Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

TIME Magazine

October 30, 1995 Volume 146, No. 18





WHAT DID HE KNOW, AND WHEN did he know it? Questions about Albert Speer's awareness of the Holocaust haunted Adolf Hitler's wartime Armaments Minister (and favorite architect) until his death at 76 in 1981. At the 1945-46 war-crimes trial of Nazi leade rs in Nuremberg, Speer was sentenced to 20 years in Berlin's Spandau prison for his complicity in Hitler's atrocities. Unlike his codefendants, Speer readily accepted responsibility for crimes committed by a government in which he played a leading role. B ut he insisted it was not until the trial that he learned about the mass murders at Hitler's death camps. As he wrote his daughter Hilde in 1952, "Of the dreadful things, I knew nothing."

But how could he not have known? Speer joined the National Socialist Party in 1931. Within a few years he had become a member of Hitler's small circle of intimates. Named Germany's war-production czar in 1942, Speer ran the munitions factories where hu ndreds of thousands of slave laborers died of overwork and malnutrition. To many skeptics, his protestations at Nuremberg and in his best-selling memoirs (Inside the Third Reich, The Secret Diaries) smack of deep denial and cover-up.

In a rambling psychobiography, Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (Knopf; 757 pages; $35), Austrian-born journalist Gitta Sereny examines her subject's troubled life and problematic writings in microscopic detail. Sereny extensively interviewed Speer and his wife Margret at their retirement home in Heidelberg and talked with dozens of acquaintances. Her conclusion: emotionally crippled by an unhappy childhood, Speer was a frustrated romantic whose reciprocated love for Hitler--a sublimated, nonsexual but homoerotic devotion--blinded him to dark realities he chose not to see or hear. In effect, Speer existed in what the Dutch Protestant theologian Willem Visser 't Hooft has called "a twilight between knowing and not knowing."

Nonetheless, Sereny believes that by 1943 Speer had certain knowledge of Hitler's plan to exterminate the Jews. Thus began what some have called the Great Lie of Speer's life: by continuing to serve the Fuhrer despite his awareness of this abominable crime he became a criminal himself. Even Speer's bravely traitorous effort at war's end to countermand Hitler's scorched-earth policy for Germany was insufficient expiation.

Speer is a longer book than it should be. Protracted quotes from Sereny's interviews, while fascinating in their own right, lead to a wobbly, repetitive narrative that often lurches down bootless byways. A meeting with a Swedish diplomat, for example, provides Sereny with the excuse for a four-page diversion on Kurt Gerstein, the conscience-stricken SS lieutenant who tried to tell the world about death-camp gassings he had witnessed. Gerstein's saga has been told better elsewhere.

Such longueurs flaw the book, but not fatally. Sereny has probably captured Speer's aloof, elusive persona as well as any writer could. She also usefully reminds that Hitler, for all the evil he inflicted, was not a cartoon monster but a man with imme nse charisma and even some charm. Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth has a rightful place in any library of writings about the Third Reich.

Search for a (single) word:

http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/Holocaust/speer.html - - - Last modified: Friday, 06-Aug-2004 09:19:20 EDT