How much did he know?

When you discuss Albert Speer, there's many different angles you can take on the man. The Unloved Child. The Brilliant Architect. The Man Behind Germany's War Effort. Hitler's Only Friend. Later, The Repentant Nazi. But, after all the facts are examined, after all the historians have exhausted themselves and the armchair psychoanalysts have had their say, that one question is left.

How much did he know?

Even though he rose from a little-known architect to the level of Minister of Armaments in the Third Reich (and one of Hitler's most steadfast cronies), Speer's legend was made after the war, starting with the Nuremburg Trials. He was the only high-level Nazi war criminal to appear to be honest, often easily admitting his actions - the tens of thousands of forced laborers he used to keep the factories at full capacity, for instance, or his crackdown on lazy workers (take too many sick days, get sent to the concentration camps - not exactly a Teamsters-approved policy, that). In effect, he was the only Nazi official to plead guilty. He even seemed not too bowled-over with the jury's assessment of him as the one man whose organizational and logistical skills extended the German war effort 1 year longer than it should have ran, and is thus responsible for all war deaths for that last year. Strangely, he disavowed all knowledge of the Holocaust, even though he should have known all details of possible workers (interned Jews, etc.). He even prefessed innocence to knowingly driving past Jewish mass gravesites, which he did while touring the war effort in Poland and Russia.

After his sentencing (20 years in Spandau for using forced laborers and various war crimes), he secretly wrote his memoirs. Two thick volumes of material, meticulously hand-edited, later published in two tomes : Spandau : The Secret Diaries and Inside the Third Reich : Memoirs. The books were immensely popular, with his account of the innerworkings of Hitler's staff an indispensible part of any serious World War II study. Speer presented himself in the books as a normal man, held under thrall by Hitler, with little knowledge except what he directly controlled. He also wrote about his lonely prison musings on the doings of the Nazi empire. He was hailed as the repentant Nazi and a fine example of one man coming to grips with evil, and he grew rich off of his publishing profits and fame. Albert Speer died with his mistress (not his wife) by his side in England in 1981.

But how much of what he said is true? How much did he know?

People swing both ways. Some claim that there's no way Speer could not have known; he was too close to the decision-making process, he must have seen the graves, the documents, he must have known where these wonderful workers he could press into service were going. Others tell of his innocence, of how Himmler and the rest of the underlings were the main perpetrators of capital-E Evil and how Speer was merely a lackey, his organizational talents used for purposes of which he knew not. The most interesting read is from the Nazi biographer Gitta Sereny, her take on the man being too complex to fully explain here, but she mainly saw Speer as the ultimate technocrat, one who believed that as he pressed another 25,000 souls into a shackled 100-hour workweek that he worked for the greater good, one who was so involved with the numbers of managing a war effort that he was incapable of seeing the individual pain and suffering that he directly caused. Of course, she had other interesting takes on the man, including how his unhappy, unloved childhood eventually led to Hitler's grip on the man's psyche, which lasted up until his death.

There's other interesting sides to the man. His architecture wasn't earth-shattering, but it was an interesting authoritarian take on the great Roman structures. He even created a simple rule, called the Law of Ruins - that a building should look great, even when mostly reduced to rubble. (Of course, he may not have expected his buildings to be nearly vaporized before he entered old age.) He built his massive design for the Reich Chancellery, the seat of the Third Reich's power, in a year, organizing the effort with incredible skill. (The building itself was noteworthy, a heady mix of the Versailles, classical Roman architecture, and a jug of whoop-ass - it said, in no uncertain terms, 'Submit, mortal'.) From there, his organizational skills became the focus, eventually leading him to running the day-to-day Empire in its last 3 years.

He is said to have been the only man who Hitler could relate to on a personal level, which is interesting, as it conflicts with his supposed control of the Speer's will. Having only read the parts of his memoirs that are posted on the Internet, I don't know what Speer has said about their relationship besides what I have already mentioned.

And then you get back to his complicity, or lack thereof, in the evils of the Nazi party. What did he do? How much was his direct fault?

How much did he know?

Assess the roles and influence of Albert Speer in the Nazi regime in Germany between the years 1932 and 1945.
My original work, as part of 'Node Your Homework'

Albert Speer joined the Nazi party in January 1931, inspired by the personality of Adolf Hitler: the man who was to play such an imposing part on the future of Germany and the world; this was the first step in a career in the Nazi party which would see him rise through the ranks to become the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany.

