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?