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In Hitler's Service

The ablest and “least corrupted” member of Hitler’s court—thus did H. R. Trevor-Roper characterize Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect and wartime Minister of Armaments. Sentenced at Nuremberg to twenty years’ imprisonment for his use of concentration-camp labor and his deportation of foreign workers, released from prison in 1966, Speer is now one of the last survivors of Hitler’s court. His recently published memoirs1 present a view of that court—its routine commonplaces and its diabolic intrigues—that no other work has yet offered.

By family background and upbringing, Speer would not have seemed a likely candidate for Hitler’s retinue. He was born in Wilhelmine Germany (Mannheim, 1905) into wealth and high social status. His father and grandfather were architects. Politics at home were liberal, his father was an eager subscriber to the Frankfurter Zeitung. Speer attended the best private schools, read poetry, enjoyed music, climbed German mountains and paddled German rivers. In 1927 he received his architect’s license from the Institute of Technology in Berlin and the following spring, at twenty-three, became the Institute’s youngest teaching assistant.

The Berlin Institute was mean-while becoming a center of Nazi propaganda and activity. In 1930 Speer’s students persuaded him to attend a student meeting where he heard Adolf Hitler speak. The experience turned out to be decisive. A few weeks later Speer applied to the Nazi party for membership and in January 1931 he was accepted. His activity as a Nazi began with an unpaid assignment to decorate district party headquarters in Berlin; then he did Goebbels’s ministry and home. In July 1933 came another critical juncture in Speer’s life, the assignment to design the architectural background for the first party rally in Nuremberg. Hitler himself approved Speer’s sketches at a brief impersonal encounter, during which it appears he took a liking to the young architect; soon thereafter Hitler recommended that Speer assist Paul Ludwig Troost in redoing the Chancellor’s residence in Berlin. The rest followed swiftly. Invited into the inner circle, Speer was seated at Hitler’s side at dinner; at twenty-eight, he had been propelled into the very center of power in Germany. Remembering that period, Speer writes: “For the commission to do a great building, I would have sold my soul like Faust. Now I had found my Mephistopheles.”

Speer spent much of the next eight years in Hitler’s company—he became his personal architect after Troost’s death in 1933—satisfying Hitler’s megalomania by designing buildings and monuments of monstrous proportions for the Thousand Year Reich. Once the war began, Speer naturally became involved in the problems of the entire German construction industry and developed a working relationship with Fritz Todt, Minister of Armaments and Munitions. In February 1942, after Todt’s death in a mysterious plane crash, and a month before Speer’s thirty-seventh birthday, Hitler appointed him as Todt’s successor. In September 1943, his authority was expanded; he became Minister of Armaments and War Production, one of Nazi Germany’s most powerful men.



What kind of man was Speer? The portrait that emerges from his memoirs discloses ambition and haughtiness, with talents that matched the avarice of his ambition and the indulgence of his egotism. Even as an inexperienced young man, unfamiliar with the exercise of power and dazzled by his own swift elevation, Speer contrived to keep apart from the other members of Hitler’s court. His origins, his class, his education combined to make him contemptuous of the stupid, the bunglers, the blunderers. Besides, Hitler had chosen him personally. Speer now says that he was not interested in politics. He was an architect, an artist. He was admitted into Hitler’s entourage not as a Nazi, not as a politician seeking power, but on his own merit, so to speak. For years he stood aside from the court intrigues, detached and superior. Only after he became a minister did he take part—for the good of Germany, he asserts—in the Byzantine machinations of the court.

Speer’s self-esteem, his need to stand apart from, and above, the other Nazi leaders was manifest even at the Nuremberg trial. Whereas the other defendants chose to shift blame for the acts of Nazi Germany to the now dead and vanished, Speer, dissociating himself from Hitler’s entourage, publicly assumed a share of responsibility (although like the others he pleaded “not guilty”). His assumption of responsibility reflects not only the creditable pride inherent in an attitude of noblesse oblige, but also, I believe, Speer’s lifelong ambition to appear more honorable than his colleagues, to appear, indeed, the most honorable of the Nazi leaders.

