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Berthold Konrad Hermann Albert Speer, commonly known as Albert Speer (listen (help·info); March 19, 1905 - September 1, 1981), was an architect, author and high-ranking Nazi German government official, sometimes called "the first architect of the Third Reich". His two bestselling autobiographical works, Inside the Third Reich and Spandau: the Secret Diaries detailed his often close personal relationship with German dictator Adolf Hitler, have allowed readers and historians an unequalled personal view inside the workings of the Third Reich.
Speer was Hitler's chief architect before becoming his Minister for Armaments during the war. He reformed Germany's war production to the extent that it continued to increase for over a year despite ever more intensive Allied bombing. After the war, he was tried at Nuremberg and was sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment for his role in the Third Reich. As "the Nazi who said sorry", he was the only senior Nazi figure to admit guilt and express remorse. Following his release in 1966, he became an author, writing the two aforementioned autobiographical works, and a third about the Third Reich. He died of natural causes in 1981, in London.
Speer was born in Mannheim, Germany, the second of three sons. Although Speer became an architect, he originally wanted to become a mathematician when he was young. Instead, he followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and studied architecture. He began his architectural studies at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology; his decision to study locally instead of at one of the more prestigious institutes was dictated by the inflation of 1923. In 1924 when the inflation had stabilized, Speer transferred his studies to the more esteemed Technical University of Munich. In 1925 he transferred again, this time to the Berlin Institute of Technology. It was there that he was under the tutelage of Heinrich Tessenow. Speer had a high regard for Tessenow and when he passed his exams in 1927 he became Tessenow's assistant. His duties as assistant involved teaching seminar classes three days a week. Although Tessenow himself never agreed with Nazism, a number of his students did, and it was they who persuaded Speer to attend a Nazi Party rally in a Berlin beer-hall in December 1930.
Speer claims to have been apolitical as a young man; nevertheless, he did attend the rally. He was surprised to find Hitler dressed in a neat blue suit, rather than the brown uniform seen on Nazi Party posters. Speer claimed to have been quite affected, not only with Hitler's proposed solutions to the threat of communism and his renunciation of the Treaty of Versailles, but also with the man himself. Several weeks later he attended another rally, though this one was presided over by Joseph Goebbels. Speer was disturbed by the way he had whipped the crowd into a frenzy, playing on their hopes. Although Goebbels' performance offended Speer, he could not shake the impressions Hitler made on him. The next day he joined the Nazi Party as member number 474,481.
In the summer of 1922 he got to know Margarete Weber from Heidelberg (1905-1987; called Margret). They married in Berlin on August 28, 1928 despite the fact that Speer's mother was against this relationship. Between 1934 and 1942 Margret gave birth to six children: Albert Jr., Hilde, Fritz, Margarete, Arnold and Ernst.
Speer's first major commission as a Party member came in 1932 when Karl Hanke (whose villa Speer previously worked on) recommended him to Goebbels to help renovate the new District Headquarters in Berlin, and, later, to renovate Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry. Goebbels was impressed with his work and recommended him to Hitler, who assigned him to help Paul Troost renovate the Chancellery in Berlin. Speer's most notable work on this assignment was the addition of the famous balcony from which Hitler often presented himself to crowds that assembled below. Speer subsequently became a prominent member of Hitler's inner circle and a very close friend to him, winning a special place with Hitler that was unique amongst the Nazi leadership. Hitler, according to Speer, was very contemptuous towards anybody he viewed as part of the bureaucracy, and prized fellow artists like Speer whom he felt a certain kinship with, especially as Hitler himself had previously entertained architectural ambitions.
When Troost died in 1934, Speer was chosen to replace him as the Party's chief architect. One of his first commissions after promotion was perhaps the most familiar of his designs: the Zeppelintribüne, the Nuremberg parade grounds seen in Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda masterpiece, Triumph of the Will. In his autobiography, Speer claimed that, upon seeing the original design, he made a derogatory remark to the effect that the parade ground would resemble a "rifle club" meet. He was then challenged to create a new design.
The grounds were based on ancient Doric architecture of the Pergamon Altar in Anatolia, but magnified to an enormous scale, capable of holding two hundred and forty thousand people. At the 1934 Party rally on the parade grounds, Speer surrounded the site with one hundred and thirty anti-aircraft searchlights. This created the effect of a "Cathedral of Light", (which referenced columns) or, as it was called by British Ambassador Sir Neville Henderson, a "cathedral of ice". Speer later described this as his greatest work.
