After his release from Spandau prison, Speer professed to have been plagued by an oppressive feeling of guilt. In his Playboy interview he made the dramatic claim to have made a one-way trip to hell from which he had not yet returned. One cannot help feeling a certain sympathy for Speer’s erstwhile friend Rudolf Wolters’s outrage at his loudly broadcasted expressions of remorse and his public appearances in the penitent’s hair-shirt. It was never at all clear what Speer meant by guilt. His expression of general or overall guilt at Nuremberg was an empty formula, although it turned out – much to the surprise of his defence attorney – to have been a masterly tactic that helped save his skin. Guilt in this context seems to have meant little more than overall responsibility for things that had happened while he was in office, but with which he was not directly concerned. In the judicial sense of the term his guilt was palpable, but this form of guilt had been exculpated by twenty years in prison. Or was this feeling of guilt merely remorse? After all, things had not turned out for him quite as he had hoped. By late 1944 Speer began to think about his place in post-war Germany. With his close connections with the captains of industry, his proven managerial skills and his untarnished popular image he imagined that he was certain of a stellar career in the business world. With so many architects indebted to him, he could also head a major architectural practice. There would certainly be a lot of work to do.
Gitta Sereny spent twelve years of research and took 747 pages to come to the conclusion that Speer had rediscovered the ‘intrinsic morality’ he had in his youth. This was a singularly modest return for all her efforts. Those best placed to judge were not easily impressed. Georges Casalis, the Protestant pastor in Spandau, had felt that Speer’s wrestling with problems of guilt while in prison were genuine. Upon his release he rapidly became so absorbed in his wealth and fame that he was no longer troubled by conscience and abandoned his spiritual quest. Father Athanasius, in whom he confided while attending frequent retreats at Maria Laach, realised that although Speer was well aware of his mistakes, failures and shortcomings, he lacked the spiritual insight that might have enabled him to overcome any deep-rooted sense of guilt. Without any genuine expression of repentance springing from his inner being, his attempts to grapple with the past were unlikely to amount to much more than window-dressing.
It was difficult to believe that Speer’s concept of guilt had much to do with what either Georges Casalis or Father Athanasius understood by the term. Speer was a typical example, as Sebastian Haffner had noted, of the new managerial type. He believed in action, without considering the consequences of his deeds. He operated in the world of the practical and the horizontal and had little patience with the moral, spiritual and vertical. Speer lived in the modern world where God is dead. He would have agreed with Mephistopheles when he said: ‘The world does not remain silent to the proficient. He does not need to wander in eternity.’ Mephistopheles is a remarkable precursor to the Speer type. In Faust Part I, Goethe presents him as an old-fashioned medieval German devil, but in Part II he is a man of the world, a cynic, a technocrat and a management consultant. Unlike Speer, he then relapses into the total debauchery to which some of his epigones are prone. Speer sometimes fashioned himself as Faust, but he more closely resembles the Demon.
Joachim Fest and Wolf Jobst Siedler were both struck by the pride that Speer showed in having enabled the German armed forces to continue the struggle for as long as they did. There can be 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. To take pride in such an achievement did not quite fit with his public image as a public penitent, handing over a fortune to the victims of National Socialism, renouncing the material pleasures of life and living on locusts and wild honey. Speer, rejoicing in his successful and lucrative rehabilitation, was at times prepared to acknowledge that his appearance as a conscience-stricken prophet in a technological wilderness was a sham.
