Speer the miracle worker is every bit as mythical as Speer the innocent, apolitical artist. This reputation rests on the calculations made by the Ministry of Armaments’ chief statistician, Rolf Wagenführ. The figures are indeed remarkable. Armaments production rose threefold from February 1942, when Speer took office, to July 1944. This is all the more astonishing given that this dramatic increase happened despite the Allied bombing offensive, dwindling supplies of raw materials and labour shortages. Wagenführ attributes this to a significant increase in the productivity of labour from a baseline of 100 in January 1942 to 234 by July 1944. Rationalisation also made it possible to produce more weapons using fewer raw materials. Productivity was further enhanced by drastically reducing the number of different weapons produced. The Speer ministry also put an end to the constant modification of individual weapons. Further savings were made by concentrating orders for weapons in the ministry, rather than leaving them in the hands of diverse institutions within the armed services. The self-determination of industry meant that firms were obliged to share their know-how, thereby making substantial savings. The system of committees and rings put small and inefficient enterprises out of business. The armaments industry suffered initially from start-up problems resulting from the rapid growth of capital stock and the labour force, but Speer benefited as industry rapidly learnt from experience.
Some argue that a significant improvement was made with the fixed price system that did not become the norm until 1942. Hitherto profits had been mainly calculated on the percentage of capital employed. The problem here was that this did not force less resourceful producers to meet standard pricing. It also necessitated complex bureaucratic controls to make sure that all was on the level. Now fixed prices were negotiated on the basis of good to average producers. Profits were made by producing at a lower cost. No awkward questions were asked as to how costs were reduced. That this was largely due to the ruthless exploitation of all forms of labour was conveniently overlooked.
There is no evidence to show that the change from cost prices to fixed prices made a significant difference. Fixed prices were already in effect in significant sectors of the armaments industry. Furthermore, fixed prices were based on previous cost prices. Generally speaking cost prices were used to cover risks when launching a new product. Fixed prices were often adjusted – particularly in the aircraft industry – when excess profits were made. The tax authorities, however, were careful to ensure that incentives to innovation and efficiency were not removed by excessive taxation. As a result, substantial profits were made throughout the war.
Wagenführ’s macro-economic data, the report of the US Strategic Bombing Survey and Speer’s compelling memoirs created the impression that there had indeed been an armaments miracle and that Albert Speer was the brightest star in the National Socialist firmament. It only needed a cursory examination of the evidence to show that there had already been a substantial increase in armaments production long before Speer began to work his miracles. This was deliberately disguised by choosing the exceptionally low production figures in January and February 1942 as the baseline. The relatively low production figures in 1940 and 1941 had little to do with inefficiency and low productivity. They were the result of deliberate military-political decisions. Speer’s much vaunted changes in the pricing system in May 1942 did not make a significant impact. Before that date there had been price reductions that suggest there were already sufficient incentives to increase efficiency.
Problems about the ways in which the armaments index was weighted are compounded by Speer’s deliberate manipulation of the figures in order to appease Hitler. This left the Wehrmacht wondering where on earth these weapons were that were listed in Speer’s public recitations of staggering production figures. The productivity figures are equally suspect. They were only based on productivity in firms that were under the aegis of the Armaments Inspectors. They do not include statistics from the armaments industry in the occupied countries.
Further doubts about the armaments industry stem from the fact the branches that showed outstanding rates of growth were initially not under Speer’s ministry. He did not take over control of naval armaments until October 1943, and Luftwaffe armaments remained independent until June 1944. Productivity in the aircraft industry was marginally higher than the overall armaments index. Naval productivity was fractionally less. This raises the question whether there was anything exceptional about Speer’s much-vaunted rationalisation programme. There are serious doubts whether the dramatic increase in the number of committees and rings resulted in any significant exchange of information between firms. Nor was this such a great innovation. They had been created by Todt. There had been effective exchanges of information between firms that were directly controlled by the army. Similar arrangements existed in parts of the aircraft industry.
Systematic rationalisation came relatively late and not infrequently proved to be a mixed blessing. Shipbuilding was rationalised in the summer of 1943. Production figures were impressive, but U-boats that were not seaworthy did not improve the navy’s fighting power. In the aircraft industry there was a steady increase in the number of different types and their variants. It was not until the summer of 1944 that a serious effort was made to address this problem.
