- Used Books
- Staff Picks
- Gifts & Gift Cards
- Sell Books
- Stores & Events
- Let's Talk Books
Special Offers see all
More at Powell's
Recently Viewed clear list
This item may be
Check for Availability
Speer: The Final Verdict
Any survey of a life inevitably starts at the end. Only when the actor has left the stage do the lines emerge from the tangle of existence to form a picture. Historians are easily tempted to describe as inevitabilities those strange accidents that are no more than part of every life. This applies particularly to figures who rose to the top in the Hitler period. It has been common practice to ferret out particular circumstances in their parental homes that appear to explain their career. A lack of attention, for instance, prevented self-esteem from developing, an authoritarian upbringing engendered submissive attitudes, parental severity led to emotional impoverishment, while excessive parental love produced egotists, and so on. The arbitrary rules of this kind of psychology allowed diametrically opposite conclusions to be drawn from identical states of affairs. A child who was beaten would develop into an aggressive type, and so would one who was never beaten. Ultimately any misdeeds were attributed to the damage done in the parental home. In truth, however, all such statements merely raise the questions to which they purport to be the answers.
Albert Speer, born in Mannheim on 19 March 1905, is a perfect illustration of how unpredictable life is. He came from what in his day was a "normal" privileged family, of the haute bourgeoisie. His early years followed the pattern of a regulated and uneventful youth in the provinces. There is hardly anything striking to report about it. His days passed in agreeable lassitude. Nothing upset the pleasant harmony between home and school, with adventure games by the water, sports clubs, and first love. Biographers have dissected many characteristics from the few incidental discoveries made about those years: the unapproachability of Speer's father, the apparent haughtiness of his mother, and the distant relationship between the three brothers were said, more or less, to have led to the second son's lack of emotion and the shyness that was apparent at an early age. But these simple conclusions tell us virtually nothing about how Albert Speer got into Hitler's entourage and then rose to his unique position at the dictator's court.1
Like his paternal grandfather, Speer's father was an architect who had made a name for himself with administrative buildings, luxury residences, and villas in the Mannheim area. He had acquired some affluence when, in 1900, he married the daughter of a Mainz merchant, who was descended from Wallenstein's field marshal, von Pappenheim, and who although a forester's son had become a successful entrepreneur. With typical circumspection Speer's father had invested his new wealth mainly in houses and building plots well beyond Mannheim's city limits, all the way to Heidelberg.
Speer grew up in an upper-middle-class world with the constraints typical of his day. His socially ambitious mother never quite got over having had to leave "golden Mainz" only to be marooned in the sooty industrial town of Mannheim. She tried to compensate for this misfortune with an extravagant lifestyle. In the fourteen rooms of her house she commanded a large staff with the cooks all in white, the maids in black dresses trimmed with white, and the male servants in purple livery with a made-up coat of arms. Everything was exaggerated and staged with a somewhat ostentatious penchant for grandiosity. There was also a chauffeur who looked after the family's two cars, a limousine for the winter and an open vehicle for the summer, as well as a French governess, Mademoiselle Blum, who was of Jewish descent. She used to march the three sons down the street in strict formation. In the entrance hall, heavy Dutch furniture was grouped around a sham fireplace with old Delft tiles; the reception rooms, on the other hand, were in the French style with lighter furniture, crystal, and Lyonnais silk furnishings. Even in the affluent town of Mannheim few families could have afforded anything like it, Speer later observed.2
For all its spaciousness the house seemed strangely crowded, however, and despite the large staff it was somewhat lifeless. It never really appealed to Speer, and he felt almost liberated when the family moved to Heidelberg in the summer of 1918. Among the plots purchased by his father there was one on the hillside behind the castle, originally intended for the family's summer residence. On the edge of a park-like forest of ancient beeches and oaks he built a villa in the heavy fortress style of the day. Far below lay the town, and beyond its silhouette a panorama of the Rhine plain opened.
When Speer looked back on his youth it was mainly images from his Heidelberg years that he remembered. The state school he attended after private tuition in Mannheim, the friends he made, and games of cowboys and Indians in the nearby wood opened the door to new worlds. Once outside the parental home, he was offered the leading place as a matter of course wherever he went. In the rowing club he was made cox of the four and, shortly afterward, stroke of the eight. Decades later he tried to note down impressions from those years, as they came to him. The first was of his nursemaid teaching him simple songs, then of his mother in grand attire and behind her the dark, dignified outline of his father. Another recollection was of a visit to Heidelberg Castle, with a zeppelin silently gliding above its venerable ruins. In between there were memories of poems, a performance of Weber's Freischütz, and his first visit to the theater to see Schiller's Maid of Orleans, of which he only remembered that it had been "a tremendous experience."3 On further reflection he realized that technological and romantic matters had stayed with him more than anything else-aircraft on the one hand, and poetical and musical experiences on the other.
Relations continued to be difficult with his parents, who were virtually strangers to him. Nor did relations improve with his brothers. They were noisy and robust, while Albert was physically delicate and of unstable health. He admired his father but found him too reserved to confide in him. The inhibitions that all observers later remarked on were already conspicuous in those early years. Speer's mother, who had sought refuge from various disappointments in a restless social life filled with receptions and house parties, remained aloof. All the possessions she accumulated failed to fill the void that surrounded her. By cultivating an ostentatious style she tried to perpetuate the circumstances and standards which had once made the middle class great. But now these trappings seemed like imitations, an empty spectacle on an overloaded stage set, revealing the very vacuum it sought to conceal.
