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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

“Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth”, by Gitta Sereny

757 pages, Albert A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0394529158

Last week I reviewed Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs by Albert Speer and mentioned that my opinion of this book changed after I read Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth by Gitta Sereny. Herein is my review of that book…

While it is intriguing to speculate whether Speer knew or did not know about the extermination of the Jews, that is only the smallest part of this vast work of scholarship. Gitta Sereny came to the conclusion that Speer was neither moral nor immoral, but rather “morally extinguished”, an ambiguous term at best, but from what I read in Speer’s books and from what Sereny reveals in this one, I take it to mean something fairly simple: Speer was aware of people being imprisoned and killed, but really didn't pay much attention because he was too busy with his career, i.e. he noticed Jews being lined up at the Berlin train station to be taken somewhere, but didn’t have the inclination or the time to find out why or where; he noticed that his boss had started a war, but was too busy to wonder whether the war was justified; his boss Der Führer ordered him to assume leadership of armaments production for the war, but he discovered that armaments production was accomplished largely by slaves who died in great numbers at their work (perhaps he’d heard of work areas where very little work was done and very, very large numbers of people died, of causes unrelated to work; perhaps he did not).

Of his repentance after the war there can be little doubt: he quarrels in Spandau with the other Nazis over whether they did anything wrong; he is mocked by one of his closest former Nazi friends for his “public mea culpas”; he speaks with a chaplain in Spandau about his desire to make himself a “different man”; he exchanges letters with Rabbi Robert Geis, a tremendously moving encounter; and the fact that he would sit down for numerous interviews with Sereny, an author of books on death camps, speaks of his consciousness of the crimes he was associated with, and his desire to confront them, and herein is Sereny’s greatest contribution to what we know of this man, as she describes just how Albert Speer was able to live with accepting guilt for the Holocaust, but without actually acknowledging that he knew about the Holocaust during his tenure with Hitler. While this is a subtle distinction it was one necessary for Speer’s survival.

There is no attempt to white wash Speer’s role in supporting Hitler. Given his position within hierarchy of the Third Reich – especially as Armaments Minister and his not inconsiderable contribution to the war effort – his role in the entrenched slavery that was part of Hitler’s Regime and his intelligence he could have hardly not known about the crimes that he at least enabled. However, for a person to hold himself responsible for these monstrous crimes and to still go on in any ordinary way would be next to impossible; the two are mutually exclusive. This is especially true given the fact that Speer was no monster; that he was not evil man, but only participated in evil acts. Sereny is no apologist for Speer, but rather, when necessary, a harsh critic. The fact that Speer enabled Hitler to continue his campaign against humanity, and for so long shut his eyes to Nazi crimes, cannot be excused. However, since Speer was no Himmler or Goebbels, it can (perhaps) be understood.

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