Nuremberg was also to be the site of many more official Nazi buildings, most of which were never built; for example, the German Stadium would have held another four hundred thousand spectators as the site of the Aryan Games, a proposed replacement for the Olympic Games. While planning these buildings, Speer invented the theory of "ruin value". According to this theory, enthusiastically supported by Hitler, all new buildings would be constructed in such a way that they would leave aesthetically pleasing ruins thousands of years in the future. Such ruins would be a testament to the greatness of the Third Reich, just as ancient Greek or Roman ruins were symbols of the greatness of their civilizations. In practice, this theory manifested itself in his marked preference for monumental stone construction, rather than the use of steel frames and ferroconcrete.
In 1937 Speer designed the German Pavilion for the 1937 international exposition in Paris. Speer's work was located directly across from the Soviet Pavilion and was designed to represent a massive defense against the onslaught of communism. Both pavilions were awarded gold medals for their designs.
Speer was also directed to make plans to rebuild Berlin, which was to become the capital of a "Greater Germany" - Welthauptstadt Germania. The first step in these plans was the Olympic Stadium for the 1936 Summer Olympics, designed by Werner March. Speer also designed the new Reich Chancellery, which included a vast hall designed to be twice as long as the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. Hitler wanted him to build a third, even larger Chancellery, although it was never begun. The second Chancellery was damaged by the Battle of Berlin in 1945 and was eventually demolished by the Soviet occupiers after the war.
Almost none of the other buildings planned for Berlin were ever built. Berlin was to be reorganized along a central three-mile-(five km) long avenue. At the north end, Speer planned to build the Volkshalle - an enormous domed building, based on St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The dome of the building would have been impractically large; it would be over seven hundred feet (over two hundred meters) high and eight hundred feet (three hundred meters) in diameter, seventeen times larger than the dome of St. Peter's. At the southern end of the avenue would be an arch based on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, but again, much larger; it would be almost four hundred feet (120 m) high, and the Arc de Triomphe would have been able to fit inside its opening. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to the abandonment of these plans.
Part of the land for the boulevard was to be found by building two major railroad stations, one just north and one just south of the boulevard. This would free up many of the tracks in between. However, according to Speer in The Spandau Diaries, 80,000 buildings would have to be destroyed to complete his plans.
While the north-south axis was not completed, an east-west axis, focused upon the Brandenburg Gate was completed and remains in Berlin today. While none of the buildings designed by Speer during the Nazi era still stand in Berlin, some lampposts still do.
It has been alleged that Speer was responsible for the forced evictions of Jews from their houses to make room for his grand plans, and for re-housing only Aryans affected by this work. These allegations are, however, disputed. He was also listed as being present at the 1943 Posen Conference, a charge Speer later contested by saying that he had in fact left early.
Speer did have an architectural rival: Hermann Giesler, whom Hitler also favoured. There were frequent clashes between the two in regard to architectural matters and in closeness to Hitler.
Minister of Armaments
Hitler was always a strong supporter of Speer, in part because of Hitler's own frustrated artistic and architectural visions. A strong affinity developed between Hitler and the ambitious young architect early in their professional relationship. For Speer, serving as architect for the head of the German state and being given virtual carte blanche as to expenses, presented a tremendous opportunity. For Hitler, Speer seemed to be capable of translating Hitler's grandiose visions into tangible designs which expressed what Hitler felt were National Socialist principles.
After Minister of Armaments and War Production Fritz Todt was killed in a plane crash in 1942, Hitler appointed Speer as his successor in all of his posts. Hitler's affinity for Speer and the architect's efficiency and avoidance of party squabbling are believed to have been considerations in Speer's promotion. In his autobiography, Speer recounts that the power-hungry but lazy Hermann Göring raced to Hitler's headquarters upon word of Todt's death, hoping to claim the office. Hitler instead presented Göring with the fait accompli of Speer's appointment.
Faced with this new responsibility, Speer tried to put the German economy on a war footing comparable to that of the Allied nations, but found himself incessantly hindered by party politics and lack of cooperation from the Nazi hierarchy. Nevertheless, by slowly centralizing almost all industry control and cutting through the dense bureaucracy, he succeeded in multiplying war production four times over the next two and a half years, and it reached its peak in 1944 during the height of the Allied strategic bombing campaign. Another big hurdle in his way was the Nazi policy of excluding women from factory work, a serious hindrance in war production and a problem not experienced by Germany's enemies, all of whom made use of the female workforce. To fill this gap, Speer made heavy use of foreign labour as well as forced labour, the latter mainly from the various types of prisoners in the Third Reich.