Speer emerges from his memoirs above all as Hitler’s man, eagerly submissive to that indescribable yet irresistible magnetism, until the very end elated by Hitler’s praise and distressed by his reproaches. If Hitler had had the capacity for friendship, Speer said at Nuremberg, he would have been his friend. The only place in his memoirs where Speer reveals his emotions is in the account of his reaction to news of Hitler’s death—news that he had been expecting. Unpacking his suitcase, he found Hitler’s framed portrait: “When I stood the photograph up, a fit of weeping overcame me.”



Not before February 1945 did Speer begin to realize that in defeat Hitler was prepared to let Germany be destroyed, historic buildings and all.2 Only then did he begin to extricate himself from Hitler’s mesmeric power. In the last cataclysmic days of the war he rushed about Germany, countermanding Hitler’s scorched-earth policy, trying to salvage what could be salvaged of Germany’s industry and transportation as a basis for postwar survival. On April 16, 1945, he wrote an appeal to the German people—never delivered out of a still lingering loyalty to Hitler—to put a halt to Hitler’s destructive policies. The appeal concluded:

The military blows which Germany has received during the last few months have been shattering. Our fate is no longer in our own hands. Only a more merciful Providence can change our prospects for the future. We ourselves, however, can help save ourselves not only by going about our work industriously, facing the enemy with dignity and self-confidence, but also by becoming more modest in our hearts, by practicing self-criticism, and by believing unshakably in the future of our nation, which will remain forever and always.

That was Speer’s personal credo. The course he wanted Germany to choose was one he chose for himself. His memoirs are a vehicle for self-criticism, practiced in the mode of emotional austerity. “My moral failure,” he concludes the memoirs, “is not a matter of this item or that; it resides in my active association with the whole course of events.” No confessional repentance. No plea for forgiveness. No “fit of weeping.”

What of the Jews and the Final Solution? Speer says that he did not know. But not quite. In an exercise of Ciceronian preterition Speer says he will no longer say that he did not know even though “it is true that I did not know what was really beginning on November 9, 1938 [Kristallnacht], and what ended in Auschwitz and Maidanek.” He himself was no anti-Semite nor did he ever become one, Speer writes, but “Hitler’s hatred for the Jews seemed to me so much a matter of course that I gave it no serious thought.” Yet hardly any of Hitler’s anti-Semitic remarks remained in his memory: “In those hundreds of tea-times . . . Hitler scarcely ever said anything about the Jews, about his domestic opponents, let alone about the necessity of setting up concentration camps.” As a matter of fact, Hitler’s published table-talk indicates that he said a lot about the Jews. Perhaps Speer did not listen, shutting out of his awareness first those spoken words, later those overt acts of the Kristallnacht that he himself characterized as “the vulgar business of carrying out a policy proclaimed in the anti-Semitic slogans printed on streamers over the entrances to towns.” He was too fastidious for such “vulgar business.” Yet it is strange that he heard nothing in 1942 and 1943 of the talk in Hitler’s court about the fate of the Jews, even though Goebbels, in his diary, recorded such conversations, and on days when Speer was present.

At Nuremberg, Justice Jackson cross-examined Speer about his use of slave labor and his knowledge of anti-Jewish policies. “I knew that the National Socialist party was anti-Semitic, and I knew that the Jews were being evacuated from Germany,” Speer replied, denying further knowledge or complicity. When asked what he did know, Speer testified that when he took office in February 1942, the party was demanding the removal of Jews still working in armaments factories. Because he desperately needed labor, Speer convinced Party Secretary Bormann to issue a circular permitting Jews to continue at this work and extending protection to their employers from political denunciation. That situation lasted until September or October 1942. Speer said, when Hitler “insisted emphatically” that the Jews be removed, and gave orders to that effect. Still, Speer managed to keep the Jews on in factories until March 1943, when they “finally did have to get out.” This admission was elicited by a document presented by the prosecution, in the form of a letter written by Fritz Sauckel, Plenipotentiary for the Allocation of Labor, Speer’s colleague under Hitler and his co-defendant at Nuremberg.3 The letter read:

