The Man Who Enabled the Holocaust
Albert Speer was closer to the Fuhrer than any other henchman—yet he literally got away with mass murder. How do such things happen?
The last of the Auschwitz survivors to revisit the extermination machine in Poland have left. Now very old men and women, they returned to mark the 75th anniversary of the infamous death camp’s liberation last Monday.
Memory inflicts no greater pain than is theirs. The day they were freed in 1945 was both an end and a beginning: the end of terror and the beginning of remembering.
And one of the things to remember is not just the vast horror of the Holocaust but the fact that it was conducted as an industrial enterprise by managers and bureaucrats with a chillingly impersonal attention to detail. Adolf Hitler’s demonic program of genocide would have come to nothing without his enablers.
On Feb. 6, 1944, SS Obergruppenfuhrer Oswald Pohl, who headed the part of the Nazi terror machine given the bland name Office of Economic Administration, wrote a report with the title “Utilization of Textiles: Used Clothes from the Jewish Resettlement.”
He complained about the condition of “material so far obtained from the Jewish resettlement in the camps in the Lublin area, and Auschwitz.” Much of it, “particularly for men, is much diminished by the fact that many clothes are rags…”
The SS controlled the distribution of the clothes and possessions taken from the Jews as they arrived at the death camps. Every train delivering prisoners left on its return journey loaded with those possessions. Items of value, like jewelry, gold, including gold teeth, and foreign currency mostly ended up in the Reichsbank in Berlin, their worth carefully noted in ledgers. The clothes, if at all serviceable, went to the “foreign workers” who were part of a gigantic program of forced labor producing weapons and munitions.
That program was designed and overseen with clinical efficiency by Albert Speer, the Reichsminister for Armaments and Munitions,
Speer made only one visit to a concentration camp. In March 1943 he was given a carefully restricted tour of Mauthausen, near Linz in Austria. This camp was notorious for its stone quarry, where prisoners worked under brutal conditions and were machine-gunned if they became weak. Speer’s tour lasted only 45 minutes. He was spared the sight of actual prisoners, but he was shocked by the quality of the buildings. They were, he said, too lavish.
Five days later he wrote to Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, complaining that he needed all the steel, wood and manpower he could get for building arms factories: “We must therefore carry out a new planning program for construction within the concentration camps… [that] will require a minimum of material and labor. The answer is an immediate switch to primitive construction methods.”
Pohl, not Himmler, replied with a furious reminder that Speer had himself signed off on all the plans for building the camps and said a switch to primitive materials was “unrealistic.” He continued: “…we have 160,000 prisoners and are constantly battling against epidemics and a disproportionately high death rate, both largely due to impossible sanitary conditions.”
Of all those involved in the Nazi terror machine, Albert Speer was, literally, the most elusive—elusive because he escaped a death sentence at the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, and elusive because until the end of his life (he died in 1981) he was never able to display any guilt about his role as an accomplice to genocide.
Late in 1943, when Speer had brought about a dramatic revival of German arms production, the issue of Hitler’s succession was being discussed quietly by his generals and some lower level ministers.
At this point they were not talking about a coup, but a planned succession with Hitler’s consent. They ruled out the founding Nazi psychopaths, Himmler, Goebbels, Bormann and Goering. One minister told Speer he thought Hitler himself favored Speer—nobody else had such a close relationship with him. Speer did not disagree, but the moment never came.
Speer’s story reminds us in a timely way that it’s not only the knowingly depraved who gather around a tyrant. Equally dangerous are those, like Speer, who provide the system with their intellect while in denial about the consequences. Some people do this because the tyrant helps them to advance their own agendas; others do it just because being in the same room delivers the craved-for embrace of power.
Speer had first endeared himself to Hitler as an architect. They shared a taste for the Greco-Roman style of triumphal buildings. This culminated in Speer’s plan to replace Berlin with a new capital city called Germania for the thousand-year Reich. At its center—roughly where Berlin’s Reichstag now sits—there was to be a Great Hall with a massive dome nearly 1,000 feet high (the U.S. Capitol dome is 284 feet high).