Unlike his mother, Speer's father had strong principles. He was practical and always correctly dressed, with a gold watch chain, a twirled mustache, and his hair cut short. For all his sobriety, his background and his newfound family pride equipped him with a sure sense of middle-class values. On a visit to Berlin in the mid-thirties, he attended a theater première with his unexpectedly high-powered son, and Hitler invited him to his box in the intermission. No sooner had he been presented than he was overcome by a violent trembling. He turned pale, paralyzed by the torrent of words beating down on him. Speer later suspected that his father had sensed the frightening aura of otherness that Hitler radiated. It was, as the conservative historian Otto Hintze described the dictator, like suddenly finding oneself in the presence of a person with something "utterly alien" about them, "something of an otherwise extinct primordial race, which was completely amoral." Speer's father took his leave as soon as Hitler ended, bowing stiffly without a word of response.4
Speer's father regarded himself as belonging to that liberal tradition that had always championed the interests and libertarian views of the bourgeoisie. He particularly identified with Friedrich Naumann's social reformist views, although in the twenties he had abandoned Naumann's nationalist ideas for the pan-European ideals of Count Coudenhove-Kalergi. He always realized that no democratic order could survive on its own: the individual had to have and, if necessary, defend intellectual and political independence, and be determined to take responsibility at a professional level. No doubt he felt more upset than Speer's account suggests when, after passing his examinations with flying colors, his son expressed the wish to study his favorite subject, mathematics. With that, his father pointed out, he might possibly become a university professor or a teacher, but he would not attain that independence which would meet his personal expectations and social requirements. In the end he persuaded his son to follow the family tradition and study architecture.
Despite his independent judgment, however, Speer's father was also afflicted by the prejudices and the defensive attitudes so widespread among the middle class since the turn of the century. In his Mannheim years Albert Speer had already displayed a disturbing preference for the children of caretakers and for impecunious schoolmates outside his own social circle. At first his parents were dismayed when in 1922 he fell in love with the daughter of a joiner, only slightly younger than himself. Then they became increasingly indignant, although their social superiority over the master joiner Weber was far from great. After all, within a few years he had built up a prosperous enterprise employing some fifty workers. As a Heidelberg town councillor, he was one of the town's leading citizens. The Webers' social rise basically matched that of the Speers a generation earlier. But in keeping with the prejudices of the day, the Speers looked down on the Webers and were never able to forget the gulf between them.
The following year, when the young people announced their decision to get married as soon as possible, not only Speer's parents but, significantly, the Webers also did everything possible to foil this intention. While Speer went to Karlsruhe to take up his studies, Margarete Weber was packed off to a boarding school in distant Freiburg. It is quite possible that parental opposition merely strengthened the two teenagers' affection, which from the outset seemed sensible and curiously lacking in passion. Certainly the letters they exchanged during the years of separation deal more with their mutual love of the theater, classical music, and literature than with their love for each other. Much as Speer may have been attracted by his girlfriend's simple, unspoiled, and modest nature, there are no expressions of passionate emotion in those letters. The strongest motive of his attachment may well have been the natural warmth he had first experienced at the Webers' house. It must have seemed very different from the chill in his own home. Right to the end, and without his usual emotional reserve, Speer gratefully recalled the kindness he had encountered in the house of the respected master craftsman. When he finally married his teenage sweetheart after the completion of his studies, it was seven years before the young bride was invited to his parents' house.
It was a world where, in one way or another, the cracks were beginning to show. The bourgeoisie was still governed by the strict rules, the seriousness, and the ethos of achievement to which it was so deeply indebted. But no one was really sure what higher purposes they served, what values guided them, and whether the brilliant social gatherings at which those who belonged congregated reflected anything more than self-satisfaction and a sense of an impending end. The famous "front," which everybody had to maintain, was indicative of a world that had, along with other signposts, lost the self-assurance that had made its rise possible.
People have often wondered why the bourgeoisie in Germany submitted to National Socialism so passively when elsewhere it managed to offer weak but ultimately successful resistance to the politically organized radicalism of the center. A comprehensive answer would have to include a multitude of historical, social, political, and other factors that obstructed the emergence of an organic and self-assured middle class. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, when Germany was on the verge of unification, it had tried to make up for its economic backwardness. Despite its successes, or perhaps because of them, this turbulent process was too precipitate, too diffuse, and hence too unstable to nurture the solid traditions essential to bourgeois self-assertion. The short answer is that by the end of the 1920s a middle class that was even halfway united or capable of offering effective countermeasures no longer existed.5
Step by step, the First World War, the Revolution, and the troubles that followed it had displaced the bourgeoisie from the key positions it had only recently gained, revealing not only its weaknesses, but also deep divisions that were not bridged by any common interests. The disastrous experience of inflation shortly afterward destroyed the economic basis of the middle classes in particular. Along with their often modest savings it also undermined their trust in their own strength and their social self-esteem.
The liberalism under whose broad cloak the frequently divergent bourgeois streams had united politically was by then just a memory of better days, particularly as the Weimar Republic never managed to establish the tranquility which the bourgeois parties, unlike the others, required. In the 1919 elections to the National Assembly the liberal parties still managed to obtain nearly a quarter of the vote. But the onset of crisis after crisis and the unrest caused by changes in the social structure drove the voters either to the extremists or to new splinter groups. The depth of the destruction was reflected not only in the rapid decline of support for the bourgeois parties, but also in the progressive political disintegration of the bourgeois camp. In the 1919 elections the bourgeois splinter groups accounted for a mere 1.5 percent of the vote; barely ten years later, in 1928, some 14 percent were condemning themselves to a total loss of political influence by voting for parties which were often minute.
To make matters worse, the bourgeoisie was depriving itself of its power just at the time when it was under attack as never before. A feverish desire to expose its weaknesses, long established in literature and science, increasingly spread to politics. The two great mass movements of the day, political Marxism and National Socialism, were both antibourgeois and antiliberal. More importantly, they had the young on their side, whereas all the other parties, from their leaders down to the programs they offered, seemed more or less "exhausted," as if they were uttering epilogues to an age that was heading for the abyss. Different slogans now drew a following. The bourgeois concept of liberty and self-determination was being replaced by new movements proclaiming the principle of leadership and unconditional submission. It is one of the curious features of that time that such slavish maxims suddenly seemed to signify grandeur, dignity, and the future. Both movements, moreover, promised to bridge social divisions and establish the egalitarian order that the bourgeoisie, with its exclusiveness and pride in status, had always abhorred, the Marxists with the catchphrase of the "classless society" and the National Socialists with the promise of the "community of the people."
