Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1823
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 crimes of the Nazi regime and to the suffering of the millions of workers under his authority. As the overseer of Germany’s war industries, Speer sacrificed the welfare of German and foreign workers in a spectacularly successful attempt to increase the production of weapons of war. Sereny writes that Speer must have been aware of the brutal treatment, inhuman working conditions, and insufficient food and medical treatment which many of the millions of (often involuntary) foreign workers later related at war crimes trials. Sereny insists that he must also have known about the attempted extermination of the Jews, not only because of his high position in the government but also because of his intimate knowledge of the German economy. Sereny argues that the diversion of trains to take the Jews of Europe to the extermination camps in Poland and the huge quantities of material diverted to the camps could not have escaped Speer’s notice. Nevertheless, Speer did little to alleviate the plight of the workers and failed to protest or intervene on behalf of the Jews. Sereny identifies these two omissions as Speer’s greatest crimes, both of which stemmed from his love for Hitler and his lust for power.
The most effective and informative sections of Sereny’s book deal with the personalities of the Nazi leaders and the power struggles and political infighting between them. The author shows that Speer himself became a master of political intrigue and as amoral as his rivals in his efforts to accumulate power and please his master. The leading figures of the Third Reich (and the women in their lives) emerge from Sereny’s pages as having been without political or moral convictions and completely dominated by the personality of Hitler. Although all of the surviving leaders denied any knowledge of the fate of the Jews of Europe during World War II at the subsequent war crimes trials, Sereny expends many pages attempting to prove that all of them not only knew what was going on but also were willing participants.
Sereny provides only a brief account of Speer’s attempts during the last year of the war to prevent the implementation of the “scorched earth” policy ordered by Hitler to slow his enemies’ advance. She also largely dismisses Speer’s supposed plan to assassinate Hitler as having never been serious. The author gives the impression that Speer’s defiance of Hitler’s orders only began after he realized that the war was lost and were part of a clever plan by Speer to save his own life once Germany’s enemies triumphed and began meting out punishment. Sereny develops this same theme through her account of the trial of the “major war criminals” before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremburg in 1946.
During the trial, Speer alone of the twenty-two defendants accepted responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime, while denying any knowledge of specific atrocities. In his later writings, Speer attributed his admission of guilt to a belated realization that Hitler was a criminal, that the German government had perpetrated criminal actions, and that as a member of that government he himself was guilty. Sereny strongly suggests that Speer admitted responsibility for German crimes not because of conscience or, as he himself wrote later, to divert guilt from the German people. Instead, his admission was part of a desperate strategy he adopted to escape the gallows. Her evidence for this thesis was Speer’s refusal—throughout the rest of his life—to admit personal knowledge before 1946 of any specific crime or atrocity committed by the Nazi government. The author implies that Speer succeeded in tricking the tribunal into giving him a sentence (twenty years imprisonment) much too lenient considering his involvement in Nazi criminality.
Sereny’s book contains little concerning Speer’s years of incarceration at Spandau prison in Berlin. She bases her account of that lengthy period of Speer’s life largely on the letters he wrote to his family and others, the first draft of his 1970 best-selling book Inside the Third Reich, and interviews with two clergymen who attempted to help Speer overcome what he admitted were shortcomings in his own character. Sereny apparently believes that Speer’s constant denunciations of Hitler and his supposed quest to become “good” were part of Speer’s carefully conceived plan to rehabilitate his reputation once his prison term ended in 1966.
Sereny scatters comments about Speer’s personality and life after Spandau throughout her biography, drawing from her many interviews with him. Many sections of the book are almost flow-of-consciousness excerpts from the interviews with Speer and others that confusingly deal with many different segments of Speer’s life. She describes him during the post-Spandau years as a charming and brilliant man who sought public attention to proclaim at the same time his guilt and his innocence. Friendly but withdrawn, he stubbornly refused to acknowledge that he knew about the fate of the Jews before Nuremburg. Sereny feels that such an acknowledgment would have done much to still the clamor from a growing element in world society which insists that there was no official or systematic attempt to exterminate the Jews by the German government during World War II. Sereny denounces these “revisionist” historians in her book. She points out that Speer was disgusted by what he termed this attempt to perpetrate a new “war guilt lie” to mislead yet another generation.
Sereny’s biography convincingly portrays Speer as a complex, cold, calculating, brilliant man whose desire for power and psychological domination by Hitler blinded him to the brutality of the regime he served. Her accounts of Speer’s relationships with the leading personalities of the Third Reich provide perceptive insights into the nature of the Nazi regime. She also persuades that Speer admitted responsibility for Nazi actions at Nuremburg and later not out of conviction or true remorse, but in order to save his life and rehabilitate his reputation. She ultimately fails, however, to prove her major contention: that Speer had personal knowledge before Nuremburg of the murder of European Jews. The documentary and testimonial evidence she presents seem to show that Speer, too overwhelmed with the burdens of his responsibilities to read the many clues concerning the fate of the Jews, remained ignorant of the true situation until confronted with the evidence at Nuremburg.
Sources for Further Study
The Economist. CCCXXXVI, September 23, 1995, p. 78.
The New Republic. CCXIII, November 13, 1995, p. 33.
The New York Review of Books. XLII, November 2, 1995, p. 9.
The New York Times Book Review. C, October 8, 1995, p. 11.
The Wall Street Journal. September 25, 1995, p. A13.
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