Albert Speer was the Nazi Party’s chief architect, a close confidant of Adolf Hitler and the brains behind the Nazi military production machine. Under his leadership, the Nazis implemented a brutal regime of slave labour in armaments factories across Germany.
Paradoxically, when Speer died in 1981, he was described by the New York Times as a ‘friend of the people’. He had amassed swathes of public supporters by branding himself as ‘the good Nazi’. And in 1996 the BBC released a documentary about Speer’s life entitled The Nazi Who Said Sorry.
After World War Two, Speer styled himself as an apologetic technocrat who had been sheltered from the true machinations of Nazi power and persecution. He claimed to have had no knowledge of the Holocaust and escaped the death penalty at Nuremberg.
Here are 10 facts about Albert Speer, the man behind the myth of ‘the decent Nazi’.
Hitler considered Speer a ‘kindred spirit’
Speer joined the Nazi Party in 1931 and swiftly attracted the attention of senior officials, who recognised him as a valuable architect. Eventually, after submitting a design for the Nazis’ new Nuremberg rally grounds, Speer was given an audience with Hitler.
The pair hit it off handsomely, with Hitler considering Speer a “kindred spirit”.
He became Hitler’s chief architect
In 1933 Hitler was installed as the Chancellor of Germany. Shortly after, Hitler crowned Speer his personal architect.
And Speer’s architectural triumphs were showcased to the world at the 1934 Nuremberg rally. Hosted in the Nuremberg rally grounds, much of which had been designed by Speer, the rally was a propaganda exercise aiming to demonstrate Nazi power.
Speer also helped design Berlin’s Reich Chancellery.
Speer fuelled the Nazi war machine using slave labour
As a close associate of Hitler, Speer was promoted steadily throughout the 1930s and into World War Two. In 1942 he took on the role of Minister of Armaments and Munitions, later becoming Minister of Armaments and War Production.
Under Speer’s command, the German war machine was revolutionised with fearsome efficiency. Ethnic minorities and enemies of the Nazi State were forced into slave labour across the country.
Despite the horrific working conditions, and thousands dying in his factories, Speer was praised for implementing an “armaments miracle”. Germany’s tank production doubled in the space of two years.
He and Hitler had controversial construction plans
Speer and Hitler embarked on a number of construction projects that were never finished. They had hoped to construct a vast stadium in Germany with a capacity of some 400,000. Had the project been finished, the German Stadium would have been the largest of its kind anywhere in the world.
Hitler and Speer’s most megalomaniacal project was the proposed reconstruction of Berlin. They dreamed of converting the city into Germania, the Nazi capital of the world. There, they planned, would sit a Great Hall larger than any other indoor space on Earth and an imposing stone arch big enough to fit the Arc de Triomphe beneath it.
The fall of the Nazi Government in 1945 rendered the project a failure.
American interrogators admitted to sympathising with Speer
After Hitler’s death on 30 April 1945, American officials raced to find Speer in Germany. They wanted to know the secrets of the Nazi war machine – which endured despite relentless Allied bombing campaigns – in the hope that it might help the US beat Japan in the Pacific War.
When American officials caught up with Speer, he cooperated fully, sharing all the details of the Nazis’ military production model. And after Speer’s stark confessions, one of his interrogators revealed that Speer had “evoked in us a sympathy of which we were all secretly ashamed”.
He claimed not to have been involved in the persecution of Jews
Speer was a senior Nazi, a close confidant of Hitler and responsible for a brutal regime of slave labour. And yet he insisted to the court at Nuremberg that he had always been unaware of the Holocaust.
When on trial, Speer recognised his role in the Nazi war machine, even apologising to the court for his use of slave labour. He accepted responsibility for his and the Party’s actions, though ultimately upheld that he had been ignorant of the true extent of Nazi atrocities.
Speer escaped the death penalty at Nuremberg
Unlike many other senior Nazi officials, and even Party workers who had acted under his authority, Speer escaped the death penalty at Nuremberg. Instead, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity, primarily because of his role in the use of slave labour.
He secretly wrote books about the Third Reich in prison
While serving his 20-year sentence in Berlin’s Spandau Prison, Speer was forbidden from writing. Nonetheless, he scrawled secret notes in his cell, eventually turning the writings into an eyewitness account of the Nazi Government.
The book, titled Inside the Third Reich, went on to become a bestseller.
He crafted ‘the good Nazi’ myth
Speer toiled to distance himself from the Nazis. In fact, while on trial at Nuremberg, Speer claimed that he had once plotted to kill Hitler by releasing poisonous gases into his bunker’s air supply. This assertion left the other Nazi defendants in the courtroom in fits of laughter.
Throughout his later life, Speer upheld his remorse for the actions of the Nazis and insisted he had been isolated from the realities of the Holocaust. He painted himself as simply a gifted architect with no political leaning who had drifted towards the Nazi seat of power.
For his efforts, he earned the titles of ‘the decent Nazi’ and ‘the Nazi who said sorry’.
Speer knew about the Holocaust in 1943
Historians have long known that Speer attended the 1943 Nuremberg rally, during which Heinrich Himmler gave his infamous ‘Final Solution’ speech. But Speer told the court at Nuremberg that he must have left the rally before this point.
The myth of Speer’s ignorance of the Holocaust was exposed as a lie in 2007, though, when private letters sent by Speer were exposed to the public.
In a message Speer posted to a Helene Jeanty in 1971, he wrote, “there is no doubt – I was present as Himmler announced on October 6 1943 that all Jews would be killed.”