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Enchanted by Evil : ALBERT SPEER: His Battle With Truth, By Gitta Sereny (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 757 pp.)

November 05, 1995|Alexander Stille | Alexander Stille's most recent book is "Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic" (Pantheon)

Perhaps the most enigmatic and interesting member of Hitler's inner circle, Albert Speer was the only Nazi leader tried at Nuremberg who expressed remorse and accepted responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich, while continuing to deny any specific knowledge of its most horrific act, the systematic extermination of the Jews.

Highly intelligent, educated and refined, from a prominent German family, Speer was light-years removed from the stereotypical Nazi leaders--the corrupt, morphine-addicted Hermann Goering, and the fanatical and sadistic SS leader Heinrich Himmler, who could carry out a policy of mass murder without a twinge of conscience. But if the Nazi movement had only been able to attract these grotesque figures it would probably have never gotten beyond the failed beer-hall putsch of 1923. To fathom how the Nazis were able to dominate German life and conquer most of Europe, one needs to understand how it succeeded in winning the allegiance of men of Speer's caliber.

An organizational genius rather than a great architect, Speer attracted Hitler's attention, at the age of only 28, by completing a major building renovation in just three weeks. Suddenly one day, Hitler plucked the young Speer out of the crowd, and invited him to lunch, lending him one of his own jackets for the occasion. From that point, Speer became a favorite of the Fuhrer and, as his personal architect, the agent of Hitler's megalomaniacal dreams of physically transforming Germany into a 20th-Century version of the Roman Empire.

This combination of almost unlimited power and flattering personal attention was an irresistible, addictive mixture for the ambitious young Speer. In this prodigiously researched and deeply engrossing biography, Gitta Sereny argues that Speer's unhappy and emotionally arid childhood made him especially vulnerable to Hitler's seemingly paternal affection. The quiet but unemphatic anti-Semitism of Speer's German upper-middle-class background helped inure him from the unpleasant implications of Hitler's obsession with the Jews.

Their grandiose architectural plans were interrupted by World War II when Speer began building for the German army. Gradually, his extraordinary organizational ability made him indispensable to Germany's war efforts and in 1942, he was made Hitler's minister of armaments. Speer performed veritable miracles in keeping Germany's arms production going in the face of relentless Allied bombing, rebuilding factories almost overnight and constructing massive underground cities for war production.

Naturally, Speer's role as armaments minister involved him in some of the most grisly sides of the Nazi regime. His ministry depended increasingly on slave labor imported from the conquered territory of Eastern Europe and by the end of the war, Speer had 14 million laborers working in subhuman conditions under his command. Speer tried to remain detached from the nitty-gritty details of arms production. "I'm not happy to face it," he later said, "but in the context of my life then, these workers' only significance was what they could produce toward our war effort. I didn't see or think of them as human beings, as individuals."

(Speer's role in the slave labor program earned him a 20-year stay at Spandau prison, but his apparent lack of involvement in the killing of prisoners and his relative candor at Nuremberg spared him the death sentence.)

Much of this book tries to explain how, as Sereny puts it, Hitler was able to "convince a nation of culturally sophisticated men and women that wrong was right. In his conversation with the author, Speer insisted on the importance of Hitler's ability to modulate his behavior so as to be all things to all people. While he ranted and raved about the Jews with cruder audiences, he presented a much quieter and more reasonable front to men like Speer.

Hitler imposed a strict division of labor and it was considered improper and even dangerous to inquire about things outside one's own sphere of activity. Knowledge of the most gruesome aspects of Hitler's program was jealously guarded and most members of Hitler's inner circle lived in a rarefied, privileged world, dominated by tea parties, music recitals and a warm family atmosphere. When Speer went to visit the concentration camp at Mathausen, he was given a VIP phony tour with well-fed prisoners in immaculate model barracks.

To function effectively, Speer needed to have a clear, unvarnished grasp of reality. At the same time, to serve such an atrocious cause, he also needed an extraordinary capacity for avoiding or repressing the devastating consequences of his work. The deeper Speer became involved in the war effort, the harder it became to maintain the equilibrium between these conflicting needs; in early 1944, this led him to a physical and emotional breakdown.

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