This was the great shadow that hung over the epoch, pointing to the demise of the liberal order in which, despite all the contradictions, the bourgeoisie had seen itself and its ideals most accurately reflected. To an increasing number of people, nothing seemed more out of keeping with the time than the democratic "system." The derision it received from all sides was intensified by the fact that it could muster little more to oppose the approaching crises than the admission of its own impotence, so vividly reflected in trivial parliamentary squabbles and the wheelings and dealings of the political parties. What defenders of the democratic order described as a sacred cause was very soon seen by many as a parody of the state as they knew it. A growing mood of weariness, contempt, and at times of resignation fed doubts about the effectiveness of the democratic order in the face of the approaching era of the masses. Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, the writer and political philosopher, thought that nations would be stifled by liberalism. Such reservations were by no means confined to Germany, even though they were most evident there. Mussolini wrote at that time that all the political experiences of the period were "illiberal." He referred to the "goddess of liberty" who was about to "close the doors of her temple which the nations have abandoned."6
Despite all the bad omens, Albert Speer's father remained attached to the political principles of liberalism, out of affection for what they stood for and from a loathing of Hitler, whom he despised as a "criminal upstart."7 He may also have been motivated by a patriarchal belief that one should not surrender even a lost cause. That such steadfastness was unusual even within his most immediate circle became clear later, when Speer's mother confessed that she had joined the Nazi Party as early as 1931, after an SA march through the streets of Heidelberg. She had simply been impressed by the orderly columns and by the confidence with which they had confronted the general sense of gloom. For years she kept this secret from her husband and her sons. She regarded it, with good reason, as a breach of the family tradition.
As for Speer himself, even after he had begun his studies in nearby Karlsruhe, politics remained outside his own world and anything to which he attached importance. Like many bourgeois families, his parents had upheld the principle that money, erotic escapades, and politics were taboo subjects within one's own four walls. Nevertheless, it seems odd that Speer should have kept to this strict rule in such turbulent times. For months and even years dramatic events had followed in rapid succession, beginning with the unexpected turn of the war and the revolution, leading to the abdication and escape of the Kaiser. Speer remembered hearing about Versailles, and that Germany had, in a popular phrase of the day, been sent home "with a dunce's cap on its head." But he failed to take note of the move of the Constituent National Assembly from the unstable atmosphere in Berlin to Weimar. The sinister doings of the Free Corps, the coup, and the rebellions in central Germany all seem to have passed him by. Only news from their relations in Mainz about the arrogant behavior of the French occupation troops, the ban on newspapers from the rest of Germany, enforced billeting, house searches, expulsions, the employment of colored troops that was seen as a deliberate humiliation, and other outrageous matters was occasionally discussed. It had, Speer said, only made the already gloomy atmosphere at home even more depressed. But any topics of wider significance continued to be barred from conversation: "It did not occur to anyone to challenge this."8 One is tempted to view this silence as a reflection of the traditional separation of the public from the private sphere, where politics was regarded as an awkward or even vulgar subject.
Speer conceded that as far as politics was concerned, a few emotions and slogans may at the most have made a superficial impression on him in those years, and what we know about him then confirms this statement. Like everyone else he was affected by Versailles and the overwhelming sense of national affront, coupled with growing misgivings about the inadequacies of parliamentary government. Yet even his move to the university, where the rigid family ban on political discussion did not apply, did not bring him any closer to politics. In shutting themselves off from the outside world the majority of the universities were no different from the bourgeois homes from which most of their students came.
It was obvious, however, that this attitude was beginning to shift. New revelations of the hardships endured by the country, the collapse of its institutions, the bankruptcy of values, and other indicators of change seemed to turn the past upside down. At the same time men who had been too young to fight in the war, the so-called war youth generation, were no longer able to keep politics at bay. Much was written at the time about their emerging attitudes, their values, and their "style." One of those studies claimed, not without a degree of "frosty admiration," that "simplicity" and "seriousness," the ability to "place the cause above personal interests," but also "laconic reserve, and...at times brusque coldness" were among the foremost characteristics of that generation. In a perspicacious essay, published in 1932, about the generation of thirty-year-olds, which included Speer, the writer and future publisher Peter Suhrkamp noted: "Their most significant feature is their lack of humanity, their disrespect for anything human."9
One of the peculiarities of Speer's life almost to the end was that he walked a tightrope. He never joined any trend or particular grouping, and yet he shared many of the tendencies that haunted that unquiet period. He was indeterminate, and for that reason alone he kept aloof from politics. Neither the occupation of the Ruhr in early 1923, at the time he began his studies, nor Hitler's coup in November of the same year made a mark on him in any way. Even the shattering experience of inflation, which led to the tragic collapse of his own social class, evidently had no impact on him. He was fortunate in that his father had sold his parents-in-law's properties in Mainz for U.S. Treasury bonds shortly before the total collapse of the German currency. That enabled him to give his son a monthly allowance of sixteen dollars, an exorbitant sum under the circumstances. The only "political" insight Speer admitted to was that he began to realize then that the world, such as it was and would be, had shaky foundations.10
In keeping with the traditions of the cultured bourgeoise, he found refuge in literature and the arts generally, as well as in a deep attachment to nature. His literary tastes were predominantly for the classics, especially Goethe, to whom he was drawn by his warmth and his civic values, but also Schiller and Kleist, whose humane rigor deeply impressed him, as well as Ibsen and Georg Kaiser. However much the works of these poets, and of the romantic composers and artists in particular, fascinated him, these formative experiences lay buried beneath the pressures of professional and social advancement. Not until the end of his life were circumstances such that Speer could revisit that experience.
