It is one of history’s cheekier pranks that the first architect ever to appear on television was that thirty-year-old prodigy with the movie-star face, Albert Speer. Nazi Germany was the first country to introduce television broadcasting, just in time to cover the 1935 Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg. If you search for it, you can watch a short clip as Speer drives his convertible into his newly enlarged rally grounds, banters with a reporter, and then speeds off with a jaunty Hitler salute.

Enjoy an audio version of this article.

Of course the world knows Speer from an entirely different media appearance. This was his testimony at the Nuremberg trials, where he dramatically accepted full personal responsibility for Nazi war crimes, the only one of the accused to do so. His subdued, humble demeanor could not have contrasted more with the evasiveness, self-justification, and unconcealed haughtiness of his co-defendants. It was literally the performance of his life, and it saved him from certain execution. Having stepped into the role of “the good Nazi,” Speer never relinquished it. Upon serving his twenty-year sentence, he published a series of fascinating though self-serving memoirs, beginning with Inside the Third Reich (1970). Through it all he played the part of the naïve and innocent artist, who was guilty of nothing more than letting his childlike eagerness to build overwhelm his good judgment and moral sensibility.

Albert Speer photographed in his cell at Nuremberg, Germany, during the Nuremberg trials, 1945, Gelatin silver process on paper, image courtesy of the Harvard Law School Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

That pose is no longer tenable. Archival finds in Germany and elsewhere have shown that Speer could not have been ignorant of the Nazi extermination camps, as he claimed, but was involved in finicky detail with their construction and operation. Although these finds caused a sensation in Germany a decade ago, it is only now that we have a comprehensive treatment in English, Martin Kitchen’s Speer: Hitler’s Architect.1 As an architectural biography, it does not altogether satisfy. What is the relationship between Speer’s architecture and Nazi ideology? Is one permitted to speak about his work in aesthetic terms? If not, why not? Only in passing do these questions divert Kitchen, who is much more interested in Speer the war criminal than Speer the architect. And that he was a war criminal, right up to his elbows, there can be no doubt. Hitler’s Architect makes a persuasive case that Speer’s escape from the gallows at Nuremberg must count as one of the last great crimes of the war.

Albert Speer (1905–1981) was born in Mannheim, Germany, the son and grandson of architects. Pushed by his father to study architecture, he studied first in Karlsruhe, then Munich, but he only became serious after he transferred to Berlin. There he applied to study with Hans Poelzig, the brilliant expressionist architect of Weimar Germany, who rejected Speer as an inferior draftsman. Disappointed, he turned to the man who was Poelzig’s polar opposite, Heinrich Tessenow, a reform-minded architect with a love of simple, clear volumes and neoclassical clarity—the ultimate basis of Nazi architecture. Speer, who all his life knew how to ingratiate himself, sufficiently impressed Tessenow to become his teaching assistant.

Speer joined the Nazi Party in January 1931, two years before Hitler’s election as chancellor. He was the 474,481st German to join and presumably did so more out of conviction than calculation, as a Nazi electoral victory was then by no means certain (in the elections the previous September, they had come in second, receiving just over 18 percent of the vote). Whatever the reason, it took Speer just three quick leaps to vault to the center of power. In 1931 he remodeled a villa for Karl Hanke, a Berlin party boss (later notorious as “the hangman of Breslau”); this job led to a commission from Joseph Goebbels in 1932 to remodel the Nazi party headquarters in Berlin; this in turn brought his career-making commission, the decoration of Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport for the National Day of Labor on May 1, 1933, the first of many monumental settings he designed for Hitler.

Speer’s escape from the gallows at Nuremberg must count as one of the last great crimes of the war.

This was the Nazis’ first great public rally following their election three months earlier, and it gave Speer no time for an architectural solution. Extemporizing, he created a mighty backdrop of nine enormous flags, each over one hundred feet high, arranged artfully in groups of three and dramatically lit from below by searchlights. It was a nimble improvisation and it highlighted his one architectural strength, a flair for the theatrical and for colossal scale. Speer proudly showed the site to Tessenow, who was not enthusiastic: “All you have done is create an impression.” But the same can be said, as Kitchen points out, of everything Speer built.

