Unlike his fellow defendants at the Nuremberg trials, Albert Speer—the Third Reich’s chief architect and, from 1942, the man in charge of munitions and infrastructure—admitted wrongdoing while insisting he was unaware of what was really happening to the Jews. As a result, he got off with a twenty-year sentence, during which he penned a series of memoirs and made a reputation for himself as “the good Nazi.” Michael J. Lewis, reviewing Martin Kitchen’s new biography of Speer, assesses his culpability in the Final Solution (he signed off on the construction of the crematoria at Auschwitz, and managed an extensive empire of slave laborers) as well as his significance as an architect:
Speer found an ideal patron in Hitler, who had a keen understanding of the potential of architecture as an instrument of power, and how to wield it effectively and imaginatively. . . . An artist may work for a tyrant, even a tyrant astride a mountain of skulls, without discrediting the art. Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitri Shostakovich both served Stalin, whose death toll exceeded Hitler’s, and yet their works are monuments of 20th-century art. . . .
But somehow one senses that Speer falls in a different category, that one cannot excuse the opportunism of the artist in order to appreciate the integrity of the art. Kitchen briefly mentions without comment one telling fact, which is that as an architecture student Speer occasionally paid poorer students to prepare his drawings. The practice is not unknown, but it is not what one expects from a truly architectural mind, from someone who lives and thinks architecture, and who exults in the making of form. Kitchen suggests that Speer’s cleverest design ideas, such as the Luftwaffe searchlights illuminating the Nuremberg Rally grounds, came from his assistants. . . .
[W]hat makes Speer in the end so repellent, and all the more so because of his courtly good looks and air of easy urbanity . . . is that he does not even have the excuse of the opportunist, that he made political compromises in order to practice his art. Stripped of the murderous politics, in which his complicity is now beyond all doubt, there is precious little art left.