Published in 1969 after the author’s release from Spandau Prison, where he was sentenced to 20 years during the Nuremberg trials for war crimes committed during the Second World War, Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich examines his life as he held two very notable positions – that of chief architect, and then later as minister in charge of armaments production for all of Germany – that gave him a unique perspective not only into the inner working of the Nazi regime, but also of Hitler himself.
While in prison, Speer wrote this book in secret, much of which he kept hidden from the guards on scraps of toilet paper he stashed away in his cell. In many ways it was his attempt to explain to others – as well as himself – just what had happened in Germany in the days before and during the war. Many have viewed it as a self-serving attempt to shift blame for his role during the war, while others have said it is an honest and careful reflection of what happens to a country in extremely serious times.
As a student, Speer excelled most visibly in mathematics. At university he rose to the top of his class, and after meeting his future wife Margarete, his marks in other subjects rose as well. Speer’s decision to focus on architecture, rather than math, had more to do with the inertia provided by his father’s successful architecture firm, and Speer’s pragmatic personality, than with any innate passion Speer himself may have held for the discipline. While Speer took to his assignments and learned to love the art of design, he was first and foremost a man of supreme ability, particularly within the realm of organization, who would have succeeded at whatever task to which he set himself.
Speer’s early adulthood primed him for membership in the NSDAP. His mentor in Berlin, Heinrich Tessenow, impressed upon him the peasant virtues, with Speer later quoting: “The metropolis is a dreadful thing. Everything good should be left outside of big cities…where urbanism meets the peasantry, the spirit of the peasantry is ruined.” This mindset prefigures to a large degree Hitler’s own.
Germany of the 1920s was a hotbed of communist and nationalist rivalry, set to push a man like Speer, who had the prospect of an estate to inherit and what would have been a promising career, if only the economy would recover into the hands of the nationalists. Speer was a man with a lot riding on a successful Germany with an intact bourgeoise, it is thus not surprising he aligned himself with the NSDAP. The communist threat made the choice easy.
Speer first saw Hitler almost by accident. His students implored him one day to come hear Hitler speak at a local beer hall. Speer was familiar with Hitler and his image as a somewhat disheveled rabble rouser, but was surprised and impressed to find Hitler dressed in a smart blue suit and displaying a calm, measured demeanor. Speer later remarked about the episode that Hitler always knew how to tailor his presentation for his audience. Speer joined the NSDAP following a long contemplative walk, becoming member 474,481.
Following Hitler’s rise to Chancellorship of Germany, Speer found himself, through series of architectural jobs designing small villas and buildings for the Nazi party, tasked with designing the new Reich Chancellery building. Hitler is quoted as saying his existing accommodations were “fit for a soap company.” To rectify the situation, he supplied broad outlines, a massive budget and a short timeline. Speer pulled off the colossal endeavor ahead of schedule and under budget. The Reich’s Chancellery was a splendid structure of marble, that would have stood the test of time, had the not the bombs of Western air forces and the shells of the Red Army intervened.
The NSDAP was characterized, throughout its time in government, by a weak leadership bench. The party leadership, including Hitler himself, were drawn from the working class, and most flatteringly described as unevenly educated. A tension arose as moderate intellectuals like Speer joined the ranks. Goebbels observed that the “Septemberlings” – those who had joined after the NSDAPs stunning electoral victory in 1930 – were not of the same principles and character of the “Old Fighters” who manned the SA, but were the type to co-opt the movement for personal gain, by virtue of connections and political cunning.
Despite Speer’s upper-middle class, educated background, he was eminently compatible with Hitler on a personal level, famously quoting “If Hitler had a friend, it was me.” Hitler’s insecurity was assuaged by what he saw in Speer as someone who he aspired to be, and Speer’s humility and handling of Hitler allowed him to get close.
Speer’s compatibility with Hitler stems from the architect’s thoughtful, measured personality. A personality precluding flattery, that Hitler, a man beset on all sides by sycophants, welcomed. In Speer, Hitler had a lieutenant of supreme ability but whose ambitions had a clear ceiling and whose ego didn’t necessarily need stroking. Overtime, Speer observed Hitler withdraw from his acquaintances at the Obersalzberg as the transparency of their flattery made the fuehrer distrustful of deceit.
Speer saw a marked Bohemian side to Hitler, and that the German leader was prone to procrastination, though with a compensatory ability to focus when time had run out. Hitler would meander for weeks on mountain trail at the famous retreat, neglecting important speeches, only to finish them in marathon sessions, working late into the night.
