- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 22, 2002

By Joachim Fest
Translated from the German by Ewald Osers and Alexandra Dring
Harcourt, $39, 419 pages, illus.

Joachim Fest, the internationally celebrated author of the monumental biography "Hitler," followed by his illuminating "The Face of the Third Reich," has done it again. With his masterful "Speer" Mr. Fest brings to life the riveting story of one man's meteoric rise in Adolf Hitler's Third Reich and his fateful fall. Once more the author succeeds in linking one man's fate to the historical events of his time and explaining the stunning perversion of Germany's social order a country transformed into a totalitarian state marked by horrific crimes and inhumanity.
Aware of the question raised among historians about whether historical knowledge can be obtained by way of biographical studies, the author concludes that the life of Hitler's controversial architect and longtime confidant Albert Speer presents a mirror image of his age and "despite its particularities may be read as a piece of German social biography."
Indeed, the young ambitious apolitical architect who came under the spell of Hitler's charismatic persona, unique vision and highhandedness resembles Germany's idealistic everyman caught up in the progressive political flow of a collective movement hurtling toward a totalitarian abyss. What distinguished the tall, dark and highly intelligent Speer from Hitler's old burly Nazi party crowd turned into infighting power-hungry courtiers was his breeding, education and artistic temperament.
The sense of aesthetics the son of the prosperous architect from Mannheim and a socially ambitious mother with solid middle-class values shared with Hitler became the basis of a very special relationship that not only contained a strong emotional component but, according to the author, even an erotic quality. With his background in the arts and architecture, the Fuehrer who regarded the Autobahnen as his Parthenon appreciated Speer's refined upbringing as much as his artistic imagination, his sense of grandness, style, theatrics and love of showy, idolizing ceremonial events.
Because of Hitler's affinity for him as an "artistic person," Speer became, at least temporarily, his intended successor. The spectacular rise from Nazi architect in charge of converting Berlin into a "Doric style" Germania, the capital of the world, to Armament Minister and powerful "second man in the state" during the crucial war years landed him in the center of the regime Speer, the notorious ideological outsider, became part of it. And yet, while basking in Hitler's presence he kept his distance from his powerful court and its intrigues. Speer's ever-present ambivalence fascinates the author.
Time and again Mr. Fest reminds the reader that this particular sentiment was shared by many nonpolitical Germans torn between following a questionable regime that "only wanted things to go better," as Speer put it, and the gut feeling to keep a cautious distance.
The last chapters of the book are devoted to the Nuremberg trials and the question of Speer's guilt. In the final desperate phase of the long lost war Speer mustered the courage to break with Hitler. He openly disobeyed the dictator's insane "scorched earth" destruction orders for all transportation and communication systems, workshops and utilities that would have cut the thread of life of the German people.
The pervasive cowardice, corruption, disloyalty and treachery of his envious former accomplices during the unraveling of Hitler's Reich disgusted Speer. Learning that Hitler wanted to ensure that the country and the German people would go down with him at the end of the total war, Speer even hatched a plot to kill him in his bunker. He failed.
When did Speer know about the plans for the extermination of the Jews? After all, he had implemented the evacuation of countless Jews from their quarters in Berlin to make room for his grandiose building schemes. Moreover, he was in charge of millions of foreign slave workers and their horror camps. At the Nuremberg trial he accepted overall responsibility for the crimes and murders committed after he became a member of Hitler's government in 1942. But by denying personal participation he also denied "criminal responsibility."
Considering his "main guilt" to be the "tacit" acceptance of the persecution and murder of the Jews, he repeatedly tried to explain the difference between "knowing" and "suspecting" or "sensing" something. As John Kenneth Galbraith, one of the American investigating officers probing the effects of the bombing campaign, remarked in May 1945, Speer turned out to be a "very intelligent escapist from the truth."
Mr. Fest knows his subject well. He became Speer's editorial adviser after the release from a 20-year prison sentence in 1966 when the unique witness to the era started to work on his memoirs "Inside the Third Reich" and "Spandau: The Secret Diaries." In summing up his sensational rise and fall Speer observed that he had led four lives: a promising idealistic beginning, a decade as architect and Hitler's favorite minister, followed by 20 years in prison and his "posthumous" life as successful author and professional witness. Shunned by Hitler's undying faithfuls he became a lonely figure.
As Mr. Fest promises Speer's tale provides insights into Hitler's violent mood swings and his borderline all-or-nothing approach to governance that in historic perspective could easily bemarginalized.

Viola Herms Drath, a member of the executive committee of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, is the author of "Willy Brandt: Prisoner of his Past" and other books on German affairs.

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