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Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995)

by Gitta Sereny

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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8651921,433 (4.16)14
Gitta Sereny first saw Albert Speer on trial at Nuremberg. Over the last years of his life she came to know him - through hundreds of hours of conversations - as no other biographer has known a Nazi leader. She interviewed as well the people around him - the celebrated, the notorious and the ordinary. Speer gave Sereny, for her use, a number of unpublished manuscripts, and after his death she obtained access to many of his papers. Out of her probings a huge, and hugely alive, portrait emerges. Sereny takes us through the emotional desert of Speer's childhood and marriage, through his embrace (basically, she demonstrates, for nonideological reasons) of the Nazi Party and his service as Minister of Armaments and Munitions, during which his brutal use of slave labor extended a lost war. She superbly portrays the circles in which Speer functioned: the ambivalent General Staff and the infinitely peculiar and nightmarish upper echelons of Nazism.We see Speer accused of war crimes at Nuremberg, and during his twenty years in Spandau prison, struggling to accept individual responsibility for his actions. Throughout, in person or in memory, Hitler is startlingly present, his friendship with Speer bordering on love. Sereny shows us Speer as inveterate schemer, as spectacular planner and maneuverer. We see him also as unique among Hitler's men in the integrity of his battle with conscience. His progress from moral blindness through moral self-education to a torturous coming-to-terms with his own acts - this is the elemental matter at the heart of a book that stunningly illuminates the man, the war, the Third Reich, the Nazi mind and the complex comingling, in one person or society, of good and evil.… (more)
  1. 10
    Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs by Albert Speer (schatzi)
    schatzi: Speer's personal memoir of the Third Reich, including his role in it
  2. 10
    Into That Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder by Gitta Sereny (schatzi)
    schatzi: another book by Gitta Sereny, this one dealing with Franz Stangl, kommandant of Treblinka and responsible for nearly 1,000,000 deaths
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What an extraordinary book! This is a biography of Albert Speer, architect to Hitler and government minister in the Third Reich, but it is a particular sort of biography. You could say it is a psychological or intellectual biography, but even those words don't do justice to its uniqueness. I see it as a moral biography, set within a conversation between Speer and the author, Gitta Sereny, who came to know Speer in the final years of his life. She became friends with him and she liked him. But her portrayal is a constant, unflagging challenge to Speer, and a challenge to which he consents. The topic of this challenge is, as the subtitle states, Speer's battle with truth. Sereny is well equipped for this task, as a person of great empathy and thoughtfulness and as a German who lived through the Nazi years.
Early in the book, and throughout, I marveled at her ability to deal with Speer sympathetically without ever tipping over into rationalizing or excusing his actions, motives, and experience--which was both a counterweight to his rationalizations as well as, I think, what allowed him to stay with their inquiry all the way to the end.

The portrait of Speer is highly personal, even intimate--this in spite of his tendency to evade the personal and intimate at all times. He comes across as a greatly talented man, sophisticated, naive in some ways, with a gaping hole in his soul. Then the stunner is that to a greater and lesser degree at different stages throughout his life, he recognizes this. All individuals are complex and finally ineffable, but what unites Speer and Sereny is their commitment to try to give as full an accounting of him as possible. Necessarily they fail, but not without coming a great distance in that effort. It should also be said, that Sereny never approaches Speer with a pre-set theory based in psychology or anything else, even though she is smart enough to look at all the various aspects that can shed light on a man's life.

Reading this book, I was constantly back and forth with Wikipedia familiarizing myself with the many other characters discussed. When I felt myself feeling too much sympathy with Speer, I watched a holocaust film to remind myself of what was at stake. Because the Holocaust is at the heart of it--Speer's guilt, his excuses, and his courage.

Speer, as a favorite of Hitler, describes "loving" Hitler and being totally committed to him. He was not alone in this. I don't see it as a fault of the book, but Hitler himself remains a cipher, a black hole, in my mind. I never had any experience of seeing something human, humorous, attractive, compelling in him, although many did. So even though I felt I came to know Speer to some extent, that he became an intelligible, flawed human being, I could never get the contour of the spell Hitler cast over others. I wonder why. I wonder if anyone can ever make sense of a Hitler, or a Charles Manson. It's not necessary, perhaps, but I do wonder about it.

