept announcing that the Speer regime had raised production to staggering heights.

Joseph Goebbels, the minister of propaganda, who knew some- thing about lies, was on to him. “I don’t believe Speer any more,” he wrote. “He makes up for the missing airplanes and tanks with statistica­l fairy tales. He makes us all drunk with his figures.”

After the war ended, the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey questioned Speer for a week. They found him wonderfull­y co-operative. The charm offensive worked again and members of the committee reported that he was indeed a miracle worker for the Nazis, just as he said. One member said he aroused their sympathy, “of which we were all secretly ashamed.”

When he appeared before the Nuremberg war crimes trial, he had to come up with a more complicate­d story. He testified that he had only a vague idea what happened in the death camps. He simply didn’t know about it. From then on, he accepted credit as “the Nazi who said sorry” without saying he had done anything important. Kitchen says that the record shows Speer “not only knew all about the mass murder of the European Jews, but took an active part in it.” Building the camps was his department. But he presented himself as “a man who in terrible times had kept his hands clean.”

He admitted a limited guilt: He had failed to learn what was really going on during the Holocaust. But he said he knew nothing about killing millions of Jews. He was so brazen that he lectured the assembled judges on the threat technology presented for the future, which could be escaped only by promoting “individual freedom and self-confidence.”

Educated Germans did not want to accept that someone so sophistica­ted as Speer could have been a willing partner in geno- cide. His lies, Kitchen says, were believed by many who needed to believe. “He provided a thick coating of whitewash to millions of old Nazis,” according to Kitchen. They liked knowing that this man, closer to Hitler than anyone else, neverthele­ss maintained his own integrity. He “provided exculpatio­n for an entire generation.”

The Nuremberg judges sentenced him to 20 years in prison, for his use of slave labour — a modest sentence when you consider that others (including Speer’s own deputy) were executed. He spent those two decades in Spandau prison burnishing his alibis and dreaming that he could have designed a building to equal the Parthenon if he had not become armaments minister. He tended a prison garden and made notes for his best-selling autobiogra­phy, Inside the Third Reich.

In 1971, a Harvard historian, Erich Goldhagen, wrote that Speer had to have been aware of the death camps. Speer had attended a conference where Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, spoke of “wiping the Jews from the face of the earth.” Speer replied that he had indeed gone to the conference but had left before Himmler’s speech. Apparently no one told him what was said. Others reported that he was there all the time. Speer spent years insisting, not convincing­ly, that he was absent.

Like Hitler, Speer saw himself as an artist. A reader of Kitchen’s intelligen­t and bracing book will understand that he was essentiall­y a supreme artist of self-presentati­on. His public stature was an artifact he cleverly invented, perhaps his only notable creation.


 ??  ?? Adolf Hitler with architect Albert Speer, left, in Paris in 1940. Speer, who didn’t think much of Hitler’s intelligen­ce,
poured flattery into the Fuehrer’s ear and won a place for himself in the inner circle.
Adolf Hitler with architect Albert Speer, left, in Paris in 1940. Speer, who didn’t think much of Hitler’s intelligen­ce, poured flattery into the Fuehrer’s ear and won a place for himself in the inner circle.
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