It was in 1932 that Speer received his first commission for the Nazi party, from the head of the Wansee district where Speer lived, Speer was to redecorate the local Gauhaus and the man who commissioned him was Karl Hanke, who was to be Speer’s patron for the next year. A year later, in March 1933 Speer was contacted by Hanke and told that Goebbels, who had just been named Propaganda Minister, would have work for him. On March 11th Goebbels commissioned Speer to undertake the necessary alterations to the new Propaganda Ministry, and within two weeks they were completed. Hanke, who had been promoted to Minister’s Secretary, continued his role as Speer’s patron.

Within days of finishing the renovations to Goebbels’ ministry Speer was given the task of designing the décor for the May 1st rally at Tempelhof field. This was to be the first time that Speer was able to give his artistic talent free rein and it was so successful that Goebbels claimed that the ideas were his own. Whilst the work that Speer was doing for Hanke and Goebbels was not very important in itself, it did have the effect of putting him in Goebbels’ favor.

His next commission from Goebbels was to redesign the interior of Goebbels’ new residence and add a large reception hall. Speer lightheartedly promised to have it ready within 8 weeks.

     “When Goebbels told Hitler, he said it couldn’t be done and Goebbels, no doubt to spur me on, told me of the Führer’s doubts…. This started a wild 24 hour-a-day construction program in three shifts, with me snatching an hour’s sleep here and there. Hitler, with his passion for construction, came over every few evenings to observe our progress and apparently continued to express his doubts-never to me, because Goebbels kept me in the background….” 1

During the preparation for the first party rally in Nuremberg after the Nazis came to power, he was remembered as being the architect who designed the Tempelhof platform for the May 1st celebration and was flown to Nuremberg to help the rally organizers with the décor. This was the first time that he had a firsthand encounter with Hitler, although Hitler scarcely acknowledged his presence and merely gave his approval for the party rally décor designs, not even knowing that it was the same architect who had completed Goebbels’ residence. It was at this rally where Speer first used the ‘Cathedral of Light’ effect that was to earn him much recognition in the years to come.

It was Goebbels’ residence that earned him the Fuhrer’s recognition as being “some young architect in Berlin that finished Goebbels’ flat in record time,” and in autumn Hitler gave orders for him to join Troost’s team to rebuild the Reich Chancellor’s residence in Berlin. It was not truly a commission for Speer, as he was only there to advise the building manager, but it was significant because it led to Hitler recognizing his ability and giving him commissions of his own. It was one afternoon, during one of the Führer’s frequent visits to the building site, that “Hitler, who had never seemed to notice him, suddenly turned to him as he was leaving and said ‘Come along to lunch.’” 2

It was during this lunch that Hitler discovered that Speer was the designer of both the May 1st celebration as well as the Nuremberg rally. Soon afterwards he became a member of Hitler’s close circle of friends and advisors. It was late in 1933 when Hitler entrusted Speer with his first personal commission, and many followed, all of which were very minor but required completion in record time.

In January 1934, Hitler’s personal architect, Troost, died after a short illness, leaving Speer to be the Führer’s personal architect.

     “For the commission to do a great building, I would have sold my soul like Faust. Now I had found my Mephistopheles.” 3

His first big commission from Hitler came in 1935, the construction of a huge complex for the annual Nuremberg party rallies. More followed, and in June 1936 made Speer responsible for the reconstruction of Berlin, to be renamed Germania. On January 30th, 1937 Hitler named Speer, who already held the rank of a State Secretary and was entitled to a seat on the government benches in the Reichstag, Inspector General for the Construction of Berlin. Uniquely Hitler also agreed to Speer’s request that he carry out the commission as an independent architect, under the authority of no-one but the Führer himself. To build Germania over 52 thousand flats were demolished and 23 thousand Jewish flats were seized and rented out to Aryans.

On February 8th, 1942, Reich Minister of Armaments Fritz Todt died in a plane crash that remains unexplained to this day. Five hours later, Speer was named Minister of Armaments in Todt’s place. After 2nd September 1943 his title was changed to the grander “Minister of Armaments and War Production” as his role was expanded to cover a wider scope of production.