A report commissioned by Hans Kehrl as head of the Planning Office in early 1944 suggests that Speer’s rationalisation efforts did not amount to much. Shortage of labour was a constant and increasing problem. It was compounded by the waste caused by the frequent introduction of new programmes combined with ongoing technical modifications. The Krupp Grusonwerk AG in Magdeburg was obliged to make eight significant changes in its tank-building programme in the course of 1943. The Eisenwerk Oberdonau GmbH in Linz had to make 1,474 modifications to the spare parts they provided for the Panther tank between July 1942 and March 1944. The Henschel aircraft company, that had built the Ju 88 bomber for years, was ordered to cease production in 1943 and make the Me 410 ‘Hornet’ fighter bomber. The Hornet proved ineffective in its role as a bomber destroyer, so that in 1944 the company was obliged once again to make the Ju 88. The end result was a disastrous drop in productivity. Hans Kehrl frequently complained that Speer did not address these problems with due concern.
Although many of the measures ascribed to Speer had been implemented before his appointment as Minister of Armaments, the question remains how it was that armaments production increased significantly during his time in office. In part this was due to the learning process in the first two-and-a-half years of the war. In the two years before he became minister, the amount of capital invested in enterprises controlled by the army for weapons production increased threefold. Much the same was true of the aircraft industry. In the first year of the war the workforce in the armaments industry doubled. Unskilled labourers had time to learn their trades, so that Speer inherited a highly skilled workforce. In his address to the Gauleiters in Munich on 24 February 1942, just a few days after his appointment, Speer paid ample tribute to Fritz Todt. He listed the enormous increases in efficiency, output and productivity that had been achieved by the ministry under his leadership. By February 1942 there had been a fourfold increase in the value of machine tools delivered to the armaments industry. This was a rate of increase that Speer was unable to match and it provided him with the solid foundations for further growth.
One factor that inhibited growth during Todt’s time in office was a widespread belief that this would be a short war. After the spectacular victories over Poland and France it seemed that the Wehrmacht would make short work of the Soviet Union. Firms such as Daimler-Benz were therefore loath to invest heavily in armaments production because they wanted to be well prepared for the post-war market. With Operation Barbarossa in ruins it was obvious to most that this was going to be a long hard slog and that industry would be wise to become fully involved in war production. Ample rewards were there for those who could produce the goods.
Until 1943 wage-adjusted labour productivity remained below the 1939 level. Thereafter it made a spectacular increase, until it began to tail off by the end of 1944. Rationalisation, centralisation, standardisation, the closing down of redundant firms and pricing had little to do with this achievement. Since the overwhelming majority of the eight-million-strong workforce in the armaments industry were forced labourers, prisoners of war or slaves, and German workers were ruthlessly exploited, the unit cost of labour was necessarily extremely low. The achievement of the armaments industry under Speer was no armaments miracle. There was no discontinuity between him and his predecessor. The economy was not transformed from a ‘peacetime economy in wartime’ into a full-scale wartime economy. A number of rationalisation measures had taken place under Todt. Others came into force relatively late, at a time when production figures had already peaked. Fixed prices were already in place, offering ample incentives to cut costs. Many of the achievements of the armaments industry were thus due to continuity and the long-term effects of measures that had been taken before Speer took office.
Speer may not have been a miracle worker and he had no particular gift as an architect, but, recognising his own shortcomings, he readily delegated to men of exceptional talent and energy. This made him an outstanding organiser and manager. At times he claimed to be an artist who had been forced into an alien world. Alternatively he described himself as an apolitical technocrat enthralled by a world of scientific know-how and applied science. In fact he was neither. As an architect, with grim confidence he followed the example set by others: first Tessenow, then Troost, and lastly Hitler. Even his finest achievement, the Cathedral of Light at Nuremberg, was probably suggested to him by the filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and her cameraman Walter Frentz, whom Speer had met while canoeing. Having no technical expertise whatsoever, he relied on others. This left him vulnerable to attack from ambitious underlings. Being neither artist nor technocrat his unique position was solely due to his close relationship with Hitler. Once that was compromised he was left virtually powerless. All that remained was a set of mutually beneficial relationships that could only be sustained because the Third Reich was falling apart, the dictatorship crumbling.
What makes Speer so particularly frightening was that this hollow man, resolutely bourgeois, highly intelligent, totally lacking in moral vision, unable to question the consequences of his actions, and without scruples, was far from being an outsider. He was of the type that made National Socialism 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. Speer is the outstanding representative of a widespread type that made the regime possible. That so many found his carefully staged post-war image so thoroughly convincing points to an insidious danger. As Sebastian Haffner so shrewdly remarked, we can get rid of the Hitlers and the Himmlers, but not the Speers. They are still with us. They are immediately recognisable and every bit as dangerous.