Belated tears of Hitler's wunderkind

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 December, 1995, 12:00am

ALBERT SPEER, His Battle With The Truth, Gitta Sereny, Macmillan WORLD War II was a great tragedy. But if you were there, and you survived, it was the defining event of your life. In the Spanish seaside town where my aged parents experiment with the life-prolonging effects of sunshine and sangria, the expat community is still identified by its wartime exploits.

Freddy 'is a Spitfire pilot'; Dick was 'in destroyers'. Papa Hamlett was in the SAS. I missed the whole thing by hours, being born at approximately the time when Hong Kong officially surrendered.

Gitta Sereny was an adolescent schoolgirl in occupied France. She is as haunted as all the others. This book, it gradually becomes clear, is the result of a fascination with the workings of the Third Reich which has extended over decades.

No member of the Hitler entourage is too humble to find Sereny skipping up his or her garden path, anxious for a chat - preferably lasting several days and sometimes spread over years.

Of course she missed most of the real heavyweights, who, by the time this hobby had developed, had either died or been hanged.

But even the Great Dictators need a swarm of secretaries, aides, attendants and briefcase carriers. Many of Hitler's hangers-on seem to have lived to a ripe old age. Longevity, apparently, is perfectly compatible with an uneasy conscience.

The prize exhibit while he lived, though, was Albert Speer, who was young enough to emerge from 20 years in Spandau still in eminently interviewable condition.

Speer also remained trapped in the past - an understandable problem in his case - and exacerbated the difficulty by deciding that he would talk freely to anybody who wished to talk to him.

Both participants in this book knew they were leading up to another attack on the perennial Speer question: how much did he know about the Holocaust - and when? Some reviewers have carefully refrained, on a 'do not reveal whodunit' basis, from saying what this comes to. This is an inappropriate courtesy because Sereny published her trophy, such as it is, in the Sunday Times within weeks of collecting it.

Speer promptly claimed that the word at issue had been misinterpreted. Readers who slog through Sereny's 700 pages in search of this limp little revelation are entitled to feel robbed.

Speer's line on the point remained substantially unchanged: he could have known, he should have known, but he did not. The great strength of this book is that it goes through Speer's wartime career in considerable detail, so readers can assess for themselves how much self-deception this position involved, and whether it was applied in the 1960s or the 1940s.

The crucial period is late in 1943. At this point Speer, first recruited in the comparatively harmless capacity of the Fuhrer's personal architect, had been Minister of War Production for nearly two years.

He visited on official business an underground factory under construction, code-named Dora, and discovered - if he did not already know - that the forced labour he had been moving round Europe like pawns on a chessboard was extremely badly treated.

He did not resign or protest. He continued to operate the system. For this he was sentenced to 20 years at the Nuremberg Trials and he did not dispute the justice of the sentence.

At roughly this time he also attended a conference of regional officials. Most of the day was occupied by speeches. Speer was first up, in the morning; Himmler was the last item on the card, in the afternoon.

Himmler's speech included a passage which, in retrospect, is unmistakably an admission that the Jews who had been disappearing from Germany and the occupied territories for the last three years had in fact been done away with.

It seems that having completed his foul work he wished to spread the responsibility as far as possible, though even Himmler could not bring himself to use the words 'gas chamber' in public.

This episode was the subject of a major row in 1971 when an American writer stated that Speer was present at Himmler's speech and must, as a result, have known what was going on.

Speer angrily denied this, and tried to prove that he could not have been there.

So we are left rather up in the air on this point. It is quite conceivable that Speer, having given his own performance, left. Reading the swathes of Himmler prose provided in this book it also seems possible that he was there, but, after a long day and a luxurious lunch, was not concentrating closely enough to spot the real meaning under the euphemisms.

He seems to have been deeply disturbed at some level, though, because soon after he suffered a dangerous bout of illness which looks at least partly psychosomatic.

That is the traditional Speer question in a nutshell, and whichever way the reader finally answers it, the truth for most Germans of his generation seems to be that they chose to know as little as possible for as long as possible.

He later actively sabotaged Hitler's attempts to turn Germany into a desert, and toyed with some hare-brained schemes for assassination which came to nothing. He remained to some extent under the leader's spell. Having escaped from beleaguered Berlin he made a dangerous return visit to say goodbye to Hitler, who was by now bent on suicide.

Sereny is an excellent guide to this chamber of horrors, compendiously well-informed on all the nuances of life at Hitler's court. For my taste the details of interviews and her reactions to them intrude excessively, but there is no point in pretending that anybody could assess this murderous circus objectively.

She is good on the moral ambiguities in the rest of the world: plenty of people outside Germany were in no hurry to discover the truth about the Final Solution. The festival of victorious self-righteousness at Nuremberg was deeply flawed.

The post-war period is more difficult to warm to. Speer spends most of it unexcitingly imprisoned. Sereny gives a good deal of detail about his attempts at some form of self-absolution with the help of a succession of religious figures - Protestant, Catholic and Jewish - but she is irritatingly judgmental on this material and the essence of the exchanges remains elusive.

In the last analysis there is nothing too complicated about Albert Speer's struggle with truth. It was a fine struggle in every way except that it started 10 years too late. Speer's own assessment of himself was an illustration of the dangers of ambition.

There is something in this. Hitler was a young architect's ideal client - buckets of money and megalomania. It is difficult for a man still in his thirties to refuse a major government ministry.

This book is good on the moral depravities of the Third Reich, less illuminating on its temptations. Those of us who have not faced either should perhaps not judge too harshly. Who knows what choices we would have made?