There is a common misconception that the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP) were simply racist thugs who took the world to war. Alas, this is a view taken by those who base their historical perspectives on hearsay and ‘group think’. It is true that in a minority of cases, such as Hermann Göring or Martin Bormann, the appeal to politics was predominantly expression of racism and violence, but the exceptions outweigh them.
One such exception was Albert Speer, Hitler’s close friend and party-commissioned architect then later, Minister of Armaments and War. But, who really was Albert Speer?
Berthold Konrad Hermann Albert Speer was born into an upper-middle class family in 1905, in the town of Mannheim, Baden, in which was then the German Empire. His early life set a course for the rest of it, as it was marked by profound intellectual ability and good results. Speer has great admiration for his father, even if at times it was a strained relationship and it was on his father’s advice that he set his sights on architecture as opposed to his first choice of becoming a mathematician. Speer was very active as a youngster, being particularly interested in skiing and mountaineering, the latter being something that would shape his recreational pursuits as he grew into his life.
In 1923, Albert Speer took a place at the University of Kalsruhe, an institution of lower prestige than his family’s social status merited but all they could afford due to the massive financial crash of the same year. In 1924 Speer transferred to the Technical University of Munich and in 1925 transferred again, this time to the Technical University of Berlin, where he first joined up with his teacher, mentor and eventual boss, famed architect Heinrich Tessenow. After passing his exams and gaining his licence in 1927, Speer became Tessenow’s youngest ever assistant at the age of 22.
It was at the request of his students that Speer attended his first Nazi party event, a speech delivered by Adolf Hitler at the university in 1930. Speer reported feeling totally mesmerised by Hitler’s delivery style and topics of debate, filling him with his first political feeling of his life. Speer claimed he was never political and almost anti-political before this period of his life.
Three weeks later, Speer attended a speech by Joseph Goebbels at the Berlin Sportpalast. Speer explained afterwards that it became clear to him that the future for Germany was a choice between Communism and Nationalism, which was evidenced by the strong performance of both the Nazis and the Communists in the election years around this time. The speeches he heard ‘filled him with hope’ for the future and stirred up strong emotions. He joined the NSDAP the very next day with the membership number 474,481.
Albert Speer is often referred to as ‘Hitler’s architect’, but this would be an incorrect assessment of their relationship. Speer was indeed Hitler’s favourite architect, but he also did work for other senior party members such as Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Göring, as well as work for the party as a whole. As well as a professional relationship, Speer and Hitler were friends, with the former a regular guest at the latter’s Bavarian mountain retreat. They often spent evenings together after a party dinner to go over designs and share architectural ideas, as Hitler reportedly had a great passion for the subject.
Albert Speer’s first job for the party came in 1932, as a result of a chance meeting between Speer and the NSDAP’s Berlin organiser, Karl Hanke. Speer was a member of the NSDAP Motoring Association and had, in 1932, offered to be part of Hitler’s motorcade for a large scale rally in Berlin. It was at this event where Hanke sought out Speer and told him he had been requested specifically by Joseph Goebbels to redesign the Nazi’s Berlin party headquarters. Needless to say, Speer took the job.
After the elections of 5th March 1933, Speer received a call from Hanke inviting him to Berlin. On arrival, Speer was told he would drive with Dr Goebbels over to the latter’s new ministry and the two of them ended up making a grand entrance together. Goebbels commissioned Speer to rebuild the premises for his new Propaganda Ministry. Goebbels proved a rather fussy customer and eventually commissioned a different designer for to redo the interior decorating. A few weeks later, Goebbels commissioned Speer to rebuild his official residence.
It was Albert Speer who designed the famous three banners display for the Tempelhof rally on 1933, as well as the design (of a similar nature) for the triumphant Nuremburg rally f the same year, both pictured below:
Throughout the 1930s, Albert Speer was commissioned to undertake evermore ambitious projects by Adolf Hitler, as well as developing a personal friendship with the Fuhrer.
The Nuremburg Rally grounds were designed to be turned into a giant party complex, complete with sports fields and rally grounds. Speer designed some of this, but only 3 of the 7 planned sites were ever completed, with the unfinished projects currently under protection for their historical value. In a similar fashion, Hitler commissioned Speer to essentially redesign half of Berlin to make it ‘fit to be capital of the Greater German Reich’. It is said that Hitler obsessed over the plans, particularly as the war was being lost. Needless to say, the majority of this work was never finished.
The model plans for the new “Welthauptstadt Germania” (World Capital Germania) of Berlin, designed by Albert Speer, pictured below:
One project that was finished, however, was the New Reich Chancellery that Speer was commissioned by Hitler to build in 1938. The old chancellery was the former palace of Prince Antoni Radziwill (1775-1833) and had been used as the Reich Chancellery since the inaugural holder of the position of Reich Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck (held between: 1871-1890). The new building was to be built around the corner from the old site, on the corner of Voßstraße off the west branch of Wilhelmstraße. Speer ambitiously promised to have the building completed within the year and remarkably, he managed to deliver on this promise – although, some say the background work for this project had started as early as 1935. The new Reich Chancellery, pictured below:
The project proved extremely expensive, costing the state the equivalent of £1,000,000,000 by today’s exchange rate.