Many in the top leadership were hedonistic and deceitful. Speer tells us of how the wives of Borman and Goebbels displayed a committed resolve when their husbands left to pursue affairs. In this way, Hitler’s lieutenants within the NSDAP displayed less self control than the fuehrer. Hitler confided in Speer his feelings towards women, that intelligent men are encumbered by intelligent women, not being able to imagine how he could be constantly interfered with. He could not imagine being a husband or father for similar reasons. Hitler was aware of his sway over women, comparing his appeal to that of a bachelor movie star, although he admitted to wondering if women found him appealing as Chancellor or as Adolf Hitler. Speer pitied the effect Hitler’s indifference had on Eva Braun.
Hitler wanted Speer to build monumental architecture. Massive buildings that would see Hitler’s name live on in the hearts of the German people a thousand years hence. Hitler saw monumental architecture as a means of investing in the nation’s long term pride and self confidence. Hitler saw how Mussolini was able to rally the peoples of Italy by pointing to the works of ancient Rome as evidence of past imperial greatness. He wanted this for the Germans of the future.
Speer’s first task was to design the Zeppelinplatz party rally grounds in Nuremberg. Here, Speer created his famous “Cathedral of Lights.” Originally used as a stopgap to compensate for the uncompleted state of the stadium in 1933, the vertically pointed antiaircraft lights created such an impressive effect that they were used in later years. At the Zepplinplatz, Speer applied the “Ruin Value” concept to his construction, building with stone and concrete in a manner that would be expected to last centuries or millennia, in stark contrast to the shoddy and often coarse construction that would follow the Nazi defeat in the war.
Hitler’s long-term building plans would have seen Berlin transformed into Welthaupstatd Germania (lit. “world head/capital-city Germania”) The building program was on a science fiction scale and would have easily been the biggest urban development plan in human history. Among its many projects Welthaupstatd would have featured a domed construction several times larger than anything in existence, and a massive triumphal arch, as well as a grandiose palace for Hitler and his successors.
Upon visiting his son and Hitler, Speer’s father remarked “you’re all crazy” after seeing their architectural plans. Following his release from prison, Speer saw the wisdom in his father’s words in noticing the bluntness of some of the Third Reich buildings in their lack of proportion. For example – the Berlin Arch de Triumph would have been 49 times the size of Paris’ Arc de Triumphe.
Hitler’s palace would have been so large, it would have overtaken Nero’s Palaseria, ‘The Golden House’ with its 11 million square feet. The structure would have surpassed even Versailles had Speer not run up against space constraints; Hitler argued it would encourage suitors domestic and foreign to regard Germany with awe. Speer considered this motivation similar to how people think when they newly acquire wealth, and also the motivations behind the Seven Wonders of the World.
Hitler’s regard for classical southern European culture is betokened by his love for neoclassical architecture. Hitler had little sympathy for Himmler’s efforts to revive paganism and obsession with the occult, saying Germany should have stayed with the church, as at least it provided a source of tradition. Hitler disliked Himmer’s archaeological digs of Germanic iron age sites, as they confirmed that ancient Germanic tribes relied on wood construction at a relatively low level of social organization, while Greece and Rome had reached much higher levels of culture.
The Lead Up to War
Speer tells of how Hitler was not interested in spreading national socialism to other countries, viewing it as a system uniquely for Germans. He saw the Dutch fascist Mussert and Britain’s Oswald Mosely as mere imitation, lacking the vitality of the NSDAP. It is impossible to know if Hitler would have been able to keep future Allied nations out of the war by backing other national socialist parties, but this stance does reflect Hitler’s narrow, German nationalist vision.
As Speer spent more time with Hitler, he saw how the fuehrer had a tendency to lock onto a thought and not change his mind, regardless of counter arguments. In the years before the war, Speer saw how this character flaw was exploited by Goering, Bormann, Goebbels, and to a lesser degree Himmler, who would all attempt to be the first to plant the seed of a position on a new matter in Hitler’s mind, thereby ensuring that said position remained the fuehrer’s in perpetuity.
Hitler betrayed a new nervousness to Speer when, in 1939 he commented that all government buildings in Berlin should be equipped with bulletproof steel shutters, and the doors made of steel and reinforced with iron gates.
Speer’s role within the Third Reich was still that of architect and personal confidant of Hitler on the day the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Germany was signed. Though as the stakes of the war ballooned, so did Speer’s importance. When war broke out in September 1939, Hitler observed that Germany’s strength ratio of land and air forces was 4 to 1 against the British and French, and that the longer the war persisted, the worse this ratio would become, as the enemy’s production ramped up. Speer concluded from this that Hitler thus timed his strikes to be sooner rather than later.