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.

Sunday photoblogging: the centre of attention

by Chris Bertram on January 3, 2016

The centre of attention