We can get rid of the Hitlers and the Himmlers, but not the Speers

1.

A king who enjoins inhuman deeds
Will find enough retainers, who for grace and payment
Avidly accept half the anathema.
—Goethe, Iphigenia in Taurus

2.

In 1942, Albert Speer drafted a decree that made it a crime, punishable by death, to provide false information about raw materials, labor, machinery or products. Himmler thought it was too harsh.

3.

So contemptuous of bureaucracy and paperwork was Speer that he welcomed the Allied bombing raids on Berlin in November 1943, which partially destroyed his ministry’s offices. In a memo, he wrote:
I believe that thanks to this [raid] the question of the bureaucratic treatment of problems that should best be dealt with in a manner free from administrative restraints, is automatically resolved.
In a speech, he added:
During of the first heavy raids on Berlin we had the good fortune that a large part of the current files was burnt, so that for a time we were rid of unnecessary ballast; but we cannot expect in future that such events will bring this much-needed freshness to our work.

4.

As Minister of Armaments, Speer relied extensively on slave laborers from concentration camps to work in the factories. In 1944, he fell ill for an extended period of time. Himmler seized on the opportunity of Speer’s absence to remove those laborers from the factories—at the pace of roughly 40,00 per month—and send them back to the camps. Back at the office several months later, Speer complained about the “kidnapping” of his workers.

5.

After the war, while he was being held in Nuremberg awaiting trial, Speer sought to delegitimize Göring, whom he loathed, by calling him an art thief.

6.

Imprisoned for 20 years in Spandau, Speer often received gifts and packages. After a former comrade sent him a birthday present of caviar, truffles, venison, and wine in 1959, Speer wrote back:

Even though for us experts Beluga comes second to that other outrageously expensive one we tasted together at the Kuban bridgehead [in southern Russia]: remember?

7.

Beginning at Nuremberg, Speer worked hard to clean up his image, casting himself as a repentant naif who got swept up in the mania of Hitler and Nazism, but who never participated in or had any knowledge of the extermination of the Jews. On one issue, however, he remained unrepentant: the legitimacy of the Nazi campaign against the Soviet Union. In his diaries, Speer reminisced about Operation Barbarossa as a “European Crusade” that attracted thousands of volunteers from Belgium to the Balkans (it did). On his release from Spandau in 1966, his closest associate gave him a Westphalian ham from a pig that had been born on the day Stalin died.

8.

After his release from Spandau, Speer became friends with Erich Fromm.

9.

One of the few writers to challenge Speer’s self-presentation after the war was Erich Goldhagen, father of Daniel Goldhagen.

10.

In one of his postwar publications, Speer claimed that Himmler erred by using slave labor in the concentration camps. Had he been a better businessman, Speer argued, Himmler would have contracted out the inmates to local companies.

11.

In 1944, the German exile journalist Sebastian Haffner wrote about Speer in the Observer:

He symbolises indeed a type, which among all the belligerents has become increasingly important: the pure technician, the classless, brilliant man without a background, who knows no other goal than to make his way in the world, purely on the basis of his technical and organisational capabilities….This is his age. We can get rid of the Hitlers and the Himmlers, but not the Speers. Whatever may be the fate of each individual man, they will be with us for a long time.

—All information in this post, including the Goethe epigraph, comes from Martin Kitchen, Speer: Hitler’s Architect (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015). I wrote two posts on this book over the winter.

15 Comments

  1. John Maher July 11, 2016 at 9:12 pm | #

    Fitting Eric Fromm was a friend.

    One need not be a Nazi to rejoice in release from history. In a seems the allied bombing of files was a neoliberal dawn — of deregulation to be exact. Perhaps the allies should have dropped more Reich edicts and regulations and the Reich would have crumbled sooner under the weight of its own bureaucratic intransigence.

  2. xenon2 July 11, 2016 at 9:29 pm | #

    I thought you were comparing Trump to Hitler—as a matter of fact, someone who made a comment did (Dec.31, 2015). Godwin’s Law, in retrospect.

    IG Farben, the one Eisenhower didn’t want bombed, was in Frankfurt-am-Main. Eisenhower wanted it for his headquarters, I thought.Eisenhower warned us about MIC b/c he was part of MIC, in fact, didn’t he create it?

