Apolitical Technocrat or War Criminal?


Martin Kitchen, Speer: Hitler’s Architect 

            Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s chief architect who also served as Nazi Germany’s Minister of Armaments from 1942 up to the end of World War II, was one of 24 high level officials placed on trial by the victorious allies at the International Military Tribunal, which met from November 1945 to October 1946 in Nuremberg, Germany.  The Nuremberg defendants were charged under a common indictment with four general counts: 1) participating in a common plan or conspiracy against peace; 2) planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression; 3) war crimes; and 4) crimes against humanity.  Ten of Speer’s fellow defendants received the death penalty.  In a compromise verdict among the court’s eight judges — two each from the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union — Speer was acquitted on the first two counts, found guilty on the last two, and sentenced to a 20-year prison term, which he served at Berlin’s Spandau Prison until 1966.  Speer considered his sentence outrageously severe: he had seen himself as a primary candidate to lead the effort to rebuild a New Germany after the war and felt that he was being punished for the honesty and candor he had demonstrated at Nuremberg.

            That apparent honesty and candor had made a strong initial impression upon the British and American interrogators who had interviewed Speer prior to the trial, including Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper and Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Speer impressed his interrogators with what seemed like genuine remorse for his participation in the Nazi war effort.  He offered his assistance to Great Britain and the United States in bringing the war against Japan to a quick conclusion and expressed his willingness to work with the British and American governments to prevent valuable inside information on the German armaments industry from falling into the hands of the Soviet Union.  But Speer also impressed his interrogators by being the antithesis of the stereotypical Nazi official: he was articulate and refined, with a sense of culture and history, anything but the boorish, psychopathic thug that most people outside Germany associated with Nazi leadership.

              At the Nuremberg trial, Speer cast himself as an apolitical technocrat thrust into a role in the armaments industry which he had not sought, and emphasized how untamed technology was more responsible for the catastrophe of World War II than the Western Allies had realized.  He explained how, as Armaments Minister, he had concluded by late 1943 that the war was lost, and that in late 1944 and early 1945 had courageously countered Hitler’s order that German soldiers destroy everything in reach as they retreated – sometimes referred to as Hitler’s “Nero Order” – thereby saving many lives and substantial property.

          Perhaps because of his refined personal qualities and his refreshing differences from the stereotypical Nazi, neither his interrogators nor the prosecutors who presented the case against him probed in any depth into the labor conditions in the armaments operations that Speer controlled, or what he had or had not done to counter the Nazi project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population. Speer professed to have had no knowledge of the appalling mistreatment of the hundreds of thousands of unfortunates who had worked for him and to have been unaware of the fate of the European Jews.  He told the Nuremberg judges that he was willing to accept “responsibility” for his role in Nazi war crimes, but not “guilt.”  He admitted that he should have known about the Holocaust and the extent of other Nazi crimes, but he did not. His were errors of omission rather than commission, which he maintained were less reprehensible.

            If Speer was incensed by the harshness of the 20-year sentence he received at Nuremberg, British-Canadian historian Martin Kitchen considers the sentence almost unconscionably lenient.  In Speer: Hitler’s Architect, Kitchen, who has written extensively on Germany, World War II and the Cold War, contends that Speer was fortunate to escape the death sentences that befell many other members of Hitler’s inner circle, including Martin Bormann, Herman Göring and Fritz Sauckel, who had worked hand-in-hand with Speer in recruiting the labor force for the armaments industry during the war.  Kitchen writes throughout this exhaustively researched biography with the fervor of a man on a mission: to deflate what might be termed the “Speer myth” that Speer successfully cultivated at Nuremberg and afterwards as a refined and repentant former Nazi with no knowledge of the appalling labor conditions in the armaments industry or of the fate of European Jewry.  To the contrary, Kitchen argues, Speer was an “active participant in Nazi crimes” (p.364), one of the Third Reich’s leading criminals.

              It is “utterly inconceivable,” Kitchen writes, that a man in Speer’s position “knew nothing of the persecution of the Jews or the ill-treatment of the slave laborers that had the misfortune to work under him” (p.334).  Speer’s attempt to cast himself as a “conscience-stricken prophet in a technological wilderness” was a “sham” (p.364). Speer was “particularly frightening” because he was not a thuggish and boorish Nazi.  A “hollow man, resolutely bourgeois, highly intelligent, totally lacking in moral vision, unable to question the consequences of his actions and without scruples,” Speer was the “outstanding representative of a widespread type that made the regime possible.” The Third Reich “would never have been so deadly effective had it relied on the adventurers, thugs, half-crazed ideologues, racist fanatics and worshippers of Germanic deities that people the public image of the regime” (p.371).

