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The curious monster Albert Speer


Among the more curious phenomena of the Cold War liberal era, nothing is curioser than the elevation of Albert Speer. I was looking through the archive of the NYRB and came upon a review of one of Speer’s minor screeds by Norman Stone in 1982 that was mindboggling in its, shall we say, charity. Of course, the Paperclip current in the Western alliance always p.r.-ed the Nazis that it appropriated. Werner Von Braun went from the S.S. commander of one of the worst of the concentration camps, at Peenemuende, to a figure close to Walt Disney’s tickerbell – a magical fun figure who impressarioed our trip to the moon! But Albert Speer was actually tried at Nuremberg. Of course, he made an impression because he was not a gross, fat hog, but a neat, trim techno figure who said he was guilty – although as a codicil he added that he was guilty, but not of anything that he'd done. After he got out of prison, his autobiographies became best sellers on the NYT list. And he became a celebrity.

Anyway, to Norman Stone. Here’s the two grafs: “When Albert Speer died last September in London, his obituarists were, generally, kind. True, he had been Hitler’s friend, favorite architect, and arms minister. But after 1945 he had been consistently and dignifiedly repentant. He served his two decades’ imprisonment after Nuremberg with great fortitude. His memoirs of the Hitler era, Inside the Third Reich, and his Spandau Diaries, which recorded how he survived twenty years’ imprisonment, have achieved classic status. Speer was also very anxious to help journalists and historians. He was always being interviewed, often at great inconvenience to himself.

It was characteristic of him that he should have died in the course of one such venture. Although he was seventyfive, and not in good health, he agreed to travel from his country home in the Algäu to London for a television interview with the BBC. It was also characteristic, may it be said in passing, that he would not accept a fee for this. The money was to be paid to a charity which he supported—as he did with a considerable proportion of his royalties.”

He was a regular Florence Nightengale, save for running a slave empire that starved, beat, and tortured hundreds of thousands of people to death. In a post-Cold War piece about Speer in NYRB in a review for 2015 by Martin Filler we get a crucial bit of information about Speer’s last trip to England that puts perhaps a different light on the subject:

“A more kindly view of Speer’s accomplishments is unlikely ever to prevail after the publication of the British-Canadian historian Martin Kitchen’s brilliant and devastating new biography of this manipulative monster. With a mountain of new research gleaned from sources previously unavailable, overlooked, or disregarded, Kitchen lays out a case so airtight that one marvels anew how Speer survived the Nuremberg trials with his neck intact, given that ten of his codefendants were hanged for their misdeeds (some arguably on a smaller scale than his own).

Instead, in the Spandau fortress he gardened for up to six hours a day and inveigled employees to smuggle in rare Bordeaux, foie gras, and caviar, and smuggle out manuscripts and directives to his best friend and business manager. In 1966 he exited a rich man, his war-profiteering fortune amazingly intact. As an international celebrity author he further cashed in on his notoriety during the remaining fifteen years of freedom he highly enjoyed. This Faustian figure died of a stroke at seventy-six in London, where he had gone for a BBC–TV interview, after a midday rendezvous at his hotel with a beautiful young woman.”

Surely, though, the beautiful young woman was a charity case!

I find the 1982 date for the Norman Stone review telling and sad. It was the beginning of  Reagan/Thatcherophonia, and all was as it should be in Chile, Brazil, Argentina and other countries where a Speer like fascism, with hints of anti-semitism but nothing gross, were in the air. In many ways, the Cold Warriors picked and chose their lessons from the 1933-1938 era of Hitler’s rule. The cleaning out of the commies. The infusion of money to the military. The getting rid of degeneracy. What’s not to like? Speer was their guy, a man who would understand the difference between authoritarian and totalitarian – a much vaunted difference in the Reagan era, floated by Jean Kirkpatrick and her buddies to general hurrahs.

When Norman Stone died, his obituary in the Herald of Scotland began:

“PROFESSOR Norman Stone, who has died aged 78, was an historian of conservative instincts and unconventional temperament who courted wider notice, and occasional notoriety, as a newspaper columnist and advisor to Margaret Thatcher.”

Color me unsurprised.

II've always thought Joachim Fest sorta let the cat out of the bag in the Cold War assessment of the Nazis. In the preface to his biography of Hitler: “If Hitler had succumbed to an assassination or an accident at the end of 1938, few would hesitate to call him one of the greatest of German statesmen, the consummator of German history." The right wing sweet spot was the pre-1938 Hitler - who resembles Pinochet or Rhee or any number of anti-communist strongmen. Fest's biography was published in the very year Pinochet seized power, 1973. Ah, coincidences.