He argued that his guilt was based on omission rather than commission. He clearly implied that guilt by omission was necessarily the less reprehensible. His self-serving public display of scrupulosity sidestepped a confrontation with the true nature of what he had done. He had not merely looked away. This was not an argument over the validity of his ignorance, nor was it a question of due moral diligence. He had been an active participant in Nazi crimes. This was something that he refused to admit, even to himself. There was no sorrow at the wrong he had caused, no hint of remorse, no genuine apology. Refusing to admit the full extent of his wrongdoing, even to those in whom he could count on absolute discretion, he could never free himself from the anxiety that he might eventually be unmasked. He lied in order to be able to live with himself. He confessed to a lesser evil so as to conceal a far greater iniquity. He saw himself as having been seduced by Hitler, a victim of the age of technology and blinded by success. Unable to confront the past honestly he could never find true peace of mind. As Goethe remarked: ‘An active person is without a conscience. Only an observer has a conscience.’ Speer the observer was in no position to judge the active Speer. Although his sense of guilt was usually little more than a nagging unease and a lingering fear that his past might once again come under judicial scrutiny, there were moments when it seemed as if he wanted to confess so as to free himself from the burden of his Nazi past. How else to explain why he suggested that Schmidt approach Wolters or his admission to Hélène Jeanty Raven that he had indeed heard Himmler’s speech in Posen.
Taking Speer’s memoirs and his Spandau Diaries at face value, Mother Miriam Pollard of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance saw Speer’s twenty years in quasi-monastic isolation in Spandau prison, during which he trudged along the road to Emmaus, as resulting in his receiving God’s redemptive embrace, having embarked on the long journey from remorse to restitution and expiation. ‘Hitler,’ she writes, ‘had taken him a fair way to hell, but when Speer finally stopped and turned, he could still find the road back to reason, humanity and grace.’ This is something Speer flatly denied when he told the Playboy interviewer that the descent into hell was an exhilarating ride, but a one-way trip. Mother Miriam has an answer to why Speer was tormented by Heidegger’s ‘oblivion of being’. Although to her mind Speer had been honest about the past, had accepted responsibility for wrongdoing and the punishment he had been given, had made due reparation and offered up a vicarious expiation for others, there was one critical piece missing. That was his inability, due to inadequate spiritual instruction, to accept forgiveness. Nevertheless, the penitent Speer is elevated to almost saintly status. ‘In his redeemed and redeeming self he was delivering the guilt of the world into the re-creative embrace of God.’ Speer’s daughter Hilde is taken to task for her scepticism about her father’s ‘converted heart’.
This image of a soul-searching Speer, wrestling with the past and through years of deprivation and incarceration, living a life immersed in the redemptive death of Christ, making an act of public expiation for an entire nation, finds artistic expression in a remarkable sculpture by Yrsa von Leistner. This portrait, finished shortly before his death, shows Speer’s agonised and tortured face emerging from a block of marble. A red streak in the marble runs diagonally across his face, which Mother Miriam saw as a harbinger of his imminent death, but also as ‘a sublime meditation on the mystery of the redemption’. Given what we now know about Speer it is difficult not to feel that Mother Miriam, out of the generosity of her soul, is reading something into the material that is simply not there. Similarly, Yrsa von Leistner’s portrait suffers from a severe dose of the kitsch that mars much of her work. Speer abandoned his Protestant faith as a young man and was constitutionally incapable of finding his way back to it. Rudolf Wolters’ mockery of the repentant Speer with a hair-shirt and a diet of locusts, coupled with Hilde’s adamant disbelief, are far more convincing than the image of Speer the redeemer.
