"Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth," by Gitta Sereny. Illustrated. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 757 pages. $35 Albert Speer, Hitler's principal architect and wartime Minister of Munitions and Armaments, holds a particular fascination. Here was the son of a wealthy industrialist, handsome, charming, well-read, who simply did not fit the stereotype of the satanic, boorish Nazi. And yet Speer served Hitler faithfully almost to the very end, and paid for it at Nuremberg with a 20-year sentence at Spandau Prison.
Journalist Gitta Sereny's "Albert Speer," backed by 10 years of ,, interviews and research, usefully supplements Speer's own "Inside the Third Reich" (Simon & Schuster. 1981) and "Spandau: The Secret Diaries" (Pocket Books. 1977), perhaps our best first-hand accounts of the Nazi power structure.
In effect, Ms. Sereny retries Speer, seeking to determine with exactitude the extent of his guilt. The key question is Speer's role in the Final Solution, the Third Reich's master plan to liquidate Europe's Jews.
Ms. Sereny finds herself caught in Speer's endless evasions both in his interviews and writings, his minimizing or suppressing of damning evidence, his tactic of admitting general responsibility but not guilt for specific acts, his outright lies. Speer's twisting and turning seem almost to win Ms. Sereny, but they are never sufficiently honest or free of opportunism, to constitute a moral struggle worthy of the respect Ms. Sereny gives him.
Speer's motives seem clear. He was, Ms. Sereny tells us, simply in love with Hitler, fascinated, overpowered, dependent on Hitler's favor for realizing all his own megalomaniacal dreams of power. With Hitler's support, he redesigned Berlin, he managed the economy of Europe. Did he have an erotic attachment to Hitler? Probably not, Ms. Sereny says, but then she asks if one can separate the erotic from the powerful. Was he loyal? True, in the Third Reich's last few months, he attempted to undermine Hitler's scorched earth policy and even entertained a half-hearted assassination plot. But with these minor diversions, and right down to the last days in Hitler's bunker, Albert Speer pledged and gave Hitler his heart, as Faust gave his to the devil.
Although Ms. Sereny attempts a personal portrait, Speer and other major Nazis - Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Himmler - never emerge as fully realized characters. The book has other failings. It lacks adequate description of the Nazis between the end of World War I and 1931, when Speer joined the party and launched his career. Ms. Sereny thereby leaves open the question of how a man whom she credits with morality in his youth, could have joined a party which from the outset reeked of criminality, anti-Semitism and terrorism? Ms. Sereny also tells us virtually nothing about Speer's work as an architect or economics minister.
Her preoccupation is with Speer's guilt or innocence, about which she is tedious and too kind. Ms. Sereny concludes that he did know about the Final Solution, although perhaps not in detail, and he did participate fully in government implementing it, even if he did not himself commit murder. Yet despite these damning pronouncements, she ends up a curious apologist.
Ms. Sereny is taken by the efforts of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish clergy, which began in Spandau Prison, to rehabilitate Speer spiritually. Clearly such a sinner is a great prize for those whose business is forgiveness. But in the end, what Albert Speer did is unforgivable, and his private musings and calculated public confessions, until his death in 1981, are irrelevant to the millions who died in agony at Nazi hands.
A former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, Craig Eisendrath wrote "Crisis Game," a play about nuclear war. He is a board member of the Interfaith Council on the Holocaust. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in American Civilization.