          Readers hoping to glean an understanding of Speer’s character through information about his childhood or as the father of six children are likely to be disappointed by Kitchen’s account. Speer’s personal life barely figures in Kitchen’s 350 plus pages.  His book is almost exclusively about what Speer did after he said good-bye to the wife and kids in the morning and went off to work.  After an initial chapter on Speer’s early life, the book’s remaining 13 chapters can be divided into three parts: 1) Speer’s role as Hitler’s architect; 2) his work as Armaments Minister; and 3) his post-war life up to his death in 1981. The chapters on the German wartime armaments industry are by far the most extensive, with considerably more about bureaucratic in fighting and the manipulation of production statistics than most general readers will feel they need to know.

          But the chapters on Speer the architect and as Armaments Minster serve as a predicate for Kitchen’s assessment of Speer in his post-war life and his protracted effort to reinvent himself, at Nuremberg, during his twenty-year prison term, and in the 15 years that remained to him until his death in 1981.  The chapters on the post-war Speer have much of the tone and flavor of a prosecutor’s closing argument, where Kitchen seems to ask his readers to serve as jurors and render a judgment for the court of history on Speer and his carefully cultivated self-image in light of the facts presented about the man’s work in Hitler’s Third Reich.

* * *

         Albert Speer was born in Mannheim, Germany in 1905 into a Protestant family of comfortable means.  At age 22, he married Marguerite (“Gretel”) Weber, to whom he stayed married for the rest of his life. Although the workings of the marriage are almost entirely absent from Kitchen’s account, we learn in the initial chapter that Speer’s parents, who had a distant and generally cold relationship with their son, did not approve of his relationship with Gretel and did not meet her until seven years into the marriage. The couple had six children together, but we learn almost nothing about Speer’s relationship with any of them, other than that it was cold and distant, much like his relationship to his own parents.

            In March 1931, Speer joined Adolph Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party as Party Comrade 474,481. There is ample evidence that Speer’s attitude toward National Socialism was “far from being lukewarm” (p.22).  Although neither an ideologue nor anything more than an “instinctive anti-Semite,” Speer was an opportunist who utilized his party connections to make his rise to power possible. “In this too he was typical of the well-educated and skilled middle class that gave the Third Reich its compliant support, despite some reservations and occasional feelings of remorse” (p.24), Kitchen writes.

               Through chief Nazi Party propagandist Joseph Goebbels, Speer met Adolph Hitler in early 1933, shortly after Hitler had come to power. Over the course of the next twelve years, Speer remained a particular favorite of the Führer, forming with his boss the “closest thing to a friendship that Hitler ever managed to enjoy” (p.42).  When Paul Troost, Hitler’s architect, died suddenly in 1934, Hitler appointed the 28 year old Speer to succeed Trost.

            Speer was in Kitchen’s estimation at best a mediocre architect, lacking in creativity.  But Hitler sought a conversational partner to listen attentively to his grandiose ideas about architecture: “massive atavistic cult monuments that were a defiant rejection of modernity” (p.33), and “vast monuments to his boundless imperial ambitions” (p.34).  Speer filled that role perfectly. He gave “precise and direct answers to all his [Hitler’s] many questions. He never made the slightest attempt to curry favor. He appeared not to be intimidated by his immense power and prestige. Hitler admired his impeccable manners and self-confidence. He was a pleasant contrast to the toadying courtiers, adulating acolytes and heel-clicking automata in his customary entourage” (p.41).

        Speer was initially charged with designing a vast new chancellery in Berlin, a structure “designed to overawe and intimidate by its sheer size” (p.4). Then, in 1937, he was appointed General Building Inspector (GBI) for Berlin, with the task of drawing up plans for a New Berlin, grandiosely termed “Germania.”  In that capacity, Speer coordinated the seizure, exploitation and allocation of Jewish assets after the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938. The GBI handed over some 10,000 Jews to Heinrich Himmler’s SS, “to be shipped to what was delicately described as ‘the East’” (p.96). An essential part of Speer’s plans to rebuild Berlin involved the creation of new concentration camps to quarry the stone and make the bricks for the Germania project.  In close collaboration with the SS, Speer ruthlessly exploited the labor of concentration camp inmates working in inhumane conditions. “There is no evidence that Speer and his colleagues showed the slightest sign of concern or even interest as to their fate” (p.95), Kitchen writes. National Socialist monumental architecture was thus “inextricably linked to the oppression, terror and murderous intent of Himmler’s SS” (p.73). From at least the time when he became GBI, Speer and his team of planners and architects were “intimately involved in the ‘Final Solution’” (p.100).

