Speer: The Final Verdict by Joachim Fest
2001 Weidenfeld & Nicolson
This is a superb study of Albert Speer. It is the story of a young, ambitious and highly intelligent architect who was hand-picked by Hitler in 1933 to realise his dreams of architectural gradeur. Speer's complex and often contradictory character is carefully and intricately deconstructed by Third Reich- historian Joachim Fest. He does it marvellously.
Speer's youth is a fascinating read. Fest captures the reader into the excitement of the times, albeit into the sense of opportunity and success that accompanied the rise of the Nazis. Speer was an unpolitical member of the elite in the 1930s. The regime gave him the power to realise his monumental architectural visions, encouraged by Hitler to build a 'World Capital Germania'. Only photographs remain of his work -- for example the Nuremberg rallies and the new Reich Chancellery -- but even on paper they are remarkably impressive. Fest believes Speer when he once said that he would have taken the opportunities he was given, whatever regime was in power.
The shadow is gradually cast over his life when Hitler, who had embraced Speer as an inimate friend in the 1930s, promoted him to Minister of Armaments in 1942. He succeeded in multiplying arms production efficiency simply by reorganisation. It is here when he started playing the power game, gradually swallowing up most production sectors into his ministry. Yet, he stayed clear of the rest of the Nazi elite, not succumbing to their tricks and corruption. What incriminated him at Nüremberg then, was the use of slave labour. He did not advocate it, but did not object to it when it was pressed upon him. What probably saved him, in turn, was his staunch disobedience of Hitler's "scorched earth" retreat policy that would have mercilessly obliterated an already devastated Germany. It is a difficult period to read, just like Greek tragedies. The hero's hubris has led him into an inevitable downfall. You want to yell out to tell him to escape, but even then it is no longer possible from such a trap. Fest does this captivatingly.
The next years of his life are described by Fest with an atmosphere of the dreariness and depression in which he survived. The torment of failure and shame haunted him in the post-Nazi era, making his life thereafter a very pitiable read.
One thing I particularly enjoyed about Fest's accomplishment were the small anecdotes, for example those about life in Hitler's inner circle. What social torture they all had to endure! Another surreal note was about how in even in the Spandau prison years after the regime had fallen, the former Nazi leaders obstinately continued to treat each other according to their previous ranks! In this ghostlike world, Speer kept mainly to himself and concocted (creative yet sometimes awkward) activities to keep him from falling into despair.
Fest, summing up, says Speer had four lives: the young visionary architect, the turbulent Armaments Minister period, the subsequent 20 years of imprisonment as a hermit, and the years after his release as a writer and eye-witness to the Hitler-era until his death in 1981. In each one he was, in essence, a different individual, having to readapt to the circumstances. Fest nonetheless delves deep in order to explain this most fascinating and inexplicable figure.