The Evolution of Albert Speer’s Guilt: An Analysis of the Scholarly Conversation Surrounding the Nazi Architect
May 7, 2018
Albert Speer, the chief architect of the Nazi Party and arguably Adolf Hitler’s most favored aide, lived a life that blurred conventional notions of guilt. Despite being one of the most influential and efficacious Nazi officers, he maintained a persona of imperturbable civility that perplexed those who interrogated him at the Nuremburg Trials.1 During his time as a Nazi, he engrossed himself in his responsibilities as chief architect and Minister of Armaments and War Production.2 Speer was indubitably responsible for perpetuating World War II by establishing a spectacularly efficient model of transportation and production for Axis powers.3 However, scholars remain conflicted over how his actions as a Nazi prolonged the anti-Semitic agenda of the party. Additionally, many have questioned how much Speer actually knew about the party’s systematic genocide against Jews, Poles, homosexuals, and many more targeted groups. Scholars have focused on determining Speer’s innocence or guilt, but little attention has been paid to the evolution of the dialogue itself. I will attempt to summarize the scholarly debate surrounding Albert Speer’s innocence by analyzing how the opinion of anglophone scholarship has evolved from the years after the Nuremburg Trials to today. I will begin by briefly describing Speer’s life and going into further detail about his controversial role as a Nazi. Next, I will analyze the nature of scholarly conversation during the time when Speer was still alive, immediately after his death, and the years shortly thereafter. Finally, I will relate this older conversation to the nature of newer sources that were written in times well after Speer’s death. These analyses will reach the conclusion that as information has been uncovered about his life, scholarly conversation has shifted primarily to a presentation of arguments against Speer’s innocence.
Scholars typically claim that Speer committed himself to the alluring nationalist cause of the Nazis, and his ability as a young architect granted him power almost immediately.4 An article by the Washington Post remarks that “by the time he was 30, [Speer] was Hitler’s protégé, eagerly carrying out the Fuhrer’s grandiose building plans.”5 Albert Speer emphasized size in his unique style of architecture that was instrumental in popularizing the Nazi cause.6 Hitler was so impressed at Speer’s work that he felt it appropriate to bestow upon Speer an essential role in the Axis war efforts. The Washington Post notes that Speer “at 37, was put in charge of all armaments and war production for the Third Reich.”7 His professional association and intimate personal relationship with Hitler allowed him the independence to pursue whatever strategies he felt necessary to streamline Nazi transportation and production.8
Scholars note that throughout his life after Nazism, Albert Speer claimed that he knew nothing about the Holocaust. He asserted that through the direct redaction of information and continual psychological manipulation, he never comprehended the reality of genocide in his government.9 Literature that is sympathetic towards Speer builds upon this claim.10 Marcus Billson writes in his paper “Inside Albert Speer: Secrets of Moral Evasion” from 1979 that “incredible as it may seem, I do not think that the exterminations were ever very real for Speer until Nuremburg,” because of forced naivete by Nazi officials.11 Of course, other scholars are adamant that the anti-Semitic policies that Speer enacted are indicative of his guilt as a collaborator in genocide. Speer himself acknowledged that he employed Jewish slave labor.12 Additionally, records show that he designed Jewish ghettos, conspired in the mass transportation of Jewish populations, and was obedient to Hitler through every policy except the Nero Decree.13 Billson notes that Speer always thought “naively that as an artist and technician his work was apolitical.”14 Scholarly conversation has hotly debated the legitimacy of this idea for decades.
The literature that I classify as older was published either during Speer’s lifetime, or in the years immediately following his death. Even though publications began discussing Speer during his life, nearly objective literature can be found only in the form of obituaries. These mostly consist of extended biographies and excerpts from interviews with Speer. In accordance with conventional obituaries, they attempt to summarize his life through a presentation of personal details and familial survivors. However, when one considers the audience of the articles, it can be assumed that the obituaries fortified animosity towards Speer. The pieces in question were written by the Washington Post and the New York Times, two publications that reach English-speaking, American audiences. By explaining the significant role that Speer had in the Nazi system, any attempt at humanization was offset by his disgraceful relationship to Nazism. The Washington Post article entitled “Albert Speer, 76, Dies: Director of Hitler’s Industrial Machine” does not attempt to hide the fact that Speer was essential to Nazi war efforts. Its blunt rhetoric notes that Speer “was able to increase production even at the height of the allied bombing offensives. Among the means he used was slave labor.”15 The impartial nature of these obituaries must present negative facts because they are necessary. A New York Times article published several months after his death entitled “The Third Reich According to Albert Speer” nods towards the then-forming scholarly discussion about Speer’s guilt by writing that “a number of young German historians are testing Speer’s picture of himself and with it his version of life inside the Third Reich.”16 While it does not contribute to the conversation, the article discusses the separate arguments in an uninvolved fashion. These obituaries were important to bringing the idea of Speer’s innocence to the limelight in a time when the debate was just gaining momentum.