The Tempelhof project made Speer the logical choice as architect for the Nuremberg Rally, held by the Nazis every year from 1933 to 1938 (it was the rally of 1934 that was the subject of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will). As at Berlin, his task was essentially scenographic, to create a theatrical backdrop to a vast parade ground. No fewer than 150,000 SS and SA men would file past the grandstand, and Speer sensed he needed a solid and monumental object to serve as a visual counterweight to their surging masses. His solution was the Zeppelin Field Tribune (1935–1937), surely the world’s most monumental set of bleachers. He found his model in the Pergamon Altar, the celebrated Hellenistic Greek altar of the second century B.C. that is housed in its own museum in Berlin. He inflated its scale to stupendous proportions, turned its graceful Ionic columns to severe square pillars, and outfitted it with upraised searchlights that lifted its columnar theme to the heavens.

Speer’s earliest work, including interior alterations for Goebbels’s residence, were in the crisp and understated Tessenow mode. But the Nuremberg commissions revealed a distinct tendency toward megalomania. He followed up his Zeppelin Field Tribune with what was envisioned as the world’s largest stadium, the Deutsches Stadion. In accordance with Hitler’s decree, it was to be large and grand enough to host all the world’s future Olympic Games (after the ill-fated Tokyo Olympics of 1940). Once again Speer turned to classical antiquity for his model, the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, which he again inflated to immense size—giving it a seating capacity of 400,000. Unlike its Greek prototype, which was tucked into a natural hillside site, it was to tower over the earth, a 300-foot-high cliff of massive pink granite. Its cornerstone was laid in 1937 and construction continued well after the outbreak of the war—now with prisoners of war—when it was at last abandoned.

Speer found an ideal patron in Hitler, who had a keen understanding of the potential of architecture as an instrument of power, and how to wield it effectively and imaginatively. Other absolutist rulers from Mussolini to Stalin to Ceausescu have enjoyed playing the architectural patron, but their buildings were incidental to their careers; Hitler’s rise to power was predicated on public persuasion, for which he enlisted all the instruments of modern technology: the airplane, loudspeakers, electric lighting, the motion picture. Speer’s highly theatrical architectural scenography was yet another instrument. Moreover, unlike those other dictators, Hitler had once intended to be an architect, and had spent much time studying and drawing the buildings of Vienna; in every respect he was an exceptionally well-informed client. This did not make it a collaboration of equals. Hitler continued to work with other architects, such as Speer’s rival Hermann Giesler, who was assigned the remodeling of Munich and was even promised the commission for Hitler’s sarcophagus—which Hitler offered in the presence of Speer, a humiliating gesture but characteristic of Hitler, who enjoyed keeping his subordinates off balance by playing them off one another.

Still, when it came to his most visionary project, the remodeling of Berlin, Speer was his architect of choice. As of January 1937 he was made Generalbauinspektor für die Reichshauptstadt (Inspector General of Buildings in the Reich Capital), and given virtually unlimited financial resources—60 million Reichsmarks per year, and the right to compel Berlin to contribute an additional 70 million. His mandate was to reshape the old imperial capital into Germania, which Hitler envisioned as the world’s first capital (Welthauptstadt). To achieve this, Speer also was given considerable powers of eminent domain, which he exercised primarily by confiscating the property of Berlin Jews.

Other than certain preliminary work and the relocation of several monuments, little of Germania was realized, and none of his monumental projects. But the scope was staggering. Historically, the principal axis of Berlin was Unter den Linden, a stately allée running east-west that was precisely gauged to the courtly habits of the eighteenth century. Now Speer proposed to traverse this with a mighty new north-south axis that was Imperial Roman in sensibility but far more than Roman in scale. At either end was to be a railway station, each prefaced by a wildly inflated version of an existing monument. To the south would be an Arch of Triumph, well over twice the height of that in Paris and large enough to have inscribed on it the name of each one of the millions of German and Austrian soldiers who died in World War I. To the north would be a Volkshalle (Hall of the People), modeled on the Pantheon in Rome but grotesquely enlarged so that it rose some 950 feet and enclosed a cubic volume equivalent to seventeen St. Peter’s in Rome. Gorgeously detailed scale models of the whole ensemble were built, and Hitler made it his habit to relax by visiting Speer’s studio and brainstorming over the details, continuing to do so long after the approaching Soviet army ensured that none of it would come to pass.

