Clive Davis is the 'Letter from London' columnist of The Washington Times. He also writes for The Times, and he has written and presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary on William L. Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Clive will be at Stanford during October as a media fellow at the Hoover Institution. He writes below about Albert Speer's Spandau: The Secret Diaries.
Clive Davis on Spandau: The Secret Diaries by Albert Speer
It's one of the ironies of history that if justice had been done at the Nuremberg trials, Albert Speer's diaries might never have been written. Given a 20-year sentence for his role as Hitler's all-powerful armaments minister, the former architect turned plenipotentiary probably deserved a death sentence. After all, his bureaucratic empire had been based on the most brutal form of slave labour; conditions in some of the factories under his control were scarcely any better than in concentration camps. In some cases, prisoners were literally worked to death. It came as no surprise when Speer's deputy and co-defendant, Fritz Sauckel - the man immediately responsible for administering the forced labour system - was hanged along with Kaltenbrunner, Frank, Streicher and the rest of the squalid bunch.
Speer, however, seems to have survived mainly because of his apparently genuine display of contrition. In contrast to most of his co-defendants he acknowledged the evil of which he had been part, and made little effort to evade responsibility for his own part in sustaining the Thousand Year Reich. Urbane and eloquent, he appeared to belong to a different realm from the typical National Socialist fanatic. In another world, another era, he might have been a member of what the British call 'the great and the good'. Had he been born in the US, he might have served on presidential commissions or become another Robert Moses, master-builder of New York. (Like Moses, Speer was a man who saw people as masses, to be organized and housed and regimented. Whenever I see his grandiose and mercifully unrealized plans for transforming Berlin into 'Germania', the self-styled 'world capital', I can't help thinking of Moses's vision of New York as a city rebuilt in celebration of the remorseless triumph of the automobile.)
For when you look at photographs of Speer - even when he is wearing a regulation swastika on his armband - what you see is not an ideologue, but a modern man, a true product of the 20th century. A technocrat to his fingertips, he is exactly the kind of invididual who keeps modern civilization moving smoothly along. He is cultured, well-read and thoughtful. He is one of us. Which is, of course, what makes his Spandau diaries so extraordinarily compelling.
Reading the book - based on thousands of scribbled pages smuggled out of prison over the course of two decades - is in some ways like reading Primo Levi's account of surviving the nightmare of Auschwitz. Speer, struggling to bring meaning to his term of imprisonment is lucid, reflective and often droll. Where Levi can find some kind of spiritual sustenance in his training as a chemist, Speer often finds himself returning to his original role as an architect. He designs a ranch-style home for one particularly friendly American guard; when he immerses himself in re-designing the prison garden, he finds himself planning his new domain with as much attention to detail as he brought to the blueprints for Germania.
It is a seductive book. Whenever you find yourself admiring Speer's resourcefulness and his intellect, you have to remind yourself that the parallel with Levi, striking though it appears on the surface, can only go so far. Speer is no hapless victim caught in sadistic forces beyond his control. Spandau, with its petty rules and depressing, monotonous routines, is the punishment he has brought upon himself. As he asks himself at one point, if he had the power to re-live his entire life, would he have swapped his notoriety for a quiet, blameless life as the sort of respected, provincial architect his father had been? Even though he has gradually come to see that the ceremonial buildings that have brought his fame are resolutely second-rate, Speer is almost shocked when he realizes that the answer would be a categorical no. He may (belatedly) feel revulsion at Hitler's lack of humanity; he may despise the boorishness of the Nazi Gauleiters. Yet he is honest enough to acknowledge that his relationship with Hitler gave him the means to fulfil all his professional ambitions. He looks hard in the mirror and sees Faust.
That clarity of vision lifts the diaries into the realm of great literature. Confined to his cell for hours on end, with little prospect of an early release, Speer constantly analyses his own motives and those of his fellow prisoners. Administered by the four Allied powers, in a city marooned behind the Iron Curtain, Spandau resembles a haunted house, inhabited only by a handful of ghosts of the Nazi past. As the years pass, only a handful remain to serve out their sentence. At the end, the pitiful Rudolf Hess is left alone with his own manic thoughts. Cliques are formed and re-formed; trivial rivalries are played out in the garden. The world outside becomes increasingly remote. Little wonder that by the time he was finally freed in 1966, Speer discovered that he could barely hold a conversation with members of his own family. Eventually, he came to wish that he was back in his tiny cell, with only his own thoughts for company.
For all his efforts at acute self-examination, though, one area remains largely unexplored. How much did he know about the Holocaust? The idea, as he presents it, that he was ignorant of what was going on on the Eastern front is patently absurd. But even if he knows the effort is futile, Speer discreetly maintains the facade. In the end you have the impression that, alone with his own thoughts, he has tried so hard to convince others that he has finally convinced himself too. (Much like Hess and his amnesia, which seems to come and go, depending on his mood.)
What should be a crippling flaw in the book becomes one of its strengths. Speer sustains his sanity by sheer will-power. But amidst all the self-analysis and denunciations of his own weakness, how can we be sure if he is telling the truth or simply preparing his place in history? Ultimately, I'm not sure we can. And perhaps it doesn't matter. The terrifying self-discipline is spectacle enough. After serving almost ten years, Speer decides that one way of creating an all-important sense of daily routine is to precisely measure the kilometers he walks in laps around the garden each day. Soon he sets himself the imaginary task of walking from Berlin to his home in Heidelberg. Then, as he grows more obsessesed with his daily trek, he decides to embark on a walk around the world. He researches the landscape and fauna of countries through which he passes. Friends send him guide books. He passes through Asia, arrives in Peking (where he is overwhelmed by the sheer size of the crowds) and travels on towards the Bering Straits. Meticulously measuring out his paces, he is lost in the alien landscape. On the day when he is released from Spandau, he sends a telegram to a close friend: 'Please pick me up thirty-five kilometers south of Guadalajara, Mexico...'
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]