Hungarian-born journalist and free-lance writer Gitta Sereny based this gossipy and critical biography of Albert Speer primarily on extensive interviews with Speer himself, his wife, and a host of individuals who knew him at some time during his life. She also made use of Speer’s own writings, the memoirs and diaries of many people who had an influence on his life, and on extensive research in the archives of several countries. In a number of instances, the author uncritically accepts dubious assertions by the people she interviewed. Professional historians will be dismayed by her failure to provide exact citations for the sources of the many quotations she includes.
Albert Speer emerges from Sereny’s pages as a complex, clever, charming man of considerable genius with a hopelessly flawed character which he never managed to overcome. According to Sereny, Speer’s flawed character prevented him from ever admitting to the world that he knew about the assembly-line murder of Jews before the revelations at the Nuremburg Trials, even though he must have known about the “final solution” no later than 1943. Despite the knowledge that Sereny insists he had, Speer continued to serve Hitler’s regime until the end. His genius in organizing the German armaments industries prolonged the war by at least a year and resulted in hundreds of thousands if not millions of deaths, according to the author.
Sereny’s biography devotes few pages to Speer’s early life. Born into an upper- middle-class family in Heidelberg in 1905, Speer enjoyed all the advantages wealth could provide. The author briefly recounts his childhood, portraying it as unhappy despite his affluent upbringing. The unhappiness stemmed from Speer’s conviction that he was not well loved by his parents, and from the bullying he endured from his brothers. Sereny suggests that his lonely and loveless childhood contributed to the lack of compassion and ruthless ambition she sees as his most defining adult characteristics.
Speer’s marriage and family life also receive only cursory coverage in Sereny’s biography. According to Sereny, Speer’s parents never approved of his wife Margarete, whom they considered of a lower station. The author suggests that Speer married in part as an act of rebellion. Despite the five children she bore him, Sereny portrays Margarete as having had little influence on Speer’s career. According to the author, Speer was incapable of showing real affection to his children, most of whom became estranged from him, or for his wife. Sereny’s Speer was much too intent on aggrandizing himself to devote any appreciable time to his family, either before or after his confinement in Spandau prison. Sereny writes that only shortly before his death did Speer form a close human relationship—with a much younger woman.
Sereny writes little about Speer’s university years during which he trained as an architect, first at Karlsruhe, then at the Munich Institute of Technology, and finally as a graduate student in Berlin studying with the famous architect Heinrich Tessenow. The author portrays Speer as being cushioned by his father’s wealth from the hardships suffered by most students during the economic depression. Oddly, Sereny’s compassionless Speer shared both his food and his living quarters freely with other students who were in need. In 1931, Speer attended a speech delivered by Adolf Hitler and be- came a member of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP or Nazis). According to the author, Speer joined the party not out of ideological conviction but because of his ambition and his fascination with Hitler. Speer’s life changed forever.
Most of Sereny’s biography focuses on the next period of Speer’s life: his actions as a member of the Nazi Party and as an important functionary in Hitler’s government. She also explores at great length Speer’s strange relationship with Hitler, whom she surprisingly portrays in many cases as a likable and relatively benign (if tyrannical) father-figure. Throughout her account of the fifteen years Speer served the Nazis, Sereny constantly explores Speer’s attitudes about the Jews, his reactions to the Nazis’ treatment of them, and his knowledge of their ultimate fate.
Sereny portrays the relationship between Speer and Hitler as one of subconscious and unfilled sexual love. Driven by his desire to please Hitler and his lust for power, Sereny writes that Speer became oblivious to the...
(The entire section is 1823 words.)