Speer was considered one of the more "rational" members of the Nazi hierarchy, in contrast with Hitler, Göring, Goebbels, and Himmler. Speer's name was found on the list of members of a post-Hitler government envisioned by the conspirators behind the July 20 plot to kill Hitler. However, the list had a question mark and the annotation "if possible" by his name, which Speer credits with helping save his life from the extensive purges that followed the scheme's failure. By his own account, Speer considered assassinating Hitler in 1945 by releasing poison gas into the air intake vent on the Führerbunker, but the plan, such as it was, was frustrated for a number of reasons. Independent evidence for this is sparse. Some credit his revelation of this plan at the Nuremberg trials as being pivotal in sparing him the death sentence, which the Soviets had pushed for.
On 13 January, Speer gave a presentation to army corps commanders in a camp near Berlin. According to Speer, Allied bombing was not the biggest problem for German industry. He pointed out that German industry had produced 218,000 rifles in December 1944 alone, nearly double the monthly average in 1941. The production of automatic weapons was up by four times and tank production was up by nearly five times. In addition, the tanks produced were much heavier.
Speer talked for over forty minutes reeling off production statistics. German industry's problem, according to Speer, was Germany's shortage of fuel. Speer did not mention to the corps commanders anything about the shortage of ammunition or the growing reliance on slave labor.
Hitler continued to consider Speer trustworthy, though this trust waned near the war's end as Speer, at considerable risk, campaigned clandestinely to prevent the implementation of Hitler's Nero Decree. The Nero Decree was issued on 19 March and it promoted a scorched earth policy on both German soil and occupied territories. Speer worked in association with General Gotthard Heinrici, whose troops fighting in the east retreated to the American-held lines and surrendered there instead of following Hitler's orders to make what would have been a suicidal effort to hold off the Soviets from Berlin.
Speer even confessed to Hitler shortly before the dictator's suicide that he had disobeyed, and indeed actively hindered Hitler's "scorched earth" decree. According to Speer's autobiography, Speer visited the Führerbunker towards the end and stated gently but bluntly to Hitler that the war was lost and expressed his opposition to the systematic destruction of Germany while reaffirming his affection and faith in Hitler. This conversation, it is said, brought Hitler to tears. On 23 April, Speer left the Führerbunker. Now in disfavor, on 29 April, Speer was excluded from the new cabinet Hitler outlined in his final political testament. This document specified that Speer was to be replaced by his subordinate, Karl-Otto Saur.
After the war
Immediately after the war, there seemed to be little indication that Speer would be charged with war crimes. Speer traveled unprotected and openly participated in the so-called Flensburg government for weeks, in the presence of Allied officers. Upon request, he held a series of widely-attended lectures for officials of the Allied occupying powers on various topics, including mistakes made by the Nazi government in industrial and economic affairs (though he never spoke about slave labour) and the effectiveness of the Allied strategic bombing campaigns. Some journalists and spectators even expected Speer to be appointed by the occupying powers to help restore Germany's economy. He was taken to Versailles, to Eisenhower's then-headquarters. However, any such speculation ended when he was arrested and sent to Nuremberg for trial.
At the Nuremberg Trials, Speer was one of the few officials to express remorse. He was sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment, most of which he would serve at Spandau Prison, West Berlin, largely for his use of slave labour.
According to interviews after his imprisonment, as well as his memoirs, Speer adopted a "see no evil" attitude towards the Nazi atrocities. For example, through his friend Karl Hanke he learned of unspecified disturbing events at Auschwitz. He then purposely avoided visiting the camp or trying to get more information on what was taking place. In his autobiography, he claims that he had no direct involvement or knowledge of the Holocaust, although he admits having blinded himself to its existence and expresses remorse for this. He certainly was aware, at least, of harsh conditions for the slave labour and some critics believe that his books understate his role in the atrocities of the era. Newly released documents] suggest that Speer knew a lot more about the atrocities than he was telling, but hard evidence for that remains very thin.
Speer's acknowledgement of guilt was nuanced. He acknowledges guilt for being a high official of a criminal government, without acknowledging guilt for any crimes committed by himself. His self-described crimes seem to be more acts of omission, including failure to make inquiry into the Holocaust, and failure to challenge Hitler. He paints himself as a nonpolitical technocrat. However, The Guardian has published details that a letter written in 1971 to Hélène Jeanty, the widow of a Belgian resistance leader, reveals that Speer did, in fact, know of Himmler's plans to exterminate all the Jews, in spite of Speer's earlier claims to have left Himmler's Posen speech early. In the letter he says, "There is no doubt - I was present as Himmler announced on October 6 1943 that all Jews would be killed".
