Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth. – book reviews
Donald H. Vish
The face of evil is the face of Dorian Gray: attractive, alluring, fascinating, and likable. Gitta Sereny, in the first line of this impressive book, says of Albert Speer: he was a man “I knew well and grew to like.” That’s the way evil is – likable, alluring, capable of great charm. And if we are to believe the people around Adolph Hitler, evil is also invisible. No one sees it or even suspects it. Only its results, like Dorian Gray’s portrait, reveal its grotesqueness. Albert Speer was Hitler’s architect. Later he served as minister of armaments and war production where he displayed his talent as the organizational genius of the Third Reich. An aristocrat, he described his wife Margaret to his daughter Hilde as a peasant who brought “an infusion of stable stock” to his genetic legacy. Speer describes himself as Hitler’s friend and an “unpolitical architect.” At the Nuremberg trials, he accepted vicarious guilt for Hitler’ s crimes, but claimed he knew little or nothing of the details. He steadfastly denied any knowledge of the Final Solution. When Speer was sentenced to twenty years for conscripting slave labor, many were shocked that he wasn’t hanged – the fate of his subordinate Fritz Sauckel, who worked under his direction. According to the French pastor, Georges Casalais, the prison chaplain, Speer arrived at Spandau prison (1946) a tortured man and became the “most repentant.” Released from prison in 1966, the same year his book Inside the Third Reich was published, Speer died in 1981.
The principal aim of Sereny’s book is to understand Speer; to place in context the evil crimes against humanity to which this likable “man of excellence” made himself a part. Sereny writes:” …I felt neither the Nuremberg trial nor [Speer’s] book told us…how a man of such quality could become not immoral not amoral but, somehow infinitely worse, morally extinguished.”
Speer himself provides some clues. He suggests that Sereny study charisma, “the most dangerous quality there is.” He introduces her to the German word horig to describe a wide range of emotions from servility to passivity that Hitler evoked in others through his hypnotic charisma and charm. Of Speer’s own personal weakness, he tells his seventeen-year-old daughter Hilde, who wrote to him in 1953 and asked him to explain himself, that he enjoyed living in the “aura of reflected glory” and found Hitler to be a “deeply exciting” man who conveyed to the people that he “loved us.” In his last book, Infiltrations (1979), Speer admits burying himself in his work in “an unconscious effort” to anesthetize his conscience.
In the “Spandau draft” of Inside the Third Reich, Speer confesses to his vaulting ambition which would lead him to sell his soul for the commission to create a great building. Hitler would become his Mephistopheles. Speer’s colleague, Willie Schelkes, told Sereny he doubts ambition alone accounts for Speer’s “total absorption” in his work (which had never so engaged him before) and posits that Speer’s complete fascination with the challenge of his job and his need to validate Hitler’s faith in him are the keys to understanding his moral flaws. In Sereny’s view, Speer’s and Schelkes’s explanations are both correct. In 1975, a psychoanalyst advanced the theory that Hitler and Speer shared a homoerotic (not homosexual) love for each other. Hitler was for Speer the approving father he never had. Speer was to Hitler the pure-blooded, aristocratic architect he would like to have been. Asked about this thesis, Speer told Sereny “it came closest to the truth.” Sereny herself concludes that Speer’s moral corruption was rooted in his emotional attachment to Hitler, which was nurtured by his success and driven by his dependence on Hitler.
In attempting to understand Speer, Sereny chronicles a farrago of horrific Nazi crimes, premeditated and planned with scientific precision, ranging from systematic killings of mental patients to industrialized genocide. All told, Sereny thinks that 12 to 20 million people were murdered by the Nazis. Of the 6 million Jews killed, two-thirds were women and children. Here is a scale of evil that even Dante failed to imagine.
Unlike glory, evil cannot be visualized on a grand scale – it is too abstract. Only when reduced to a human scale can its frightful mien be grasped. Hartley (now Lord) Shawcross, Britain’s chief prosecutor, did this at Nuremberg when he described the systematic execution of Jews in small groups of twenty – each group shot to death. Among one group described by Hartley is a family of eight, including an infant, a grandmother, two parents, and a ten-year-old boy comforted by his grandfather – all are naked, all are neatly positioned behind the corpses of the group that went before; all are cut down by a single Tommy gun resting on the knee of a single soldier who smokes a cigarette as the next wave is being readied. Speer would say thirty years later he was devastated by Hartley’s account which “haunts me to this day.” What Sir Hartley’s description did for Speer, Speer’s own story does for the reader: reveals the face of evil as a human face which devastates and haunts us.
Sereny’s arrangement of quotes and use of the language from official documents is chilling. She is a master of letting the story tell itself. While her comments and observations are there when needed, much of the story comes from the mouths of witnesses and official documents. Sereny’s prose is clinical, detached, and her story is relentless. From time to time, she digresses, giving the reader background information which proves relevant to understanding Speer and the milieu in which he functioned.
While Sereny’s book reflects the face of Albert Speer, it is also a mirror that projects the image of Adolf Hitler and the faces of all those who saw nothing and suspected nothing.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Commonweal Foundation
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