The Making of a Gentleman Nazi

Albert Speer’s Politics of History in the Federal Republic of Germany

by Baijayanti Roy (Author)
©2016 Monographs 432 Pages


At the Nuremberg Trial and through his bestselling books, Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and minister, could successfully project an image of himself as the «gentleman Nazi». Using hitherto unexplored archival sources, this book looks at those aspects of his career that Speer retrospectively manipulated (e.g. his resistance to Hitler’s Nero order), to construct this image. The evolution of the «Speer myth», analysed here, shows how West Germany’s politics influenced Speer’s narrative, as well as the impact that his image had on Federal Republic’s efforts to cope with its past. This book also examines the role of historians and public intellectuals in and outside Germany in reinforcing the Speer myth – the British historian Hugh Trevor Roper and the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal among others.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I: The background
  • A. Speer and the West German politics of memory
  • B. Speer in the Third Reich: Myth and reality
  • Part II: The evolution of Speer’s memorial discourse
  • Justice tempered by mercy? Nuremberg Trial and the genesis of the ‘Speer myth’
  • Erinnerungen: Canonization of Speer’s ‘Master Narrative’
  • Spandauer Tagebücher: Private reflections for public consumption
  • Der Sklavenstaat: Architect of the slave state
  • Part III: The ‘gentleman Nazi’ through the eyes of others
  • A very English irony: Hugh Trevor Roper’s contribution to the making of the Speer legend
  • The two worlds of Albert Speer: An American prosecutor advocates Speer’s cause
  • Joachim Fest’s tragic hero
  • Gitta Sereny and ‘A paradox of Greek proportions’
  • Matthias Schmidt and the beginning of the end
  • Speer und Er: Albert Speer and the aesthetics of power.
  • ‘For me, Mr Speer, you are a new born baby’ – The Nazi hunter’s absolution
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography (Secondary literature)
  • List of archival sources
  • Index

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Ever since he made his appearance as one of the major war criminals at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1945, Albert Speer came across for many contemporary observers and historians as the only one among the National Socialist elite who was truthful about his role in the Third Reich. The architect and minister for armament of the Nazi state also distinguished himself from the other Nazi stalwarts through his acceptance of collective responsibility for the racial crimes committed under the regime, though he claimed to have had no part in them, a particularly impressive claim that could not be disproved at that time.

Speer was sentenced to twenty years of prison on the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity relating primarily to his use of slave labour as the minister for armament. After the completion of his prison sentence he recounted and analysed the role he professed to have played in the Third Reich, through his two internationally successful books: Erinnerungen (1969, published as Inside the Third Reich in English) and Spandauer Tagebücher (1975, Spandau: The secret Diaries in English).1 His third book, Der Sklavenstaat, published shortly before his death 1981 (titled Infiltration in English) about his relationship with Himmler and his SS, was not so well received.

The international popularity of Speer’s first two memorial writings led him to appear countless times in the media. In all his public proclamations as in his books, Speer claimed that despite having a close personal relationship with Hitler and amassing immense power, he had always steered clear of corruption, intrigue and the anti-Jewish politics that characterised the Nazi state. In all his oral and written statements, Speer repeatedly expressed his regret that even though he was in a position to know about the terrible fate of the Jews, he did not want to have knowledge of this issue since it lay beyond his area of responsibility. Besides, he was blinded by his limitless ambition and his adoration for his mentor, the Führer. Speer also wrote and spoke profusely about his feelings of guilt and ← 7 | 8 → shame for his moral blindness, claiming that he came to know definitively about the Holocaust only at the Nuremberg Trial.

The image of Speer, thus constructed through his discourse, received tremendous popular acceptance both in and outside Germany. Speer came to be regarded as the ‘gentleman Nazi,’ the only one among Hitler’s paladins who merited sympathy, even respect. This image endured in the popular psyche for many decades, despite the growing evidence accumulated by some historians that Albert Speer had used a combination of lies, half truths, apologies and excuses to construct an idealised profile of himself in the Third Reich. As the image outlived its protagonist, it assumed a mythical character. Despite attempts at dismantling it, elements of this myth still live on in post war cultural memory. This study aims to analyse the formation, dissemination, decline and impact of the myth of Speer being a ‘gentleman Nazi.’

