Monday, September 9, 2013

Albert Speer and the Americans: End of a Very Short Love Affair

When it was all over and the Americans began to leave, Speer didn’t bother getting up from the couch. Those who tried to say thank you or goodnight found him sullen and cold. But then the magic spell had been broken and he was no longer Albert Speer, colleague, but Albert Speer, war criminal.

It wasn’t supposed to have ended like this, Speer told himself bitterly as he poured the last of the whiskey into his glass. This should have been the day the Americans offered him the job of overseeing Germany’s reconstruction.

And it had all started out so promisingly. The daily government meeting had finally ended and Speer had driven back to the Schloss. There, to his enormous relief, he found Galbraith and the others still waiting in the courtyard, guarded by the dozen-odd troops of Speer’s security detachment.

“I’m very sorry to have kept you gentlemen waiting,” he told them. “But the Grand Admiral insisted.” But rather than acting annoyed at the delay, the Americans clamored to hear details of what a real Nazi cabinet meeting was like. “Oh, it’s all like second-rate Warner Brothers,” joked Speer. They all laughed.

They’d brought two large bottles of Haig&Haig whiskey, an even-more flagrant violation of the anti-fraternization rules than anything they’d done previously. “I hope you’re in a mood to answer a lot of questions today,” said Ken Galbraith.

“I’m sure I cannot think of a more pleasant way to spend a May afternoon,” smiled Speer graciously. He led them back upstairs to one of his favorite salons and he opened one of the glass cabinets and broke out some glasses and passed them around. The University of Bombing was back in session.

“All right, who wants the first question?” asked George Ball after everyone had settled in with their drinks.

For the first hour or so, it went on its usual way, with questions about ball bearings and hydrogenation works and alloy steels. But the way their questioning lacked any real direction only fuelled Speer’s suspicion that today, perhaps, they might have something quite different in mind that they wanted him to talk about. He even got the feeling that perhaps they were just looking for the right moment when they could pop the big question to him: Professor Speer, we’ve been communicating with some people we know back in Washington and they share our enthusiasm for what you’ve managed to accomplish and they think, as we think, that you’re the best person to oversee the postwar reconstruction of German industry, no, Germany!, no, all of Western Europe!

Finally, just as he expected, they dropped the technical questions altogether. “Please,” one of them said, obviously speaking for everyone, “tell us what it had been like in the bunker.” Hearing it, Speer had to smile. It hadn’t even been a month, but already the bunker had reached mythic stature.

He obliged them with his best, most telling stories. He told them about Hitler directing non-existent divisions against the Red Army, and the situation conferences where factual information never entered the agenda. He described the endless cocktail party with its bourgeois niceties, and how even at the last hour, Hitler’s primary concern was playing his few remaining followers off against each other.

He told them about Goering; his flamboyant dress and rouged cheeks and how he had lions wandering about his palace. He told them about Rosenberg with his unfathomable theories of race, and how Ley, the perpetually drunk Labor Front chief, had once come to Speer with blueprints for a “death ray,” which, it turned out, required parts that hadn’t been in production in sixty years; or how Ribbentrop the foreign minister had laid down on Hitler’s threshold until the Fuhrer finally agreed to see him. Then of course, there were Hitler’s two military chiefs, Keitel and Jodl, who refused to visit the Russian front, until finally, the front came to visit them.

He kept talking and they listened on with such rapt attention that it almost puzzled him how much appetite they had for gossip and stories of bizarre personalities. But then, he thought, so much the better for me when the time comes for me to state my case, and high time he did.

So he began telling them about his break with Hitler that previous fall. How they would go head to head over different matters; offensive or defensive war, fighter planes over bombers, production of miracle weapons, whether they should cut out whole classes of medium caliber ammunition, until ultimately what they were arguing about was whether victory was even possible. He told them about the long slide downward, the looming inevitability of defeat and, finally, the Nero Decrees. He told them about how his relations with the Fuhrer kept getting worse and worse, to the point where Hitler stopped acknowledging his presence at the daily situation conferences.

After that, he described his own quest for redemption; how he traveled about the Ruhr with his stalwart band of fellow conspirators, countermanding Hitler’s orders, pleading and coercing the gauleiters and army commanders, sabotaging deliveries of explosives, diverting nitrogen away from ammunition plants to fertilizer production, and doing whatever it took to preserve Germany’s industrial heartland for the future.

Next thing he knew he was telling them about the strange young man he’d met, a onetime vaudeville performer with the uncanny ability to talk anyone into anything. He told them about the extraordinary adventures they had.