Speer played a dual role in post-war Germany. Here was one of the most powerful men in the Third Reich, who condemned Hitler as a criminal and who made a public, if circumscribed, confession of his own guilt at having been complicit in an immoral regime. But more importantly, he provided a thick coating of whitewash to millions of old Nazis. This was a man who was closer to Hitler than any other, yet who maintained his personal integrity as an apolitical technocrat, who told the Nuremberg Tribunal that he had only had a ‘vague sentiment’ of what went on in the concentration camps. Here was the man who provided exculpation for an entire generation. If a man so close to Hitler, with such immense power and with close connections to all the leading figures in the Third Reich, was unaware of the mass murder of the European Jews, how could the myriad of lesser figures possibly have known? Speer was Hitler’s closest associate – so close indeed that Joachim Fest was convinced that there were distinct homoerotic overtones in the relationship – yet who kept his integrity, innocent of all the evil done by the regime. For Wolters, he was Hitler’s ‘unrequited love’. Reinhard Spitzy, a hard-nosed diplomat seconded to military security in the Reich Security Main Office, said that whenever Speer visited the Obersalzberg he and Hitler would disappear to pore over architectural drawings like a couple of lovers. His publisher, Siedler, got so carried away by this extravagant talk that he described him as an ‘angel who came from hell’. The psychologist Alexander Mitscherlich said of him that he was a ‘sensitive guilty-innocent’. For others, less given to such convoluted and largely meaningless utterances, he was simply the perfect example of the idealistic, hardworking German, who fell under Hitler’s spell. He was stylised as a Parsifal who lacked the simple-mindedness and incorruptibility with which to resist Klingsor’s magic. He was by nature detached and standoffish, awkward in society, haughty and arrogant, without any real friends and anxious to avoid the company of others. He thus appeared to be a man apart. This helped to save him from the gallows and made the successful reconstruction of his public image possible.
So great was the need to believe the Speer myth that Siedler and Fest were able to strengthen it, even in the face of mounting evidence against him by professional historians. Fest held fast to his vision of the Third Reich as a regime, like any other, held together by blinkered specialists, of whom Speer was the perfect example. He was the gentleman among the gangsters. He was not someone who ranted and raved about the world Jewish conspiracy, but a conventionally civilised anti-Semite who confessed to having had an ‘unpleasant feeling’ when in the presence of Jews. He did not worry his head about Jewish slave labourers in his brickyards. He did not spare a thought about his Transport Corps in the Soviet Union as it moved stolen works of art back to Germany, or when it resettled German Mennonites in Himmler’s eastern outposts. Part of the Corps’ remit was, after all, to help implement the resolutions of the Wannsee Conference. Speer was no more lacking in empathy than Wernher von Braun, who was unconcerned about the slave labourers worked to death in underground factories building his beloved rockets; or Ferdinand Porsche, in whose works thousands of prisoners of war and forced labourers died; or Alfried Krupp, for whom Speer built special concentration camps for a hundred thousand ruthlessly exploited slaves.
Speer made staggering profits from the ‘Aryanisation’ of property in Berlin. He assembled a fine collection of early nineteenth-century romantic art, much of which was purchased at bargain basement prices from legitimate dealers, many of the previous owners having been forced to sell. Göring’s generous gift of a hundred hectares of woodland, adjacent to his magnificent estate at Oderbruch, was prudently overlooked. Fest took Speer’s preposterous claim to have always preferred the simple life, and to have easily adjusted to the austerity of his Spandau cell, at face value. He remained silent about Speer’s inhuman treatment of the Berlin Jews who stood in the way of his grotesque plans to rebuild the city. Had Fest bothered to have done his homework, he would have known that Speer was involved in the building of the prisoners’ barracks at Mauthausen, later to complain, much to Oswald Pohl’s irritation, that he found them far too luxurious. He was however well satisfied with the facilities at Auschwitz, on which he had commissioned a special report. Himmler, Heydrich, Oswald Pohl, Hans Kammler and Dr Karl Brandt, to name but a few, were among Speer’s closest associates. All were complicit in mass murder on an unimaginable scale. It is inconceivable that Speer knew absolutely nothing of this aspect of their efforts to build a new Germany.
He ordered every effort to be made to support Hitler’s last desperate gamble in the Ardennes offensive in late 1944. When it failed, it is to his credit that he did what he could to counter Hitler’s Nero Order and to save whatever could be saved, at least in the Ruhr. It is all too easy to overestimate Speer’s role in the final stages of the Third Reich. A scorched earth policy was impossible to implement. The vast majority of Germans had had more than enough. They wanted an end to the horror, not a horror without end. They were prepared to wave the white flag, even at the risk of the death penalty. Dying a hero’s death in a war that was already lost seemed utterly pointless.