After Nuremburg, Speer was sentenced to 20 years in Spandau Prison. He served that entire time, entering at 41, exiting at 61. During that time--and in some ways, I found this the most interesting period of his life--he read 5000 books and dedicated himself to becoming "a new man." I think, again, that he failed at this, but the effort was fascinating as were the people who mentored him (both at Spandau and after). These included Georges Casalis, Father Athanasius, and Robert Raphael Geis, all of whom Sereny was able to meet and speak with. Perhaps this counts as a spoiler, but Sereny ends her book with this sentence: "It seemed to me it was some kind of victory that this man--just this man--weighed down by intolerable and unmanageable guilt, with the help of a Protestant chaplain, a Catholic monk and a Jewish rabbi, tried to become a different man."

Highly recommended.
( )
  jdukuray | Jun 23, 2021 |
What they call 'a real page-turner'. An in depth look into the life of one of Hitler's top advisors + his dealing with the past during later life. Many interesting details of his work + encounters with key figures from the dark days of WWII.
  clfbooks | Feb 23, 2020 |
Albert Speer, "Hitler's architect" and the Minister of Armaments and War Production (after his predecessor's death in 1942), is the only high-ranking Nazi official who accepted, really, any blame for the Third Reich's systematic slaughter of the Jews, Poles, Romanis, Russians, political dissidents, etc. Somehow managing to escape with his life after Nuremberg, he spent twenty years in relative solitude, writing his memoirs (which were published as Inside the Third Reich and Spandau: The Secret Diaries) and proclaiming that, although he was a high-ranking official in the Nazi Party and admittedly one of Hitler's closest acquaintances (Hitler, according to many, never had "friends" in the traditional sense of the word), he had no idea what was going on in eastern Europe.

This book is a masterpiece of intellectual biography. There's also a critical review of Speer's architecture; much of it overscale and ghastly but with a few successes such as the Cathedral of Light. Sereny worked closely with Speer on the book, though he had no input into its content or structure. Her prose has great moral weight. She readily exposes Speer's rationalizations and half-truths, his prevarications and denials in the most direct and meaningful way. Speer squirms under her scrutiny. There is the sense that he knows he has to cooperate, that he knows his Spandau memoirs lack crucial insight and rigor.
1 vote MasseyLibrary | Mar 9, 2018 |
Albert Speer, "Hitler's architect" and the Minister of Armaments and War Production (after his predecessor's death in 1942), is the only high-ranking Nazi official who accepted, really, any blame for the Third Reich's systematic slaughter of the Jews, Poles, Romanis, Russians, political dissidents, etc. Somehow managing to escape with his life after Nuremberg, he spent twenty years in relative solitude, writing his memoirs (which were published as Inside the Third Reich and Spandau: The Secret Diaries) and proclaiming that, although he was a high-ranking official in the Nazi Party and admittedly one of Hitler's closest acquaintances (Hitler, according to many, never had "friends" in the traditional sense of the word), he had no idea what was going on in eastern Europe.

I mainly read this book because I "enjoyed" (I find it difficult to say that I "enjoyed" reading a book about the near-eradication of European Jews, but I can't think of another word at this time to describe how I felt about this book) Gitta Sereny's "Into that Darkness," which I read for a college course about the Shoah (Holocaust) in 2002 (and I really must reread at some point in the future, since my knowledge base has increased dramatically since then). She had no problems putting Franz Stangl's "alternative facts" (to use a more modern term) to examination, and I was expecting something similar here (she was, I would argue, a bit "softer" on Speer, at least partially, I believe, because she developed a genuine fondness for the man).

The book is huge - 720 pages of text, not including picture inserts and the author's notes in the back - and it's dense. There were times that I could only read a few pages before setting the book aside to digest what had been discussed or revealed.

Of course, I have a vested personal interest in Nazi history; my grandmother was the only direct family member to survive the Shoah, and that is because her mother scrounged up enough money to send her to England in 1938 to live with a host family there via the Kindertransport, where she would live until 1946 (when she married my American grandfather). My great-grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles, their children, etc - entirely gone, and to this day, we do not know what happened to all of them exactly - all killed because they were Jewish, except for my great-grandfather, who was primarily killed (and early - 1933) because he was a Communist (although I am sure being Jewish, although a secular Jew, did him no favours). All of this colours my perceptions and how I interpreted this book - you are forewarned. ;)

I suppose, approaching this, my question was - why? Why did this man - who was from a well-to-do family (although he had a bitterly unhappy, unloving childhood) and well-educated and, by all accounts, well-spoken and intelligent - fall in with Hitler? Why did so many like him follow Hitler into fascism? I believe this is especially important at this time in history, because it looks like other countries (including my own America, unfortunately) are tipping closer to fascism in this modern era.

