Reviewed by Paul B. Jaskot (Depaul University)
Published on H-German (November, 2016)
Commissioned by Jeremy DeWaal
Martin Kitchen’s satisfying new biography of Albert Speer returns us to a long-view history of one of the most enigmatic but also central figures in Adolf Hitler’s regime. In a richly detailed book, Kitchen analyzes anew Speer’s rise to become one of Hitler’s closest associates, his crucial role as the minister of armaments after 1942, and his self-serving (and, at times, self-delusional) refashioning of his reputation and autobiography in postwar Germany. Kitchen shows that there is a fair amount of consistency in these various periods of Speer’s activity, whether as an eager architect of the monumental projects in the National Socialist state, as a willing participant in the brutal economy of sustaining the military during the war, or as a bitter prisoner at Spandau after the Nuremberg Tribunals. Kitchen manages to highlight how in each of these diverse moments Speer existed as, on the one hand, an outsider and socially awkward loner, and, on the other, an ambitious and self-centered insider bent on beating back seeming enemies and promoting the Nazi policies at any cost. That such attitudes were not only part of Speer’s well-known years heading the armaments drive but also continued through the postwar tribunal and his many autobiographical writings is a thread that scholars have often missed. Kitchen brings out the petty attitudes of his subject but never loses sight of the broader impact to which such banal attitudes led, from culture, to war, to genocide.
This work is an excellent synthesis of the innumerable strands of scholarship that have analyzed one or the other aspects of Speer’s career in the past two decades. Naturally there are a few blind spots as with any book that takes on such a topic. But bringing these threads together into one whole is no small feat, and Kitchen should be commended for his impressive grasp of the literature. He is generous in his footnotes, and the reader will be well satisfied that the book provides not only a fresh approach but also an in-depth integration of the relevant literature.
As a biography, the book is not surprisingly organized in chronological order following the major periods of Speer’s life. After providing a brief summation of his childhood years, Kitchen moves quickly to his training as an architect, especially the years in Berlin working with his mentor Heinrich Tessenow. Tessenow’s simplified forms attracted Speer, even though he would leave these far behind in such monumental and bombastically historicist structures as the Neue Reichskanzlei, which he completed for Hitler in January 1939. Kitchen moves quickly to Speer’s early years as an architect in the Nazi state, his plans for the Party Rally Grounds at Nuremberg, and his authority over the rebuilding of Berlin. Around all of this architectural narrative comes the double-pronged development of Speer’s significant administrative organizational authority and his adulation as well as personal interaction with Hitler. These administrative and personal connections would lead him into the heart of the power politics so central to the inner circle of the National Socialist state. With significant discussions of Speer’s relation to the SS or his involvement with antisemitic housing policy for site-clearing in Berlin, Kitchen emphasizes the important point that architecture was not a mere side show but rather integral to key moments of the most brutal development of Nazi policy.
Speer took these skills directly into his job as minister of armaments, an appointment Hitler made after the sudden death of Fritz Todt in February 1942 and much to the surprise of Hermann Göring, among others. Here Kitchen emphasizes the close relationship of Speer to the elite industrialists. Through Speer, heavy industry beat back the civil and military bureaucracies’ influence on armaments production, and he further took advantage of the situation to fend off Martin Bormann and the Nazi Party Gauleiters as well. Kitchen does an excellent job of detailing how Speer negotiated this minefield throughout the war years, even as he was ultimately cut out of the armaments issues in the end by the same dynamics. Nevertheless, through much of the war, after spring 1942 Speer had extraordinary influence over materials, transport, and labor, including forced labor. In this sense, Speer was caught between his supposed dominant interest in rationalization as led by industry experts and the irrational participation in the power politics of the state that concentrated authority for a time in his hands. Or, as Kitchen puts it: “‘Rationalisation’ was thus little more than the National Socialist ‘Leadership Principle’ in another guise. It was a call for heedless leadership and blind obedience. For all the talk of the self-determination of industry, initiative was stifled, innovation discouraged and compromise difficult to reach” (pp. 148-149). Kitchen is at his best when he captures this dynamic and Speer’s role in it.
