The Greatest Conman of the 20th Century

by Corey Robin on January 3, 2016

Like many, I’ve long had a fascination with Albert Speer. Mine was awakened by Gitta Sereny’s Albert Speer: His Battle with the Truth, which I read during a weeklong trip to Guatemala in 1997 and have since taught several times. More recently, Adam Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction, which I also recommend, gave me reason to go back to Speer.

Now I’m knee-deep in Martin Kitchen’s new biography of Speer. Which paints a dramatically different picture from that which you get from Sereny. Where Sereny depicts a man heroically, if often self-deceptively, struggling with the truth, Speer comes off, in Kitchen’s biography, as arguably the greatest conman of the 20th century, as someone who threw the cultural pixie dust of the age—anxiety about technology, technocracy, and collective guilt (rather than personal responsibility)—over his past and thereby managed to save his hide and his reputation. The truth is that he was a ruthless and remorseless slave-driver, a cynical striver and careerist of the worst sort, draping himself in midcentury conceits about modernity.

Kitchen also has a couple of brilliant nuggets about the politics of taste in Nazi Germany, and the disjunction between the regime’s ideology and its henchmen’s practices.

Like this one, on Hitler, Speer, and furniture:

The style of furniture that was extolled in the professional journals of the day as ‘furniture for the German people’ that reflected ‘the honesty, solidity and directness of a natural lifestyle’ was not to be found in the new chancellery [designed by Speer to Hitler’s specifications]. Aping the style of bygone ages, particularly if foreign and essentially aristocratic, was roundly condemned. Such gaudy luxury and ostentatious grandeur had no place in the new Germany….Speer’s approach was radically different. His was the exact reverse of the Werkbund’s. He had no taste for furniture that was designed somehow to reflect German’s racial characteristics….

Ideologically sound National Socialist furniture makers, true to the ‘Blood and Soil’ ideology, insisted that Germans should have furniture made of German woods such as pine, beech or elm. For special occasions walnut, ash or larch might be considered. Hitler and Speer wanted nothing to do with such nonsense. Only mahogany, ebony, rosewood and other tropical woods, for which scarce foreign exchange was needed, were good enough for them. This at a time when the average German had increasingly to make do with plywood, laminates and hardboard as the Four-Year Plan extended its control over civilian production….Even in furniture there was a marked contrast between that of the leadership and the masses that revealed the true nature of National Socialism and exposed the concept of the ‘racial community’ as an empty sham.

There’s also this little tidbit on art in Hitler’s chancellery:
No one seemed to have the noticed the irony of Tintoretto’s painting of the discovery of Moses among the bulrushes hanging in the cabinet room.


On a different note, the the AC in the chancellery seldom worked.

Another theme in Kitchen’s biography is the relationship between capitalism and Nazism, a fraught and contested topic of several old posts of mine. While not breaking any theoretical or historical new ground, Kitchen has an eye for revelatory architectural details about that question. Like this:

Speer’s plan for Berlin underlined the fact that the headquarters of the Armed Forces and of Germany’s leading companies did not merely share the same address, but lived together in harmony….Ernst Petersen’s project for the washing powder manufacturer Henkel was next door to Herbert Rimpl’s building for the Hermann Göring Works. IG Farben was placed opposite Hitler’s palace. AEG was across the street from the Ministry of Propaganda. This sense of togetherness and of monumentality was strengthened by bunching these huge buildings together along the north-south axis.

In his Wall Street Journal review of the Kitchen biography, Tooze offers further details:
[Speer styled] himself as a pioneer of European integration for having promoted the outsourcing of production to his collaborator friends in Vichy France….Reading the shopping lists of luxuries that Speer ordered from Spandau jail, including a Group One Dunhill pipe, foie gras with truffles, Beluga caviar and a Jaeger-LeCoultre watch, one is tempted to invoke instead “American Psycho,” Bret Easton Ellis’s deathless evocation of a murderous, product-obsessed Wall Street yuppie….It is hard to think of any major industrial corporation that did not employ forced foreign labor. A shockingly large proportion even contracted with the SS for the use of concentration-camp labor, including Jewish camp inmates. Nor were the businessmen merely narrow-minded profit maximizers “doing their job.” As part of Speer’s organization, they actively shaped and mobilized the German economy for war. Most were nationalists committed to German victory. Some were Nazi ideologues. They all had reason to fear Stalin’s Soviet Union. But the system that Speer organized melded these impulses with a more abstract ethic: Its participants lived and died by the standard of ‘performance’ (Leistung). Statistics and production records were their religion, technological improvement their mantra and disruptive innovation their magic.