This project is not a biography of Speer. It an attempt to contribute to the new way of looking at biographies and memoirs, where the focus is not solely on the individual and his narrative either told by himself or by others, but placing the individual, his autobiographical writings and statements of others about him in the context of social transformations.2

The role of post war biographies of high functionaries of the Third Reich affected the way the West German state tried to cope with the moral and intellectual legacies of National Socialism. In the years immediately following the war, many aspects of the National Socialist state were often viewed with a marked reserve. The Federal Republic took every care to publicly distance itself from its predecessor regime. In the private social sphere, however, a tradition of reticence persisted, especially in the life stories that one wrote about himself or about others where particular aspects were silently omitted.3 Thus, there were often a hiatus between the politics of private memorical culture and the official ‘politics of history.’ Since the role of the individual and the process of social change influence each other, each narrative contributes in its unique way to form a social memory, which helps, in its turn, to form the collective identity of a society.4 ← 8 | 9 →

This study thus begins with an effort to place the evolution of Speer’s image in its proper context: the endeavours of the newly formed West German state to come to terms with the legacies of National Socialism. This process had many dimensions, all of which were linked to the central quest for rebuilding the nation. This effort was dominated by the changing norms of political correctness in the Federal Republic of Germany as well as the politics of memory that evolved from it. Speer had a symbiotic relationship with these twin phenomena: on one hand, he skilfully assimilated many of the elements of shifting political correctness in his various narratives by focussing on certain aspects of his career and omitting others. On the other hand, his image had a significant impact on the post war West German society. Speer’s apparent honesty, his acceptance of moral responsibility, his claim that he was unaware of the Holocaust for which he nevertheless expressed mea culpa repeatedly, made the ex architect and minister for armament a figure of exculpation for the ‘war generation’ in West Germany.

Following Speer, many former functionaries of the National Socialist regime could form the apology that they had been gullible in following Hitler and they only did what they considered to be their duty without asking uncomfortable moral questions. Speer’s apology that his main guilt resided in not knowing about the consequences of the Nazi state’s politics towards the Jews provided many people the perfect alibi to evade their own conscience. After all, if Hitler’s friend and one of the most powerful figures of the Third Reich did not know about the full extent of the anti-Semitic policies, how could people in lesser positions know? It is important to remember in this context that Speer was far from being the only representative of the Nazi elite to present an exculpating retrospective account of his role under the dictatorship; he was merely the most successful and best known archetype.

The issues relating to the way members of the Nazi ruling elite presented their roles in the Third Reich after the war have been of interest to scholars of contemporary history for some time. Scholarly studies on the subject have recently received new impulses from works like Ulrich Herbert’s account of Werner Best. Herbert has shown in his study of Best’s post war career that the SS officer had not just presented a false image of himself at Nuremberg to save his life, but, like Speer, had continued to promote this image strategically through the media.5 ← 9 | 10 →

Contemporary historians have made similar revelations about the military elite of the Third Reich, which for a long time had successfully found refuge behind the façade of being the ‘clean Wehrmacht.’ The top military personnel could effectively establish that the army had stood aloof from the crimes against humanity committed by the SS and the SD and it had strictly adhered to the principles of war agreed on by modern nations.6

The access to archival materials and secret dossiers of the Wehrmacht in the 1990s led historians to raise questions about the ‘purity’ that was so integral to Wehrmacht’s image. After the controversial ‘Wehrmacht Austellung’ the academic discussions on this subject gained new ground.7 Research has brought to light that different units of the Wehrmacht, especially in the eastern front, were involved in war crimes as well as in crimes against humanity as defined by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.8

As far as individual studies of the Army elite are concerned, the recently published work on Erich von Mansteinn by Oliver von Wrochem, for example, brings out the devious ways in which the general, so famous for his ‘soldier’s honour,’ had suppressed the fact that crimes inspired by racist ideology played a significant role in the German military’s conduct in the East: towards the Slavic people, the Russian prisoners of war, commissars of the Red Army and most of all, the Jews.9

Till the beginning of this millennium, corresponding studies about the elite civil functionaries in the National Socialist state had not been undertaken on a similar scale. The recent study on the elite diplomats working in the Auswärtige Amt or AA (Foreign Office) has filled a lacuna in research about the ways in which these government functionaries remained true to every regime they served – including the Weimar and the Nazi governments and later to the ← 10 | 11 → Federal Republic of Germany.10 Continuity of personnel in this case also implied a seamless transition of ethic and morals –from the Weimar republic to Hitler’s dictatorship and after the war to the new republic, a transition in which the participation of such functionaries in the National Socialist politics, e.g. legitimising occupation of foreign lands and deportation of Jews, especially after 1941, was smoothly glossed over.