The last chapters of the book deal with the end of the war, Speer’s time in the custody of the Allies, the Nuremberg Tribunal, and his subsequent release. Speer in this section is clearly shown as a man cultivating his own self-image as the number two man in Nazi Germany who did amazing work but was nevertheless clean of the crimes of the thugs, particularly in the party. This balancing act led him to some uncomfortable moments, as when he assumed that he would be the ultimate expert witness for the Nuremberg Tribunals, the man who could explain it all, but then finding out to his dismay and shock that he was one of the major defendants among the top war criminals. Speer never did come to terms with his own criminal activity, either as an architect or a minister, and this heavily marked his writings after he was released from prison. In these works, he played the role of the “good Nazi,” particularly appealing to certain conservative segments of the Federal Republic in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, as Kitchen emphasizes, “throughout his life, Speer was a consummate role player” (p. 287).
As the above makes clear, for me, Kitchen’s book is an important new synthesis of the life of this architect-turned-minister-turned-postwar-martyr. Still, at least for the specialists, there are some points of critique that bear mentioning. For example, from my perspective, the author overplays in the introduction the dominant position of the Speer biographies by Joachim Fest (Speer: Eine Biographie ) and Gitta Sereny (Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth ), while underplaying his subsequent reliance on the critical biography of Matthias Schmidt (Albert Speer—Das Ende eines Mythos: Speers Wahre Rolle im Dritten Reich ), among other works. Schmidt and scholars like the canonical Gregor Janssen (Das Ministerium Speer: Deutschlands Rüstung im Krieg ) or the more recent salvo from Adam Tooze (Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy ) are certainly dutifully cited as sources for the argument in the text. One wishes, though, that the synthetic nature of the book and the core contributions of scholars critical of Speer had been highlighted up front as well.
More importantly it must be said that the book is not really a biography at all but rather a political biography. It cleaves very closely to the accepted chronological emphasis, with a quarter of the book dedicated each to his architectural and postwar careers, respectively, while the remaining half dealing with his three years as minister of armaments. The result is a book that emphasizes bureaucratic and institutional history at the expense of almost all other aspects of Speer’s life. One gets little of the personal side of Speer here, for example, his continuing pursuit of architectural interests even during his years as minister. This can lead to some awkward passages, such as the first appearance of his wife, Margarete, and his children in 1944 after more than one hundred pages of their absence (a mention not caught in the index) (p. 194). Two other women are mentioned on that page, but only by last name, while all men are listed with their full name. We might think this is about Speer’s radical separation from women, but then we learn in the Nuremberg Tribunals passage of his “faithful secretary Annemarie Kempf,” although she played no role in the previous pages of the book (p. 285). This means that the complexity of the social world around Speer, a complexity that naturally includes women, is not emphasized in an analysis that focuses almost exclusively on policies and the state. While these are absences that do not mar his overall analysis, they do indicate that Kitchen could have been more precise about the approach he was taking and the nature of his biography as well as its contribution.
Overall, though, it must be emphasized that Kitchen has done us a great service by analyzing in such detail the contribution of Albert Speer to the cultural and economic policies of the Nazi state as well as the postwar impact of the understanding of its crimes. This is a necessary volume for anyone studying the period and an important corrective to the scholars and the public venues alike that still insist on Speer’s status as an unthinking bureaucrat merely blinded by his admiration for Hitler. The role he played in the postwar years as the “good Nazi” was exactly why he is such a dangerous model to be studied. As Kitchen states, “this hollow man, resolutely bourgeois, highly intelligent, totally lacking in moral vision, unable to question the consequences of his actions, and without scruples, was far from being an outsider. He was of the type that made National Socialism possible” (p. 371). This biography establishes the truth of that conclusion all too well.
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Paul B. Jaskot. Review of Kitchen, Martin, Speer: Hitler's Architect.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.