One last detail, which Tooze reveals in his review. One of the last books that Hannah Arendt read just before she died in 1975 was Speer’s diaries from his time in Spandau. It’s hard to resist the desire to construct what she might have made of the man. In some ways, he was the perfect target for her, more perfect even than Eichmann. Because Speer hailed from the professional upper middle classes that were Arendt’s lifelong bête noire.



casmilus 01.03.16 at 6:51 pm

The very first book to challenge Speer’s post-war image was “Albert Speer: The End Of A Myth” by Matthias Schmidt. Speer tried to take legal action when he got wind of it, but then he died and the book came out in 1983. I read the English translation in 1986.


casmilus 01.03.16 at 6:53 pm

Schmidt’s verdict was pretty much the one you attribute to Kitchen.


absurdbeats 01.03.16 at 7:24 pm

I have little difficulty with the concept of Speer as a cynic and a con man—that makes more sense than Speer as half-innocent dupe or agoniste—but it’s not clear to me that disjunctures between private tastes and public proclamations necessarily mean the principles animating such proclamations are themselves a sham. Sincerity and hypocrisy are often fellow travelers, not least because hypocrisy helps to ease the burdens of sincerity.

On a somewhat unrelated note, George Mosse, in The Nationalization of the Masses makes clear that Hitler was never a fan of the “ancient Germania” style:

“For example, [Hitler] despised the resurrection of ancient Germanic custom; nevertheless, houses were built in that style, Germanic dress was worn, and the Thing theatre became a reality for several years.” [p. 183]


“These [19th c] models, then, were not those of the ancient Germans whose valor was so often invoked by the party. For Hitler, German art was the art and architecture which combined classical and romantic forms. Small wonder that he despised imitations of supposedly ancient Germanic traditions.” [p. 190]

None of this, nor of Hitler’s well-documented enthusiasm for monumentalism, may contradict what Kitchen writes, but it does make me wonder how Kitchen (presumably elsewhere in his book) defines a design based on German racial characteristics.


Scott P. 01.03.16 at 9:04 pm

“On a different note, the the AC in the chancellery seldom worked.”

That’s not surprising.


Kieran 01.03.16 at 9:28 pm

Even Clive James was able to see through Speer, back in 1976:

Did you know his son is one of the architects designing football stadiums in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup?


Metatone 01.04.16 at 10:39 am

There’s a lot of danger of Godwinning, but I think there’s an interesting parallel between various “modernist” dictatorships and their relationship with the past.

One might think of Russia and China, whose revolutions overthrew the “Imperial and Royal” institutions – but remain obsessed with their artefacts as demonstrative of “national virtue” despite the contradictions with the “new, modernist nation state.”


I.G.I. 01.04.16 at 8:34 pm

“One might think of Russia and China, whose revolutions overthrew the “Imperial and Royal” institutions – but remain obsessed with their artefacts as demonstrative of “national virtue” despite the contradictions with the “new, modernist nation state.””

I can’t comment on China, but with regard to Russia the above quote is grossly inaccurate. The revolutions in Russia, in 1905 and 1917, stimulated a remarkably diverse art environment, including the cutting-edge avant-garde that was productive until the beginning of the 1930s.


Will G-R 01.04.16 at 10:37 pm

IMO, just as we might earnestly consider whether the similarities between Trump and Cruz are at least as important as their differences, we should refuse to dismiss out hand the possibility of similar commonalities between nominally fascist and nominally democratic variants of capitalism. In fact, one could even argue the two comparisons for precisely the same reasons: ask why a Yemeni villager should care whether the Oval Office is held by Trump or Cruz, and by replacing a few names one could be asking why a Kashmiri villager should care whether the viceroy of India was appointed by Hitler or Churchill. (Future Indian PM Nehru, speaking at an anti-fascist summit in Paris in 1938: “We see fascist aggression today driving the world to war, and we rightly condemn it and seek to combat it. But though fascism is a recent growth in the West, we have long known it under a different guise and a different name: imperialism. For generations past colonial countries have suffered under imperialism and suffer still.”)

Of course, the vigor with which fascism and Nazism have been banished from mainstream liberal discourse as unserious pejoratives a la Satanism, in the name of Godwin’s Law or some such, perhaps indicates that most serious attempts at such a comparison are too discomfiting or even dangerous to be allowed into the light of day.


toby52 01.07.16 at 8:54 pm

Like a lot of people I was gulled by Speer’s “Inside the Third Reich”, and it was only when I read more deeply about the Holocaust that I realised that it is impossible that Speer did not know about it. He was at the Posen (Poznan) conference where Himmler publicly admitted (on tape) to the premeditated killing of Jews. He claimed to have left that day, but even if he did, the excuse is unconvincing. He could hardly not have known why Eichmann needed all those trains.

At the very least, Speer presided over an empire of slave labour, and the 25 years he got at Nuremberg was a travesty. The gormless Hess, who left Germany before the extermination of Jews began in earnest, was jailed for life.

Speer cultivated the image of ” the good Nazi”, the repentant one, and the Nuremberg judges were probably secretly relieved to find such a person. He fooled the publicly by taking us into his confidence, by posing as the one who would tell us about Hitler’s inner circle without guilt.

I will read Kitchen’s book – it is good to see Speer has been found out.

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