The most notable personification of such continuity in the AA is Ernst von Weizsäcker, Secretary of state in 1938.11 After the war, Weizsäcker would present himself as an apolitical diplomat, who had nothing to do with the Nazi party, or the SS, of which he became a member in 1938 because he could not refuse. His Erinnerungen was a portrayal of his victimhood under the Nazis and his efforts to preserve peace.12

Elite functionaries of the Nazi state, like Manstein, Weizsäcker and Speer played an important role in the politics of history in the Federal Republic by creating an Erinnerungsmuster (memorial pattern) for a particular function group, which in Speer’s case comprised the architects and also to some extent, leading representatives of the German private industry. His portrayal of these professional groups as apolitical received affirmation from opinion makers of the Bundesrepublik, thereby making it difficult to challenge, much like the memorial representation of the Army and diplomatic elites by Manstein and Weizsäcker.

How each function group presented its supposed role in the Third Reich after the war in order to integrate into the new state was a reflection of the transformation of values and norms from the Nazi state to the Federal Republic. Historians are not in agreement about the extent to which the new state could exorcize the spirit of National Socialism from particular function groups. Nevertheless, one aspect on which most scholars tend to agree is the readiness of each function group to form a collective group identity, often activated by a personal network among its members. Oliver von Wrochem’s study on Manstein brings out, for example, how the military elite of the Third Reich collaborated to form the group identity of being ‘only-soldiers.’ A similar tale has been recently brought to light by the ‘independent historians’ commission’ under Manfred Görtemaker and Christoph Safferling with regard to the Federal ministry of Justice, which was ← 11 | 12 → occupied largely by judicial personnel from the Third Reich who shared a consensus to hinder or slow down legal processes against Nazi perpetrators.13

Speer was helped by a coterie of his former associates and colleagues who defended and reinforced his efforts to construct an image of himself as a ‘pure artist’ turned apolitical technocrat. These helpers included his secretary, various architects who worked under him, engineers and members of the German industry. These functionaries assisted their former boss and mentor not just out of loyalty; they stood to profit from the public acceptance of Speer’s image, since similar myths could be used by these helpers to hide their own roles as perpetrators or mitläufers (fellow travellers).

Like all myths, the Speer legend has undergone many changes over the years. As Kerstin von Lingen has pointed out, myths are open to new interpretations and they must be newly formulated at regular intervals if they are not to lose their potential.14 The changing contours of the Speer myth reflect the continuing efforts of the Federal Republic to cope with its past as well as Speer’s attempts to mirror the transformations of the code of political correctness in the new state over the decade and a half between his release from prison and his death. Besides, as Ian Kershaw has written, there is an explicit connection between the changing perspectives of historical research and the shaping of current political consciousness. Hence, the formation and development of the Speer myth can also be seen as ‘part of a continuing reappraisal of West Germany’s political identity and political future.’15

In order to look at the genesis and development of the public face that Speer created for himself, it is necessary not only to analyse the background to this process, but also to be able to separate myth from reality as far as Speer’s career is concerned. Therefore, a summary of Speer’s role in the Third Reich has been ← 12 | 13 → provided, with particular focus on the compromising aspects which he either completely omitted from his memorial discourse or manipulated them to suit the role that he ascribed to himself. Many facets of Speer’s career which he manoeuvred after the war have been brought to light by different historians at different times. There has not been any scholarly work which brings together all the fragments of historical knowledge in a cohesive way. This study aims at doing so.