At the end of February, the Reichsführer SS [Himmler], in agreement with myself and the Reich Minister for Armaments and Munitions, for reasons of state security, has removed from the places of work all Jews who were still working freely and not in camps, and either transferred them to a labor corps or collected them for removal.

A year later, just two weeks after the German intervention in Hungary, Speer asked for 100,000 Hungarian Jews as forced laborers. Hungary was then the only country where Jews still survived in substantial numbers. (He must surely have known then, however dimly, that the European Jews had undergone some terrible fate.) In a letter to Hitler arguing his case, Speer complained that Sauckel was unwilling to use the Hungarian Jews. Although conceding that the presence of Jews was disturbing also to him personally, Speer emphasized that this was an emergency, and that since the Jews were in concentration camps, using them would not offend the sensibility of the German people.4

In his memoirs Speer recalls that his old friend Karl Hanke, then Gauleiter of Lower Silesia, warned him in the summer of 1944 never, under any circumstances, to accept an invitation to a concentration camp in Upper Silesia. “He had seen something there which he was not permitted to describe and moreover could not describe.” Speer now believes that his friend was referring to Auschwitz, and he criticizes himself for not having tried to find out what was happening there.

Auschwitz served two competitive but also mutually reinforcing purposes, mass murder and slave labor. The slave labor installation was the I. G. Farben Buna works, designated as Auschwitz III (Auschwitz I was the base camp; Auschwitz II was the main killing center). Of the 35,000 slave laborers who were brought there, at least 25,000 died: a worker’s life expectancy ranged from one to four months. Extant documents show that Speer knew a lot about Auschwitz III. If he knew nothing of Auschwitz II, he had developed a highly protective mechanism of denial.

Both mass murder and slave labor were in the jurisdiction of the SS, under Himmler. Mass murder was an enterprise of the SS Security Department, headed by Reinhard Heydrich and, after his assassination, by Ernst Kalten-brunner.5 Slave labor was the business of the SS Economic and Administrative Department, headed by Oswald Pohl.6 In the normal course of his work Speer had frequent contacts with Pohl and one of his staff, Hans Kammler, head of the construction division.7 Kammler had distinguished himself by fanatical ambition in all his undertakings: he had built the installations at Auschwitz—the gas chambers, the synthetic rubber plant (Buna works), the sewage system. Speer remarks that in both career and methodology Kammler was his mirror image, and that he “rather liked his objective coolness.” But Speer omits to say anything about his conference with Pohl and Kammler on September 15, 1942, or about developments there-after.8

The SS, always ambitious to extend its enterprises, had put two items on the agenda for this conference: enlarging the camp at Auschwitz III in view of the “eastern migration” (this was at the peak of the mass deportations from Poland), and “taking over complete armament tasks of major proportions by the concentration camps.” As to the first item, Speer approved the purchase of building materials to construct 300 barracks for 132,000 inmates. As to the second, which was more complicated, Speer at first thought the SS Security Department should take some 50,000 Jews out of the free economy and send them into concentration camps. But nothing came of the whole plan because Speer later decided, after an inspection tour of the Mauthausen concentration camp, that the SS construction plans were too extravagant. On April 5, 1943, Speer wrote to Himmler that since he could not supply the necessary building materials, the SS should henceforth apply the principle of Primitivbauweise (“primitive construction”)—meaning that concentration-camp inmates should work with their bare hands and cheap materials. In a later letter, Speer complained to Himmler about the inefficiency of slave labor: the inmates were dropping dead too fast, particularly in Auschwitz.

