Thursday, December 15, 2011

Gitta Sereny - Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth

Gitta Sereny's detailed and scholarly examination of one of the key figures in Hitler's leadership is also extremely readable and powerful, two qualities rare in biography. At times it is terrible to read, the subject matter by necessity must examine details of the Holocaust and the use of slave labour that is repugnant. There is a compelling fascination though. For anyone who has ever wondered how the Holocaust could happen, how fairly ordinary men and women could be complicit in the mass murder of six million Jews, and millions of communists, socialists, trade unionists, Gypsies, gays and lesbians and countless other "undesirables" there is a desire to try and understand the reality of life under German Fascism.

There is meticulous research behind this book. Sereny seems to have spent a lifetime in archives, reading documents and interviewing every conceivable participant who knew the individual she was writing about. From his secretaries and servants in Hitler's bunker, to his wife and prison guards. But most of all, she interviewed Speer himself.

Following his trial at Nuremberg for his involvement in war-crimes, Speer was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Even before the trial itself he was undergoing a transformation. By the time of his release, he seemed obsessed with expressing his own repentance. Many of his existing circle of friends disowned him - they could not understand his desire to distance himself from Hitler, nor criticise the former Fuhrer. This process had begun, at least publicly, for Speer in the dock, when he'd attacked the man to whom he owed so much. Even in Spandau prison, several of his co-defendants could not forgive him for this.

Sereny's biography beings with Speer's childhood. Given the realities of German life in the early twentieth century, Speer was lucky to be the son of a prosperous, if unloving architect. The stilted and cool atmosphere of the middle class upbringing shaped Speer's own inability to display warmth. No doubt, his later relationship with Hitler carried echoes of the relationship that Speer would have liked to have had with his own father. However, to reduce their complex friendship to this would make nonsense of the other factors and realities of Speers' life.

By chance Speer found himself the favoured architect of Hitler. Speer had never been a party man, though he rapidly found himself at the heart of the Nazi organisation, joining formally in the early 1930s. However his rise was startling, and by the time of the war, he had moved on from designing homes to prominent Nazis, to heading up some of the most important industries of the German war economy. He proved extremely able. Even during the height of the bombing campaigns Speer helped ensure that the German economy continued to produce munitions and equipment for the armed forces. Central to this was the question of slave labour, labour that originated in the concentration camps, from Jew's exiled from their homes and from captured prisoners.

At the heart of the book, and indeed most articles about Speer is the question of his knowledge. To what extent was he aware of the mass murder taking place? Sereny's answer is couched in riders. Firstly she argues that it wasn't true that everyone in Germany was aware of the mechanised slaughter taking place at death-camps in Poland. This is not to say that people didn't think killing was taking place, or that something was going on. She includes Speer in this - he must have been aware that large numbers of people were being transported away from their homes, just has he must have known that hundreds of thousands of labourers were coming from somewhere.

Central to this debate, is whether or not Speer was present at an infamous speech that Himmler made to leading members of the SS. The text of Himmler's speech, which mentioned the slaughter and what needed to be done to solve the Jewish question, refers to Speer on several occasions, as if Speer himself was in the hall. Speer admits that he was there in an earlier session, speaking on questions of wartime production, but claims to have left. When the speech was made public, Speer spent many long hours trying to prove that he wasn't there, by sitting in the archives looking for evidence.

It is worth at this point noting Sereny's own brilliance as a researcher and historian. She examines Speer's life day by day, sometimes hour by hour, trying to tease out exactly where he was and when. What could he have known, who else was with him, what might he have heard. The detail is almost overwhelming, but builds up her central thesis, that Speer knew far more than he let on. This level of detail is important for Sereny too, because Speer spent many many ours creating his own story in an attempt to free himself of suspicion.