This work also discusses a few other inculpating episodes which are yet to receive full attention from scholars. One of them relates to Speer’s active involvement in the war, when he was the GBI of Berlin and supposedly absorbed only in his duties as an architect. Speer claimed that the two construction units, the Baustab Speer and the Transportstandarte Speer of which he was in charge from the beginning of the war, carried out purely paramilitary functions.16 This work provides the first indications that these units as well as the GBI were involved in assignments which went beyond paramilitary duties. Moreover, both the units relied substantially on forced foreign labour. It transpires that Speer as the GBI worked closely with armament minister Fritz Todt, not only in repairing roads and rails but also in military constructions like armament factories. Even for his ‘peaceful’ architectural projects for restructuring Berlin, Speer relied on slave labour from occupied countries.

The collaboration between Speer and Fritz Todt has also been discussed here, particularly with regard to Speer’s association with Organization Todt, which was professedly engaged in innocuous sounding ‘repair and construction work’ during the war. Archival sources provide ample evidence that this unit was engaged, together with the Wehrmacht, the SS and German private industry in furthering the expansionist aims of the Third Reich, e.g. by building a road through Ukraine with the aim of extending it to the Caspian Sea to exploit the natural oil reserves at Baku. This project involved the brutal use of enslaved labourers including Russian Jews. This chapter of Speer’s career has received some initial ← 13 | 14 → attention from historians.17 This study adds to the existing knowledge on the basis of hitherto ununsed archival data.18

A singular source of original information used in this study about many incriminating aspects of Speer’s activities is the chronicle of Speer’s official engagements, maintained by Speer’s friend and colleague Rudolf Wolters. The entries in the chronicle roughly cover a time span of three years (1941–1944).

A few words on Rudolf Wolters would not be out of place here. Wolters (1903–1983) studied architecture with Speer at München and at Berlin. As Speer’s career took on an ascending path, he installed Wolters in his architectural empire under different portfolios at various phases. Wolters was Speer’s most loyal helper during the former armament minister’s two decade long imprisonment. The two maintained an underground channel of communication which was not limited to an exchange of secret letters. Wolters managed to send luxury items, edible and non-edible, inside the prison to brighten Speer’s life. Wolters was also an indispensable friend to the family Speer, helping with the family finances and legal matters.

After Speer’s release, Wolters became increasingly critical of his friend’s apologies for the Nazi crimes and criticisms of Hitler. To the committed National Socialist Wolters, these were nothing short of treason. After much controversy, the two friends became estranged from the middle of 1970s onwards. The role of this unique friendship in both making and decline of the Speer myth has been discussed in this work.

The entries recorded by Wolters in his log were semi formal. They included elements which would have normally had no place in the official records of Speer’s ministerial activities. These entries thus indicate the personal bond which the writer of the log shared with his boss. Though this log is in no way a neutral source of information on Speer’s activities, it does provide valuable clues on various facets of Speer’s role in the Third Reich. Wolters also left behind an incomplete diary, which further alludes to the involvement of Speer’s units in the crimes committed against the Jews in Ukraine.19 ← 14 | 15 →

Speer’s part in the Nazi regime’s policy of recruiting and use of forced labour has been of particular interest to historians, since the verdict against Speer at Nuremberg was based mainly on his involvement in the regime’s slave labour policy. The roles of Speer and Fritz Sauckel, the plenipotentiary for Labour in the Third Reich, have been examined in detail by historians trying to explain why Sauckel ended up at the gallows while Speer, the main beneficiary of the slave labour system, was spared.20 On the basis of Wolters’ chronicle and other sources, this study has provided the first steps towards a fresh appraisal of Speer’s claims about his role in the use of forced labour and his working relationship with Sauckel.

One cardinal element of the Speer legend that this project aims to interpret in a completely new light is Speer’s role in opposing the ‘scorched earth policy.’ Though historians have questioned Speer’s motives in keeping the industrial production and infrastructure alive against the commands of Hitler, there has not been a conclusive study on the subject. The apparent contradictions in Speer’s conduct at the final stage of the war have been resolved by historians as a manifestation of Speer’s complex personality or a sudden rekindling of the embers of Speer’s conscience.21

With the help of a series of confidential speeches delivered by Speer, pointers provided by the chronicle of Wolters as well as secret letters that Speer wrote to Wolters in captivity after the war, this study suggests that the minister for armament tried to save Germany’s industrial and communication apparatus in order to keep the armament production alive at any cost, so that war could be continued. To achieve this end, Speer even dared to go against the official policy of ‘scorched earth.’ Contrary to what Speer proclaimed later, concern for his countrymen did not play any role in his conduct. ← 15 | 16 →