In December 1943, Speer tells us, he visited an SS plant using slave labor in an underground installation where the V-2 rockets were to be produced. The prisoners’ conditions were “barbarous,” Speer confesses, “and a sense of profound involvement and personal guilt seizes me whenever I think of them.” Since the prisoners were quartered in damp caves, Speer says he ordered barracks built on a hill and he urged the SS camp commandant to improve the food and sanitary conditions. His Office Journal for that day read:

On the morning of December 10 the minister [Speer] went to inspect a new plant in the Harz Mountains. Carrying out this tremendous mission drew on the leaders’ last reserves of strength. Some of the men were so affected that they had to be forcibly sent off on vacations to restore their nerves.

The prisoners suffered because they were being killed by hunger, abuse, and overwork. The observers suffered because of the tension between their guilt (knowing wrong) and their complicity (doing wrong) in the prisoners’ sufferings. The dissociation in Speer’s Office Journal between the prisoners’ sufferings and the observers’ sufferings (and between the remedies for both) is a common neurotic reaction caused by the conflict of conscience over the commission of or participation in a forbidden act.



The London Observer, in 1944, characterized Speer as the “very epitome of the ‘managerial revolution,’” symbolizing the “pure technician . . . with no other original aim than to make his way in the world and no other means than his technical and managerial ability.” It is the image in which Speer has chosen to cast himself—the technician, without politics, without loyalties, morally neutral, devoted only to his machines and his technical tasks. It seems to me, however, to be an incomplete and self-serving portrait. In the case of Speer, it is cited to insulate him from the emotional shock of Nuremberg and to obscure the roots of his attraction to the Nazi movement, his passionate attachment to Hitler, and, finally, his profound love for his counry.

In his final statement at Nuremberg, Speer turned modern technology into an accomplice of the Hitler regime. Hitler’s dictatorship, he said, was the first to have “made complete use of all technical means in a perfect manner for the domination of its nation.” The radio and the loudspeaker, he charged, deprived eighty million people of independent thought—the most exaggerated claim yet made for the mass media. And he warned: “Today the danger of being terrorized by technocracy threatens every country in the world.” Thus was technology made to share responsibility with German leadership for crimes against humanity.

To be sure, technical advances and scientific discoveries have increased the probabilities for human destruction in general. But in thinking about how the Jews were killed, one marvels less at the sophisticated technical facilities (there were none) available to the murderers than at human determination: Heydrich’s mobile killing battalions murdered about one million Jews with rifles and machine guns alone. Nor can it be claimed that the installations at Auschwitz, Belzec, or Maidanek represented a significant technological innovation, scientifically speaking. Not the craft of the machine, but the cunning of the mind was responsible for Nazi Germany’s rationalized and bureaucratic system of murder.



An incisive portrait of Speer as technician appears also in a gallery of eighteen character portraits, from Hitler to Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, brilliantly drawn by Joachim C. Fest, a German journalist.9 These portraits adroitly combine history, biography, and psychology. The aim of the book, Fest tells us, is the description and analysis of “pychological structures.” Fest believes that his subjects were impelled toward politics not by an overwhelming idea, but by psychological conflict, and that the ideological construction which they erected obscured this fact. “They were,” Fest declares, “all concerned not so much to realize a dream of the future as to work off an instinctual urge.” This variant on the theme of sublimation could apply of course with equal validity to men attracted to Communism or to any other political movement.

Fest holds up to view a cohort of misfits, megalomaniacs, obsessives, fanatics, sadists, and split personalities, distinguished (if that is the word) by mediocrity, stupidity, and incompetence. The intellectual and ideological elements coexisting in these “psychological structures” of the Nazi leaders and in the Nazi movement are understated, and consequently, the specificity of Nazism becomes blurred. Fest characterizes his subjects as practitioners, technicians, or functionaries of “totalitarian rule.” Never disclaiming the German nature of Nazism, he nevertheless often subsumes it under an ostensibly generic classification—totalitarianism.