           Speer stepped into his position as Minister of Armaments when Fritz Todt, the minister at the war’s outset,  was killed  in an airplane accident in February 1942 under mysterious circumstances.  That Speer had no expertise in the armament field was a plus for Hitler, who “detested experts” and considered Speer a “loyal vassal, who would never dare step out of line” (p.121). Kitchen credits Speer with having exceptional organizational talent and being a generally effective bureaucrat, with a flair for besting rivals in inter-agency turf wars.  He “knew how to pick a team, delegate responsibility and deliver the goods” (p.35).  Speer was aware that with “virtually unlimited access to Hitler he held the key to power in the Third Reich. . . His closeness to Hitler enabled him to show scant concern for established rules of procedure or legal constraints” (p.122). Within a few weeks of becoming Minister of Armaments, Speer had made himself into “one of them most powerful figures in the Third Reich” (p.133-34).

        Hitler gave Speer authority to shut down all branches of industry that were not directly or indirectly connected to armaments and supported him in almost all instances.  By mid-1943, Speer had acquired “virtually dictatorial powers over the economy at home and in the occupied territories. . . His powers extended from the Soviet Union, Poland and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia to Luxembourg, Alsace Lorraine, Carinthia, Carniola and Lower Syria” (p.177-78).  Although Speer may have concluded in this time frame that the war was hopelessly lost, as he subsequently claimed at Nuremberg, this was not the message he was delivering to those working under him and to the Führer himself.

      Speer continually emphasized how will power could overcome all obstacles to victory, aided by forthcoming “miracle weapons.” The worse the situation on the ground became, the “greater the emphasis on ‘miracle weapons’ that would soon become operational and turn the tables on the enemy. Speer did all he could to raise expectations, even appointing a special propaganda section within his ministry to trumpet future wonders” (p.253).  Kitchen has no doubt that Speer “did indeed help to prolong the war longer than many thought possible, as a result of which millions were killed and Germany reduced to a pile of rubble” (p.364-66).

            Kitchen contends that Speer’s resistance to Hitler’s “Nero Order,” in which the Führer ordered the destruction of areas not likely to be regained in light of the Allied advances in both the East and West, was far less courageous than Speer made it seem at Nuremberg.  A “scorched earth policy was never a viable option. The Germans lacked the time, the manpower and the explosives to carry out demolition on this scale” (p.255).   Industrialists, bankers and the business elite, along with substantial portions of the military and the civil administration, all “refused to accept the preposterous notion that there was no alternative to national suicide” (p.265).  Speer had the support of the vast majority of the German people, who wanted “nothing more than an end to all the misery and suffering. He also had the distinct advantage that the communications network had broken down.  Orders from Hitler’s bunker seldom reached the front line” (p.265).

           In close collaboration with Fritz Sauckel, Speer used laborers, including POWs, as needed in his armament operations.  As in the projects for Berlin, Himmler once again supplied Speer and Sauckel with much of the labor they needed from the slave labor camps his SS maintained. Himmler viewed the camps as instruments of oppression to punish the state’s enemies and eliminate undesirables — “annihilation through work” (p.39) was his mantra.   Speer took the more pragmatic view that starving workers to death was “not an effective way to run a business” (p.153). But Speer “needed workers, which Himmler had in ample supply” (p.73).

        At Nuremberg, Speer pointed the finger at Sauckel as being responsible for the inhumane working conditions in the armaments industry. Sauckel was “crude and uneducated, lacked style and had a grating personality.” He stood in sharp contrast to Speer, “handsome, suave, polite, cultured and solidly bourgeois” (p.311). These differences, in Kitchen’s view, account for the difference in sentencing of the two men: the death penalty for Sauckel versus 20 years in Spandau prison for Speer.