The Americans were dumbfounded. “A former child star? And he taught you to...juggle?”

Speer grinned.

Ken Galbraith cleared his throat. “Could you? ... Juggle for us, please?”

Speer looked mischievously at his audience. Dare he?

He went over to the glass cabinet and pulled out four small cut crystal glasses. Then, one by one, he threw them in the air and the next thing he knew he had all four going, round and round. For nearly a minute he juggled them and didn’t drop a single one and when he was finished he gathered them all inside the crook of his right arm and took a very theatrical bow. The audience went wild.

Thank you, thank you, gentlemen, Speer imagined himself saying. And for my next trick, I’m going to put all the war ravaged economies of Western Europe back on their feet. But I’m going to need a few assistants...from the audience...

He put the glasses on the table and sat back down on the couch. He looked expectantly at Galbraith. But Galbraith only smiled. Paul Nitze raised his hand and asked him if he’d been afraid that Hitler might hang him if he found out what he’d been doing in the Ruhr.

“Certainly I was afraid,” said Speer. “But we were all facing death anyway. It had all gone too far. But don’t let me paint myself as too heroic, gentlemen. What you have to understand about Hitler is that when it came to the people close to him, he was infinitely forgiving. For him to acknowledge that people had turned against him meant acknowledging he’d made a mistake picking them in the first place. That was why he preferred letting the Luftwaffe be destroyed than sacking Goering.”

“But how did you put up with it?”

“My secret was to focus all my energy on my work. As long as a task was challenging enough, I could completely lose myself in it.” He gave a sad smile. “It is ironic, gentlemen, that work was what got me in this mess with Hitler in the first place. I was never interested in politics or power. All I ever wanted was challenges and work and he kept giving them to me.”

He paused and saw them nodding in sympathetic agreement. Well of course they would, Speer told himself. They know all about hard work. So what do I have to tell them to make them bite?

“I can’t tell you how glad I am that this whole ugly episode is finally over. And now that the new day we have all waited for is finally here, I just hope we can put the horror behind us and start working together toward a peaceful, prosperous world. I can only hope I will be allowed to participate in this rebuilding.”

For a long pregnant moment no one said anything. Then a shrill, reedy voice shattered the meditative silence.

“I don’t get you, Speer.” A bookish, bespectacled little captain stood up. Speer could tell he was drunk.

“You talk all this wonderful stuff, like you’re so rational, and decent and just like us, and that’s what’s most horrifying about it. Here we are drinking with you, relieved that you’re not the monster we imagined.”

“But what good is any of it if all you do is sell out to someone like Hitler just so you can design some fucking building.”

“Easy, Burton,” said Galbraith.

“No! Fuck this whole thing! Don’t you see? As long as you get to maintain your irony and circumspection and don’t have to march around like a thug in jackboots, you’ll happily serve the biggest murderer in history. And you don’t simply serve the regime, you become Hitler’s friend, his only friend. God Almighty!”

“And don’t tell us you didn’t know about the millions of people he murdered, just because he didn’t bring it up during his little tea parties.”

"Burton, that’s enough!”

“The hell it is! You’re pathetic, Speer, and I hope they hang you. Now I’m finished. You can continue with your line of questions. Good night!”

He stormed out of the room and they could hear him stomping down the halls, cursing loudly as he did.

It didn’t last long after that. There were a few half-hearted questions about ball bearing works and then someone suddenly recalled a late night meeting they had to attend aboard the Patria.

Alone now, everything silent around him, his glass finally empty, Speer surveyed the dark room. The only flicker of light came from the fire, now down to its embers. He stared dully at it, imagining it was the light of a thousand torches and he was back at one of the great nighttime party rallies before the war.

He got up from the couch, walked over to the fireplace and, poking at the embers, watched the sparks fly up. Then he felt the careening vertigo, brought on by all the whiskey, and staggered back to the couch, laying his head back and closing his eyes.

And there it was, Germania; the Great Dome, bigger than sunrise and colder than an ice mountain. Speer wiped his hands over his eyes, but it wouldn’t go away. Then he saw all the others; the vast plazas and boulevards, the gigantic ministries and monuments, Soldiers Hall, the Armory, the Party Academy, the Triumphal Arch, and the tall, narrow columns topped with eagles lining Unter den Linden, which seemed to go all the way to the horizon.

We did it, Speer, you and I.

(Excerpt from Germania, first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here)

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