Albert Speer (1905-1981), the German wartime minister of armaments, has been an object of controversy and “de-mythologizing” since he issued his famous memoirs in 1969. The chief accusation against this suave, intelligent, and personally decent man – who stood apart from the corrupt and thuggish Nazi inner circle – is that he was an accomplished opportunist who deliberately blinded himself to the dark side of Hitler’s genius. Certainly this was true of much of his career. But, as Fest points out, Speer opposed Hitler’s inhuman last-ditch scorched-earth policies at great personal risk. Likewise after the war it would have easy for him to avoid the lingering and often fractious controversy over German guilt. But he chose not to.
In Speer: The Final Verdict the late Joachim Fest, a leading Hitler biographer, offers a realistic assessment of the former minister and the regime he served. Fest does not simplify historical issues. He points out that “even those who were worried” about Nazism in its pre-war phase thought it comparable to other authoritarian governments. Few Germans “could imagine how far the regime would go in depriving people of their rights, persecuting them, and committing mass crimes.” At the same time it is clear that Hitler set frightening new precedents which went largely unchecked. Fest sums up the attitude of Speer and his contemporaries: “Except for a vague and overwrought sense of patriotism… the program of the regime meant nothing to him at all. He really did not have a ‘crippled psyche,’ and like most people he viewed National Socialism as a matter less of conviction than of uplifting emotions.”
These moral dilemmas are not unique to fascism. They exist under Marxist governments and even in ostensibly free countries that pursue increasingly unethical social policies. That is not to say that the ratio of opposition, apathy and collaboration is the same in all nations and at all times. Germany from 1933-45 let itself be seduced by one of the worst tyrants of all time. Yet no country is immune to such folly. It is important to have a chronicler who avoids facile and smug judgments. Fest presents Speer as a man who was flawed, but not abnormally so. He had mixed motives like the rest of us, yet was probably sincere in his repentance, doing more to make up for his crimes, morally and financially, than many other political offenders. Whatever his shortcomings, Speer’s testimony about the totalitarian temptation remains both fascinating and instructive.