His love of nature was even more formative, and probably also more typical. The mountain tours that he made with his future wife in those years and paddling in a kayak or canoe were, he later said, a form of "bliss." This euphoria was inspired by the simple life in mountain huts and lakeside cottages, the hours of silent harmony and deep communion with nature. The world was far away. Up on those heights there were unforgettable moments, when he experienced pity for the "wretched people" below the cloud banks who were subjected to the narrowness, the noise and the bustle of the city.11
This was the side of the "war youth generation" that shunned reality. Speer called their predilections an escape "from the demands of an increasingly complicated world"; with one of the ideological trendsetters of the period he might have said that "books and dreams" were the element of their lives.12 This rejection of reality was not an individual impulse, but a widespread mood of the day. It stemmed from a growing distaste for the radical changes wrought by the industrial age and fears of the losses that were felt all round. A number of influential figures, such as Richard Wagner, Julius Langbehn, and Paul de Lagarde, and a host of lesser prophets in their wake, had given this malaise a response that was stronger and more radical in Germany than anywhere else. It gave rise to a specifically German tradition of despairing of modernity. Filled with terror they identified the dictates of the crisis into which their familiar world had plunged, combining their reaction with the "world role" they assigned to their country, although it had only just been united and attained power. That role consisted of the specifically German mission to preserve "culture" against the destructive assault of detestable "civilization." The country's defeat and the "disgrace" inflicted upon it merely intensified the pain of what was happening, lending it universal significance.
At the turn of the century, these moods had already produced a vanguard of associations and circles, the most notable of which were the reform groups that sprang up everywhere, the Wandervogel and the Bündische Jugend scout movements. They rebelled against the bourgeois world and all that went with it: the neuroses and the high-flown banality, the hypocrisy and the sham, the operatic Germanic myths and the indoor palm. They wanted to replace them with simplicity, love of nature, dedication, and the values they engendered. These categories in themselves reveal how far removed from reality those who subscribed to these new beginnings were. None of the rebellious demands they made contained a feasible model of society. It often seemed that they did not so much intend to change the state of affairs they all deplored as just to vent their anger at it. Certainly the new world that they sought as they wandered or debated was far removed from the world in which they lived. "Swayed by youthful passion and mindless," is how Speer characterized himself, looking back at those years. But the description applied to his generation as a whole, and any "bliss," no matter how deeply felt, merely amounted to empty self-satisfaction. "We were always dreaming of solitude, of drives through quiet river valleys, of hiking to some high mountain pasture. We never felt the lure of Paris, London, or Vienna; even ancient Rome failed to tempt us."13
The romanticism of that generation is worth mentioning for another reason. The rejection of reality, the horror of industrialization, of the city, and of the unstable social scene, inevitably included an aversion to politics, which was simply an exaggerated response to the threats posed by the modern world. Although Speer never belonged to any of the associations into which protest against the age was channeled, he was certainly part of the environment from which they sprang. Indeed, it provides the missing explanation for his lack of interest in politics. When he left Karlsruhe to continue his studies in Munich in the spring of 1924, he had, as far as he remembered, not even heard of the "Nazis" who had terrorized that city for so long. Only a few weeks before they had been temporarily faced with ruin after their unsuccessful coup in front of the Feldherrnhalle.
In appearance and behavior Speer also personified the "youth movement." Many of his fellow students remarked on his free and easy manner, his disinterest in appearances and, generally, his demonstratively "unpolished" nature. At the same time he was generous in financial matters, always ready to help, and with a remarkable knack for making friends and winning collaborators who would relieve him of unpleasant duties for "piece wages." On the other hand, he discharged the academic duties that mattered to him with almost playful ease. In Munich he first met Rudolf Wolters, who, like him, was the son of an architect and came from Coesfeld in Westphalia. Unlike Speer he was open and impulsive. But whenever there was a clash of opinions between them, their literary predilections and their love of nature brought them together again. Later Wolters characterized his friend as "decidedly unconventional," "totally indifferent to religion and national issues," and a "brilliant idler." Never had he seen in him "the glutton for work he was to become."14 Their relationship endured almost to the end of their lives.
Summing up this phase, we are faced with an immature but gifted young man, caught up in the prejudices and moods of his day. Nothing in him suggests any disorder caused by parental neglect, or any complexes or deformations. He had even remained untouched by the political and artistic extremes of the "wild twenties," which captured almost everybody, at least for a time. That pattern was set to continue, and it is the very "normality" of his life that has made Albert Speer so typical. At any rate the break he made shortly afterward with the world from which he came was due far more to the total absence of any political values, to his inclination to escape from life, his indifference to people and reality, and to the innocent and joyful days of hiking he was so fond of remembering, than to those formative experiences of which so much has been made.
In the autumn of 1925 Speer and a few fellow students transferred from Munich to the Technical University in Berlin to continue their studies with Hans Poelzig, one of the leading architects of the day. Poelzig, however, made a strict selection among the applicants and, as Speer's gift for drawing was not up to requirements, he, like Wolters, was rejected. A solution was found when Heinrich Tessenow came to Berlin shortly afterward; his architectural vision was simple and almost sparse, defined by a few clear lines. His designs were conceived in deliberate opposition to the bold and often exaggerated modernity that was fashionable then. Tessenow believed that man should look on the buildings he erects as home, not as an aesthetic utopia. As a result he was often accused of lacking imagination, but in his hatred of bombast he was intent on replacing the overpowering contemporary style with a simple architecture based on traditional craftsmanship. "A minimum of display is crucial," was the message he taught; one of his books was prefaced by the motto "The simplest is not always the best, but the best is always simple."15
From the beginning Speer felt an earnest, schoolboyish attachment to Tessenow and his strict principles. It drove him to make a special effort. The solitary professor of architecture with his watery eyes behind gold-rimmed spectacles, his thinning hair, and his reddish-blond beard had hardly been in Berlin for eighteen months when Speer passed his exam with him. Shortly afterward Tessenow appointed him as his assistant. He was twenty-three years old. The unusual distinction led Speer to assume that his teacher must have noticed the admiration and veneration he felt for him. But it is more likely that Tessenow had developed a liking for the young man who captivated the world with his charm, his background and his youthful directness, qualities which so often worked to his advantage before they led to his undoing.
