Berthold Konrad Hermann Albert Speer, commonly known as Albert Speer (19 March 1905 - 1 September 1981), was an architect, author and, for part of World War II, Minister of Armaments and War, sometimes called "the first architect of the Third Reich".
Speer was Hitler's chief architect before becoming his Minister for Armaments during World War II. He reformed Germany's war production to the extent that it continued to increase despite massive and devastating Allied bombing. After the war, he was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to 20 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, many referred to him as the "Good Nazi" and a book on his life was written with that title. Following his release in 1966, he became an author, writing two bestselling autobiographical works, and a third about the Third Reich. His two autobiographical works, Inside the Third Reich and Spandau: the Secret Diaries detailed his often close personal relationship with Adolf Hitler, and have provided readers and historians with an unequaled personal view inside the workings of the Third Reich. Speer died of natural causes in 1981, in London, England.
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 crisis 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 Technical University of Berlin. It was there that he came under the tutelage of Heinrich Tessenow. Speer had a high regard for Tessenow and when he passed his exams in 1928 he became Tessenow's assistant, a high honor for a man of 23. His duties as assistant involved teaching seminar classes three days a week.
In the summer of 1922 he got to know Margarete Weber from Heidelberg (1905 - 1987). They soon fell in love; a relationship frowned upon by Speer's socially conscious mother, who felt the Webers (Margarete's father was a successful craftsman who employed fifty workers) were socially inferior. Despite this opposition, they married in Berlin on 28 August 1928, though it would be seven years before Margarete Speer would be invited to her in-laws' home. Between 1934 and 1942 Margarete gave birth to six children: Albert (*1934), Hilde (*1936), Fritz (*1937), Margarete Nissen (*1938), Arnold (* 1940, born Adolf, renamed after 1945) and Ernst (*1942).
Speer states he was apolitical as a young man, and that he attended a Berlin Nazi rally out of curiosity. 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 1931, Speer surrendered his position as Tesserow's assistant due to pay cuts. With little work, he devoted time to Party activities, and since he was one of the few members with a vehicle, was often assigned to drive Nazi officials, developing contacts among the Nazi elite. 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 with whom he felt a certain kinship, 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. Speer's selection for this commission followed his successful design for the 1933 May Day commemoration in Berlin. In his autobiography, Speer claimed that, upon seeing the original design for the Berlin rally, he made a derogatory remark to the effect that the site would resemble a "rifle club" meet. He was then challenged to create a new design. His design, using huge flags, was so successful that he was the obvious choice for the Nuremberg rally.
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. Speer insisted that as many events be held at night as possible, both to give greater prominence to his lighting effects and to hide the individual Nazis, many of whom had become corpulent in office. 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.
In 1935 Speer started a close cooperation with the German-French sculptor Arno Breker. They were friends over decades until the death of Speer.
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 defence against the onslaught of Communism. In his memoirs, Speer relates how he was able to obtain a clandestine look at the plans for the Soviet pavilion, and how he modified his plans in response. 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 reorganised 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 high and in diameter, 17 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 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 railway 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 remain.
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.
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 the lack of cooperation from the Nazi hierarchy. Nevertheless, by slowly centralising 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 1944 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, one of them being the alterations made to the ventilation system by Hitler shortly before the plan was to come in action. 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, for which the Soviets had pushed.
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 labour.
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 disfavour, on 29 April, Speer was excluded from the new Hitler's Cabinet outlined in his final political testament. This document specified that Speer was to be replaced by his subordinate, Karl-Otto Saur.
According to his memoirs, Speer was greeted civilly upon arrival at Nuremberg Prison by prison Commandant Colonel Burton C. Andrus, who was known for treating Nazi war criminals under his jurisdiction with icy disdain. The same memoir mentions Andrus apologizing to Speer for his policy of strictness with the prisoners under his jurisdiction.
At the Nuremberg Trials, Speer was one of the few officials to express remorse. Speer was indicted on four counts: first, participating in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of crime against peace, second, planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace, third, war crimes, and lastly, crimes against humanity. He was found guilty for the last two, for which he was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment, most of which he would serve at Spandau Prison, West Berlin, largely for his use of slave labour. In Speer's testimony, dated 15 June, 1977, he maintained that he "still [saw his] main guilt in [...] having approved of the persecution of the Jews and of the murder of millions of them.
According to interviews after his imprisonment, as well as his memoirs, Speer adopted a "see no evil" attitude towards the Nazi atrocities. For example, he claimed to have learned of unspecified disturbing events at Auschwitz through his friend Karl Hanke. He then purposely avoided visiting the camp or trying to get more information about 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. Moreover, documents uncovered by the Berlin historian Susanne Willems suggest that Speer knew a great deal more about the atrocities than he claimed to.In his memoirs, Speer claimed to be "under the spell" of Hitler, finding it difficult to reconcile his personal affection and admiration for Hitler with whatever opposition he may have felt for Hitler's policies. Nonetheless, during the last weeks of the Third Reich, Speer disobeyed direct orders from Hitler regarding the Nazi's scorched earth policies. Hitler's order, now commonly known as the Nero Decree, called for the destruction of all German infrastructure in order to hinder the impending allied invasion from accessing Germany's resources.
Speer's acknowledgement of guilt was nuanced. He acknowledged 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 painted himself as a nonpolitical technocrat. However, according to The Guardian, Speer revealed in a letter he wrote in 1971 to Hélène Jeanty, the widow of a Belgian resistance leader, that he knew of Himmler's plans to exterminate all the Jews, in spite of his 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 6 October 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. 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".
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's library, which was organised 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, centred around a "north-south axis", which had been the core design element of Speer and Hitler's plan for a new Berlin. To maintain his physical fitness and his ability for imagination, Speer then took up a virtual "walking tour of the world" by ordering geography and travel books from the local library and walking laps in the prison garden visualising his journey. Meticulously calculating every metre travelled, and mapping distances to the real-world geography, 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 Flächsner, remained as his attorney. His major work during this time was stalling the de-Nazification 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. Flächsner would accompany Margarete Speer to Spandau to greet Speer on his release.
Speer himself appeared in the ITV television series The World at War which was first broadcast in 1973. Speer appeared in a number of episodes including the 12th episode entitled "Whirlwind", in which he admitted that he regarded the bombing of Germany by the RAF's Bomber Command as a second front. In a number of the other episodes he spoke at length of his relationship with Hitler and how he became Minister of War Armaments Production after Fritz Todt was killed in a plane crash. Speer revealed that he was meant to have been on the plane along with Todt, and having been informed of the news half an hour after it had been given to Hitler he was summoned to meet the leader to take on all of Todt's offices.
He also revealed that, unlike most of the senior OKW commanders and Reichministers, he had direct access to Hitler. He stated that he was not told exactly what was going on in the death camps, but was told by a Gauleiter that terrible things were occurring. He also contributed to Dudley Saward's official biography of Bomber Harris the Commander of Bomber Command by giving interviews and access to his files which demonstrated the effects of the bombing on manufacturing and on how artillery pieces were directed to air defence and not to the Eastern Front.
Speer's daughter Hilde (married Schramm) became a noted left-wing parliamentarian. Speer's eldest son, Albert, became a successful architect in his own right. Second daughter Margarete (married Nissen) became a photographer and Arnold, Speer's second youngest son became a community doctor.