And the book doesn't answer this. Speer himself cannot answer this, really - he just saw Hitler speak and found him very charismatic, so he signed up without much thought. And considering how, well, thoughtful Speer was, this seems strange. It almost feels as if there WAS some other reason that Speer either does not wish or CANNOT discuss - because, as Sereny demonstrates throughout the book, Speer had constructed in his mind the type of man he was and wanted to be, and nothing that interfered with this construction could be examined. Much of Speer's "battle with truth" is Speer battling with himself, trying to make his past conform to this idealized version of himself that he held until his dying day.

And what was this version of himself that he wanted to present to the world? He was primarily an architect, interested in creation and not destruction (this, at least, is believable). He was a Minister in Hitler's government, but he knew NOTHING about what was happening to the Jews. He knew little about the horrible conditions that the "foreign workers" were held under, even though his Cabinet oversaw the forced labour, which was used in war production (these two things I find unbelievable, as does, I am certain, Sereny, who says as much in the last full chapter, entitled "The Great Lie.") And he was repentant of his role, whatever it was, in the deaths of millions - which, even at Nuremberg, he stated that he accepted co-responsibility for, as a member of Hitler's government (none of the others on trial did that).

As a biography, I think this does a good job of showing Speer's life, from birth to his untimely death. As an examination of his culpability, however, Sereny, as I already mentioned, allows her friendship with Speer to colour her perceptions at times, and she is quite kind and delicate with her approach to asking the "hard questions." I am not calling for this to portray Speer as a one-dimensional war criminal; he wasn't, and I would never argue that he was, one-dimensional. However, I wish that she would have pushed him a bit more with the tougher questions, which he often attempted (rather successfully) to sidestep. Perhaps it was impossible for Speer to admit, even to himself, that he acted as anything other than exemplary; he seemed very invested in portraying himself as quite the perfect gentleman.

In the end, although few believe him, Speer states that he was never aware of what was happening in eastern Europe (in his own words, he didn't WANT to know, and so he didn't) and he spent a great deal of time and energy trying to disprove those who would present any evidence to the contrary. And he also stated that he never held any antisemitic views; in comparison to the rabid antisemitism held by Hitler and his followers, Speer's antisemitism is quite muted, although he stated in a letter that he "really had no aversion to [Jews], or rather, no more than the slight discomfort all of us feel when sometimes in contact with them" (p. 90).

But no one apparently played a role in the Shoah, at least according to most of the statements and memoirs pumped out by former Nazis. No one in Germany knew (even though the Allies knew by 1942 what was happening in eastern Europe); no soldiers knew; no one in the SS knew; no one in leadership knew. When presented with evidence to the contrary, then everyone was "just following orders." So Speer's denials give a false ring, because nearly everyone denied their involvement in the Shoah to save their own skins. Speer's denial, therefore, sounds like more of the same.

The parts of the book I found most interesting were the ones that dealt with Speer's time in Spandau prison; how he got along (or didn't) with his fellow prisoners. He seemed to "watch out" for Hess, which was a little surprising, considering that Hess was a devout Nazi. It was also interesting to read how Speer spent his time; he read quite a bit, wrote over a thousand pages in a year (the draft for Inside the Third Reich), smuggled out letters to various friends and family members, etc.

It was also interesting to see how Speer's family viewed him. His wife, Margret, whom he married when they were both young and with whom he had six children, stuck by him through everything - but there was a huge block between them, almost feeling as if they were two strangers. And Speer's reserved nature and penchant for becoming a workaholic distanced himself quite a bit from his children, who didn't know how to relate to this virtual stranger. It was actually quite sad to read about Speer's loveless childhood, in which neither his mother nor father particularly cared for him, and to see that he, although he didn't wish it to be so, visited the same on his own children. He cared about them, in his own way, but he just couldn't quite convey that to them, leading to the complete emotional estrangement from his children.