Sympathetic argumentation from the initial stages of scholarly conversation attempts to make a case for Speer’s innocence that is related to the civilian population of Nazi Germany. One way that these commiserating pieces paint a relatively positive picture of Speer is by presenting the evidence against him, and subsequently psychoanalyzing him to justify a forgiving opinion. An article for Speer’s innocence is entitled “Inside Albert Speer: Secrets of Moral Evasion” and was written late in his life. It begins by making a considerable effort to lay out arguments against Speer. After introducing Speer’s case for innocence through a plethora of his quotes, Billson acknowledges that “his ignorance (and thus his innocence) about the full extent of the Jewish persecutions is indeed problematic.”17 He unpacks how it is difficult to believe Speer since as head of war production he “must have known the reprehensible source of the human hair used for insulation in U-boat construction,” and that Speer was present at a talk where an officer explicitly discussed “the most difficult task of his life in liquidating every man, woman, and child of Jewish extraction.”18 Even so, Billson walks through a psychoanalysis of Speer to elaborate on the idea that “his upper-middle-class morality and respectability shielded him from facing anything so irksome.”19 The pitying tone of passages like this indicate that Billson is willing to look past Speer´s actions and look towards his mental condition. By referencing the socioeconomic state of his upbringing, he alludes to the idea that Speer was mentally incapable of genocide. Billson uses sympathetic language throughout the article to highlight manipulation that Speer experienced. He even remarks that “Speer, like so many Germans, had passively accepted the totalitarian laws of the Nazi state without questioning them.”20 He does this to describe how through mental suppression and naivete, Speer never registered the reality of genocide in his government. This method of argumentation is an example of the early use of psychological analysis to develop cases for Speer´s innocence.
The other way that early literature advocated for Speer was by humanizing him on a broader platform. A piece published in the Washington Post in 1976 is entitled “Albert Speer: An Invaluable Link To Understanding Nazi Germany.” It lacks a summary of evidence against Speer, but still develops a strong sympathetic sentiment. The article parallels his life to the experience that most Nazis had, arguing that Nazi citizens were manipulated and exploited, but ultimately realized their atrocities upon liberation. It explains how Speer “fell under Hitler’s spell,” and that Germans possess a “combination of traits which makes them devoted workers with somewhat less attention paid to the results of their work.”21 The language used lacks detail on why the audience should pity Speer, but successfully convinces the readership that he may not be guilty. This rhetoric successfully humanizes Speer for the audience by shifting the blame from his mental state to how others manipulated him. This not only implies Speer’s blamelessness, but allows readers to ponder the strong possibility that they would have responded to the Nazi´s manipulative tactics in the same way. Additionally, the literature establishes sympathy for other individuals who may have experienced similar exploitation. These early pieces of compassion use condemnatory facts or a negative public perception to preface a presentation of positive outlooks on Speer’s life that had not been previously produced. Since they are writen before Speer’s death, they lack comprehensive information on his life. Nevertheless, this literature effectively expounds upon ideas that acknowledge the difficulty of his life as a Nazi.