Fest’s use of totalitarianism, like Speer’s use of technology, serves to reduce the enormity of Nazi Germany’s criminality by diluting it with theoretical and abstract ideas of universal application. As with Speer, the specific nature of Germany’s deeds becomes universalized into an abstract concept, and ultimately is explained away into nothingness.

Were the Nazi leaders in fact such misfits? Fest’s psychological magnifying glass, merciless in its brilliance, exposes every pustule and deformity. (How well would leaders of other governments and movements fare under such scrutiny?) But in political practice the delusions, obsessions, mania, hysteria, deceit, and duplicity were often eclipsed by brains, ambition, determination, skill, and the capacity for imaginative leadership. Except for Ribbentrop, the champagne salesman turned diplomat, and Alfred Rosenberg, the ideologue manqué, Hitler’s entourage was on the whole rather impressive (Speer’s personal strictures notwithstanding). Goering—at least before he succumbed to the corruptions of pleasure—Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich, Bormann were men of high ability, if no morality. They shared—aside from the will to power, the belief in force, and the commandment to permanent revolution—a hodgepodge of ideas on the superiority of the Germans, the inferiority of the Slavs, and the exterminability of the Jews.

The criminal acts of the Nazi state were not in the first place the consequence of technology or the outcome of psychological conflicts and failure, but rather the systematic realization of deeply-held beliefs by men who had mastered their weaknesses and prevailed over the values of the religion and tradition in which they had been reared. By our standards and values the Final Solution was insane as well as criminal, but those Germans who dedicated themselves to its execution regarded it as the highest idealism in the service of their nation. That body of beliefs, the core of Nazi doctrine—according to which the Germans were destined to rule the world and the Jews, their arch-enemy, were destined for destruction (originally conceived apocalyptically rather than historically)—shaped and animated Nazi leadership and the Nazi state.



The SS more than any other institution in the Third Reich exemplified the bond between ideology, a shared set of beliefs and values, and power, as Heinz Höhne shows in his massive study, The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS10 From Himmler down to the SS private, from the intellectuals and university students (mostly in law) down to the farm boys just off the land, from the technocrats, economists, and blue-blood elites down to the plebeian riffraff and thugs inherited from the old Frei Korps and SA, all SS men shared—or were indoctrinated and trained to share—an outlook, a mentality, a set of beliefs. At the core was loyalty to the Führer, obedience unto death. SS training consisted not so much of theoretical learning as of character building and basic teaching about the enemy: “Jewry,” “Bolshevism,” the “Eastern sub-humans.” The SS man was taught that he must learn to be a fighter for fighting’s sake; to obey unquestioningly; to be “hard”—not only inured to, but impervious to, all human emotions; to be contemptuous of “inferior beings” and arrogant toward those not in the SS, but to show comradeship to fellow SS members.11 Murder committed in fulfillment of the SS mission was regarded not as murder, but as duty in the service of the Führer, as idealism. The concentration-camp system and the rhythm of mass extermination, writes Höhne, were not dictated by sadists, but by “worthy family men brought up in the belief that anti-Semitism was a form of pest control.”

We know now the power that belief exerted over the deeds of worthy family men. Himmler came to rule over a dominion of death. He built a vast economic empire that enriched his country by scavenging from the murdered and enslaving the yet-to-be murdered. Speer, the worthiest of family men, exploited Himmler’s human resources as he would mineral resources, that is, without humane or ethical considerations. For having done so he spent twenty years in prison, acknowledged his responsibility, and admitted his guilt. The case, it appears, is closed.

