Albert Speer became Adolf Hitler’s chief architect for the Third Reich after the Nazi’s gained power in January 1933. Speer held this position until the collapse of Nazi Germany. But during World War Two, Speer gained another far more important position – Minister of Armaments – and it was Speer’s job to keep the Nazi war machine going against almost incredible odds, especially the constant destruction caused by the Allied bombing of Nazi Germany’s main industrial zones. Unlike, most of his contemporaries in the Nazi hierarchy, Speer did not commit suicide nor was he sentenced to death at the Nuremberg War Crime Trials.
Albert Speer was born on March 19th 1905 in Mannheim. His father was an architect and his family were wealthy. After his education, Speer continued in the family tradition by becoming an architect. Speer was highly influenced by the architect Heinrich Tessenow and he acted as his assistant for a number of years and taught some of his lessons. In December 1930, some of these students encouraged Speer to attend a Nazi rally that was addressed by Adolf Hitler. This experience led him to attend another Nazi rally that this time had Joseph Goebbels as the main speaker. Speer, by his own later admission was “intoxicated” by what he heard and saw and he joined the Nazi Party in March 1931.
Using his talents as an architect, Speer quickly rose up the Nazi ranks. Initially, he had Karl Hanke to thank for this. Speer’s first official ‘job’ for the Nazi’s was in the suburbs of Berlin and Hanke was the most senior Nazi in that area. Hanke got Speer to redecorate his house and was very pleased with the final result. Hanke then recommended Speer to Goebbels to improve the Nazi Party’s Berlin headquarters. The work Speer did on this task also went down well. After the Nazi’s gained power in January 1933, Goebbels employed Speer to redesign and improve his new headquarters. By impressing Goebbels – part of Hitler’s inner sanctum – it was not long before Hitler himself took an interest in what Speer had to offer the party, especially as Hitler in his earlier years had wanted to be an architect and believed that he still had some talent in this field. For Hitler, Speer was the perfect person with whom he could discuss architectural issues. Hitler knew the likes of Göering and Himmler knew little in actuality about architecture. What really impressed Hitler was Speer’s desire that architecture could be subtle but very obvious at the same time. In particular, Hitler liked Speer’s use of huge Nazi flags – each one was very much an obvious entity in itself but when many hundreds were displayed in a specific area, they tended to merge into one huge image, which in Hitler’s mind was indicative of the power the Nazis had within Germany. Size equalled authority.
Speer was then asked to renovate the Chancellery building in Berlin – Hitler’s political headquarters. Hitler took a very keen interest in the work and met with Speer on a daily basis to find out how the renovation was progressing. Many senior Nazi officials did not have daily contact with Hitler but here was someone who was barely 30 years of age who met and frequently dined with Hitler on a daily basis. For someone who had only joined the Nazi Party in 1931, it was an extraordinary rise to prominence. In January 1934, Speer became the effective Chief Architect for Nazi Germany. His immediate boss was Rudolf Hess but with Hitler’s obvious backing Speer was in a position to do as he wished from an architect’s point of view as long as he stayed within the remits of Nazism with classicism being the order of the day.
Speer is probably most famous for the design of the Nuremberg parade ground where Hitler held his party rallies. Here Speer developed what he called his “cathedral of light” – 130 high-powered searchlights surrounded the massive parade ground. When they were switched on at night, they gave the impression that the rallies were surrounded by Grecian-like stone pillars. Speer believed it was his most impressive work that was actually completed. Hitler certainly approved of the final result.
Speer revamped the work on the Berlin Stadium for the 1936 Olympics when Hitler criticised the original plan (decided before Speer’s rise to prominence). Hitler did not want the stadium to look modern – he wanted a more classical appearance and Speer suitably adapted the plans.
In 1937, Hitler gave Speer total power over the redesign of Berlin. Speer only had to answer to Hitler – no one else. Speer developed grandiose plans for Berlin’s redevelopment and they all met with Hitler’s approval – an assembly hall that would cater for 180,000 people; a three-mile long ‘Street of Magnificence’; a Berlin equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe that would have dwarfed the one in Paris. Speer’s plan created the type of capital city that Hitler craved for and one that would have, in his mind, outdone any other city in the world. Speer further ingratiated himself with Hitler when he was tasked with building a new Chancellery in Berlin. Hitler gave Speer just twelve months to complete the task. In fact, Speer finished ahead of schedule and Hitler awarded him the Nazi Party’s Golden Party Badge for this achievement.
The start of World War Two effectively ended any chance Speer had of putting his plan for Berlin into effect. He had his time taken by designing and building structures for the German army and air force. On February 8th, 1942, Fritz Todt, Minister of Armaments, was killed in an airplane crash. Hitler appointed Speer to succeed him on the same day.