Older literature that attempts to develop a case for Speer’s guilt does so with alternative approaches. Most of it was written during Speer’s life, and does not respond to sympathetic literature. Rather, it tends to present new evidence that further accuses Speer of anti-Semitic crimes. An article from the MIT Press entitled “Albert Speer, the Architect from a Conversation of July 21, 1978” consists of transcribed interviews between the author and Albert Speer. Annotations in the conversation display hostility by mentioning that Speer attempted to practice “Fascist architecture,” and that he “knew that his commissions were for political edifices.”22 The interview focuses on his architectural practice but develops an accusatory case by revealing details about Speer that portrays him in a negative way. An article by the New York Times entitled “A Talk with Albert Speer” explains that the books Speer wrote raise the question of how “such an intelligent and sensitive man [could] have blinded himself to the horrors of the Third Reich.”23 This piece admits that Speer advocates for his own innocence, but it doesn’t respond to the other side of scholarly conversation. It presents fresh information about Speer to the public by including quotes and revealing that through his life after Nazism, “Speer grew more and more introspective, and became convinced that he had been at least morally associated with the murder of the Jews.”24 Admitting his moral guilt may have drawn sympathy from the audience, but the article emphasizes the atrocities that were associated with Speer. This revealing of further knowledge cast a negative reputation upon Speer but failed to illegitimate sympathetic claims from the other side of scholarship.
The same can be said for the creative, oppositional style of older works. Published in The Georgia Review, the article “ALBERT SPEER – 20 APRIL 1945; 2200 HOURS” is a poem told from Speer’s point of view. It walks the audience through hypothetical ruminations of Speer as a Nazi official, including thoughts of opposition to Hitler´s scorched earth policy of destroying Germany. However, it concludes by stating that, from Speer’s perspective, “That I am faithful. That I evade my better self. That I Neglect my knowing.”25 This casts blame upon Speer for not opposing the morally corrupt system to which he selflessly subscribed. He may have acted independently at a crucial time, but the poem dispels any pity by asserting that he was too dissociated from himself. Most of the poem depicts Speer as disgusted and angry at Hitler. However, it shifts in tone at as Speer admits his unquestionable devotion to the Nazi cause. Additionally, this poem uses a first-person point of view to relate the reader to Speer on a personal level. By taking the audience through the ups and downs of Speer’s moral dilemma, it successfully degrades him for the reader because it concludes with a faithful declaration to Hitler. Informed conclusions that Speer was manipulated and exploited by Nazi officials successfully contradict the emotional resentment in this poem, though. It is not until accusatory literature presented sufficient information about Speer’s life that scholars advocating for his guilt could contradict these conclusions.
Contemporary contributions to this scholarly conversation consist of studies that were written well after his death. These are articles produced in the 21st century or in years just prior. Unlike the literature of old conversation, the modern narrative almost exclusively contradicts Speer’s claims of innocence. However, it does not do so through psychoanalysis or creative works. These pieces either respond to older sympathetic literature or present an analysis of facts. Ultimately, this presentation of further details about Speer’s life is enough to prove that his actions, not his debated ignorance, determine how he should be viewed by posterity.
Analyses that respond to sympathetic arguments mentioned earlier are not always concerned with contradicting the psychological case for innocence. An article written in 2003 for the Journal of Contemporary History is entitled “‘Drastic Measures to Defend the Reich at the Oder and the Rhine…’; A Forgotten Memorandum of Albert Speer of 18 March 1945.” It focuses on refuting the “widely-held general agreement that Speer sabotaged Hitler’s command to make a ‘desert’ out of Germany in the spring of 1945.”26 Hitler wanted to destroy German infrastructure as Allied forces fought their way into the country so that defeat would be delayed. By fulfilling these commands, Speer would have severely crippled the well-being of the German population. The author Heinrich Schwendemann acknowledges that while Speer was explicitly critical of this plan, the most fatal action was that “Speer did not call on Hitler to end the war.”27 The article uses recently discovered documents from Speer himself to reinforce this point. A memorandum to Hitler that Speer successfully hid from the trials of Nuremburg advocates for an elongation of the war that “would result in the further destruction of Germany’s economic potential.”28 Additionally, the memorandum “showed no scruples in using young recruits or badly-trained and poorly-armed territorial army troops as ‘cannon fodder’ for the sake of an illusionary dream.”29 Speer only opposed the destruction of Germany because it was an unnecessary use of military resources. As minister of war production, he wanted to efficiently consolidate troops to fight during the war’s last legs. Schwendemann describes the result as “an exorbitant loss of life and massive destruction in the Reich.”30 This article is an example of responsive literature that uses newly discovered information. Even though it does not address the question of Speer’s psychological innocence directly, it further demonstrates the reality that Speer was consciously active in bettering the Nazi’s war efforts. He may not have been responsible for the perpetration of mass genocide, but his deliberate efforts were essential to propping up a system that was.