Although the hapless Weimar Republic had a brief breath of air in the late twenties, Berlin was seething with political excitement. On closer inspection it was obvious that the hostile camps in the capital were preparing for a final battle. In November 1926 Joseph Goebbels had been placed at the head of the shattered Berlin Party organization. Impudent and unscrupulous as he was, he immediately began to recruit an army of thugs who provoked brawls, disturbances, and shootings, and subjected the far larger and more tightly organized Communists to constant attack. Goebbels was willing to accept defeats so long as they brought him and the Nazi Party publicity. Fatal casualties on his own side were even more welcome because they evoked conspiratorial feelings sealed with blood. Within a few months he had made substantial progress against the powerful front of so-called Red Berlin.
Even these events seemed to pass Speer by. In his memoirs, Inside the Third Reich, the endless series of clashes, which a police report stated "outclassed anything experienced so far,"16 do not appear at all. Instead there is frequent mention of concerts and the theater, of Max Reinhardt, Elisabeth Bergner, and the sumptuous revues of Charell. More importantly, the well-paid post as Tessenow's assistant finally enabled Speer to get married in 1928. Making a bow to the traditional values of educated Germans, he set the wedding for 28 August, Goethe's birthday. For a while he considered spending the honeymoon in Italy, the classic country not only of honeymoon couples but also of lovers of art and architecture. But his escapist tendencies proved stronger. With two folding canoes and a tent the newlyweds spent three weeks crossing the deserted chain of Mecklenburg lakes, starting at Spandau. "It was a wonderful time," he later recalled.17
Inevitably, the world to which he turned a blind eye caught up with him in the end. In 1929 the National Socialists called for an "assault on the universities." Needless to say, this was not achieved by force of ideological conviction, but, as nearly always, by the persuasive power of brute force. This was applied so ruthlessly that in the summer of 1931 the University of Berlin had to be closed for some time. Significantly, Speer's Technical University registered the strongest growth of the National Socialist Students' League. Within a single year its share in the elections to ASTA, the Students' Union, rose from barely 40 percent to two-thirds of the votes cast.18
Again Speer appears to have taken hardly any notice of this development. His statement that he "did not even dream" of following the students' swing toward Hitler's cause certainly sounds credible. However, this political indifference was not as apolitical as it seems. By retiring into a kind of contemptuous distance, he may not have helped either of the radical opposing parties, but his attitude deprived the democratic institutions of their legitimacy and made increasingly broad circles receptive to any promise of change. Ultimately this indifference contributed as much to the demise of the republic as the subversive activities of its most determined opponents.
The misconceptions are clearly revealed in Tessenow's case. Despite being a firm opponent of the Nazis, he kept aloof from politics. Widely dubbed a "philosopher among architects," he based his views on deep, though often somewhat far-fetched, reflections. Tessenow sought to instill in his students sufficiently firm values to make them invulnerable to all the radical movements of the day, politically, artistically and generally. He was all the more bewildered to see them joining the Nazi Party in droves, just as Poelzig's students were rallying to the parties of the left. The process reflected more than the increasing politicization of the universities. What attracted Tessenow's students to National Socialism also had something to do with the connection between his architectural ideas and the ideology of the rising mass movements, notwithstanding his own opposition. Both Tessenow and the Nazis were motivated by a powerful anti-civilizatory feeling, by a hatred of modernism, and a horror of the Moloch-like industrial age, preferring a rosy vision of the simple life, investing in people, the soil, roots and innocence. The dividing line between Tessenow and the other side was all too finely spun, however stubbornly he defended it.
Speer listened attentively to these disputes, which also involved the students. According to the testimony of his friends he would occasionally make a comment. But what he said always seemed to come from a great distance, as if the arguments so passionately conducted by others did not really concern him. The political tensions simmering beneath these differences of opinion stopped him from taking sides, and it was probably then that he began to see himself as an artist who stood above such ephemeral quarrels. For the same reason he looked down on the famous architects of his day, whose concepts were often linked to political visions of the future; Speer ignored the avant-gardism of his time. "I saw myself as a latecomer," he said once, but he did not regard his aloofness from the present and its mad excrescences as a weakness. Tessenow had taught him that architecture was determined by enduring laws, whereas the Mies van der Rohes, Tauts, or Gropiuses of this world were merely witty or "topical." Perhaps, Speer remarked in one of his later self-examinations, he had "simply been waiting for Hitler."19
But all this proud exclusivity was shattered in one fell swoop. At the beginning of December 1930 Speer was urged by a few colleagues to attend a political meeting at the Neue Welt, an assembly room in Berlin's Neuköllner Hasenheide. When the small group arrived they found more than five thousand professors and students waiting for Hitler to make an appearance. The heated atmosphere in the hopelessly overcrowded room made a deep impression on the unsuspecting Speer. He had occasionally heard Hitler described as a hysterically uninhibited circus orator prone to raving fits, who presented himself to the masses with a riding crop, brown shirt, and wild mane, as a kind of backyard messiah.
Speer was all the more astonished by the man who stepped up to the lectern, wearing a dark blue suit that indicated his concern for bourgeois correctness. Furthermore, he did not treat the audience to one of his theatrical turns. Instead he gave a carefully reasoned lecture, only occasionally slipping into demagogy. Speer's memory of that evening was dominated by his surprise at the hesitant, almost timid, voice that began to speak. He ascribed it to Hitler's nerves. In reality, however, this probing opening was one of his well-tested tricks of oratory, which enabled him to gauge the mood and establish the rapport with which he captivated his audience. Hitler spoke of the weakening nations and their decline, of the "politics of the inferior," but also about unity, honor, and resurgence. Everything he said was underpinned by historical distortions and spurious political evidence, which Speer had little objection to. Hitler did not dwell on the countless problems of everyday life. Instead he mapped out a huge historical panorama, in which he set the present crisis as part of the never-ending struggle of the forces of good against evil. It was the vagueness of his program, delivered with all the authority of the charismatic leader, promising nothing and commanding everything, that left the strongest impression on Speer and those present. This speech, like all of Hitler's speeches, owed its effectiveness to the orator himself and the almost tragic gravity with which he invoked the many troubles that beset the country: communism, unemployment, impotence. In spite of the apocalyptic visions he painted, he alone seemed full of aggressive confidence. That above all was what drew the frightened masses to him and elicited rapturous applause from his audience at the Neue Welt.
