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The only time in my life I met Albert Speer face to face was in April 1933. He was a young man of twenty-eight on the threshold of an amazing career, but - let me confess it - I failed to detect anything about him to suggest he might make news one day.
We met at a party which Putzi Hanfstaengl, Hitler's P.R.O. [Public Relations Officer] to the Anglo-American Press corps, gave to introduce Berlin correspondents to some of the new men who had come to the top with Hitler. I was very much more interested in talking with Rudolf Diels, the surprisingly gay and lighthearted chief of the newly created Gestapo, and General Werner von Blomberg, once colonel of corporal Hitler's regiment, now Minister of Defence in his cabinet.
So I talked for only a few perfunctory moments with the tall and good-looking young architect-engineer from Mannheim who Hanfstaengl said was designing an entirely new and revolutionary setting for the Nazi party's Mayday rally on Berlin's Tempelhof field.
How short-sighted of me. For that Mayday decor was just made for Hitler and his parvenu craving for the colossal. With its mock-classic, mock-marble arches and platforms of painted plywood, its long Swastika streamers fluttering down from gigantic masts, massed searchlights at the evening parade shooting clustered columns of light into the sky in constantly changing formations, it appealed to both the calculating showman-demagogue in Hitler and the petty bourgeois status seeker anxious to impress.
In no time the young man from Mannheim was very much more important at the court of the dictator than Diels or even Blomberg. Almost overnight he became not only Hitler's own special architect but his adviser on matters technical and artistic with the right of access to him at any time of the day or night.
There and then at that Mayday rally Speer was appointed to superintend the artistic and technical presentation of all major political demonstrations in the constantly demonstrating Third Reich. A kind of cross between Max Reinhard and Cecil B. de Mille, he was constantly thinking up lurid touches for the mass spectacles staged by the Reich and the party. The vast urns of fire for instance burning on the gloomy walls of the Tannenberg memorial during the funeral of President von Hindenburg were a typically imaginative Speer idea.
In a breakneck nine months he designed and built the vast edifice of the new chancellery for the impatient Hitler. The Propaganda Ministry (today it houses Comrade Ulbricht's Soviet-German cabinet offices), Goering's ostentatiously massive Air Ministry, the alterations to the German Embassy in London's Carlton House Terrace, and the super-colossal Nuremberg stadium for the annual Nazi Party rally, are all examples of Speer's work.
Nor, despite the Nazi bombast, was it all entirely despicable stuff. I visited the Nuremberg stadium quite recently, and I must in honesty confess I found it strangely impressive, even moving. Its huge towers and the circling tiers of rain eroded concrete gave it the aura of some old Roman ruin, even though GI's had taken a tar brush and scrawled 'Soldiers Field' across the vast pedestal from which Speer's master used to rage at the world.
Hitler loaded office after office and honour after honour on his young protégé. He made him Inspector General for the planning and building of the Reich capital, Inspector General of Germany's roads and bridges, inspector General of water and electric power, member of the Prussian State Council and much else before he was thirty-three. He presented him with the golden party badge, and the golden Hitler Youth medal.
But Speer had to pay a high price for all this glory and the large financial rewards his work brought him. He had to be at the constant call of his patron.
For Hitler who once declared that had it not been for the 1914 war he "would have become Germany's foremost architect" saw himself as the real designer of Germany's new splendours and Speer as his inspired executive. With Speer as his foreman he dreamed and planned the reshaping of the fatherland's architectural image in vast new structures reflecting his own hysterical megalomania.
Berlin was to be given a 1,000 feet high domed hall with accommodation for 100,000 people, Nuremberg was to be adorned with yet another stadium "bigger than anything the world has seen before" with seats for 500,000 spectators and a parade ground for a million people.
"These buildings" Hitler boasted to his admiring henchmen "will be so gigantic and so solidly constructed that even the Pyramids will become insignificant in comparison with the colosses of stone which I shall erect."
Speer, part courtier flattering his patron, part sincerely devoted to what he believed to be a great leader and a great German patriot, piled his office high with sketches and designs for his Führer, many of which survive to this day.
But even at this time there must have been moments when Speer found his position trying, as the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler discovered to his astonishment.
"It must be glorious to be able to build on such a grand scale according to one's own concepts!" said F Furtwängler to Speer.
Speer gave him an ironical side glance. Then he answered:
"Imagine that somebody would tell you: It is my unalterable decision that from now on the ninth symphony shall be played only on the mouth organ."
Albert Speer is descended from a long line of South German craftsmen, builders and architects. His family background and his upbringing should have made him abhor the regime of violence, greed, and bullying aggression he served. Was he seduced by the power and position it had given him, the opportunity build?
Undoubtedly. But Speer did his best to hide from his conscience his complicity with the evil being done by the men with whom he was associated, "I am only a technician," he told himself just as later he told his judges at Nuremberg. "I have no political task - no political responsibility."
Indeed he did his best to see that this was true. He had never made as much as one political speech until Hitler on February 8, 1942, elevated him to cabinet rank by appointing him Minister of Munitions and Armaments. The fact that previous to this his job had been to speed up the building of arms factories, aircraft works and U-boat yards in order to facilitate Hitler's murderous attack on his neighbours did not disturb him. He was only a technician. Political decisions were no business of his.
And it was not from any moral revulsion against the appalling crimes committed by the Nazi aggressors in the countries occupied by them that he eventually rose in rebellion against Hitler, tried to do away with him, and sabotaged his orders.
It was because his conscience as a specialist technician was outraged. Speer from his point of vantage as Armaments Minister had realised that the war was irredeemably lost. He saw that Hitler far from trying to save Germany from further destruction by capitulation had given orders that condemned the German people to death by starvation. He had ordered that all the cities and factories, food stores, bridges and harbours still in German hands should be destroyed so that nothing should fall into enemy hands and that when the Third Reich came to an end Germany should expire as well.
Only now did Albert Speer realise the true character of the paranoiac monster he had worshipped. Now at last he turned against him.