The other style of opposition literature reaches the same end of focusing on discovered actions rather than earlier psychological analyses. This style uses a method of accusation that may nod at why some have sympathy towards Speer but does not seek to respond to these ideas. Instead, it attacks Speer’s innocence throughout the literature by analyzing the architectural technique that Speer employed during his time as a Nazi. An article written in 2012 by Roger Forsgren for The New Atlantis is entitled “The Architecture of Evil.” It prefaces its argument with an extensive biography of Albert Speer, but eventually develops the thesis that “Speer did use his brilliant technical expertise and talents to enable the war efforts of the most evil regime in history, allowing it to murder millions of human beings.”31 The article discusses how Speer deliberately used technology and engineering for evil purposes. Forsgren writes that Speer not only employed slave labor, but “was able to give Hitler and his armies the weapons needed to prolong the most murderous and devastating of all wars.”32 Additionally, it explains how Speer’s work could not have been conducted without at least some knowledge of mass murder in the Third Reich. Instead of acknowledging earlier psychological defenses, it uses an analysis of his technological prowess to clarify that “Speer willfully closed his eyes and helped to implement atrocity.”33 By doing so, a definitive case is made for Speer’s guilt.
This exclusive analysis of fact finds its way into other pieces of the contemporary conversation. Published in 1996 for The College Art Association, the article “Anti-Semitic Policy in Albert Speer’s Plans for the Rebuilding of Berlin” by Paul Jaskot is a strict assessment of Nazi urban planning. The essay aims to “study the function of Speer’s architectural goals as they were integrated into the creation and implementation of state policy against the Berlin Jews.”34 It walks through the intricacies of Speer’s anti-Semitic housing system and absurdly nationalist edifices to illuminate “the extent to which architectural interests were involved with events that culminated in the destruction of the Jewish population in Berlin.”35 Jaskot asserts that Speer held strong anti-Semitic feelings by analyzing his policies during his time as chief architect. As the urban planner of Berlin, Speer attempted “to overlook any moral qualms he might possible have had about quartering [Jews] in less than adequate housing.”36 Not only does this suggest Speer’s collusion with a system of mass murder, but also implies that psychological sympathy is incorrect in claiming that Speer was too sensitive to understand systematic genocide. These contemporary articles use advanced knowledge of Albert Speer’s life and actions to consistently reach the conclusion that he was guilty for more than he was charged for at Nuremburg. His unquestionable devotion to the Nazi party and anti-Semitic ideas are consistently recognized in the contemporary scholarly conversation. This has turned a rather contentious debate into one of exclusively accusations.
During his life and following his death, scholars held a variety of opinions on the nature of Speer’s involvement. Articles like obituaries attempted to stay uninvolved, but other argumentative analyses made conclusions without full access to information. Sympathetic reasonings made a convincing case for Speer’s ignorance of genocide by discussing the manipulative nature of the Nazi regime. At the same time, writers convinced of Speer’s guilt expressed their opinion through a presentation of the latest information or creative outlets. However, as time progressed, important facts about Speer’s life were discovered. Eventually scholarly conversation shifted to a one-sided discussion about Speer’s guilt. Unlike older articles, the conversation was more analytical than creative. While scholars will never have a comprehensive picture of Speer’s life, the evolution of their conversation indicates that he was guilty of anti-Semitism and collusion with genocide. If the psychological manipulation of the Nazi regime blinded Speer to the reality of mass murder, then that may have been the cause of such a revolutionary cultural shift in Nazi Germany. The Nazis were able to drastically change the political climate, but more importantly they altered German civilization on a fundamental level. It is important to consider the nature of scholarly conversation surrounding the issue because it analyzes how guilt is determined. Rather than looking exclusively at one´s actions, social influences and cultural pressure must be considered when determining innocence or guilt. While contemporary scholarly conversation mostly agrees that Speer was consciously responsible for the atrocities of Nazi Germany, the shift away from a contentious debate may indicate a change in modern societal conceptions of guilt.