This desire to clear his name shaped Speer's later life. His defence at Nuremberg, was to denounce Hitler and his actions, accepting his responsibilities, but not his guilt. However once his imprisonment began, he seems to have begun to construct a careful web of stories that highlight his independence and criticism of Hitler as well as ignore his links to the aspects of the regime that would have acknowledged his awareness of the Holocaust. One example of this, is in the description of his final meeting with Hitler. Speer claims in his book, Inside the Third Reich, that he re-afirmed his personal loyalty, but admitting to working to countermand Hitler's final scorched earth policies. In a famous paragraph, Sereny points out that:

"Psychologically, it is possible that this is the way he remembered the occasion, because it was how he would have liked to behave, and the way he would have liked Hitler to react. But the fact is that none of it happened; our witness to this is Speer himself." [529]

Speer's original draft manuscript for the book, written in prison, contained no such story - surely something that would have been at the forefront of his mind. In fact the opposite is then claimed, Speer saying that he did not confess to Hitler. Similar examples abound in Sereny's book, as she uncovers the detailed process that Speer went through, before presenting his carefully selected story to the world. Speer makes much of his break with Hitler - his desire to protect the German people. So much so, that Speer claimed to have made plans to kill the Fuhrer.

After reading over 700 pages of Sereny's detailed account, its difficult to believe anything that Speer says. Not necessarily because he deliberately lied all the time, but because he was keen to portray himself in a particular way. He was after all, one of the last remaining figures from Hitler's inner circle and few could contradict him.

Sereny doesn't limit herself simply to telling, or criticising Speer's story. She spends time examining other aspects to the story of Nazi Germany. Some of the powerful parts are the tales of those that did know about the Holocaust and sought to alert the world. Some of these tales are tragic, as the fairly to be believed or listened to, drove individuals to despair and suicide. Sereny highlights these tales, to argue that some people were brave enough to stand up, or at least find out what was going on. Those who argue that the only chance to survive the dictatorship was to keep ones head down, may have been accurate, but they took a particular moral path.

Speer did not do this. He feigned ignorance and enjoyed his privileged life as long as he could. That said, he did clearly break with Hitler. He seemed to be one of the few who could challenge Hitler's madness, though Speer was not brave enough to break completely. There is an element, at least in how SEreny describes it, of love between the two men. Or perhaps hero worship by Speer. His return to Berlin to see Hitler one last time, smacks vaguely of the behaviour of a lover who cannot quite bring themself to say a final goodbye.

Sereny shows that many of those who knew Speer, during the war, during his imprisonment and after his release seem to have fallen into a kind of spell. Speer was clever, articulate, handsome and dashing. But she reminds us, he worked closely with people who had inspected concentration camps. Drank champagne with men who organised the Holocaust and had visited the slave labour camps. Even if the experience here shocked him enough to demand improved conditions for the workers.

Sereny concludes by quoting an exchange with Speer. An article she'd written quoted some word's of Speer's, written in 1977:

"However to this day I still consider my main guilt to be my tacit acceptance [Billigung] of the persecution and the murder of millions of Jews."

After he had checked this with her, and added a clarifying footnote which, if anything, strengthens the statement, Sereny asks why he was saying this now after denying it for so long. The article he had written was in response to a Holocaust denial book and Speer explained that he could no longer "hedge" the question, "for this purpose". Sereny comments that had Speer said this at Nuremberg, he would have hung with the other Nazis.

Sereny's book leaves little doubt that Speer knew far more than he admitted. His survival at Nuremberg and the second career he carved out as a writer stem from his ability to selectively tell a horrific story. But it is also clear that Speer was himself horrified by what had been done. The Holocaust was the outcome of the coming to power of a powerful political force that had been moulded by Hitler. The fascist bands that made Germany safe from socialist revolution relied on racism and prejudice to cement the street gangs together. They broke the communists and the trade unions, but they also opened the door to mass murder. Speer, and many of the industrialists that he came to work closely with during the war, found the world of Hitler one that they could do business with. A tiny number turned their backs and walked away, Speer and many others did not.

Related Reviews

Sereny - Into that Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder
Paxton - The Anatomy of Fascism
Guerin - Fascism and Big Business
Lipstadt - Denying the Holocaust, the Growing Assault on Truth and History

1 comment:

kimbofo said...

I read this book back in the mid-1990s and found it one of the most profoundly intriguing non-fiction tomes I'd ever read. I admired Gitta Sereny's perseverance in trying to determine what exactly Speer knew — and did not know — about the systematic slaughter of so many people. And reading your review reminds what a wonderful masterpiece of research — and determination — this book is. I especially love the way she explores and fleshes out Speer's moral culpability, to the point where he practically confesses that yes, he did wrong, and yes, he knows it is wrong and regrets it.