Even in the Sleeper


We know a good deal about Albert Speer during his years at Spandau, both through his own voluminous accounts, and through forensic cross-examinations performed by the incomparable Gitta Sereny. Her book, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth offers the patient reader a model of careful excavation, the sort that yields tiny fragments of bone that suddenly disrupt everything we thought we knew.

Shortly after arriving at Spandau, Speer realized that sitting in his cell with his scraps of text would not be enough to sustain himself; he soon began a different sort of labor, in the garden. As he wrote to his wife Margret:


It is about 6,000 square meters of wilderness full of nut trees and huge lilac bushes. Now we are all spending hours every day weeding; it is good for us. I already feel much better. I have big ideas for the garden, have designed a promenade I will lay, and plans for all kinds of flowers, a rock garden and, above all, fruit trees and vegetable plots for which I hope I will be allowed to have seeds sent me. (…) There is a lot to do, and I think the soil is healthy.

For this reader, the words promenade and plots summon other images into this upbeat and arcadian scene: images of the death camp Himmelweg, shaped by its dense tangle of barbed wire and pine trees, an improvised fusion of steel and nature that captures the essence of Nazi aesthetics. Though Speer did not participate in the construction of the camps (Hitler would not permit such crude soiling of his muse’s “purity”), he would likely have approved of the idea of a barbed bough. He would also have approved of the fluid linkage between a straight passageway leading to a well defined terminus, a signature feature of his vision for Berlin.

Eventually, having completed both the garden and his memoirs, Speer needed another way to stay in motion:

I had worked it out – if I did thirty circuits of the path I had laid out in the garden, that would be seven kilometers a day. I asked Hess, who sat and watched me, if he would mark down each time I passed him, so that I wouldn’t lose count. He had a marvelous idea. He gave me thirty peas and said, “Put these in one pocket and move one to the other pocket each time around. That will do it.”

In 1954, Speer decided that he would walk from Berlin to his home in Heidelberg:

It was a more imaginative goal than just completing the circuit thirty times, as I had been doing. That was successful, so I kept on going, across the mountains to Italy, and finally decided to see how far I could get. After preparing for the walks by studying maps, travelogues and art history books, I focused imaginatively on the differences in the landscapes, the rivers, flowers, plants, trees and rocks. In the cities I came through, I thought of churches, museums, great buildings and works of art.”

Often, he would receive specific advice from his friend and rather unrepentant Nazi Rudi Wolters, who would also faithfully supply him with source books and maps:

For the trek through the huge uninhabited wastes of Siberia, I would strongly advise you be kind to yourself and take a train. Saves time, too as you can do it at night! But don’t sleep too much. It would be a crime to miss seeing those unending snowy mountain chains and prairies and the sea of stars above. If you open the top slat in your compartment window, you can smell the purity of the air even in your sleeper. Only careful – if you expose your face too long, your mouth and nose will freeze. 

Speer took his last walk on September 29, 1966. He had covered 31,936 kilometers; “I suppose it too became an obsession. But what’s wrong with that, if it makes one happy?” He was released from Spandau the next day, having served his complete sentence.

In the end, the internal life of Albert Speer remains stubbornly inaccessible, with an unbroken cipher at the heart of all those thousands upon thousands of well-crafted sentences. For all his weeding and lateral perambulations, Speer never ventured to descend into the darkest soils of his self. Past a certain depth (Speer’s ability to experience love and empathy only through art and abstraction), even the formidable soul-seeker Sereny comes up blank. She grants him the benefit of the doubt regarding his moral recuperation, yet her conclusion is tentative.

In 1981, while in London for a BBC interview and in the company of a much younger woman, Speer suffered a stroke that would end his life a few hours later. Was this the autumnal love that might have finally released the meaning of the cipher, or yet another happy obsession for prisoner number five?


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