- Marcus Billson, “Inside Albert Speer: Secrets of Moral Evasion,” The Antioch Review 37, no. 4 (1979): 460-74. doi:10.2307/4638243, 465.
- Ibid, 463.
- Paul B Jaskot, “Anti-Semitic Policy in Albert Speer’s Plans for the Rebuilding of Berlin,” The Art Bulletin 78, no. 4 (1996): 622-32. doi:10.2307/3046211, 630.
- Michael Getler, “Albert Speer: An Invaluable Link to Understanding Nazi Germany,” The Washington Post (1974-Current File), Feb 23, 1976. http://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/146551044?accountid=10427.
- Bernhard Leitner and Sophie Wilkins, “Albert Speer, the Architect from a Conversation of July 21, 1978,” October 20 (1982): 15-50. doi:10.2307/778605, 14.
- Michael Getler.
- Marcus Billson, 464.
- Ibid, 462.
- Ibid, 470.
- Ibid, 464.
- Paul B Jaskot, 431.
- Marcus Billson, 461.
- JY Smith, “Albert Speer Dies,” The Washington Post (1974-Current File), Sep 02, 1981. http://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/147286873?accountid=10427.
- John Vinocurmunich, “The Third Reich According to Albert Speer,” New York Times (1923-Current File), May 09, 1982. http://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/122041122?accountid=10427.
- Marcus Billson, 466.
- Ibid, 467.
- Ibid, 470.
- Ibid, 464.
- Ibid, 474.
- Michael Getler.
- Bernhard Leitner and Sophie Wilkins, 14.
- Roger Jellinex, “A Talk with Albert Speer,” New York Times (1923-Current File), Aug 23, 1970. http://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/117970124?accountid=10427.
- W. D. Snodgrass, “ALBERT SPEER—20 APRIL 1945; 2200 HOURS,” The Georgia Review 31, no. 2 (1977): 318-21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41399620, 321.
- Heinrich Schwendemann, “‘Drastic Measures to Defend the Reich at the Oder and the Rhine …’: A Forgotten Memorandum of Albert Speer of 18 March 1945,” Journal of Contemporary History 38, no. 4 (2003): 597-614. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3180711, 597.
- Ibid, 600.
- Ibid, 606.
- Ibid, 607.
- Ibid, 613.
- Roger Forsgren, “The Architecture of Evil,” The New Atlantis, no. 36 (2012): 44-62. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43152734, 45.
- Ibid, 52.
- Ibid, 58.
- Paul B Jaskot, 622.
- Ibid, 624.
- Ibid, 628.
Billson, Marcus. “Inside Albert Speer: Secrets of Moral Evasion.” The Antioch Review 37, no. 4
(1979): 460-74. doi:10.2307/4638243.
Forsgren, Roger. “The Architecture of Evil.” The New Atlantis, no. 36 (2012): 44-62.
Getler, Michael. “Albert Speer: An Invaluable Link to Understanding Nazi Germany.” The
Washington Post (1974-Current File), Feb 23, 1976. http://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/146551044?accountid=10427.
Jaskot, Paul B. “Anti-Semitic Policy in Albert Speer’s Plans for the Rebuilding of Berlin.” The
Art Bulletin 78, no. 4 (1996): 622-32. doi:10.2307/3046211.
Jellinex, Roger. “A Talk with Albert Speer.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Aug 23,
Leitner, Bernhard and Wilkins, Sophie. “Albert Speer, the Architect from a Conversation of July
21, 1978.” October 20 (1982): 15-50. doi:10.2307/778605.
Schwendemann, Heinrich. “‘Drastic Measures to Defend the Reich at the Oder and the Rhine …’:
A Forgotten Memorandum of Albert Speer of 18 March 1945.” Journal of Contemporary History 38, no. 4 (2003): 597-614. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3180711.
Smith, JY. “Albert Speer Dies.” The Washington Post (1974-Current File), Sep 02, 1981.
Snodgrass, W. D. “ALBERT SPEER—20 APRIL 1945; 2200 HOURS.” The Georgia Review
31, no. 2 (1977): 318-21. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41399620.
Vinocurmunich, John. “The Third Reich According to Albert Speer.” New York Times (1923-
Current File), May 09, 1982. http://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/122041122?accountid=10427.