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Nazi Notebooks

463 pp, $13.95

By Stephen J. Chapman

DIARIES ARE USUALLY the accompaniment of a lived life. This one stand in place of a life." On that dramatic note, Nazi war criminal Albert Speer begins his chronicle of his twenty years in the Spandau prison run by the four Allied powers. Speer, after openly acknowledging his guilt, was convicted by the Nuremberg Tribunal for his role in the Nazi use of forced foreign labor in German factories. In his memoirs, Inside the Third Reich, published four years after his release in 1966, Speer criticized his fellow Nazis for their refusal to admit any guilt, while professing anguish at his own crimes. He wrote at the outset of the proceedings, "The trial is necessary. There is a shared responsibility for such horrible crimes."

Speer largely retains that view in these diaries, and reaffirms the self-portrayal he so carefully laid out in his memoirs. That painstaking mosaic presented Speer as a reluctant Nazi, a politically naive and unambitious man, a technocrat whose real failure lay in his moral blindness and refusal to consider the implications of his work from anything but a technical standpoint. In his first book, Speer was never really a Nazi; he just happened to be captivated by Hitler's personal magnetism, never really considering the ideology of National Socialism. Of course, Speer denied any knowledge of the death camps and claimed he had resisted Hitler's "Scorched Earth Policy" of destroying factories, machinery, water reservoirs, and the like in the closing months of the war. In all, Speer came across as a nice boy who just got mixed up with a bad crowd. He did some bad things, for which he deserved punishment, but he was never really one of them.

It was a persuasive story, and almost every reviewer praised Speer for his contrition and basic decency. Unfortunately, the story didn't bear up too well under closer scrutiny. Speer's account diverged sharply from the facts in several places and from believability at others--the accolades of many critics notwithstanding. Speer was in fact a dedicated Nazi, who had joined Himmler's Storm Troopers in 1931 and the S.S. a year later. He never opposed such things as the Scorched Earth Policy on moral grounds; his main concern was that all that fine machinery be preserved. Though it receives little attention in his first book, Speer was a generally enthusiastic supporter of the forced labor programs. Aside from some worries about practical problems, Speer's only complaints came when he felt he wasn't getting his fair share of the foreign workers for the armaments industry. Inside the Third Reich mentioned neither those complaints nor his suggestion for dealing with uncooperative workers: "There is nothing to be said against the S.S. and the Police taking drastic steps and putting those known as slackers in concentration camps. Let it happen several times and the news will go around." For all his efforts to distinguish himself from the rest of Hitler's clique, Speer was no less brutal or ruthless than the rest.

Nor were Speer's claims of political naivete very credible. Could he really have become Minister of Armaments if all he wanted was to be a simple architect? Speer took that important post at the age of 37--an impressive achievement for such a young man, not what one would expect of someone who knew and cared nothing about the internal power struggles of the Nazi regime. The evidence of Speer's years with Hitler suggests that far from being an unschooled innocent in such political maneuverings, he was shrewd, resourceful, and highly ambitious.

NONETHELESS, Speer insists on portraying himself in similar terms in Spandau. It seems Speer did not write these diaries to unburden himself or explore personal questions, but intended to publish them all along; as a result, he is circumspect about what he includes and no doubt even more careful about what he leaves out. He made most of his entries on scraps of toilet paper and smuggled them out through friendly guards. The best diaries are those that were never intended for publication: only those can provide access to the writers' most closely guarded secrets, their most revealing qualities. Spandau is written with an eye not only to acceptance by the contemporacy reading public, but also to Albert Speer's place in history. Nothing appears in it that might endanger either.

The entire book has a cold, almost numb quality. Speer writes in a detached, lifeless fashion, as in his observation on coping with prison: "In the past I would have said that I would rather die than live under certain conditions. Now I not only live under these conditions, but am sometimes happy. The concept of 'a live worth living' surely is elastic." If Speer has any deep loves or even small passions, he never mentions them. His references to his wife are typical of his general outlook. He seldom mentions her at all--usually only when she visits him. Oddly, he never refers to her by her first name, but only as "my wife." His descriptions of her visits are terse and factual; he rarely relates his feelings about her. At bottom, it seems, he has no real love for her. With that in mind, it isn't surprising that he shows no real feelings for anyone else.

The only exception is Hitler. Speer's thoughts turn time after time to his Fuehrer; he even dreams about Hitler, years after the end of the war. But he has few new insights into Hitler's character. In 1960, he arrives at the conclusion that "hatred of the Jews was Hitler's central conviction. The man I served was not a well-meaning tribune of the masses, not the rebuilder of German grandeur, and also not the failed conqueror of a vast European empire, but a pathological hater." Other observations are more original and interesting, such as his discussion of Hitler's obsession with ceremony and ritual:

I had long thought that all these formations, processions, dedications were part of a clever propagandistic revue. Now I finally understood that for Hitler they were almost like rites of the founding of a church... he was deliberately giving up the smaller claim to the status of a celebrated popular hero in order to gain the far greater status of founder of a religion.

Even after years of contemplating Hitler's atrocities, Speer exhibits no genuine revulsion. His few denunciations of Hitler are either rhetorical or trivial. He never resolves the secret of his attraction to Hitler. Such attempts at explanation as "I regarded Hitler above all as the preserver of the world of the nineteenth century" are hardly adequate.

A particularly puzzling feature of Speer's experience in prison is his religious evolution. He attended church service every Sunday, read theology, and talked occasionally with the chaplain. On reading the remark, "It is a precious thing to be patient and to hope for the help of the Lord," Speer observes somewhat scornfully, "Silly, to take any stock in that." But he seldoms mentions religious matters, much less his own spirituality. Then suddenly, in 1962, he writes simply, "I believe in a divine providence; I also believe in God's wisdom and goodness; I trust in his ways." What brought about this startling conversion goes unexplained. In any case, the sentiments apparently did not remain with Speer: that entry four years before his release is his last reference to God or religion.

In fact, it is clear that Speer is not a believer, in either God or much of anything. In metaphysics as in religion, he is fundamentally an agnostic. Though he decries the lack of morality in Nazi Germany, Speer can offer no alternative. He writes in 1952, "Much too late I am beginning to grasp that there is only one valid kind of loyalty: toward morality," but the remark has an empty ring because Speer has no moral system, still less an allegiance to one. If he ever tried to confront the problems of moral philosophy or religious faith, it is not apparent in these diaries. He contents himself with lip service to the trite idea of the basic wickedness of Hitler and Nazism, but fails to consider why they are evil.

THERE ARE OTHER signs that Speer's professed contrition is not completely genuine. On more than one occasion he wonders how the Allied powers could pass judgment on him and his fellow Nazis, in view of what he sees as their many hypocrisies. Near the end of his term, he writes, "I have been deformed. Granted, my judges sentenced me to only twenty years' imprisonment to make it plain that I did not deserve a life sentence. But in reality they have physically and mentally destroyed me. Ah, these spokesmen of humanitarianism! Only twenty years!" Is this the predictable lament of every prisoner, or is it the bitter, uncomprehending outrage of a man who simply does not understand his own criminality?

This book leads inexorably to the latter conclusion. What emerges from all the cant and posturing is a very different picture of Albert Speer from what he would like: a cold-blooded, amoral man, lacking the most basic concepts of right and wrong, who even now cannot grasp the horror he did so much to perpetrate. Historian Eugene Davidson was wrong when he wrote of Speer, "whatever he lost when he made his pact with Adolf Hitler, it was not his soul." Albert Speer did lose his soul. Worse yet, he never missed it.

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