After untangling, as far as possible, the enmeshed myths and realities in Speer’s meteoric career, this study traces the process of construction of Speer’s post war public identity through the phases which it underwent. The first station of the formation of the Speer myth was the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. With help from his lawyer, Dr Hans Flächsner, Speer presented a strategic self defence that included the fundamental elements of what later developed into a legend. Speer’s self defence as well as its impact on observers like the prison psychiatrist Gustav M. Gilbert have been analysed in order to trace the ways in which Speer succeeded in establishing himself as the gentleman Nazi and earn the prosecution’s respect.22

If Speer’s skilful self defence at Nuremberg formed the basis of his memorial writings, it was his published memoir that actually canonized his favourable image. The first version of his memoirs was committed to paper by Speer in great haste as he was awaiting his verdict at Nuremberg. The second version was penned in the form of secret letters which Speer wrote to Wolters from Spandau, aptly referred to as the ‘Spandau draft’ by Gitta Sereny in her biography of the gentleman Nazi.23

Speer wrote the final version of his memoirs with the editorial help of Joachim C. Fest, the noted journalist and historian. Penned in fine literary style which many historians ascribe to Fest’s and not Speer’s pen, the memoir was a masterly exposition of Speer as the prototype of an artist turned technocrat who never sullied himself with lowly politics. Those aspects of Speer’s career which clashed with this image were left out of this narrative. The issues of guilt and remorse which apparently haunted Speer since the Nuremberg Trial were especially emphasized. The ‘trauma of perpetrators’ generated by the awareness of a ‘dramatic embarrassment’ through a total loss of face that many Germans were faced with after the war, was thus eloquently expressed in Speer’s memoirs.24

This study has undertaken a much needed comparative survey of the three drafts of Speer’s memoir which reveal the underlying process in which Speer developed his own image, an image that emerges in sharp contrast to the actual role he had played in the Third Reich. ← 16 | 17 →

Through Erinnerungen Speer canonized his narrative. Through his second bestseller, Spandauer Tagebücher he achieved its consolidation. This book (also with editorial assistance from Fest) was written in the form of diary entries, ostensibly scribbled by Speer in secret in his prison cell. These comprise notices about the daily life at Spandau, especially the ostracism faced by Speer from his fellow prisoners, as well as his reflections on the Third Reich and Hitler. Speer’s soul searching ran like a thread throughout this book, which succeeded in presenting him as a tragic hero who had fallen for the false prophet and who atoned by leading a lonely existence in prison in contrast to his remorseless fellow captives.

Speer’s third book, Der Sklavenstaat was published shortly before the author’s death in 1981. Written without assistance from Fest, which perhaps accounts for the absence of the high literary standard that characterised his earlier works, this book was not a commercial success. It dealt with Himmler’s supposed attempts to interfere in Speer’s armament ministry and presented Speer as a victim of the SS chief’s ruthless ambition. Speer discussed the political manifestations of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany as a frame of reference to his own supposed attempts to save the lives of these unfortunate human beings, the Jews, attempts which were thwarted by Himmler. Speer thus tried to give his image a new impetus.

The three books have been discussed not only to ‘correct’ Speer’s false statements but also to bring out how Speer changed his discourse subtly in response to the changing norms of political correctness. The first two books appeared at a time of renewed public discussions about guilt and collaboration following events like the Auschwitz Trial and the debates about statute of limitations in the West German parliament. Speer’s contrition found an echo in the official politics of history of West Germany. At the unofficial level too, what had begun as Speer’s individual self defence at the court of Nuremberg was carried forth in broader public space through his books. The verdict of Nuremberg was now supplemented by empathy from readers who showed solidarity with the ‘tragedy of Albert Speer.’

By the time Speer’s third book was published, Holocaust had been ‘historicized.’ Autobiographical writings by individual Nazi leaders no longer generated the same amount of attention as before in the ‘memorial culture’ of the time. Hence this book did not arouse interest either in the community of historians or among lay readers.

