August 2, 2017
A Bit of History–Rereading Albert Speer’s Inside The Third Reich
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
The book was a worn, thick burgundy paperback, spine splintered in three parts, tiny print crammed on its pages. I read it in the bedroom downstairs, our family dumping ground of books and newspapers, old clothes, forgotten things. I must have been about ten. On the University of Nigeria campus, where I grew up, books (and videocassettes) drifted in and out of homes, borrowed and returned, creased and torn, passed around. I read everything—thrillers, history, romance, classics—some in a cursory way, with passages skipped. But this book absorbed me. I remember certain lines, as words will sometimes float in memory long after a book is forgotten. A theory of ruins. I remember a mute dog named Blondi. I remember the photographs. Grainy, black-and-white images that spoke of European mysteriousness.
Almost thirty years later, I have just reread Albert Speer’s “Inside the Third Reich.” To return to the books of my childhood is to yield to the strain of nostalgia that is curious about the self I once was. What could I, at the age of ten, have found so engaging in the memoir of a Nazi, Adolf Hitler’s de-facto No. 2 man?
Perhaps it was the book’s narrative energy, its lucid tone and textured scenes, which create a kind of fluency. Speer’s affluent but unappealing childhood would have interested me—his sickliness, his distant parents, who employ maids in white aprons and fret about their social standing. So, too, the palace intrigues of Hitler’s petty court, unctuous men tiptoeing around him, swallowing words that might offend him, jostling for his praise. The characters are compelling, and might have seemed all the more piquant by being “real” people. They are flatly sketched from anecdote, but the unencumbered clarity of their portrayal has a peculiar appeal: the fat, self-indulgent Hermann Göring, drinking champagne and hoarding stolen art; the small-eyed soullessness of Heinrich Himmler. The uncomplicatedness of these sketches functions, too, as emotional directive: we are to feel disgust for Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, a gentle pity for Hitler’s partner, Eva Braun.
And then there is the character of Hitler himself. It might have amused me that a man whose “magic” Speer often refers to did not seem at all magical. In Speer’s telling, Hitler is duplicitous and vacuous, so intimidated by accomplished people that he surrounds himself with shallow hangers-on; he is humorless and only laughs at the expense of others; he tiresomely repeats himself and is delusional, even before the war, with what Speer describes as “fantastic misreadings” of reality. Yet Speer was devoted to him. Awed by him, loyal to him.
In this litany of Hitler’s flaws, Speer demonstrates a slick honesty whose goal is to disarm. If it disarmed me as a child, it repels me as an adult. His rueful acknowledgment of his dedication to Hitler, and his philosophical puzzlement at his own complicity, seeks to cast a glaze of innocence over him. Margo Jefferson, in her memoir of African-American life, “Negroland,” writes that, when recounting unhappy memories, “You arrange your angers at their most becoming angles.” She resists this, finding it dishonest. Not Speer; he, with calm canniness, assembles his follies in flattering light. His self-criticism has a too-smooth edge; it is as though he has considered all possible criticisms he might face and taken them on himself, and there is an egotistical undertone to this that is perverse.
He belittles the architectural work he did for Hitler, mocking the designs as “pretentious,” but what remains astonishingly true is that he believed in Hitler’s architectural jingoism. Hitler tells Speer that Berlin, compared with Paris and Vienna, is “nothing but an unregulated accumulation of buildings,” and here Speer’s nationalist insecurity aligns with his architectural ambition. He, too, wanted to assuage Germany’s wounded pride, to wipe off the humiliation of losing the First World War by erecting edifices. He toiled to make a reality of Hitler’s imperial megalomania—buildings that would last a thousand years, structures that reflected a Germany to which the rest of the world would bow—so much so that his disapproving architect father, on seeing his models, told him, “You’ve all gone completely crazy.”
As a child, I could not have seen this book as the silver-tongued project of exculpation that it is. Nor would I have recognized how much Speer’s class privilege makes this possible. Speer’s class sneer is always present, always subtle, in his references—to Hitler’s petit-bourgeois background, to the unrefined tastes of Hitler’s other henchmen. He detests Bormann, whom he calls “a peasant” with “no culture,” a feeling rooted more in class than in morality. He objects not so much to what Bormann does as to the crude nature with which he does it, as though Bormann’s murderousness would not be so offensive had he exhibited some finesse. The burning of the Berlin synagogues and the “smashed panes of shop windows” offend his “sense of middle-class order.” He asks the slave laborers in his armaments factory if they are satisfied with their treatment. Evil is tolerable if purged of coarseness.
In my graduate class at Yale, a classmate once said, while studying the war in Sierra Leone, “African violence is different.” In that word, “different,” was a repressed shudder. He meant that hacking people to death with machetes lacked something that might have made it more bearable. A cold-blooded elegance, an efficiency, a remove. I will always remember that student because he illuminated for me the Western idea that turpitude, when committed by a certain kind of person and in a certain kind of way, is worthy of being engaged with. Speer, with the cultured, reasonable, modest manner that is the easy inheritance of the privileged classes, represented a kind of Teutonic ideal. It made possible his memoir, a well-written act of image-making. It made possible his designation as the “good Nazi,” somehow better than the others, a man whose ruthlessly steady hand kept the German war machine churning, who denied that he knew of millions of Jews being murdered, who burst into tears on seeing a photo of Hitler after his death.
Did I sense the insecurity that pervades this memoir, and, by extension, the Third Reich itself? A collection of men-children with infantile fantasies. Dreams of victory parades. Great halls built to impress. Bigger as better. The ringing echo, in Hitler’s refrain of “We are not inferior,” of a man desperate to believe himself.
How do books read early in life shape us? Would I have an abiding interest in Nazi horrors if I had not read Speer at ten? Would I be so fascinated by European tribalism? It is interesting now, as Europe tries to find a sense of self, to read of Speer’s fleeting dream of an economically united Europe, with Germany as its leader. Or of Hitler’s belief that Islam was more compatible with Germans than Christianity. Or Speer’s suggestion that democracy is inherently not German and the Weimar Republic an aberration of Germanness because “tight public order was in our blood.” Right-wing populism is rising again around the world, and it is hard not to look for lessons here. Hitler rose to power because he exploited in Germans that sense of what Speer called “personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy,” which “was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims.” He turned history into a reservoir of resentments. And he spoke simply. Speaking simply, in this case, meant discarding complexity and disregarding truth.