Architect of Destruction
|While Albert Speer, shown here with Adolf Hitler, often wore what appears to be a military uniform, he did not hold a military rank except by courtesy. Speer held the rank of Oberbefehlsleiter, which was an NSDAP position.|
BackgroundSo, who was Albert Speer, anyway? There are many ways to answer that question, so first things first. Albert, the second of three sons, was born in Mannheim, Germany on 19 March 1905. Looking ahead, this makes him younger than almost all of his future colleagues in the Third Reich, who generally were born between 1875 (Gerd von Rundstedt) and 1900 (Heinrich Himmler). Unlike most of those future colleagues, Speer was born into a fairly prosperous family, but apparently, it was a cold family. Speer did the usual upper-middle-class sports, such as skiing and hiking, and also took up rugby, which wasn't so typical in Imperial Germany.
Albert studied architecture at the University of Karlsruhe during the worst years of the Weimar Republic following World War I, then at the Technical University of Munich, and finally at the Technical University of Berlin. Speer was not a particularly successful student - one professor, Hans Poelzig, did not accept Speer due to poor drawing technique. However, another professor, Heinrich Tessenow, was a bit more laid back and accepted Speer. Upon graduation, Speer took up an apprenticeship with Tessenow, who espoused simple forms that embodied national cultural references. During this time, Albert met and married Margarete Weber. While the Webers were tradespeople and thus not in the Speers' social circle, they happened to be prosperous. The pair married on 28 August 1928 and remained married until Albert's death.
The PartyIn light of how things turned out, a key incident in Albert Speer's life took place on 1 March 1931, when he joined the fascist NSDAP. At this point, Speer was still just an apprentice architect. Around this time, Speer left his job as Tessenow's assistant and moved back to Mannheim to manage his family's properties. Speer was an enthusiastic supporter of the NSDAP and, a year later, visited Berlin to help with the 1932 election campaign. While working on this in Berlin, Speer's NSDAP functionary friend Karl Hanke recommended Speer to Joseph Goebbels, who was looking to renovate the Party's Berlin headquarters. With this job completed to Goebbel's satisfaction, Speer returned to Mannheim. However, the building's design caught the eye the Party bosses, including Adolf Hitler.
The NSDAP was growing in power and influence, and it needed someone to design a plan for its 1933 Nuremberg Rally. They turned to Speer, who, while young and unestablished, had shown his talents with the design for the party headquarters. Speer drew up some plans and showed them to Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess, who sent Speer to see Hitler in Munich. Hitler not only approved of the plans, which involved innovative use of searchlights to create a "cathedral of ice" and monumental forms suitable to the fascist ideal, but also named Speer the "Commissioner for the Artistic and Technical Presentation of Party Rallies and Demonstrations."
|Hitler would draw sketches of his conceptions and give them to Speer for realization.|
|The Zeppelinhaupttribüne in Nuremberg, designed by Albert Speer.|
|Hitler studied Speer's architectural drawings with as much intensity as he later examined his war maps, adopting an identical pose.|
Welthauptstadt Germania (World Capital Germania)Speer and Hitler got along famously as the former's works created a distinct style associated with the Third Reich. In 1937, Hitler appointed Speer to be his "General Building Inspector for the Reich Capital." The title is somewhat innocuous, but it was a euphemism for Speer's oversight of one of Hitler's most ambitious projects: the complete rebuilding of Berlin. Speer came up with a new plan for the heart of the city, which invoked the usual (fascist) grandiose and monumental architecture that Hitler liked. The most prominent part of the plan included the "Prachtstrasse," or "North-South Axis," around which the rest of rebuilt Berlin would revolve. At one end of the boulevard would be a massive imitation of Paris' Arc de Triomphe, and at the other end a domed "Volkshalle" where Hitler could give speeches before 180,000 followers. Speer continued working on this project, which would be the centerpiece of Hitler's concept of his own world capital of "Germania," until the final days of World War II. While the initial conception never changed, Speer continued adding more detail. The entire project would have required razing much of Berlin, much as Roman Emperor Nero is said to have cleared large portions of Rome to build his personal villa about 1900 years earlier.
|Speer's 1938 plan for the North-South Axis of "Welthauptstadt Germania" (World Capital Germania).|
You've all gone completely insane.It was an apt comment. The plans were not for the capital of Germany... but for the world. Of course, for that to be appropriate, the world would have to be conquered first. Hitler had some ideas about that.