Speer not only influenced the politics of memory of the Federal Republic. His writings and public appearances had an effect on the way former Allied countries, most notably America and England, viewed the Third Reich. The basis ← 17 | 18 → for the trust extended to Speer had already been formed in these countries before the war. During his initial internment and later during his trial, Speer came across as the cultured, apolitical technocrat, an exception among the parvenu Nazi elites. Various representatives of the Allied side endorsed this image, notable among them being the members of US Strategic Bombing Survey and Hugh Trevor Roper, the Oxford professor who established that Hitler was indeed dead and gone.

Many other historians and publicists also played a positive role in the propagation of Speer’s image as a gentleman Nazi, since politics of history, as von Wrochem has analysed, manifests itself through an interaction between politics, media and academic study (wissenschaft).25 Therefore, after examining the ways in which Speer developed his own myth through his memorial discourse, this study inspects the manners in which the ‘gentleman Nazi’ has appeared to members of academia and media.

It is indeed an irony that the origins of image of Speer as an apolitical technocrat can be traced not to German historians or publicists but to the Allies and before the war ended. As the Ênglish historian Geoffrey Barraclough wrote presciently in a review of the English version of ‘Speer’s memoirs: ‘Long before Albert Speer was carried off into captivity on May 23, 1945, the Speer legend had begun to take shape… Now, with the publication and extraordinary success of Speer’s memoirs, legend has become orthodoxy.’26

Barraclough traced the origin of the image of Speer as a ‘pure technocrat’ to an article written by Sebastian Haffner for the English newspaper, ‘The observer’ in 1944. In this article Haffner stated that for wartime Germany, Speer, the man who directed the great power machine was more important than Hitler himself. Also, Speer was the prototype of a new social phenomenon, which was not necessarily confined to Nazi Germany: the classless bright young man who would serve any regime which promised to further his career. These were undoubtedly the essential elements of the image of Speer as an ambitious, opportunist and apolitical technocrat. Despite his perceptiveness, Barraclough, a scholar of medieval European history as well as a historian of modern Germany, succumbed to other elements of the Speer legend. This is clear from his words: ‘after 20 years of more or less solitary confinement in Spandau, Speer has worked his passage home. And his disarming candour, his refusal, even at Nuremberg, to prevaricate ← 18 | 19 → and make excuses, sets him off from the other Nazis in Hitler’s entourage.’ These effusive words are testimony to the persuasiveness of speer’s image.

The first historical work to claim that Speer was an apolitical technocrat with a narrow vision, who chose not to know about the racial crimes committed by the regime he served, originated from Trevor Roper through his legendary book ‘The last days of Hitler.’27 This particular irony, that the ‘Speer myth’ was first confirmed as a historical phenomenon by an English historian, has been analysed in this project.

The biography of Speer written by Henry T. King, one of the prosecutors at Nuremberg occupies a special place among those who assisted, inadvertently or otherwise, to form and promulgate the Speer legend. This book, analysed in this study, was written and published in the 1990s when many proofs of Speer’s deviousness had been documented by scholars. King’s biography however remained completely impervious to the academic findings and fully grounded in the favourable impression that Speer made at Nuremberg as well as the correspondence which the two men exchanged after Speer’s release.28

The American historian Eugene Davidson, who wrote the introduction to the English version of Speer’s memoir, proved to be an unintentional catalyst to the dissemination of Speer’s image. Davidson called Speer’s memoir a ‘chronicle of National Socialist Germany seen from within,’ which was simultaneously ‘a self revealing account of one of the most able men who served it.’29 Hitherto undisclosed correspondence between Speer and Davidson from Speer’s archive has been critically examined in this study. This correspondence depicts the evolution of their relationship – from professional collaboration to genuine friendship, at least on the part of Davidson who tried to help Speer defend himself against serious allegations.

The most unlikely instrument for propagating the Speer myth, especially in America, was the famous Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. This aspect has still not been focussed on by historians in Germany.30 An unlikely friendship developed between the two men as Wiesenthal wrote to Speer asking when the armament minister had first heard of the term ‘Final solution.’ Speer seized this ← 19 | 20 → chance to start a personal relationship with Wiesenthal, who was completely taken in. An analysis of the correspondence between Speer and Wiesenthal has been undertaken in this study, which demonstrates how the Nazi stalwart manipulated the Nazi hunter.