          Kitchen describes Speer’s defense at Nuremberg as “masterly,” presenting himself as a “diligent minister who stuck to the immediate tasks at hand, leaving politics to others” (p.286). Speer’s decision to accept “overall responsibility” for Nazi crimes but not “guilt” – which Kitchen terms an “empty formula” (p.363) — was contrary to what his lawyer wanted but turned out to be a “brilliant move that saved him from the hangman’s noose” (p.286). Speer remained calm throughout the trial, “convincing all who witnessed his performance that he stood apart from his more unsavory colleagues” (p.286-87).  But the reason he did not receive the death penalty at Nuremberg was that “no mention was made of his treatment of the Jews in Berlin” and that his “close cooperation with Himmler, the SS and the concentration camps was overlooked” (p.312).

          After he left Spandau prison in 1966, Speer continued to reinvent his past, claiming to have been victimized by an evil system and by the “phantom of technology that had enslaved him.” It was an “extraordinary achievement for a man who was responsible for so many deaths to present himself to the world as a guiltless innocent,” Kitchen concludes, “and to have been so astonishingly successful in getting away with it” (p.328).

* * *

      Kitchen presents a highly-convincing case that Speer was indeed lucky to have escaped a death sentence at Nuremberg.  The self-image which Speer so carefully cultivated — an “apolitical penitent, unaware of the crimes committed by the regime he served, an innocent victim of a remorseless technocratic age” (p.9), as Kitchen phrases it — had begun to crumble well before Kitchen’s fervently argued book.  But with Kitchen’s assiduous compilation from a more complete factual record than what had previously been available, there is little likelihood that  Speer’s implausibly benign self-image will be taken seriously anytime in the foreseeable future.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

March 26, 2018







Filed under Biography, European History, German History

11 responses to “Apolitical Technocrat or War Criminal?

  1. A man with “impeccable manners” Albert Speer knew how to win over his British and American interrogators the way he had won over Hitler.
    He had achieved prominence under the IIIrd Reich as an architect by satisfying Hitler’s obsession with grandiose themes and as an organization man by exploiting the labor of concentration camp prisoners.
    He knew how to trade his extensive knowledge of Japan, a former ally, that the U.S. wanted to defeat, and of the Soviet Union, a common foe, that the U.S. wanted to contain, for his former foes’ leniency.
    Speer was the kind of person who value efficiency – and not much else.

    • Thanks, Robin. Plus, Speer did entertain the notion that workers would be more effective if they were not on the verge of death. That was irrelevant for Himmler, that was the whole point of why they were in the camps in the first place. Somehow, Heinrich and Al worked out their differences on this issue, showing the virtues of being willing to compromise.

    • Very well stated, Chanh, it sounds like Kitchen could have used you for editorial polishing. Speer really pulled the wool over the eyes of a lot of different people over a very long time. It’s only after he died that we are beginning to see how his whole career was made hoodwinking people, in Germany before and during the war, and with the Western allies afterwards.

  2. Robin Cohen

    Robin Cohen
    March 29, 2018 at 9:08 am
    Thanks for your crystal-clear review of Kitchen’s biography of Albert Speer. I once spent a couple of weeks reading Speer’s The Slave State. The book was disturbing in the way you describe. Speer presented himself as a dull, rational technocrat having (sigh, sigh) to deal with irrational bigots like Himmler. However, every now and again the ruse no longer works. The main difference seems to be that that Himmler wanted to work ‘slave labour’ (we know who this refers to) to death quickly, while Speer wanted to do the same thing, but more slowly.

    • Robin, I’m challenged on internet every bit as much as you, maybe more. My comment above, although ostensibly in response to that of my friend Chanh, is obviously for you. Tom

  3. David Gross

    Thanks for the review. Kitchen’s book sounds interesting. It’s worth remembering that evil regimes would fail quickly if not for lower level administrators who are complicit by carrying out unlawful orders.

    • Good point, Dave, that’s one of Kitchen’s major sub-themes: the Third Reich could never have been as deadly effective as it was without lower level lackeys willing to carry out any and all orders coming from the top. When Speer argued at Nuremberg that he was just a non-political technocrat who stayed out of politics, he enabled all those lackeys. They heard him and paid attention: well, if a guy like Speer way up there was no more than an apolitical technocrat, they argued, that’s even more the case for me several levels down the chain of command.

  4. Joan/Doug

    Good counterbalance to Speer’s own words in Spandau.