Speer managed to complete only one monumental building in Berlin, the new Reich Chancellery, which he pushed to completion in just one year so that it opened in time for the annual diplomatic reception in January 1939. It was a curious building. It consisted of little more than an interminable corridor wrapped in a mantle of offices and stretching out for 1,380 feet, more than a quarter of a mile (it is telling that their dimensions are often the most important features of Nazi buildings). Speer conceived the whole as a continuous spatial journey, choreographed architecturally so as to heighten the suspense and tension of the visitor to the breaking point. In order to arrive at Hitler’s reception room, he had to pass five major spaces, which were contrastingly large and small. The fourth of these was deceiving. A gracefully proportioned rotunda, human in scale, it suggested that the destination had been reached. In fact, it was only the halfway point. Behind this came the long Marble Gallery, which Speer made precisely twice as long as the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles (480 instead of 240 feet). It was a staggering spectacle not meant to be enjoyed: instead of carpeting the room, as Speer requested, Hitler insisted on polished marble so that the visitor would arrive uneasily on a “slippery slope.” The notion of the long axis may have come from the enfilade of the Baroque palace, but those were always suggestive of ease and grace, and never of menace and degradation.

If this miscellany of scenographic backdrops for political rallies and visionary fantasias of an imperial Germania were all that Speer achieved, perhaps he would be as forgotten as those anxious flunkies who supplied Stalin with similarly extravagant but insipid showpieces. Kitchen’s verdict seems exactly right: “the pretentious hovers on the brink of the preposterous.” But as it happened, Speer did a great deal more.

In February 1942 Fritz Todt, the Minister of Armaments, died in a suspicious plane crash, and Speer was promptly appointed to succeed him. At the same time he was put in charge of Organization Todt, the government-owned construction and engineering company that had built the Autobahn system but now served the war effort. Speer proved a manager of extraordinary competence, and managed to increase the production of tanks, planes, and submarines almost to the end of the war. This he was able to do in large part through his decentralized network of munitions factories, scattered across greater Germany in order to evade Allied bombing, as well as relying greatly on the unrelenting use of slave labor. And this is why he found himself fighting for his life at Nuremberg four years later.

Kitchen shows that Speer was complicit in the slave labor system from the beginning, and to an unwholesome degree. For the first five years of the Nazi Reich, the concentration camps run by the SS were used purely for political incarceration, but in 1938 Heinrich Himmler decided to make them financially self-supporting. In consultation with Hitler and Speer, he established the Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke GmBH (DEST) or German Earth and Stone Work Limited, which would put concentration camp inmates to work. Speer advanced the DEST a credit of 9.5 million Reichsmarks which it was to pay off over the next decade by supplying brick and stone for his monumental building projects in Berlin. He had an insatiable thirst for granite, particularly the pink and red slabs with which he liked to clad buildings of state. And he went beyond merely accepting deliveries of granite but took an active part in scouting out the sites for new concentration camps, which he placed at profitable stone quarries. Himmler sited the concentration camps at Mauthausen and Flossenbürg in 1938 on the advice of Speer, and soon was delivering granite to the new Führerbauten in Berlin.

In 1940 Himmler turned again for advice to Speer, who now directed him to Groß-Rosen, a Silesian quarry with a handsome blue-gray granite, and Natzweiler-Struthof, a quarry in Alsace that produced an attractive red granite coveted by Speer for his Nuremberg stadium. Both these concentration camps were notorious for working their prisoners to death, for which reason most of their officials were executed after the war, while Speer got off relatively lightly. At Nuremberg he would claim that he did not realize how inhumane conditions were, but Kitchen quotes one offhand remark that sheds a cold light on his attitude at the time. When told about the horrific conditions faced by Jewish workers at the Oranienburg brick factory, Speer replied, “The Yids got used to making bricks while in Egyptian captivity.”

Speer’s defense at Nuremberg hinged on his supposed ignorance of the Final Solution, a strategy made possible by the absence of written evidence (Nazi officials spent much of the final weeks of the war frantically destroying documents). It was not until 1970 that the Canadian historian Erich Goldhagen discovered the text of Himmler’s infamous address in the Posen town hall on October 6, 1943. The transcript had been hiding in plain sight since the end of the war but had never been recognized for what it was, perhaps because investigators had conflated it with a similar speech that Himmler delivered in Posen two days earlier, and which was introduced as evidence at Nuremberg. In that second address, he explained with unusually brutal clarity why the Nazi strategy had to be one of total extermination of the Jewish people:

It is very easy, gentlemen, to utter the simple sentence that the Jews must be exterminated. It is exceedingly difficult and hard for those who have to carry it out. . . . We were faced with the question of what to do with the women and children. In this instance I decided to find a simple solution. I did not consider it justifiable to exterminate—in other words kill, or order to be killed—the men and to permit the children to grow up who will seek revenge on our sons and grandchildren. We had to take the difficult decision to make this race disappear from the face of the earth.

