Albert Speer (1905-1081) may have known of the atrocities committed in Germany during the Nazi era, but claimed he did not. He insisted that he was only "following orders" and had no knowledge of the details. Speer received a 20-year prison sentence at the Nuremberg war crimes trials at the end of World War II.
Speer was born in Mannheim, Germany, on March 19, 1905, but grew up in the German city of Heidelberg. His father was an architect. Although Speer wanted to be a mathematician, he studied hard and became an architect in order to please his father. His girlfriend and eventual wife, Margarethe Weber, waited for him to complete his studies. Speer's family made it clear that Margarethe did not, in their opinion, measure up to the social standards of the Speer family, but the young couple ignored them and were eventually married.
Germany was in political and economic chaos following their defeat in World War I, and had not recovered years after the war's end. Adolf Hitler, who had been released from jail in 1925, after serving nine months of a five-year sentence, had reclaimed his leadership of the National Socialist German Workers' (Nazi) party. While in jail, Hitler wrote his political mandate, Mein Kampf. The party and Hitler's book appealed to young Speer. He joined the Nazi party in 1931 and was soon designing and building for the Nazis. Speer was pleased with the high level of responsibility given to such a young architect. In a Germany with high levels of unemployment, especially for architects, Speer was doing what he loved and being paid for it.
A Budding Friendship
In 1933, the Nazi party was swept into power on a rising tide of German nationalism and economic discontent. Hitler was named chancellor and assumed the title of fuhrer (supreme leader). Speer was advancing rapidly in the party heirarchy. Hitler had a deep interest in architecture, and the two men became friends and collaborators on many projects. Hitler wanted buildings in Germany that would last one thousand years, and he felt Speer was the man who could design and build them. When Hitler wanted a balcony built so that he could appear before his people, he would draw a very skillful sketch. Then Speer would take the sketch, make up the blueprints, and oversee its construction. It was a comfortable partnership between two men who liked and respected each other.
By the age of 28, Speer was in the "inner circle" of power. Where Hitler went, he went. He designed the vast stadiums where Hitler held his great rallies and many other Nazi monuments.
No order for a building was too impossible for Hitler to give, and no challenge was too great for Speer to accept. Hitler wanted a new Reichs Chancellery in Berlin, and he ordered that it be one of the largest and most splendid office buildings of its day. Furthermore, he wanted it completed in only one year. With an army of laborers working in day and night shifts, and with Speer handling every detail of the planning and building, the architect finished the great building ahead of schedule. He proved to his fuhrerthat he was an organizer as well as a builder, for the building was ready to be used when Hitler walked in on the first day. If there was any doubt of Speer's skill, it was gone.
The two men began to plan an entirely new Berlin. They had elaborate models constructed showing various buildings and street layouts. It was planned to be the most beautiful city in all of Europe. World War II stopped the plans, although both Hitler and Speer felt that the delay would be only temporary. Despite later claims to the contrary, Speer had become a dedicated party member who supported whatever Hitler wanted to do.
Minister of Armaments and Munitions
When German troops moved into neighboring countries, Allied nations became increasingly disturbed. The invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 led to a declaration of war. As battles against Allied troops were being fiercely fought, Hitler lost one of his most experienced munitions experts. Doctor Todt, the genius behind the autobahns and other projects in Germany, was killed in a plane crash. Hitler asked Speer, to take over as minister of armaments and munitions. It was a job that required the organization of industry. Although Speer didn't really want the assignment, he knew that his leader needed him. He accepted.
As the organizer of the German wartime economy, Speer held an extremely powerful position. Instead of ordering, commanding, and punishing, he approached industries in a friendly way. This led Speer to be accepted by the German workers, who labored twice as hard as before. His attempts to avoid bureaucracy worked well. He kept the wishes of working men and women in mind and, in the process, won many new friends. In spite of severe and constant Allied bombing of German factories, Speer did his job well and production continued until close to the end of the war.
A Change of Heart
It was a disillusioned Speer, who violated Hitler's "scorched earth" orders near the end of the war. Hitler ordered the destruction of roads, factories, bridges, entire cities, in an effort to delay the end. Speer sided with the generals who refused to destroy Paris and other cities. Hitler would issue ruthless orders, then Speer, who had the power and the respect of those in charge of the army, would countermand them. Speer felt the German people would need the things that Hitler wanted to destroy. In his book, Inside the Third Reich, Speer explained that he could see no need to hurt the civilian population needlessly, since he knew the war was lost.
Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in 1945 as the Russian army approached Berlin. Admiral Karl Doenitz took over as the new leader in Berlin, but there was still an army-occupied area in northern Germany. Speer and others were in charge there. They attempted to negotiate a peace treaty with the Allies, but were unsuccessful and finally had to surrender.
The Nuremberg War Crimes Trials
Soon after the war ended, the world was riveted by the war crimes trials held in the German city of Nuremberg between November 1945 and October 1946. Nazi leaders, including Speer, were put on trial for the crimes they had committed. He said later that he was certain he would be convicted and hanged, as was the fate of many of his Nazi high-command friends. He even confessed and pleaded guilty to what the Nazis had done, although he said he didn't really know all the details. Still, he was shown to have been one of the first to provide the labor needed to keep the war plants operating. He personally provided a labor force of 75,000 German Jews. Many experts believe that this group represented the first stage of the Holocaust, though Speer denied that he was aware of the killing of millions of Jews in concentration camps. He claimed that he was an "unwitting collaborator" in the horror.
Speer received a 20-year prison sentence and was sent to Germany's Spandau Prison. With the exception of three life sentences, Speer received the longest prison sentence of any Nazi leader. He was released in 1966, and began writing Inside the Third Reich. The book was published and quickly became a best seller. In 1976, he wrote another successful book, titled Spandau: The Secret Diaries. Speer died in London on September 1, 1981.
Further Reading on Albert Speer
Nuremberg Trials, Grolier, 1997
Speer, Albert, Inside the Third Reich, 1970
Van der Vat, Dan, Good Nazi: The Life and Lies of Albert Speer, 1997
Nazi Leader Biographies, http://www.nsdapmuseum.com