The making of a lasting myth is a complex process where the account of the first person needs to be confirmed and reconfirmed by influential third persons over a long period of time. The narrative presented by Speer had been accepted and further propagated through a number of biographers of Speer. An examination of the most influential among these biographical studies, written over several decades, is crucial to an understanding of the evolution of Speer’s image. The changing critical interpretation of the narrative of Speer through these biographies is an index of how, ‘in the context of the transformation of norms and values the individual social entities and institutions changed their patterns of interpretation of the Third Reich.’31

The first serious study of Speer’s ministerial policy in German was the doctoral thesis of Gregor Janssen.32 Based largely on Speer’s own statements, this thesis is mostly a rendition of Speer’s own version of his role as the minister for Armament. Speer actually went through the doctoral work and provided ‘friendly corrections,’ as Magnus Brechtken has pointed out in a recently published essay.

Brechtken has brought to light that Speer had two personal meetings with the young historian, meetings about which both Janssen and Speer remained silent.33 Janssen reinforced some of the lasting elements of the Speer legend, claiming that with Speer, a personality appeared in the ruling National Socialist clique whom it would be difficult to describe in a generalized assessment.34 Janssen wrote: ‘Speer was little interested in the National Socialist world view. He had been lured by the architectural program of the party… Hitler saw in Speer the most talented executor for his plans… On his part, Speer was completely under the spell of Hitler.’35 ← 20 | 21 →

Janssen’s researches pointed to the fact that Speer insisted on the continuation of armament production till the very end. It did not occur as strange or contradictory to the doctoral student that at the same time, Speer claimed that he defied the Nero orders to protect his countrymen. Janssen explained this inconsistency as Speer’s tragedy: Despite realising that the German war machinery had become dysfunctional, Speer continued to support the last of the military retaliations against his will, not the least due to recognition of his own powerlessness.36

Janssen’s work on Speer has not been discussed here since it was not really a biography but a study on how the ministry for weapons and armament production functioned under him. Among the biographies of Speer, the one written by Joachim Fest deserves special attention since Fest’s contribution to the Speer myth was more than that of any other historian. The prominent intellectual stature of Fest as the editor of the FAZ and the author of a brilliant Hitler biography imparted a special weight to his views. Fest’s first evaluation of Speer appeared in 1963 in an essay titled ‘Albert Speer und die technizistische Unmoral,’ in which Speer was depicted as an ambitious technocrat who kept his private and public worlds strictly separate.37 Speer had read this essay in prison and evidently, Fest’s views appeared to correspond to the image that he wanted to propagate about himself. It was probably no coincidence that Fest was chosen to give Speer editorial assistance while the latter was writing his memoirs.

For Fest, Speer was a living source of history for his own future project: the Hitler biography. Hence, he was more than willing to help Speer write his tale. A few surviving letters from Fest to Speer, analyed in this study for the first time, show how the editorial consultant consciously attempted to shape the memoir writer’s discourse in a way that would enhance the positive sides of his image. The most important contribution of Fest towards the establishment of Speer myth was his biography of Speer. This work has been discussed, since it could be seen as Fest’s defence of the legend of Speer as the ‘gentleman Nazi’ against the emergence of historical facts which threatened to destroy it.38

The other major biography of Speer which has been analysed in this study is the one written by the Austria born British journalist Gitta Sereny. It was Speer who initiated a contact with Sereny by writing a letter congratulating her for her literary talents and historical judgement. The result was a series of interviews, taken over many years, which later formed the core of Sereny’s voluminous ← 21 | 22 → biography of Speer. This book is not a traditional historical biography. It combined archival research with ‘oral history,’ based on interviews, not only of Speer but also many of his contemporaries.39

For Sereny, Speer’s role in the Third Reich was almost as important as his soul searching after the war. Sereny did not follow Speer’s version uncritically. But she developed something akin to empathy towards her protagonist, not the least because she was convinced of the genuineness of his repentance. As a result, despite raising important critical points about Speer’s role in the Third Reich, Sereny ended up reinforcing the myth of Speer as a repentant and anguished soul in search of amnesty.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 432 pp.

Biographical notes

Baijayanti Roy (Author)

Baijayanti Roy completed her PhD at the Goethe University of Frankfurt. Her research interests include the history of Nazi Germany, as well as German Indologists and Indology (late 19th to mid-20th century).


Title: The Making of a Gentleman Nazi