     “In 1942, I took over the armament and construction programs along with altogether 2.6 million workers. In the spring of 1943, Dönitz gave me the responsibility for naval armaments as well and at this point I had 3.2 million workers. In September 1943, in agreement with the Minister of Economics, Herr Funk, the production side of that ministry was transferred to me. With that I had 12 million workers under me. Finally on August 1st, 1944, I took over air armament from Göring. At that point, the total production of the Greater Reich, not counting that in occupied countries, was marshaled under me with 14 million workers.”4

It was undoubtedly a shrewd decision on Hitler’s part as Speer was an organizer of extraordinary talent and efficiency, this he had already demonstrated to an extent, but the changes he brought about in his ministry further demonstrated his ability. His concept for the ministry was extremely simple, the administration of war production would be taken out of the hands of the huge army bureaucracy that had run it under Göring’s supervision, and would be entrusted on a basis of individual responsibility to the industries, factories and industrialists. He also showed no scruples in exploiting all the slave labor he could access. He is, however, credited with the fact that he always tried to ensure that his workers were well fed and housed, simply because they are less efficient otherwise.

     “I, too, at the top, was naturally interested in having well-fed and satisfied workers, because badly fed, dissatisfied workers make more mistakes and produce poor results”5

Under his supervision and as a result of his administrative acumen and dedication, armament production levels received a dramatic boost. This is illustrated by the fact that armament production reached its’ peak in 1944 despite the Allies’ supremacy of the sky and constant bombardment. Even this was not able to turn the tide of the war against the Allies, although Speer is credited for having been able to, through his efforts, prolong the war by at least a year.

     “Without the efforts of Speer, who by 1943 had concentrated more than 80 per cent of German industrial capacity in his hands, Hitler would unquestionably not have been able to continue the war so long and might possibly, as Speer himself conjectured, have had to admit defeat as early as 1942 or 1943.”6

As it became apparent that the war was lost, Speer began to plan for the period after the war. As the Allies closed in around Germany, Hitler ordered for the Reich to be razed so that the victors would gain no benefit from German industry. Speer realized that this “Scorched Earth” policy would devastate any chance of recovery for the German people after the war. Until January 1945, using Hitler’s own prediction that he would reconquer the lost territories, Speer successfully persuaded Hitler to replace his destruction orders with shutdowns of the factories.

     “If the war is lost, the people will also be lost and it is not necessary to worry about their needs for elemental survival. On the contrary, it is best for us to destroy even these things. For the nation has proved itself weak, and the future belongs entirely to the strong people of the East.” 7

However, it did not take long for Hitler to change his mind, and he quickly reinstated the destruction orders. Speer, having fallen from grace with the Führer, spent the last few months of the war fighting against Hitler’s scorched earth policies, using his influence and unquestionably putting his own life at risk trying to save what he could of German industry, and in this was reasonably successful.

     “I said to myself that after the war the responsibility for all these destructions would no longer fall on us, but on the next German Government, and the coming German generations.” 8

Speer’s organizational talent saw him rise rapidly through the ranks of the Nazi regime. His influence grew as he attracted the attention of those who would seek to benefit from his ability, and his role by the end of the war was of utmost importance to the German war effort. He is recognized for having planned for the future of Germany after the war, using his influence from his former role to try and save what he could from the retreating German army. Speer is credited with being the only high-ranking Nazi official to acknowledge collective responsibility for the actions of the Nazi regime and for being one of the few men who, in the closing stages of the war, had the courage to tell Hitler that the war was lost and to try and prevent the senseless destruction of production facilities.

Sources Quoted
  1. Speer, Albert. “Spandau: The Secret Diaries
  2. Sereny, Gitta: “Albert Speer: His Battle with truth,”
  3. Speer, Albert “Inside the Third Reich
  4. Nuremberg Transcripts, June 19th, 1946
  5. Nuremberg Transcripts, June 21st, 1946
  6. Fest, Joachim, ‘Portraits of the Nazi Leadership,’
  7. Sereny, Gitta. “Albert Speer: His battle with truth”
  8. Nuremberg Transcripts, June 21st, 1946

  • Braun, Elihai, 'Albert Speer' Last viewed: 1st June, 2003 (
  • Fest, Joachim, ‘The Face of the Third Reich’ (New York, Da Capo Press, 1999)
  • Krupa, Frederique ‘Albert Speer: An Architect's Social Responsibility’ Last viewed: 31st May, 2003 (
  • Sereny, Gitta, ‘Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth’ (Great Britain: Picador, 1995)
  • Speer, Albert, ‘Inside the Third Reich’ (London: Phoenix Press, 1995)
  • Speer, Albert, ‘Spandau: The Secret Diaries’ (London: Phoenix Press, 2000)
  • Speer, Albert, ‘The Führer’s Buildings.’ (Hamburg: Cigaretten/Bilderdienst Hamburg/Bahrenfeld, 1936) (Courtesy of the German Propaganda Archives:
  • Nuremberg Transcripts, Last viewed: 1st June, 2003 (
Additions? Corrections? /msg me

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