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THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH

The final verdict on Albert Speer, considered by many and himself, to be the second man in the Nazi state, may have been delivered by Hugh Trevor-Roper in The Last Days of Hitler. Trevor-Roper described Speer as a moral cripple. There exist no reasons for revising that description. Late in life when Speer was asked, Joachim Fest informs us, whether he would have behaved differently had he known all that he knew about Hitler, he replied, “I don’t think so.” This confirms Trevor-Roper’s judgment.

Despite his closeness to Hitler and the influence he wielded, Speer was remarkably low-keyed. He shot into prominence during the Nuremberg trials. He was the armaments minister and economic czar during the war. During the trial, he accepted collective responsibility for the actions of the Nazi regime but steadfastly denied his involvement in any specific crime. His conduct in Nuremberg and his subsequent writings during his imprisonment aroused interest in him. But there has been no proper biography. Fest’s book fills the gap.

Fest is admirably well-equipped for the task. He is, of course, the author of an extraordinarily good biography of Hitler. But more relevant is the fact that he worked with Speer when the latter was writing Inside the Third Reich and Spandau: The Secret Diaries. He had very detailed conversations with Speer and kept notes of them. These now serve as sources for the biography apart from other sources over which Fest has a complete mastery.

This could not have been an easy book to write. Most biographers choose as their subject a personality with whom they can sympathize. This is not possible in the case of a Nazi, especially as disingenuous a Nazi as Speer. But Fest walks the tightrope with great skill and takes pains to underline the contradictions in Speer’s life.

Speer’s rise in the Nazi hierarchy was meteoric and it was completely dependent on the unique favour he enjoyed with the Führer. The personality of the latter and its impact completely transformed Speer’s life. And his refrain during his interrogation was that his interlocutors could not comprehend the charisma of Hitler. This charisma blinded Speer who, unlike other Nazi leaders, was not without intelligence and sensitivity. But he could claim that on November 10, 1938 — the night after kristallnacht, the nation-wide pogrom against the Jews — he drove to office past the smouldering wreckage of the Berlin Central Synagogue, and he did not notice anything. In Spandau, when he was told that this was impossible, he admitted, as an afterthought that “he no longer understood the person he had been then”.

As the war progressed, Speer came to realize the insanity that gripped Hitler. He was especially opposed to Hitler’s scorched-earth policy and was shocked to hear his leader declare in 1944 that “if the German people were defeated..[they were] destined for destruction.” The loyal protégé could not accept this identification of the German people with the life of the leader. Speer moved against Hitler by countermanding his orders and other forms of sabotage. Speer even briefly toyed with the idea of assassinating Hitler by introducing poison gas into the air-conditioning system of the Reich chancellery. Yet, he considered Hitler to be the legitimate head of the state and made a show of his loyalty to Hitler, a gesture that brought tears to the eyes of his Führer.

Speer can be seen as the archetype of the technocrat who blindly lends his services to a regime without caring about ideology. He can also be seen as an opportunist who climbed on the Nazi bandwagon to maximize his own position. The opportunism was marked in the way he handled himself at Nuremberg to avoid the death penalty. The rest of his life he spent trying to account for his actions. Even here, as Gita Sereny’s masterly Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth showed, he was not above dissembling. Truth with Speer has more than its usual elusiveness.

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