Speer was always resistant to self-doubt. Once he fell within Hitler’s spell he enjoyed his proximity to absolute power, no matter how vile its actions. And Hitler clearly enjoyed his frequent communion with Speer. In these moments of spiritual kinship, talking of art and architecture, Hitler was flattered by Speer into thinking that he was an aesthete at the head of an Aryan empire purged of all racial impurities.
As the war ended, Speer was captured in northern Germany by American troops—a U.S. intelligence team was keen to get to him before the Russians could, in order to understand how he had been able to double weapons production while under constant Allied air bombardment. Then he was handed over to the United Nations war crimes commission and put on trial at Nuremberg.
On the night of Oct. 16-17, 1946, ten of Hitler’s closest associates were hanged in the gymnasium of Nuremberg prison, having been found guilty of war crimes. Speer was there and heard their names being called out. But he was spared, given a 20-year sentence to be served in Spandau. (Oswald Pohl was executed in June 1951.)
Afterward it emerged that the principal American judge, Francis Biddle, and the Soviet Union’s judge, General Iona Nikitchenko, had voted to sentence Speer to death, but another American judge, John Parker, and a British judge, Norman Birkett, argued for clemency, apparently because he seemed to them too refined to be a mass murderer. Also taken into consideration was his cooperation with Allied intelligence. The jail sentence was a compromise reached after a two-day argument among the judges.
Speer was released in 1966. He published a self-serving best-selling version of history, Inside the Third Reich, and became wealthy, considered by many as the rare “Good Nazi” who had done what he could to curb the worst of Hitler’s instincts. He had always acknowledged that his industrial plan had depended on slave labor, including many Jews, working under appalling conditions, often dying on the job, but denied any knowledge of the scale of the Holocaust.
He claimed that he had not been present at a conference in 1943 when Himmler spoke of “wiping Jews from the face of the earth.” But 25 years after his death a newly discovered cache of letters revealed that he had, indeed, been present. The master dissembler was finally exposed as the monster he was.
It’s always questionable to introduce the Nazi regime as a caution when looking at our own present carelessness with the values of our republic. The Holocaust was a crime of such enormity and singularity that we can too easily trivialize it by invoking any historical comparison.
Nonetheless the message from Auschwitz was reinforced by its anniversary: Ronald Lauder, head of the World Jewish Congress, said he was worried that the lessons were being forgotten: “Auschwitz is a beacon of where anti-Semitism can lead, we can’t rewrite history but we can be much more forceful today.”
A wave of anti-Semitic attacks and hate crimes in the U.S. has followed the massacre of 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018. Three people were killed last December in a shooting at a kosher grocery in Jersey City and at least 10 anti-Semitic incidents took place in the New York area over Hanukkah.
One issue raised by several of the Holocaust survivors at Auschwitz was how such a barbaric crime could happen in a country that, until then, was regarded as both civilized and an intellectual powerhouse. It seemed all too easy for the Nazis to operate with the silent consent of a majority of the German people.
Speer addressed this in an interview with the British journalist Gitta Sereny, who spent 10 years studying his life for a riveting book, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth. He was responding to a charge that he tried to present himself as the prototype of the new technological man while he had conveniently overlooked the connection between technology and a program of mass extermination. He argued that the machinery of murder had nothing to do with technology, it was too primitive. And then he said:
“Eighty million people were not persuaded to follow Hitler because they knew he was going to murder people in lime ditches and gas chambers; they did not follow him because he seemed evil, but because he seemed extraordinarily good. And what convinced them of this was Goebbels’ brilliant propaganda, his unprecedented use of modern means of mass communication.”
It’s terrifying to think what Goebbels could have done using today’s means of mass communication. But perhaps we already know.