After the event the group of students went on to a beer hall, but Speer did not join them. He later wrote that he left "a changed person," walking past the same advertisements, the same dirty poster columns, under the same leafless trees of the Hasenheide as on his way to the assembly hall. But nothing was as it had been.20 Overcome and confused, he wanted to be alone. He drove out to the Havel woods in his car, not returning home until hours later.
Much though it moved Speer, taking part in a political meeting was not what made that evening stand out. Nor can the impact be fully explained by his sudden awareness of the seriousness of the situation. The writing had long been on the wall, but it had taken Hitler to interpret it for him. Speer felt admiration for the apparently cool yet passionate man in the dark blue suit, who, as he hoped, might save Germany, but he also reproached himself, made excuses and new resolutions. He was brimming over with confused, exhilarating feelings.
However, these factors are not the whole answer. Speer's strange need to be alone after a political meeting, and to engage in a spiritual exercise in the Havel woods, is better explained if one sees that evening as an awakening, with all the pseudo-religious, magical, alarming, and sudden insight associated with that concept. In a striking turn of phrase, Speer remarked of that speech that Hitler had taken hold of him then and had not released him since.21 There can be little doubt that an unexpected experience of that nature was bound to lead a serious young man, who was in love with his dream of the world, politically astray.
For a time he continued to hesitate. A few weeks later, when his students invited him to attend a rally staged by Goebbels in the Berlin Sportpalast, he was utterly repelled by the cutting diatribes of the speaker and by his cold-blooded rhetoric. But afterward, when mounted police came galloping out from the side streets, scattering the crowd with rubber truncheons, Speer's mood changed again. On 1 March 1931 he went to a Party office and, as he put it, joined not the NSDAP, but Hitler's Party. He was given the membership number 474,481.
There followed nearly eighteen months of idleness, emptiness, and a sense of wasted time. Now and then Speer took part in competitions, but he never did better than a third prize. Because he owned a car he was appointed leader of the NSKK, the Nazi Motor Corps, for Berlin-Wannsee, and was occasionally employed as a courier. At the beginning of 1932 he gave up his post with Tessenow when academic salaries were cut, as part of the increasingly stringent economy. He returned to Heidelberg to look for commissions using his father's connections. But these efforts remained fruitless in the face of the economic slump then approaching its climax. His father eventually entrusted him with the management of his properties, but this did not stop the discouragement he felt from living off his parents' money. In his youth, he once remarked, he had, like everyone, dreamed of something great and sensational. Unlike everyone else he had always been sure he would achieve it, even during those paralyzing months of unemployment.22
A few months earlier, in one of the Berlin Party offices, he had come across Karl Hanke, an unemployed technical school teacher about his own age, who was then in charge of the Kreisleitung West. One day Hanke invited him to renovate a dilapidated Grunewald villa recently rented by the Party. This was just one of those occasional jobs with which the young architect tided himself over. Some of Speer's biographers have seen his readiness to accept Hanke's commission as a sign of his heightened political interest. But his behavior during the Reichstag elections of July 1932 gives little indication of this. Admittedly, he had come from Heidelberg to Berlin toward the end of the campaign to help the Party, and on one of those occasions he had seen Hitler again. This time he was imperious, brusque, constantly waving his riding crop and smacking it against his boots as he waited impatiently. But the indifference Speer felt for the campaign that had been waged with such bitterness that it left hundreds dead or wounded can be deduced from the fact that he had planned to continue his journey on the Thursday before the election on Sunday. He was planning to spend a few weeks sailing the lonely East Prussian lakes with his wife. Their folding canoes and camping gear were already stored at the railway station.
A few hours before his departure news reached him that Karl Hanke, who had become the organizational head of the Party in Berlin, urgently wished to speak to him. When Speer called on him, Hanke asked if he would be interested in fitting out the new headquarters in Voss-strasse, as he had the Grunewald villa. Demoralized after months of searching unsuccessfully for commissions, Speer accepted without much reflection and canceled his trip to the lakes. Years later he reflected on the strange accidents that had repeatedly diverted his life in totally unexpected directions. A few hours later and Hanke's call would have come too late. Speer would have been untraceable for weeks in the remoteness of the East Prussian forests.
The house on Voss-strasse was much larger and more extravagant than the Party could afford in its disastrous financial situation. But the final stage in the struggle for power was clearly approaching, and the organization had acquired the building in the government quarter to stake its claim from a suitably impressive location. Time was short, and for the first time Speer proved his ability to meet exceedingly tight schedules by careful organization and constant urging. He was not invited to the inauguration of the premises, but he was told that Hitler had expressed his approval. With the job done Speer returned to Heidelberg, to the hopeless, empty life of draining inactivity.
He barely took notice of 30 January 1933, when Hitler was appointed Reich Chancellor, even though it was "his" Party and "his" Führer who had achieved that long-hoped-for success. The desolate circumstances in which he found himself made the event seem remote. He could hardly remember the day, and merely assumed that, along with so many others, the news had led him to hope for some vague improvement in the state of affairs. Now and again he would attend some local Party meetings, horrified at the pettiness and the bloated talk that went on there.
