Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Speer's Destiny

I finished Spandau: The Secret Diaries the other day so I thought I'd throw a few thoughts on the book out there as I said I would in a prior post.

The book is a year by year diary of Albert Speer's 20 year stay in Berlin's Spandau Prison as sentenced by the Allied judges at the Nuremberg trials following the collapse of the Third Reich. It was truly a secret diary, as such personal writings were strictly forbidden by prison rules. Speer wrote on toilet paper, scraps from old calendars, whatever he could find and hide on his person (tucked in a place he knew no guard would want to search). He wrote to record his thoughts; to grapple with his guilt; to report on his experiences; and to try to keep a life-line to his non-prison self and his sanity. Many interesting memories and reflections about his experiences in Hitler's "court" come to him along the way, but to me the most interesting thing was the relationships that developed between the seven prisoners, all former Nazi bigwigs,
who went from planning on how to conquer and divide the world to struggling to come together to paint the prison halls or weed the gardens.

The other prisoners all regarded Speer as an outsider among outsiders for his open repentance for the Reich's crimes and excesses, and although there was some camaraderie that grew through hardship, for the most part Speer bore his punishment on his own . He developed an amusing relationship to Rudolf Hess, Hitler's one-time Deputy , who had been imprisoned since his ill-fated solo plane trip to Britain on a quest to forge a peace between the countries. Hess was clearly suffering from some forms of prison psychosis, but he also tried to "play" crazy , with frequent losses of memory and phantom gastric pains that prevented him from doing much work. He was thorny and wily, but there was a strange bond of respect that Speer and Hess had for each other that made them, particularly on Speer's part, protective and supporting of one another.

There were constant attempts by Speer's family, lawyers, and well-wishers to get him an early release. After many such dashing of hopes Speer became resigned that his lot was probably to die at Spandau. Late in his sentence he mused that the 20 year sentence, which struck him at the time as a great relief, was in some ways not as merciful as a death sentence would have been. Not for any abuse or mishandling in prison; but simply the complete eradication of the natural bonds with an aging family and world.

Still and all he got to enjoy aspects of his monastic life. He transformed a scrubby field into a wonderful garden with flowers, fruit trees and terraced walls. He walked constant rounds, imagining he was on a worldwide walking tour, using many of the books about different countries that he read as a touchstone for his imagination. He read many books about his various fascinations: architecture, art, history. He kept in touch with world events through available, albeit censored newspapers, and felt himself more and more disconnected from the world that ground on outside the prison walls.

He grappled with his own place in history; he, who started with dreams of being remembered for the buildings he made, was instead remembered as a war criminal with almost no surviving creations left standing. His biggest contribution to architecture, he noted with dark irony , was an illusion: the "cathedral of light", an effect he created at the Nuremberg party rally by shining the beams of numerous powerful searchlights into the sky creating the illusion of a gigantic hall that the party members held their rites within. I have included in this post a picture of a mock-up of the interior of the Great Hall that he had designed for Hitler's triumphal Berlin that was never to be. I noticed a weird illusion of Hitler's face within the design, see if you can see it.

At the end of the Diaries Speer is whisked off with his wife out of Spandau and to a new phase of his life. The literary contributions that he made in that last phase actually became his true legacy.

I couldn't help but feel that as horrible is that lost 20 years may have been for him, he certainly fared better in this prison where he read, gardened , walked, listened to symphonies and smoked his pipe, than he would have in, say, Huntsville prison. His experience is more what Jerry and George were probably thinking about on Seinfeld when they mused: "Prison...(wistfully)Someday..."


Brer said...

That is a really strange illusion...could it have been planned, I wonder, a sort of subliminal message to get Hitler to accept it?

Babel said...

It is interesting to think so. To be honest, I am not certain whether this is of Speer's actual hand, or a mock-up based on his designs. Very curious either way...

Mick said...

It is interesting that many people thought Tolkiens Mordor was his take on Germany's Third Reich. Tolkien wrote most of Rings in 1918.