  5. Bob Burka

    Tom –

    Thanks for introducing me to Martin Kitchen’s biography of Albert Speer, which I am now almost finished. Although you are correct that it is too “macro” for my “micro” needs, i.e., understanding the reasons that MY wife’s mother was moved about in 1944 and 1945, it has been exceeding illuminating. Among the takes that I get from the book are:

    1. I got back into my “project” of understanding why my Hungarian Jewish mother-in-law was moved about – from the Auschwitz collection and transfer camp, to hard labor near Frankfurt a.m., then to the Ravensbruck, Nordhausen and Mauthenhausen concentration camps, all in ten months – on the assumption that the Germans had to have a reason for everything. Thus, I thought, it is only a question of what individual, logistical reasons applied to her situation. My guess/assumption has revolved around the need for labor in a shrinking Reich with an expectation of the need to produce vengeance weapons and to make a last stand in the Austrian Alps. Kitchen, at least in part, has disabused me of those beliefs. He describes in extraordinary, albeit “macro”, fashion the utter confusion at the highest levels of the National Socialist regime over what armaments to make and when and where to make them. I still believe that there are records about the movement of concentration camp labor and the like, but I have now been disabused of the belief that there was a monolithic central planning directive whose implementation moved people like my wife’s mother around like pawns. Much more disorganized, albeit no less venal.

    2. I always knew of rivalries at all levels of the NAZI regime, and the desire for individual “power,” even at the cost of injuring the state and war effort. In the extreme, the jockeying among senior NAZIs to succeed Hitler as Fuhrer seemed crazy – these were people that should have been trying to find U-boats to take them to Argentina. But Kitchen describes the petty greed and animosity in such detail that I have to wonder how they ever expected to supply the military. Speer does seem to have been adequately focused, at least in that respect, but the economic fights between Speer, the military’s various branches, and the gautleiters astonished me. Churchill always said that democracy made no sense until the alternatives were examined, but that may even have been true even in wartime, when the fascist model would have seemed arguably at its best.

    3. To the extent that there was planning, it also made little sense. The armaments sectors were not even running at capacity until something like 1942; Hitler thought that the war against the Soviet Union was “in the bag,” and thus he was even shifting to consumer goods in the 1940-41 period. And even in the armaments arena, there was no focus on the balance between research and development and the production of necessary weaponry for existing military units. Obsolete fighters like the ME-109 were produced late in the war when there were inadequate fuel supplies for them. Ditto for the revolutionary ME-262 jet fighter. I was particularly “amused” by Kitchen’s comment about the V-2 program, which is perhaps unique in military history in that more people died manufacturing the weapon than were killed by its deployment. My mother-in-law, who was briefly in the Dora sub-camp at Nordhausen, where there was an underground V-2 factory, once told me that she was sure that no V-2 rocket she ever touched could have made it to either London or Antwerp! And she was the mother and aunt of two engineering PhDs. So much for the quality of Speer’s concentration camp labor.

    4. I was also impressed about a somewhat obscure point not discussed in the book. While Kitchen does spend a lot of credible and convincing time debunking Speer’s claim to be ignorant of the Holocaust and the treatment of the Jews, there is – at least to me – an even more important claim of ignorance. NAZI apologists and Holocaust deniers have repeatedly argued that there is no evidence that Hitler knew anything about it. Yes, virulently anti-Semitic, but that does not prove that he knew about the death camps, and there is no surviving documentation and the like proving his actual knowledge. Kitchen does not even try to address that, but I was really impressed by the numerous meetings that Hitler held with so many senior aides – and about such details – that I find it inconceivable that Hitler did not know about and participate in the entire process. Also, along these lines, the purported decisional efficiencies of the fascist governmental model is punctured by Kitchen, given Hitler’s inability or unwillingness to make decisions and give directions to subordinates. Rather, he simply appears to have wanted them to fight it out among themselves.

    5. Which leads me to the fact that so many senior NAZIs knew, or else had reason to know, that the war was irretrievably lost, whether after the first Red Army offensive in December 1941, or after Stalingrad and Tunisia in early 1943. This makes the Nixon Administration’s continued fight in Viet Nam look almost reasonable and humane.

    In any event, this is a long-winded way of thanking you for getting me to read the Kitchen book.

    Bob Burka
    Washington, DC
    September 4, 2018

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