What was devastating to Speer was a casual aside made to him by Himmler, in the course of describing the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto (“Of course, this has nothing to do with Party Comrade Speer. It wasn’t your doing.”). The revelation threw Speer into a panic, and he insisted with inventive desperation that Himmler had merely been apostrophizing him rhetorically, and that he had left the conference earlier. There followed an elaborate and embarrassing effort to prove that he flew to Hitler’s headquarters that afternoon and missed Himmler’s dramatic statement. He could not deny that he dined the next day with four Gauleiters who had attended the talk and would have happily filled him in. By this point, Speer’s defense required an intricate contrivance of sudden exits and absences to avoid knowing what he, as the Reich’s chief logistical mind, had to know as an essential part of his job. But more damning evidence was to come.

After a September 1942 meeting with the SS officials in charge of concentration camp construction, Speer approved 13.7 million Reichsmarks for the enlargement of Auschwitz and other camps, as well as the building of crematoria and “disinfestation facilities.” Two of his deputies visited Auschwitz the following May to inspect the new work and to meet its commandant, Rudolf Höss, who was hoping to wheedle from Speer more structural steel, a commodity in desperately short supply. Höss made clear, as Kitchen relates, that the reason for the camp’s existence, whatever incidental benefits it offered as a source of cheap labor, was “the solution of the Jewish question.” The report of his deputies seems to have satisfied Speer, who wrote a chummy letter to Himmler on May 30, granting him a one-time allotment of one thousand tons of steel. It is telling that the same letter denied a request for additional steel for Himmler’s Waffen SS divisions—this at a time when the Germans were still reeling from the defeat at Stalingrad. Such were the priorities of the man in charge of German wartime production.

An artist may work for a tyrant, even a tyrant astride a mountain of skulls, without discrediting the art. Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitri Shostakovich both served Stalin, whose death toll exceeded Hitler’s, and yet their works are monuments of twentieth-century art. To create on a lavish scale requires working for men of power, who did not necessarily achieve that power through their moral punctiliousness. And even the most ideologically self-righteous artists are likely to say, like Groucho Marx, “these are my principles, and if you don’t like them—I have other ones.” Thus the Communist sympathizer Le Corbusier could work for Stalin but later seek work from Marshal Pétain. And a Jacobin like Jacques-Louis David could eagerly vote for the beheading of Louis XVI as an enemy of the people, and then go on to paint the most toadying portraits of Napoleon.

But somehow one senses that Speer falls in a different category, that one cannot excuse the opportunism of the artist in order to appreciate the integrity of the art. Kitchen briefly mentions without comment one telling fact, which is that as an architecture student Speer occasionally paid poorer students to prepare his drawings. The practice is not unknown, but it is not what one expects from a truly architectural mind, from someone who lives and thinks architecture, and who exults in the making of form. Kitchen suggests that Speer’s cleverest design ideas, such as the Luftwaffe searchlights illuminating the Nuremberg Rally grounds, came from his assistants.

Why is it, one might ask, that there are no architectural drawings by Speer among the book’s illustrations, not a single sketch, not one perspective? The idea sketches that survive for Germania are not by Speer but by Hitler. Hitler was not an architect of terrible originality or distinction, but in a certain sense he was more of an architect than Speer—that is, he was brimming over with ideas for buildings and forms—derivative and conventional to be sure, but fired with all the passion and longings and resentments of his frustrating years in Vienna around 1909. He had the one architectural quality that Speer did not: an urgent architectural imagination. One somehow cannot imagine Speer waking up in the middle of a night with the compulsion to sketch a sudden idea.

This is what makes Speer in the end so repellent, and all the more so because of his courtly good looks and air of easy urbanity; it is that he does not even have the excuse of the opportunist, that he made political compromises in order to practice his art. Stripped of the murderous politics, in which his complicity is now beyond all doubt, there is precious little art left.

New to The New Criterion?

Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 7, on page 4
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now