Commentary Magazine


Albert Speer: Two Views

To the Editor:

I have just finished reading both Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich and Lucy Dawidowicz’s article [“In Hitler's Service,” November 1970]. . . . There is a great deal to be learned from Speer’s account and confession, but Mrs. Dawidowicz is no guide. Perhaps because she is personally too close to the problem, she sees the leaders of the German Reich, and the German people themselves, as devils and criminals, and the basic problem as one of anti-Semitism. She discounts the work of such searchers as Joachim Fest who examines the psychological structure of the Nazi leaders and the movement itself, and she also dismisses the insights of Speer and others who see the problem in terms of the immense power now concentrated in the hands of politicians by technology. . . .

Twenty years ago I would have believed Mrs. Dawidowicz and accepted her apparent implication that the German people and Speer can never suffer enough for their crimes. But now I can see that the German people suffered not only from the war but from the blunders of Allied leaders who were responsible for the division of Germany. And now the Russians also persecute the Jews. Are they the same monsters as the Nazis? Another question, perhaps more important to consider today: if the problem is one of German/Jew, then what about the problem of American/Vietnamese or Arab/Jew? How can we assess the responsibility for the senseless killing and the complicity in destruction? Kennedy and Johnson escalated a small war into a world problem. How are we to assess guilt, from the President on down to the worker who fashions the napalm bombs? The old values and religious traditions were often themselves oppressive, totalitarian, and exclusive in nature. Did the Nazi leaders really fashion a new ideology or did they just use existing attitudes to give support to their power motives? I could name some American power-seekers who resemble Bormann in their ruthless pursuit of power, although they do not use anti-Semitism but instead cleverly exploit guilt feeling. The case of Speer is closed. He has paid his debt. . . . His book can now become part of an examination of the rise of totalitarian society and the problem it poses in how to preserve individual freedom and prevent disastrous concentration of power in the hands of small cliques.

Louise Reisfeld
San Diego, California

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To the Editor:

Albert Speer cannot be held responsible for what Himmler said about the extermination of Jews (Lucy S. Dawidowicz), nor can he be held responsible for having been called “remarkable” (Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.), “honorable” and endowed with “intellectual integrity” (C. P. Snow), and possessing a “sense of self-detachment” (J. K. Galbraith). But he is responsible for having given in his book a purposely limited picture of Hitler’s system and a self-serving picture of himself, just as COMMENTARY is responsible for failing to dispel the false myth created around Speer. The article presented neither a true picture of the man nor an analysis of the reasons why the American public has been misled into believing that Speer is truthful and his book honest.

I find it grotesque that COMMENTARY should lend itself to the view that Speer “presents a view of [Hitler's] court . . . that no other work has yet offered.” The clear implication is that Speer adds to our knowledge of the truth and that his book offers fresh and objective evidence, which is not the case in view of Schacht’s Autobiography, Guderian’s Errinnerugen, Schmidt’s Statist auf Diplomatischer Bühne, and Gisevius’s Hitler . . . to say nothing of other sources.

Elzbieta Ettinger
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Lucy Dawidowicz writes:

From their letters it would appear that Miss Ettinger and Miss Reisfeld have read two different and contradictory reviews of mine on Albert Speer’s memoirs. Miss Ettinger, exasperated by the incredibly naive and/or politically motivated reviews of Speer that appeared in the nation’s press (the New York Times, daily and Sunday, were among the most gullible and offensive), apparently read no further in my review than the first paragraph. There I concluded that Speer’s memoirs “present a view of [Hitler's] court—its routine commonplaces and its diabolic intrigues—that no other work has yet offered.” From this opinion that Speer will serve as a documentary source on how Hitler ran his household and government, Miss Ettinger concludes that I must be an apologist for Speer.

Miss Reisfeld, a more careful reader, understood that I tried to confront the self-serving Speer of the memoirs with the self-asserting Speer of Nazi Germany in matters concerning anti-Semitism, Jews, and—in only a small way—slave labor. Miss Reisfeld understood also that in emphasizing the role of Nazi racial ideology in shaping the Third Reich and in rejecting Speer’s claim that technology bore the culpability for Germany’s crimes against humanity, I was rejecting Speer’s inference that technology could and would implicate other nations in similar crimes. That was what provoked her.

Miss Reisfeld indeed makes quite explicit that undercurrent of mood and belief in the country today that turns America into “Amerika.” How useful to that purpose is Speer and how important to see him as he himself would like to be seen. A man, dear reader, very like you and me. What he did, you can do; what his government did, yours does too. What Germany was to the Jews, America is now to the Vietnamese—thus Miss Reisfeld, whose shrill effusion expresses the idea implicit in those credulous reviews of which Miss Ettinget complains.

It would serve little purpose to argue with those political paranoids who claim that America is Nazi Germany reincarnated and that Harlem is Auschwitz revisited. Their apocalyptic visions (and, I suspect, hopes) are no substitute for knowledge or reason. If Miss Reisfeld is still this side of rationality, I commend to her Karl Jaspers on “The Criminal State and German Responsibility,” COMMENTARY, February 1966. Jaspers distinguished between a criminal state and a state that committed crimes: “A criminal state is one which in principle neither establishes nor acknowledges the rule of law.” He also distinguished between war crimes and crimes against humanity. War crimes, he wrote, were crimes against humaneness. A crime against humanity was the claim to decide “which groups of people are permitted or not permitted to live on earth, and to execute this claim through the deed of wholesale murder.”

Miss Reisfeld obviously prefers the ideas she holds today to those of twenty years ago, no doubt before she had liberated herself from those “old values and religious traditions . . . often themselves oppressive, totalitarian, and exclusive in nature.” Those old values and religious traditions, may I remind Miss Reisfeld, which oppressively forbid idolatry and murder, were systematically subverted by the Germans through the indoctrination of new values. Yes, the Nazis did fashion a new ideology. Miss Reisfeld may not care to dust off her old values, but since memory no longer serves her, she might dust off some books besides Speer and find out what the Third Reich was all about.

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