World War IIWhile Speer continued revising his plans for Germania, the start of World War II on 1 September 1939 quickly put an end to actual work on the project. Speer fully supported the war, which was not a view universally shared by the public, who remembered all too well how the Great War had turned out. While Hitler preferred that Speer's workers continue working on peacetime projects, Speer had his men help the war effort. Many believe that Hitler's "unalterable will" never went unchallenged or ignored, but this was one such instance. Speer's architects designed bunkers and other buildings for the Wehrmacht, which were built by Fritz Todt's labor group, the Todt Organization.
|Speer with Hitler in Paris. To the right is the architect and artist Arno Breker (US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)).|
Like many other top names in the Third Reich (such as Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering and Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop), Speer disagreed with Hitler's plan to invade the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. However, the die was cast. Among other things, the invasion created an enormous need for fortifications along the Atlantic coastline. The Todt Organization, which originally had simply been a group of laborers to build the autobahns, became heavily involved in these projects. When Fritz Todt, originally just the Inspector General for German Roadways but now the Reichsminister für Bewaffnung und Munition ("Minister for Armaments and Munitions"), perished on 8 February 1942 in an airplane crash, Hitler needed a replacement. In what many consider one of Hitler's best decisions, he chose Speer - but it was not a well-thought-out decision. According to Speer, Hitler knew that Goering would demand the position himself, but didn't want to give it to him. Since Speer just happened to be in Hitler's presence at Fuhrer Headquarters in Rastenburg when news came in of Todt's death (Speer had canceled his own flight with Todt at the last minute), Hitler opportunistically lit on the idea of appointing Speer - who had no real experience in armaments - to the position in order to be able to present Goering with a fait accompli.
Now the Minister of Armaments, Speer was presented with massive new responsibilities. In essence, he now oversaw a wartime economy that included 3 million men under arms, many foreign workers, and an army of slave laborers. Speer quickly saw that Todt, who also opposed the Russian campaign, had kept the German economy on a peacetime footing. This was of some political benefit to Hitler because it spared Germans the privations of England and the occupied European countries, but the Wehrmacht already was sustaining massive wastage on the Eastern Front that had to be made good. Goering, who headed one of five separate entities within the Third Reich responsible for industrial production, had taken a casual attitude toward production. In a word, the Reich's economy was chaotic.
|Speer meeting with Herbert Backe, Reich Minister of Food and Agriculture, right, and Robert Ley, leader of the German Labor Front (DAF).|
|Speer with Luftwaffe head of development Erhard Milch.|
|Speer receives an award from Hitler, May-June 1943 (Heinrich Hoffmann, Federal Archive).|
|Eva Braun with Joseph Goebbels (far left), Albert Speer (far right) and the architect of the Eagle's Nest (Kehlsteinhaus), Hans Haupner. They are all... or some of them are... sharing a laugh at the Berghof (Photo by Gretl Braun).|
The war was going badly, however, and Hitler finally acceded to some of Speer's rivals and stripped him of some powers in April 1944. Speer threatened to resign, another strike against him as far as his rivals were concerned: resigning during such a desperate time was considered unthinkable. Speer, upon Luftwaffe boss Milch's urging, finally relented upon condition that Hitler restore all of his powers. This Hitler did, and Speer returned to work. This was the key decision that meant that Speer would go "down with the ship" as the situation went from bad to worse.
|Speer inspecting a new panzer during the middle of the war (Willi Ruge, Federal Archive).|
|Speer touches his design for the 1937 German Pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exhibition.|
|Just one of many German underground facilities, this one for ballistic missile (V-2) production.|
Final War DaysEveryone could see that the end for the Third Reich was drawing nigh no matter how effective Speer's reforms turned out. The 20 July 1944 plotters who tried to assassinate Hitler were unable to convince Speer to join them, but they did include him on a list of prospective post-Hitler leaders. Fortunately for Speer, they included the notation "To be won over" and a question mark next to his name. When the list fell into Hitler's hands, these notations saved Speer's life. Hitler continued to trust him and kept Speer in all of his posts. In some ways, this worked to Hitler's benefit, because Speer was a capable administrator without moral scruples, but Speer (unknown to the plotters) also was beginning to sour on the increasingly hopeless war effort.
|Speer gets a quick shave (Baier, Federal Archive).|
|Hitler continued viewing updated versions of Germania until his final days in the Berlin bunker.|
|Albert Speer with Franz Xaver Dorsch, chief engineer of the Organisation Todt, November 1942 (Weinbach, Federal Archive).|
|Adolf Hitler, Ferdinand Porsche, Walter Buhle and Albert Speer inspecting weaponry on March 18 or 19, 1943 in Rügenwalde.|
Post-War YearsSpeer joined the successor government headed by Admiral Doenitz in Flensburg, but it was a sham government whose only real accomplishment was surrendering to the Allies. The Allies arrested Speer along with the others on 23 May 1945 and eventually put him on trial for war crimes. The indictments against Speer included all the major charges pressed against former Reich officials:
- engaging in a conspiracy to commit crimes against peace;
- planning and engaging in a war of aggression;
- general war crimes; and
- crimes against humanity.
|Speer at Nuremberg.|
|Speer in his later years with a picture of his plans for Germania.|
|Albert Speer with his wife, Margarete.|
While Albert Speer may have evaded some forms of earthly justice, he did leave behind a fantastic body of architectural creations and written material. These provide unique insight for historians into the economic workings of the Third Reich and life under Hitler. While Albert Speer throughout his life managed to portray himself as largely innocent of blame for the Third Reich's crimes against humanity, he was one of the chief enablers of those war crimes and should be remembered as such.
|Albert Speer at the height of his power in 1943.|