And the children and Margret are the ones I feel sorry for most in this book (besides, of course, the innocent victims of Hitler, but I mean on a personal level). Margret, especially, stood by Speer through everything - twenty years of worry with him in Spandau, raising six children virtually on her own (although with monetary support from Speer's friends - many of whom would also become estranged from him in later years, because Speer insisted on calling Hitler a criminal and defected from the latent Nazism of that generation) - only to have him take a mistress in England, which he didn't bother to hide from her, and to be informed of Speer's fatal stroke from said mistress, who was with him at the end. What a slap to the face for her.

As for Speer, I have no doubt that he knew, at least partially, what was happening in the east. He saw the conditions at a forced labour camp, which upset him greatly; surely he didn't think that the Jews, who were blamed for anything and everything, were faring any better in their camps. There was a speech at Posen, delivered by Himmler, which Speer may or may not have been present for (he argues, of course, that he was there earlier in the day but NOT during Himmler's speech) - but even if he wasn't present, surely he heard murmurings about things later. Even in the most dictatorial states there are whispers, unrest, secret information passed along the vine - I find it completely impossible that he didn't, at least, hear SOME of this.

Speer battled with truth for the entirety of his post-Hitler life, but truth did not win out in the end. Speer, with his regimented self-control, triumphed, even telephoning the author about how he did fairly well with his life, considering. He did give a good portion of his earnings from his memoirs to Jewish charities (anonymously). He did form friendship with religious men (Catholic, Protestant, and yes, even Jewish) and tried to become a better man. He did give numerous interviews, both televised and in print, talking about his collective co-responsibility for what Hitler did. But, in the end, Speer could not face the complete truth and admit that, yes, he knew; he couldn't bear facing THAT truth, and so he never did. ( )
3 vote schatzi | Feb 26, 2017 |
This book is a masterpiece of intellectual biography. If you have an interest in WWII or National Socialism--especially the operational aspects of the war for Speer was head of war material toward the end--this is the book for you. If you have an interest in the twisted mind of Hitler, with whom Speer was about as close as another human could be, this is the book for you. There's also a critical review of Speer's architecture; much of it overscale and ghastly but with a few successes such as the Cathedral of Light. Sereny worked closely with Speer on the book, though he had no input into its content or structure. Her prose has great moral weight. She readily exposes Speer's rationalizations and half-truths, his prevarications and denials in the most direct and meaningful way. Speer squirms under her scrutiny. He is plainly a doomed man. He can know no repose in this life, only the final release of death. There is the sense that he knows he has to cooperate, that he knows his Spandau memoirs lack crucial insight and rigor. ALBERT SPEER: HIS BATTLE WITH TRUTH is one of the finest biographies I have ever read. I will re-read it soon. ( )
3 vote Brasidas | Dec 31, 2010 |
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Albert Speer, lo stesso uomo che ho conosciuto bene e a cui mi sono a poco a poco affezionata, avrebbe potuto benissimo essere impiccato nella notte tra il 16 e il 17 ottobre 1946;
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Gitta Sereny first saw Albert Speer on trial at Nuremberg. Over the last years of his life she came to know him - through hundreds of hours of conversations - as no other biographer has known a Nazi leader. She interviewed as well the people around him - the celebrated, the notorious and the ordinary. Speer gave Sereny, for her use, a number of unpublished manuscripts, and after his death she obtained access to many of his papers. Out of her probings a huge, and hugely alive, portrait emerges. Sereny takes us through the emotional desert of Speer's childhood and marriage, through his embrace (basically, she demonstrates, for nonideological reasons) of the Nazi Party and his service as Minister of Armaments and Munitions, during which his brutal use of slave labor extended a lost war. She superbly portrays the circles in which Speer functioned: the ambivalent General Staff and the infinitely peculiar and nightmarish upper echelons of Nazism.We see Speer accused of war crimes at Nuremberg, and during his twenty years in Spandau prison, struggling to accept individual responsibility for his actions. Throughout, in person or in memory, Hitler is startlingly present, his friendship with Speer bordering on love. Sereny shows us Speer as inveterate schemer, as spectacular planner and maneuverer. We see him also as unique among Hitler's men in the integrity of his battle with conscience. His progress from moral blindness through moral self-education to a torturous coming-to-terms with his own acts - this is the elemental matter at the heart of a book that stunningly illuminates the man, the war, the Third Reich, the Nazi mind and the complex comingling, in one person or society, of good and evil.

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