But not quite. In his memoirs, pondering the Kristallnacht, Speer asks himself: “Did I sense that this outburst of hoodlumism was changing my moral substance?” His answer: “I do not know.” This not-knowing, this moral uncertainty—so uncharacteristic of Speer in other areas—suggests that he has, even now, not yet come to terms with the question German/Jew. It suggests further that in pondering such larger terms as totalitarianism, technology, or the nature of mass psychological aberration, we would do well to recall, as against Speer, the moral certainty and absolute conviction of those who put the question German/Jew at the center of their concerns. At any rate, what remains most stubbornly in my own mind after reading Speer, Fest, and Hohné, and after brooding over all these larger and smaller terms, is a speech by Heinrich Himmler (cited by Fest) to SS group leaders at Poznan in October 1943, when most European Jews had already been murdered:

It is absolutely wrong to project our own harmless soul with its deep feelings, our kindheartedness, our idealism, upon alien peoples. . . .

One principle must be absolute for the SS man: we must be honest, decent, loyal, and comradely to members of our own blood and to no one else. What happens to the Russians, what happens to the Czechs, is a matter of utter indifference to me. Such good blood of our own kind as there may be among the nations we shall acquire for ourselves, if necessary by taking away the children and bringing them up among us. Whether the other peoples live in comfort or perish of hunger interests me only insofar as we need them as slaves for our culture; apart from that it does not interest me. Whether or not 10,000 Russian women collapse from exhaustion while digging a tank ditch interests me only insofar as the tank ditch is completed for Germany. We shall never be rough or heartless where it is not necessary; that is clear. We Germans, who are the only people in the world who have a decent attitude to animals, will also adopt a decent attitude to these human animals, but it is a crime against our own blood to worry about them and to bring them ideals.

I shall speak to you here with all frankness of a very serious subject. We shall now discuss it absolutely openly among ourselves, nevertheless we shall never speak of it in public. I mean the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. It is one of those things which it is easy to say. “The Jewish people is to be exterminated,” says every party member. “That’s clear, it’s part of our program, elimination of the Jews, extermination, right, we’ll do it.” And then they all come along, the eighty million good Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. Of course the others are swine, but this one is a first-class Jew. Of all those who talk like this, not one has watched, not one has stood up to it. Most of you know what it means to see a hundred corpses lying together, five hundred, or a thousand. To have gone through this and yet—apart from a few exceptions, examples of human weakness—to have remained decent, this has made us hard. This is a glorious page in our history that has never been written and never shall be written.




1 Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs, Macmillan, 597 pp., $12.50.

2 Speer himself was not without a streak of nihilism. Berlin set aflame by Allied air raids entranced him: “No doubt about it, this apocalypse provided a magnificent spectacle.”

3 Implicated in the misuse of Jewish concentration-camp inmates, Sauckel was hanged in Nuremberg prison, October 16, 1946.

4 From a Speer file, Bundesarchiv of Koblenz, summarized in Eugene Davidson, The Trial of the Germans: Nuremberg 1945-46 (1966), p. 497.

5 One of Speer's co-defendants, hanged in Nuremberg prison, October 16, 1946.

6 Condemned to death in the trial of the Concentration-Camp Central Administration at Nuremberg, November 3, 1947; executed June 8, 1951.

7 Speer describes Heydrich and Kammler as if they were twin Rover boys: “Both Reinhard Heydrich and Hans Kammler were blond, blue-eyed, longheaded, always neatly dressed, and well bred.” Speer says that he never read Mein Kampf, but he must have learned from Hans F. K. Gunther's Rassenkunde that the cephalic index of the Nordic race was around 75, that is, long-headed.

8 For sources and analysis, as for so much else about the German machinery for the destruction of the Jews, I am indebted to Raul Hilberg's monumental work, The Destruction of the European Jews.

9 The Face of the Third Reich: Portraits of the Nazi Leadership, Pantheon, 402 pp., $10.00.

10 Coward-McCann, 690 pp., $12.50.

11 See Hans Buchheim in Anatomy of the SS State (Walker, 1968), especially pp. 320—21. His two studies in that volume, “The SS—Instrument of Domination” and “Command and Compliance,” are the most penetrating analyses of the SS that I have read.

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