  3. lazycat1984 July 12, 2016 at 12:08 am | #

    Speer sounds like the template for Thatcherism-Reaganism

  4. Ramesh July 12, 2016 at 2:38 am | #

    Speers of the current age get MBA’s (and Law degrees) to force their crusade on society.

  5. Suter July 12, 2016 at 2:40 am | #
  6. Roquentin July 12, 2016 at 9:59 am | #

    It’s funny he tries to legitimize Operation Barbarossa even now, because it was the single worst mistake of the entire Third Reich. Hitler basically lost the war the day he violated Molotov-Ribbentrop, but all that victory had gone to his (an apparently Speer’s) head. One of the darkest insights about WWII is that Hitler could have kept most of Eastern Europe. He probably even could have kept France. He could have probably gone on into old age like Fransisco Franco, if he’d just left well enough alone and quit while he was ahead. Lucky for all of US, the Nazis were incredibly arrogant in addition to all their other crimes. Long after Stalingrad, even after Kursk, when the situation was hopeless, the Nazis couldn’t admit their blunder.

    When I watched Downfall for the first time, I snickered when the bombs were landing early in the film in Berlin. The vozhd (Russian for “the boss,” it was how Stalin was widely referred to in the USSR) was coming for them, and no quarter would be given, no mercy shown. Stalin would have never let Speer live, make of that what you will. The whole high command and anyone close to them would have been taken somewhere and shot. You could make the case that the NKVD was as bad or worse, that there were plenty of Speers in that organization. You’d mostly be right. But Speer would never have lived to see 1946. That’s for sure.

    • Roquentin July 12, 2016 at 10:44 am | #

      I should have used the past tense in the first sentence. I’m well aware Speer died in the 80s. I just wanted to clarify.

  7. Harvey Partica July 12, 2016 at 10:40 am | #

    Something Milo Minderbinderish about this character.

  8. michael ryan July 12, 2016 at 11:04 am | #

    Re: point 9 – the most thorough critical assessment of Speer is certainly Gita Sereny’s “Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth”.

    • Corey Robin July 12, 2016 at 11:34 am | #

      I read Sereny’s book when it came out, nearly 20 years ago. I loved it at the time. But Kitchen’s book has convinced me that she actually let Speer off the hook in all sorts of ways.

  9. Icarius Matus July 12, 2016 at 11:35 am | #

    His autobiography creates a false view of an apologetic & earnest professional that got caught up in the genius of hitler. He developed the narrative and tossed his compatriots under the bus by claiming his art, ‘his passion’, as being the reason for his lost ways. He adopted this BS, while in prison, after readily repenting everything the allies asked him to do to save his scrawny hide from the well-deserved lynching it should of had. He went so far as to critique his architecture as grandiose, obscene, and that he was out of hios mind. But not because of him of course! It was all hitler’s doing. The real reason he was spared, besides lying, was he ran turncoat on the rest to save his own skin. He sang better than any canary in history and built a narrative larger than any of the grotesque buildings he designed. Sadly, his kin and family name still run a very successful architectural firm and he was able to change how the world viewed this one particular Nazi. There is not enough that can be said to undo the precedent and damage to humanity he has sponsored. Rumsfeld, Cheney, and others too-many-to-count picked up his “aw shucks folks, I was only trying to save you from yourselves” kind of mentality. Of course, he was also spared because he was able to keep the German Military complex running longer than it would have without him. The West wanted to interview him over and over to pick his brain and learn how to ‘capture’ industry for the sake of the State.

  10. DAVID COLLEDGE July 12, 2016 at 11:53 am | #

    Trevor Roper still has the last word on this character to the effect that “Speer was the real criminal”.

  11. kevin July 12, 2016 at 9:27 pm | #

    So, in keeping with your prior equating of Hillary with Nixon and then Goldwater, next week we should expect a post equating Hillary to Speer??

  12. Marshall July 22, 2016 at 11:07 am | #

    Just wanted to say that I am really enjoying your work Mr. Robin. You give great analysis and your writing is fantastic. Keep fighting the good fight.

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