A few weeks ago, taking advantage of a quiet period at work, I read Albert Speer’s autobiography, Inside the Third Reich. Now, this is an interesting book. Leaving aside Mr. Speer’s culpability in war crimes or this work’s contribution to the supposed Speer Myth, this book has much to recommend itself to the philosophically minded reader. In this work, Mr. Speer offers the reader an instructive look at himself as he is drawn like a moth to the flame of power, and is eventually consumed by it.
In this book, Mr. Speer takes us on a journey from his first meetings with Hitler. As an aspiring architect, he is thrilled to be able to work on interesting projects to the final years of the Third Reich, where, as Minister of Armaments and War Production, he holds great power. Throughout this sometimes surreal journey, we see how power first seduces, then corrupts, and finally, destroys.
Mr. Speer comes across as a fairly normal if perhaps slightly cynical young man, motivated to succeed and not overly interested in the world around him. He is horrified when he witnesses the persecution of the Jews and sympathizes with his Jewish friends. Yet he excuses his inaction and complicity by feeling that it's outside his control and that he is too busy with work to do anything.
As his career and story progresses, we see a young Speer enamoured with Hitler, though naively surprised by the cynicism of the Nazi elites. Caught up in the grand designs of Hitler, who wants to re-build Germany according to a massive neo-classical aesthetic.
As Mr. Speer is drawn ever deeper into the orbit of power and Hitler, we begin to see how this pursuit starts to change him. Mr. Speer talks of how much he enjoys spending time with his family, yet more and more, we hear how he is spending his evenings with Hitler, being bored to tears with the repetitive conversations and low standard of Hitler’s companions.
As the war progresses and Mr. Speer begins his ascent to power, we witness him playing political games and adroitly playing a court courtier as he jockeys for power. Through this whole tail, Mr. Speer presents himself as a man just trying to do his job. He tells us and perhaps believes that he was simply a man who, finding the world insane, deals with it the best he can. Even while he recognizes the insanity of the game, he continues to play it and tries to win.
To me, what is most interesting is how the reader, if they are honest, is invited to walk in Mr. Speer’s shoes and ask how they would act in his place. Hitler is also portrayed from an interesting perspective in this work.
Hitler comes across as decidedly human. A little man thrust to greatness—a bully, but a man perhaps trapped in fortune and his impossible dreams which have unexpectedly become a reality. Hitler comes across as an earnest, lazy, slightly naive, cruel man, but most of all, just as an unhappy person trying to play Atlas and hold the whole world up as it crushes him. Hitler is pitiable from Mr. Speer’s perspective. Even after his greatest success (the fall of France) and the achievement of his wildest dreams, he is only truly happy for half an hour when he sees the Paris Opera House, which he has so long dreamed of.
In this way, Mr. Speer paints for us a view of the emptiness of the pursuit of power. He shows how both Hitler, Goebbels and himself are left unhappy by the power they compulsively seek and how, in the end, they lose everything that truly matters for what is, in essence, an illusion.
Each one of these men of power in their own way seeks power for the same reason. Hitler hopes to secure immortality through success as a statesman, Speer hopes to achieve the same through building buildings larger and more magnificent than any before. Yet, in each case, these dreams are dashed and these men remain unhappy and unsatisfied.
One is left in wonderment as Mr. Speer goes from lamenting the little time he gets to see his children and wife and the joy he feels when he does. Yet like a moth to a flame, he continues in his mad pursuit of power amongst the chaos and economic madness which constituted Nazi economic policy. This book is worth reading for the almost unbelievable descriptions of this chaos alone.
But as I read this work written while Mr. Speer was imprisoned for his role in Nazi war crimes, I wondered if Mr. Speer ever recognized the great harm he had done to himself and his family through his blind pursuit of power. In the end, Mr. Speer was estranged from his children and his wife and continued to the end of his life to prioritise his reputation over them.
Having finished this work, I can recommend it to history on three grounds. One, on its substance as a cautionary tale for the young and ambitious of the pitfalls of power. Two, as a character study of Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazi’s, and three, as an intriguing account of the Third Reich’s economic mismanagement.