Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Close Encounters of the Third Reich

Lately I have been reading a couple of books by Albert Speer, Hitler's favorite architect and later Armaments Minister during WWII.

The first book I read was Inside the Third Reich, Speer's memoirs of his youth and his involvement in Hitler's inner circle until the end of the war and his imprisonment for war crimes in its aftermath.

I remember seeing a mini-series on TV in 1982 based on this book starring Rutger Hauer as Speer and Derek Jacobi as Hitler. It was a very well done drama, with many scenes that I have remembered for all of these years. Jacobi was a favorite of ours at the time due to his brilliant turn as the lead in Masterpiece Theater's I, Claudius. He did a pretty good job capturing Hitler's ability to weave many brilliant people into his own fevered dreams, but he has a distinctly Anglo aura about him that he was unable to disguise convincingly. Alec Guinness had a similar problem when he portrayed the Fuhrer in Hitler: The Last Ten Days. It always bothered me when Germans were portrayed with icy upper crust British accents. Of course, the best portrayal of Hitler on film thus far has to be Bruno Ganz in Downfall, who has the advantage of actually being German and performing auf Deutsch. He was very convincing as the erstwhile world conqueror, diminished to little more than a cornered rat , trapped in his bunker awaiting the End.

Both in the mini-series and the book, as fascinating as Speer himself is, the star of the show is , of course,Hitler; and as someone who once claimed to be the closest thing that the dictator ever had to a friend, Speer was uniquely positioned to give us a very up close and personal account of the man who took the world to the brink of Apocalypse.

The enigma of Hitler to us from the perspective of time and culture is the mystery of his appeal; not just to rabble rousers and beer hall brawlers, but to intellectuals, artists, scientists, professionals, grandmas, school kids and everyone else. The cliched question is still the prime mystery: How did the culture that produced Beethoven and Goethe embrace Nazism?

Speer is a good example of someone from the privileged class with a bright future who got caught up in Hitler's dream. From his memoirs one could gather that Hitler was given the keys to the kingdom because of two things he offered the German people at a very uncertain time in their history: Hope and Change.

Obviously you could make some pretty heavy duty analogies about now. It is no secret that cultures are at their most vulnerable at times of excessive ease and times of excessive strain. In times of ease the fat life becomes something expected and taken for granted. Things get soft and lackadaisical and right and wrong gets blurred. At times of strain, panic and despair lead to a search for strength and easy solutions. Hitler was a strong man, a father figure for a country that had been orphaned by its old order and left in disarray. He spoke boldly in terms so black and white and certain that all other politicians seemed like dithering bureaucrats more intent on pushing papers than pulling Germany out of the hole it was in. The mystery of his mass hypnotic appeal so often cited is I think a macrocosmic effect that can be experienced by anyone when put into a random group, co-workers on a project; jurors debating a case; even people stuck in a long bank line. An Alpha asserts himself, the group pulls into a societal order of deputies, conspirators, etc., and it is not until the group dissipates again that the whole experience can be looked back on for what it was.

Speer was an architect with a sharp mind and good connections. He was what Hitler had always wanted to be before he was a politician. He picked Speer to design the Future Reich of his dreams, with Grand Domes and Arches of Triumph, great temples to the Party and monuments to attest to the power of National Socialism. But he was what Dylan so poetically referred to as a "Dream Twister." Speer was pulled into Hitler's dream, thinking that his own dreams were being fulfilled. Speer made an interesting observation, saying that Hitler was like a malignant King Midas: instead of everything he touches turning into gold, he turns everything he touches into piles of corpses.

His portrait of Hitler was one of a man at times crude, at times inspiring, more often than not boring, and something of a dilettante regarding many subjects. He kept a distance from everyone in his role as Fuhrer, even Eva Braun , his secret consort.

It was not until the dream ended in catastrophe for Germany that Hitler's true face was seen by those around him; the losing Reich was not worthy of survival; it had to be razed and wiped off the face of the earth, having proved itself as being unworthy and unable to fulfill his desires for world domination and the eradication of Jewry. He was determined to not just commit suicide, but to take all of Germany with him, and Speer was fundamental in disregarding his leader's scorched earth policy, thus saving his country from a much greater destruction than the nightmare it faced in the dissolution of the Reich.

After Hitler's death and Germany's surrender, Speer was put on trial at Nuremberg, along with other surviving Nazi leaders. He fared better than many: 20 years in prison for his part in using slave labor in armaments factories.

The book I am currently reading is The Spandau Diaries about that 20 year imprisonment. I will report on it when I finish shortly.

Speer has many critics who accuse him of being self serving , trying to make himself more sympathetic in his memoirs, and less attached to the Final Solution aspect of Hitler's designs. They even say that his plea of guilty at the Nuremberg trials and denunciation of Hitler's policies were a mere ploy to save him from the hangman's noose, which it did. Several books have been written refuting different aspects of Speer's version of events. I am sure there is some truth to many of these accusations. All autobiographies must be read with a healthy dose of scepticism, after all, the author cannot be dispassionate about his subject. But all the same Speer is an interesting character, with an artistic and earnest eye for detail and examination. One gets the feeling that he truly grapples with trying to make sense of the maelstrom that surrounded him. His precise and probing mind is the crucible in which all the elements of what happened to him personally, and what happened to his country, and to our world are thrown, and Inside the Third Reich is an intriguing result.

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