Tag Archives: albert speer: his battle with truth

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?


The Mysterious Core

Gitta Sereny, 1921-2012

Gitta Sereny, 1921-2012

With much sadness, we note the death of Gitta Sereny at the age of 91. Possessing an abundance of analytical intelligence and moral acuity, Sereny’s writings explore the interplay of history and human psychology with peerless subtlety and skill, conveyed for the reader in a style that is graceful, complex and lucid.

Her virtuoso “examination of conscience” in the case of Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Sobibor and Treblinka, sets a very high standard for the forensic examination of human behavior in extreme circumstances. Rejecting the simplistic classification of Stangl as either a Nazi Monster or as a banal civil servant, Sereny reconstructs his social and private Lebenswelt with meticulous care, her spirit of empathy – even though she found him personally repellent – matched by an unsparing drive to excavate his deeply buried guilt.

In dialogue with Sereny, Stangl becomes human again for the reader, only for Sereny then to lay bare the fundamental corruption within his personality that permitted him to perform his role within the death machine with such cold efficiency. By cross-checking Stangl’s recollections with interviews of his wife, children and other key people in his life, she uncovers the emotional black hole at the core of his being, an emptiness which eventually expresses itself as a grotesquely distorted conception of “self-will”, an identity distortion that is absolutely critical to comprehending his obedience within the genocidal chain of command.

Sereny’s examination of Stangl is so cathartic for her subject that, at its conclusion, he at last acquires an understanding of his complicity and guilt: “My guilt is that I am still here. That is my guilt.”  Nineteen hours later, he is found dead of heart failure. By the end of her account, the reader (or certainly this reader) also experiences a sort of collapse, a collapse that creates the conditions for fresh insight, well beyond the history of the death camps.

Her portrait of Albert Speer reaches the same depth, complicated by the eventuality of Sereny’s feelings of friendship and even admiration for Speer’s remarkable talents and personal qualities. Speer is certainly in a different category from the brutish provincial policeman Stangl. Speer is painfully aware of his profound guilt from an early stage, and devotes the rest of his life to an examination of his own conscience; hence Sereny’s title, Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth.

While Speer’s moral resolve wins respect from his interlocutor, she does not abandon her hunger for deeper questions, as she constantly pushes him on critical weaknesses in his personal accounting, above all regarding his complicity in the Final Solution. As readers, we witness their friendship strengthening in the exact same rhythm as Speer’s last defenses regarding the depths of his guilt weaken and then crumble. It is an astonishing tension to experience, rendered with literary skill equal to any writer of her time.

Though Mr. Rose is not even remotely in her class as an interviewer (we wince at his clumsy interruption in mid-sentence, when she is on the verge of making her most important point), the below video at least conveys some slight sense of her exceptional self-awareness and deep humanity.

In closing, we submit the epilogue from our DP office copy of Into That Darkness, in which she neatly summarizes her perspective on the social conditions for an active moral consciousness. Her fearless grappling with the mysterious core of human identity remains more relevant than ever, as the species spins off into yet another crazed Tarantella of corruption, cruelty and slaughter. The incomparable Gitta Sereny: the world will be very fortunate indeed to see her kind again.