One problem with assessments of Speer's complicity in the Holocaust comes from his status in post-war Germany - he became a symbol for people who were involved with the Nazi regime yet did not have (or claimed not to have had) any part in the regime's atrocities. Even today, German historians such as Joachim Fest tend to have a high opinion of him, while many non-German historians take a lower view. As film director Heinrich Breloer remarked in the above-linked article:
Speer created a market for people who said, "Believe me, I didn't know anything about the Holocaust. Just look at the Führer's friend, he didn't know about it either".
During his time in prison, Speer painstakingly documented his experiences in his secret prison diary, which was later released as Spandau: The Secret Diaries. He described his time in prison as consisting mainly of a mind-numbing and pedantically enforced daily routine; incessant petty personal rivalry between the seven prisoners; a pervasive and bloated prison bureaucracy; and, as three prisoners were released early due to ill-health, many false hopes of his own early release. Speer and most of the prisoners had established secret lines of communication to the outside world via sympathetic prison staff. Speer made full use of this by, amongst other things, writing innumerable letters to his family (which were restricted to one outgoing page per month under official regulation) and even having money spent on his behalf from a special bank account for a variety of benign purposes.
Speer, as recounted in his diary, made a deliberate effort to make as productive use of his time as possible. In the first decade, he wrote the first draft of his tell-all memoirs. He considered this to be his "duty" to history and his people as the sole surviving member of Hitler's inner circle, in possession of knowledge and a degree of objectivity that no one else had. As the prison directors both forbade the writing of a memoir and recorded each sheet of paper given to the prisoners, he wrote much of his memoir secretly on toilet paper, tobacco wrappings, and any other material he could get his hands on, and then had the pages systematically smuggled out.
All the while Speer devoted much of his energy and time towards reading books from the prison library, which was organized by fellow prisoner and ex-Grand Admiral Erich Raeder. The prisoners could also have books sent over from the local branch of the Berlin library, and, later, from the central library. Speer was, more so than the others, a voracious reader and he completed well over 500 books in the first three years alone. His tastes ranged from Greek drama to famous plays to architectural books and journals, partly from which he collected information for a book he intended to write on the history and function of windows in architecture.
Later, Speer took to the prison garden for enjoyment and work. Heretofore the garden was divided up into small personal plots for each prisoner with the produce of the garden being used in the prison kitchen. When regulations began to slacken in this regard, Speer was allowed to build an ambitious garden, complete with a meandering path, rock garden, and a wide variety of flowers. The garden was even, humorously, centered around a "north-south axis", which was to be the core design element of Speer and Hitler's new Berlin. Speer then took up a "walking tour of the world" by ordering geography and travel books from the local library and walking laps in the prison garden visualizing his journey. Meticulously calculating every metre traveled, he began in northern Germany, went through the Balkans, Persia, India, and Siberia, then crossed the Bering Strait and continued southwards, finally ending his sentence in central Mexico.
While Speer was incarcerated, his Nuremberg counsel, Dr. Hans Flachsner, remained as his attorney. His major work during this time was stalling the denazification proceedings against Speer. While Speer could not have been subject to further incarceration, the property upon which his family survived during that time could have been confiscated. The proceedings were eventually ended by West Berlin Mayor and future Chancellor Willy Brandt. Flachsner would accompany Margarete Speer to Spandau to greet Speer on his release.
Release and later life
Speer's release from prison in 1966 was a worldwide media event. Abandoning plans to return to architecture (two proposed partners died shortly before his release) he then revised and published two autobiographical books based on the diary entries he had made in prison as well as a third about the SS, which was less well-received. His books, most notably Inside the Third Reich and The Spandau Diaries, provide a unique and personal look into the personalities of the Nazi era, and have become much valued by historians. Speer was aided in shaping the works by Joachim Fest and Wolf-Jobst Siedler from the publishing house Ullstein. Speer died of a cerebral hemorrhage in London, England, on September 1, 1981 - exactly 42 years after Germany invaded Poland.
Speer's daughter Hilde Schramm became a noted left-wing parliamentarian. Speer's oldest son, Albert, became a successful architect in his own right. Arnold Speer, Speer's second youngest son, born in 1940, became a community doctor.
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