A few weeks later, however, he heard from Hanke again. He asked Speer to come to Berlin. Hitler had concluded from the disappointing outcome of the Reichstag elections of 5 March 1933 that the public was still behaving obstreperously, and that he needed what today would be called a skillful "spin doctor" with ministerial powers. In a flagrant breach of the agreement with his German-National coalition partners he had therefore appointed Goebbels to be Reich minister for public enlightenment and propaganda only a week after the elections. When Speer arrived in Berlin, Goebbels took him to the future site of his ministry, the Leopold palace on Wilhelmsplatz. The building dated from the first half of the eighteenth century, but it had later been remodeled by Schinkel in the Prussian neoclassical style. Even before his official appointment the new minister had employed a team of SA building workers. In the dead of night they ripped stucco decorations and wood paneling from the walls and tore the "stuffy moth-eaten drapes" from the windows. This drastic action was, as Goebbels noted in his diary, not only meant to bring light and air into the rooms, but also to symbolize the new style. "Just as a clean sweep has to be made in the rooms, so it has to be made among the people," he wrote.23
Speer's reconstruction of the ministry was widely applauded. Almost imperceptibly he found himself swept into a new world. From one moment to the next he had commissions, duties, and recognition. In no time at all, events took their own course. Shortly thereafter, in the ante-room of Hanke's office, he discovered plans for a mass nighttime rally at the Tempelhofer Field. Hanke was by then head of the secretariat in Goebbels' ministry. The rally was to be the concluding event of 1 May, which had been declared a public holiday for the first time. When Speer remarked that the intended backdrop looked "like the stage set for a Schützenfest, a riflemen's gathering," he was told that no one was stopping him from coming up with something better. During the following night he prepared a series of sketches that revealed both his gift for improvisation and his sense of theatrical splendor. At the front of the parade ground he placed a wooden platform. Behind it two vertical swastika banners were hung on either side of a Reich flag in the imperial Black-White-Red. And at the magical center, in front of these huge flags, he placed Hitler, picked out of the darkness by spotlights, which had been quickly procured from a film set. He stood high up and far removed from the waiting throng, his figure bathed in glowing brightness, invoking the awakening of the nation, unity at home and strength toward the outside world, two thousand years of history, and at the end God's blessing: "Lord, we will not abandon You."24
The evening of that 1 May marked the hour when the nation began to find itself again: the National Socialist mass celebration had found the style that Speer developed into an increasingly perfect liturgy designed to overwhelm the audience. Hitler was so impressed by the backdrop that Goebbels thought it wise to present it as his own invention. But when Speer asked Tessenow for his opinion he received the chilling answer: "Do you think you have created something? It's showy, that's all."25
By then Speer had moved far away from his teacher. Success and praise from all sides widened the gap. A short while later Goebbels asked him to renovate his official residence, which he had high-handedly taken away from Alfred Hugenberg, the leader of the German National Party, for his own use. He wanted to enlarge the house by adding a spacious hall-like living room, thus giving Speer his first commission. In his eagerness Speer agreed to have the house, including the new hall, ready for occupation within two months.
Reckless though this promise was, it brought him to Hitler's attention for the first time. At any rate, Goebbels told Speer that Hitler did not believe the deadline could be met. The surprise was all the greater when Speer handed the house over on the due date. He got a little closer still to Hitler when he was invited shortly thereafter to design a dignified backdrop for the first Nuremberg Party Rally after the seizure of power. Since none of the Party bigwigs dared judge Speer's proposals, he was sent to Munich to get Hitler's personal decision. But contrary to his expectation that meeting was utterly impersonal. As Speer entered the apartment on Prinzregentenstrasse, Hitler was cleaning a pistol. The parts were scattered over the table. All he heard after a brief interested examination of the plans was a curt "Agreed!" Not a word, not even a glance at the visitor. As Hitler turned back to his pistol Speer left the room, disappointed.
However, Hitler remembered him when, soon afterward, he instructed his architect Paul Ludwig Troost to restore and refurnish the partially dilapidated chancellor's residence in Berlin. Troost was really an interior designer who had made a name for himself by equipping the luxury liners of Norddeutscher Lloyd. Years before, Hitler had entrusted him with the construction of the Brown House in Munich's Königsplatz, and later commissioned him to build the two temple-style mausoleums at the entrance to the square, where the dead of 9 November were buried. As Troost lived in Munich and was unfamiliar with the Berlin construction industry and the local craft enterprises, Hitler summoned the young architect who had finished Goebbels's apartment in such record time and appointed him Troost's liaison in the capital.
As soon as the renovation began, Hitler came on site almost every day from his temporary accommodation on the next floor up. When he arrived Speer would give him a progress report, after which Hitler would turn to the workmen. He moved among them with impressive ease, handing out praise, asking questions, and urging haste. He hardly seemed to notice Speer. However, one day Hitler asked him out of the blue if he would like to have lunch with him. Speer hesitated for a moment because a trowelful of wet mortar had fallen on his jacket during his inspection. But Hitler said he would put that right.
He sent for one of his jackets to be fetched from the apartment upstairs. Having made sure it fitted, he entered the dining room accompanied by his guest; ten of his closest courtiers were assembled there already. Goebbels was the first to voice his surprise at finding Speer in their midst, and he noticed before the others that the new arrival wore on his jacket the badge with the golden Party eagle which was reserved for the Führer alone. Angrily he asked the meaning of this, but Hitler pacified him by saying that it was quite all right. As if to add a hidden reproof to his answer he invited Speer to sit next to him.
At table he drew him into lengthy conversation, which was noted by those present with some surprise. For the first time Speer had a foretaste of those conflicting sensations that would perhaps be his fate henceforth. Euphoria alternated with nervousness, amazement, and happiness. But at the same time he sensed the envy and malevolence around him; he felt the suspicion aroused by the rare distinction accorded to him by Hitler. As he left the room he thought that the door to the innermost circle was now open, and that everything else was up to him alone.
