(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Albert Speer, the gifted architect who directed Nazi Germany’s wartime economy as Minister for Armaments and War Production, has written the most exhaustive and reliable memoirs of any of the leaders of the Third Reich. The first volume, Inside the Third Reich (1970), covers the period of Speer’s life down to October 1, 1946, the date of his sentencing at Nuremberg for war crimes. At exactly this point, Speer begins the second volume of his memoirs, Spandau: The Secret Diaries, which covers the twenty years that he was confined, mainly in Spandau prison in West Berlin. While serving his sentence, Speer secretly compiled numerous biographical and diary notes, writing on everything from cardboard to toilet tissue, in an attempt to cope physically and intellectually with life in a cell. Smuggled out of Spandau with the help of sympathetic guards, the notes—more than twenty thousand pages of them—were kept for him by relatives. Following his release from Spandau on October 1, 1966, Speer spent several years reworking this raw material into two volumes of memoirs, both of which have been given excellent English translations by Richard and Clara Winston.

Spandau: The Secret Diaries, in its purpose and scope, shows how one man came to grips with himself—both as a prisoner and as a close associate of Adolf Hitler. Speer’s purpose in writing Spandau was to give form and substance, in his words, “to years empty of content.” He divides his book into twenty chapters, one for each year of his sentence, reflecting in this way the monotony of prison life. The book itself, however, is anything but monotonous to read because of its dual scope. In the first line, Speer effectively demonstrates the psychological impact which the daily prison routine had on his six fellow prisoners, including Rudolf Hess, onetime deputy leader of the Nazi Party, the naval chiefs Erich Raeder and Karl Dönitz, youth leader Baldur von Schirach, the diplomat Constantin von Neurath, and Walter Funk, economics minister. More interesting than Speer’s account of the drudgery of prison life for himself and his comrades are his periodic and frequently lengthy flashbacks to the Nazi era. Through these flashbacks, Speer manages to supplement his vivid portraits of Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazis which he previously set forth in Inside the Third Reich.

Speer, in the opening chapter of his diaries, relates a number of interesting events which occurred during the first year of his sentence. Together with his six fellow prisoners, Speer was initially confined to the prison of the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg where the trials were held. On the night of October 15-16, 1946, two weeks after the Allied judges handed down their decisions against the Nazi defendants, the capital sentences were carried out. Particularly absorbing are Speer’s brief character sketches of the condemned prisoners and the tense atmosphere which prevailed in the Nuremberg prison on the night they were executed. The other prisoners, including Speer, remained in Nuremberg until July 18, 1947, when they were transferred to Spandau prison in Berlin. The flight from Nuremberg to Berlin, Speer notes, gave a decided lift to his spirits, for he was able to observe that, despite the destruction which the Allied bombers had rained down upon Germany, the process of rebuilding had already begun. Upon the arrival of the prisoners at Spandau, Speer recounts how the guards made it a point of telling them that the tattered clothing which they were given had formerly been worn by the inmates of Nazi concentration camps. Assigned number five as his official identification, Speer settled down to the monotonous routine of prison life, characterized among other things by the monthly rotation of the prison guard and administration among the Russians, Americans, British, and French, in that order. To alleviate the boredom of prison life, Speer devoted much of his time in his first year at Spandau, and in those that followed, to such activities as drawing architectural sketches (he had done none since 1942), working in the garden, which he eventually landscaped completely, and musing in his secretly written notes about the roles that he and other Nazi leaders played in the Third Reich.

The formal diaries which later emerged from these notes consist largely of a collection of anecdotes on the leading personalities of Nazi Germany. Speer’s accounts of the feuds between such party stalwarts as the blustering Luftwaffe chief, Hermann Göring; the deceptive propaganda minister, Paul Joseph Goebbels; and the degenerate Jew-baiter, Julius Streicher, add currency to the view held by most historians that the supposedly monolithic Third Reich was in fact an aggregate of administrative principalities ruled by incessantly quarreling barons. These conflicts, as Speer’s diaries show, continued among the inmates of Spandau prison. Frequently, against the backdrop of the depressing atmosphere of prison life, the inmates, including Speer, would quarrel, make up, only to quarrel again over remarks made among themselves about one another’s personality traits or their roles in the Nazi regime. By and large, Speer depicts his fellow prisoners as broken individuals, with little strength of character, who had lost all purpose in life....

(The entire section is 2173 words.)

Spandau Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

America. CXXXIV, May 8, 1976, p. 413.

Economist. CCLVIII, March 20, 1976, p. 113.

Nation. CCXXII, March 27, 1976, p. 378.

National Review. XXVIII, May 28, 1976, p. 571.

New Yorker. LII, April 19, 1976, p. 129.

Time. CVII, February 23, 1976, p. 63.