Monday, September 8, 2014

Hipster Nazi Albert Speer

Speer looked up from his desk and saw a young American GI standing in the doorway. “Are you Albert Speer?” he asked in strangely accented German. He was wearing combat gear; helmet, a bandolier of ammunition, and a carbine slung on his shoulder. What could he want? He was the first American soldier Speer had seen so far. Had he come to arrest him?

Speer decided to answer him in English. “Yes, I am Speer,” he said. “Please, how may I help you?”

More than a little taken aback, the GI started to explain to Speer about something called the “United States Strategic Bombing Survey” which wanted to interview him on the effects of strategic bombing on the German war economy."

"Why certainly,” said Speer. “What precisely would you like to know?”

The GI looked confused. “Um, look, if you don’t mind, could you just not go anywhere for a few minutes? Let me get Major Spivak up here.”

The GI turned and left and Speer went back to the report he’d been reading. But he was too excited to concentrate. The Americans wanted to interview him about managing the armaments industry. He tried to repeat in his mind what the young soldier had rattled off, United States Strategic Bombing Survey. What could that possibly mean?

It only took Speer a second to guess the reason. The American air war against Germany had been long, bloody, and until its last six months, largely ineffective. Now their campaign against Japan was underway and they must have figured that whatever lessons there were to be learned from bombing Germany better be learned quickly. Well then, he thought, if that was the case, they’d come to the right man. Nobody knew more about the effects of strategic bombing than Albert Speer.

A half hour later, the GI returned with a middle-aged man, short and heavyset, bespectacled with a big nose, looking every bit the Jew from all the old anti-Semitic posters, only instead of wearing a black banker’s suit and a bowler hat, he was in US Army combat fatigues with a .45 strapped on his hip.

The GI said, “Major Spivak, I present to you, Reichsminister Albert Speer.” Speechless, Major Spivak stared at Speer. Finally he muttered, “Holy Cow!”

Speer stood up from his desk. “Good afternoon, Major,” he said, pleasantly as he could. He thought about extending his hand in greeting, but realized he shouldn’t.

Major Spivak didn’t return his greeting but continued to look at him with nervous distaste. He was thinking the same thing as everyone else; this man I’m talking to is Hitler’ ...friend! Finally he recovered enough to say, “Sergeant Fassberg says you’d be willing to be interviewed.”

"Yes, whatever you’d like to know,” answered Speer. “It’s about strategic bombing you say?”

"Yes, the economic and other effects of daytime strategic bombing on the German war economy.”

"Please, have a seat,” said Speer. “I’m sorry I cannot offer you any coffee or other refreshment.”

Brusquely Major Spivak shook his head, like it was neither expected nor desired. They sat down and both men began undoing the snaps of their shoulder bags and took out notebooks and manila file folders. “Sergeant, do you have the file on the abrasives industry?” asked Major Spivak.

"Right here,” answered Sergeant Fassberg, handing him a sheaf of papers.

"All right, let’s start,” said Major Spivak.

He spent the next three hours asking Speer very detailed questions, first about abrasives and oil baths and then about specialty steels and problems with machine tools and manufacturing different kinds of screws and fasteners, nearly all of which Speer was able to answer easily from the top of his head.

Though it was obvious Major Spivak continued to regard Speer with extreme discomfort, he nevertheless conducted the interview with complete professional detachment. He’d ask questions, write down the answers, ask follow ups and write those down as well. In the end, as he sat looking over all his pages of notes, he turned to Speer, and, shaking his head with amazement, declared, “Well, Sergeant Fassberg was certainly right, Herr Speer. You’re definitely the mother lode.”

Then, for one very long moment, Major Spivak stared blankly ahead, while inside him the angels of light and darkness battled each other. Finally he looked at Speer and with the tiniest hint of cordiality asked if he’d be willing to undergo a more detailed debriefing by senior members of the Survey team.

"Why certainly,” said Speer. “I’d be happy to cooperate in any way I can.”

"Good,” said Major Spivak. “I’ll let the guys know. We’ll be in touch.”

They left without shaking hands or thanking him.

Speer went back to the castle feeling strangely let down. The Americans had come to him like heavenly messengers, only to vanish with the same abruptness with which they’d appeared. It had been the first time in months anyone had come seeking his expertise and even if Major Spivak had not been terribly courteous, he had at least acknowledged that Speer had something no one else had. He wondered what he’d meant when he said his colleagues would be “in touch.”

Baumbach, on the other hand, saw it as a clear sign that his friend’s bad fortune had reversed. “Well, congratulations, Albert. Now they’ll have no choice but to bring you into their new administration. It’s just like what they’re doing with those rocket scientists from Peenemunde. You’ll probably get flown out to Okinawa to join Curtis LeMay’s intelligence staff.”

"We’ll see,” said Speer.

"I’d say this calls for a drink, Albert.” They settled into another night of drinking and storytelling and by the end of it, the whole episode became just a half-remembered jumble in Speer’s mind.

He awoke late in the morning with a terrible hangover. Staggering through the hall down to the kitchens he debated whether he should call in sick or just show up the way he was, since it seemed that was the way everyone else was half the time.

As he was working his way through a cup of tea, he heard agitated footsteps running up the corridor toward him. He started to feel a sense of dread. It was the captain of the honor guard, which had been assigned to him for security.

"Herr Reichsminister, we have an emergency!”

"What is it?"

"The American Army is here, demanding to see you.”

"What?” "The Americans, your Excellency! There must be twenty of them. They’ve come in Jeeps.”

"In Jeeps? But what do they want? Are you sure they’re not looking for Himmler?”

"No, your Excellency. They say they want you. Reichsminister for War Production Albert Speer. Do you want my men to shoot at them?”

"No, absolutely not. Tell them to wait. I must get dressed first.”

He went back to his room and found his best gray suit. Then he selected a French tie and put it on. He took a glimpse in the mirror and thought to himself that he looked pretty good.

(Excerpt from Germania, Simon & Schuster, 2008, ebook version available here).

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