What was to hold him back? Of course, the temptation was irresistible. True, the grand style into which he was to slip at Hitler's court did not mean much to him, and power and splendor held little attraction for him as yet. Contrary to the assertions of most of his critics, Speer was no opportunist always out for his own advantage. Certainly the wasted years that lay behind him had been extremely discouraging, and the letters and advertisements to which he never received a reply had undermined his self-confidence. Yet Hitler's show of favor had not made him feel that he had reached a turning point or been faced with a political, let alone a moral, decision. "After years of frustrated efforts" he was simply "thirsting for action," ambitious and impatient, he confessed. "For a commission to build a great building I would have sold my soul like Faust."26
That was the point of breach. For years to come Speer saw himself merely as an architect who stood outside politics. This self-deception was what made him and his career typical. Along with millions of "non-political" Germans he had insisted on the separation of professional and political tasks in the face of occasional unrest. On the way to the NSDAP office two years earlier he had, significantly, made himself believe that he was not joining a party, but rather that he was following the call of a charismatic leader who stood above all ephemeral squabbles and bound the nation together by holding its higher interests in trust.
This error was compounded by the general impression that Hitler's slogans sounded strangely "non-political," or at least removed from reality. It was largely that tone that made them irresistible to Speer and to many others. The contradictory mixture of nationalism and the grandiloquent call for fraternization, rigorous order, antimodernism, and technological ambition encompassed so many diverse feelings that most contemporaries saw Hitler and National Socialism as the force that would preserve Germany in its familiar shape and, simultaneously, lead it toward a better future.
Added to this were the opportunities that were soon open to all. Ever since his visit to Hitler's apartment Speer felt they had come more within his reach than anyone else's. He was twenty-eight, and all of a sudden he was being offered jobs, he was earning a reputation and even fame. Speer was enough of an artist to succumb to the temptation of the opportunities that unexpectedly presented themselves to him.
The only thing that might possibly have countered this were the weakened values of that middle-class world to which he still felt he belonged, even years later during his detention at Spandau prison. But they only affected the values he maintained in his personal life, so that nothing that had happened since the Nazis seized power had alarmed him. Despite some arbitrary measures, the country was clearly overcoming its crisis. Order was gradually returning and the hardships which could not be overlooked were no longer as bad since confidence had been restored. What, then, should have aroused his mistrust when Hitler invited him to lunch?
Later Speer repeatedly observed that he had been well aware of a questionable and at times even unsettling atmosphere surrounding the dictator. But these misgivings, insofar as he ever experienced them in those early days, were swept aside by his romantic inclinations and by Hitler's aura of strangeness and unpredictability, which if anything enhanced his allure. Not until much later, toward the end of his imprisonment at Spandau, did he realize what dangerous territory he had strayed into. On rereading Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks his thoughts went back to his own family, to the standards that had made them all feel so secure, and to their unwavering instincts: "They had no doubts whatsoever," he wrote, "about right and wrong, good and evil. It is inconceivable to think of my father or grandfather in the circle of Hitler and his cronies."27
He then realized for the first time that they had drawn their security from the middle-class world. Although he had only known that world in its decline and, as he believed, had sometimes suffered from it, he had never hated it, let alone fought against it. He had never been infected by the antibourgeois fever that was one of the opiates of the age. The only outward expression of his rebellion against his parental world was in his careless style of dressing and his informal manner. No stronger judgment about it survives than his remark that he found that world not to "his liking."
This oddly feeble protest explains, at least to some degree, his most striking characteristic: a lack of resolution, of knowing where he stood, and of passion. In a character such as his there was no room for principles. From one day to the next, he jettisoned all the rules that Tessenow had taught him, from the pathos of sobriety and mistrust of mere effect to the false grandiloquence he now adopted. At the heart of it all lay the faintness of his convictions. Just as he had failed to notice that he had slid into politics, so he was evidently unaware of the bridge he had crossed as an architect.
Of course, Speer was not alone in his contempt for principles or for the arbitrary way in which beliefs were expounded and retracted. Soap-box prophets proclaiming the dawn of a new age, noisily calling for strong convictions because convictions had ceased to mean much, were a dime a dozen in those years. People were changing allegiances like shirts, and nearly every biography of that time contains some conversion or other. One need only look at the mass desertion in 1933 from the Communists to yesterday's enemy, the Brown camp, and it became apparent again in 1945 when the Hitler regime fell apart. Suddenly everyone sought to distance themselves, all those former protestations of beliefs and all those oaths of loyalty were drowned in silence as if they had never existed.
In the end the bourgeoisie fell victim to its profound doubts in the justice and truth of its own cause. The vehemence with which, only one generation earlier, all the world had railed against that way of life was proof of how its ideas, its values, and its raison d'être were as deeply rooted as the resentment it caused. Admittedly, the often eccentric way in which literature, the theater, and the arts dealt with the crisis of the bourgeoisie was a product of its own intellect. Albert Bassermann, one of the greatest actors of the day, who came from the same Mannheim haute bourgeoisie as Speer, scored some of his greatest successes on the stage with characters from the antibourgeois repertoire: that string of secretly moribund strong men who had been broken by their extravagance, their colossal greed, and the yawning emptiness behind it all. Yet Bassermann openly rejected the unreasonable demand of the new rulers that, at the end of a performance, he should step up to the apron of the stage and salute Hitler in the former imperial box with a raised arm. Despite the efforts of the regime to keep him, he chose exile.
But that was the world of yesterday. Those now in the ascendant were often not aware of the conflict that troubled their elders, or of facing a crucial decision. They were, in a sense, beyond such subtle distinctions. The new generation, like Speer, no longer attacked the bourgeois world because they had quite simply forgotten it, because it and everything it stood for no longer meant anything to them.
When he moved into Hitler's circle Speer had felt that "something swooped me up off the ground at the time [and] wrenched me from all my roots."29
© 1999 Alexander Fest Verlag, Berlin
Translation © 2001 Ewald Osers and Alexandra Dring
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced
or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval
system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work
should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,
Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando,Florida 32887-6777.
What Our Readers Are Saying