Speer found the German industrial infrastructure in chaos. He found that factories were churning out goods for consumer consumption as opposed to articles for the war effort. As a result of Hitler’s orders, German women were rarely allowed to work in factories despite their obvious potential. Speer found that numerous government bodies had production control over just one factory and each vied with the other for greater control. Speer swept this aside and centralised power in himself – with Hitler’s full support. Speer took charge of war production and found support for this from the likes of Goebbels and senior officers in the Wehrmacht – such was his success. The only issue he could not shift Hitler on was the use of German women in factories. Hitler advocated the use of slave labour as favoured by Fritz Sauckel, the man in charge of German labour.
Even when Allied bombing was at its most intense, German factories continued to produce war goods. Speer had an art of improvising where manufacturing should take place even when factories had been bombed. However, the one commodity Speer could not produce in any great amounts was oil. German scientists did experiment on producing oil-substitutes with varying degrees of success. But the military really needed the real thing – and Speer had no way to compensate for Germany failing to reach the oil fields in southeast Russia after the failure of the Stalingrad campaign and the loss of North Africa.
As the war in Europe came to its end, Hitler ordered the destruction in Germany. He wanted everything destroyed that might have been of value to an occupying army – the so-called Nero Decree. Speer managed to persuade Hitler to give him full authority in carrying out this order. However, Speer later claimed that he had no intention of carrying out any mass destruction. After Hitler’s suicide, Speer served on Admiral Dönitz’s short-lived government.
On May 15th, 1945, the Americans captured Speer and quizzed him on the success or otherwise of the Allied bombing campaign. Speer was formally arrested on May 23rd. He was charged with planning for war, planning a war of aggression, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. Speer was tried at Nuremberg and was found guilty on two counts – war crimes and crimes against humanity. Three out of the eight judges wanted Speer hanged. But a majority did not and on October 1st, 1946, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Some of the other Nazis at Nuremberg were also found guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes and received the death sentence. Why was Speer treated differently? It is said that his willingness to admit his guilt, his condemnation of Hitler and his general contrite demeanour won over five judges. Speer served his 20 years in Spandau Prison. Here, he claims he was ostracised by other Nazis imprisoned there as a result of his statements made at Nuremberg. But it was while he was in Spandau that he secretly wrote – and managed to get out of the prison – the draft for “Inside the Third Reich”. He was the only senior Nazi to write such a book and its contents give a valuable insight into Hitler’s inner circle. However, as the other major figures in the book were dead, it is difficult to corroborate some of the more contentious issues in it.
Speer was released from prison on October 1st 1966. His autobiography became an international best-seller. While it gave a fascinating insight into the leaders of Nazi Germany, some felt that the book avoided the important issue of just how much Speer was a war criminal. Though the Nuremberg Trials had found him guilty on two counts, a 20 year prison sentence did not satisfy some. Speer’s book did nothing to address some very simple issues: how much did he know about the abuses inflicted on slave labourers? If he knew, what did he do to try to remedy such abuses? How complicit was he in what some called the ‘Himmler Syndrome’ – that it did not matter how many slave labourers suffered as long as the final result for Nazi Germany was achieved. His supporters pointed out that when he learned about the living conditions of slave labourers working at a V2 factory in Middelwerk, he ordered the building of what became the Dora concentration camp, which gave the prisoners ‘improved’ living conditions. His detractors pointed out that while this may be true, he failed to end the use of slave labourers within the Reich and must have known about the continuing appalling conditions they lived in even after his orders to improve them and that huge numbers were killed as a result of what they went through.
Gitta Sereny interviewed Speer at length after his release from Spandau about his role during the war. She produced her own book, “Albert Speer: His Battle With The Truth”.
By the time of his death, two schools of thought had emerged about the part played by Albert Speer from 1939 to 1945. The first was that he had played a magnificent actor’s part at the Nuremberg Trials that had spared his life; full of contrition and apologies. To his detractors his performance in the witness stand was just that – a performance. Others believed that he was genuinely contrite and that, while guilty, he could not be seen as being on the same level as the likes of Goering, Himmler and Heydrich. They believed that his apologies were sincere and that while he deserved a 20 year prison sentence, he most certainly did not deserve the death sentence. This support continued to the day he was released when the West German government dropped de-Nazification charges against him, which would have cost him the loss of his property and any profits made in West Germany from his book. It is said that Speer anonymously gave a large chunk of the profits made from “Inside the Third Reich” to Jewish charitable organisations.
Albert Speer died on September 1st 1981.