Armaments Minister 1942-45
InFebruary 1942, Albert Speer accompanied Hitler to his eastern wartime headquarters in Rastenburg, today part of north-east Poland. With them was Fritz Todz, Nazi Minister for Armaments and War Production. Speer noted in his book, Inside the Third Reich, the woeful state of supply lines to the eastern front, an observation which he was correct in making as it turned out, as it was this problem that proved to be Germany’s downfall in the second world war.
On the night of 8th February, Speer was due to fly back to Berlin with the minister Fritz Todz, but decided he was too tired to travel and that he would wait until morning to get the train. This turned out to be the luckiest decision (or unluckiest, depending on how one views the wider context) that Speer would ever make, as the next morning news came through that Fritz’ plane had crashed, killing all on board. Later the same day, Hitler appointed Speer to all of Todz positions. Speer claims he was reluctant to hold public office and only did so on the insistence of Hitler himself.
The reluctance proved to be well founded, as Speer had a constant power battle with Hermann Göring for the remainder of the war. The latter had raced to Hitler’s headquarters when he heard the news of Todz’ death to try and claim this newly available office for himself, but was overruled. Göring was in charge of the wartime economy, putting him at odds with Speer whom Hitler had given control of all economic planning relating to war production.
It must be added at this point that in hindsight (had they have lived), many Nazis would describe Göring as a traitor, for he was simply a washed up opportunist, as opposed to the revolutionary national socialists like Goebbels and Rudolf Hess etc.
Speer (left) and Hitler (right), in front of the Eiffel Tower after the fall of France in 1941.
Speer energised the government department immediately, rapidly centralising control of armaments production in order to reduce bureaucracy and also, one suspects, to stave off power-grabs by the meddlesome Göring. New rules were implemented to bring youthful energy and innovation to the department, and Speer had total economic as well as planning power over production.
The success was almost instant: After 6 months in office, production of guns was up 27%, tanks 25% and ammunition production was increased by a massive 97%. The total increase in armaments production was an impressive 59.6%, the sorts of improvements that most project managers could only dream of. However, one must be cautious in signing the praises of Speer for two reasons: Firstly, this improvement did nothing to win the war. Secondly, it could well have been the woeful failure of the previous holder of this office that made Speer’s improvements look better than they would have been in different circumstances.
Having said that, total armaments production had increased by 328% by late 1944, despite heavy bombing of industry.
It is often said that Albert Speer was the only remorseful Nazi at the war crimes trial at Nuremburg in 1946. Speer personally took responsibility for the deaths of Jews in concentration camps during the Third Reich, even though he had never known of such crimes until he was told by the allies after his arrest in 1945. Furthermore, he accepted his charges and his 20 year prison sentence, although he did appeal against the latter. He served out the majority of his time in Spandau Prison, West Berlin, until his release in 1966.
Since the war, many public figures have tried to prove that Speer did in fact know about the deaths of concentration camp inmates, in order to have him tried again for this. American historian Erich Goldhagen “proved” that Speer had been present at a speech of Himmler’s in 1943, where that latter discussed the ‘removal of the Jews’. There were many more quotes attributed to Himmler from this speech that were supposedly explicitly directed towards Speer, however it later transpired that Goldhagen had made them up to incriminate Speer. Most of the evidence suggests Speer wasn’t even present for the speech due to its secret nature, but had in fact left the premises earlier in the day many house prior to Himmler’s arrival.
Much of the atrocities committed by the Nazis were only learned by Speer when he was told of them by allied forces after the war, which may explain why references to them appear somewhat forced in his books. It is said that Speer was ‘reminded’ (perhaps leaned on?) to include certain references to Nazi war crimes in his books after his release from Spandau, even though it is more likely than not he had never heard of half of these crimes before that point. Many people have since resented Speer immensely for this, with film director Heinrich Breloer claiming that “..Speer created a market for people who said ‘believe me, I didn’t know anything about the holocaust'”.
The only documented proof of Speer’s involvement with any crimes comes from his days as General Building Inspector which oversaw resettlement programs for the Jews. Speer knew that Jews were being evicted from property owned by non-Jewish landlords, in favour of Germans who had been displaced by bombing. As these were private properties, in theory the landlords were entitled to evict whomever they liked, but the influence of the state on this matter was immoral.
Too often in history, we allow an overall context to shape our views of an individual. Albert Speer is often overlooked due to his association with the Nazi regime, but he is an important subject to study when looking at this era in our continent’s history.
His achievements as an architecture and his efficiency and devotion to the office of Armaments and War Production can never be underestimated, particularly considering the bureaucracy and lethargy that appeared to surround him. Perhaps in another life, we’d be celebrating Albert Speer as one of the great Art Deco architectural designers in recent history.