September 1st in German History: The Death of Albert Speer

Albert Speer - Wikipedia
Albert Speer.

Albert Speer was a German architect and industrialist who was responsible for armaments organization during the latter years of WWII. During the decades after the war, he was often credited with significant increases in German weapons production and with being less brutal than other Nazis. He died on September 1st, 1981.

Speer was born in 1905 in the city of Mannheim. His father and grandfather were both architects and in 1923 he began studying the subject at university. He married in 1922, although his parents were unhappy with this as they thought his wife had inferior social standing. He became an architectural assistant in 1927 and in 1931 he joined the Nazi Party. The economic conditions of the Great Depression forced him to leave his position as an assistant and attempt to start his own practice as an architect. In this, he failed. In 1932 he visited Berlin to help the Nazi Party amid the elections that year and a friend of his recommended him to Joseph Goebbels to help renovate the Party’s headquarters in Berlin. Through this along with several other jobs for the Party, he gained favor with high-ranking members and in 1933 he met and befriended Hitler. He became the chief architect in 1934 upon the death of Paul Troost and was put in charge of constructing buildings for the 1936 Olympics, halls party rallies, and the Reich Chancellery.  Speer used forced labor from concentration camps in the construction of many of his buildings. However, the start of WWII in 1939 forced the postponement of his grandest projects as the vast resources they required were needed for the war effort. Speer continued to oversee construction until 1942 when he was made Minister of Armament’s Production after the death of that position’s previous holder, Fritz Todt. Speer quickly set about gaining control over production for all military branches in the name of streamlining and consolidating production. Although Speer did become more politically powerful, he failed to radically increase German output. Although the production of weapons did increase in 1942 and 1943, this was due less to better management and more to a series of dubious decisions made. Speer decided to prioritize quantity of weapons over quality, which led to poorer combat performance. Further, he used slave labor on a massive scale to replace the millions of workers that had joined the army. He also diverted coal output from synthetic fuel to weapons factories, thus worsening fuel shortages. Speer’s attempt to increase U-Boat construction was perhaps his greatest failure. He tried to build new U-Boats using modular components that would be built separately and then put together. However, imperfections in construction led to unusable ships. In late 1943 Speer was incapacitated by a knee injury and in early 1944 things were made worse by a lung embolism. This coincided with the “Big Week”, a series of major allied bombing raids that inflicted great devastation on German production. As a result, he fell out of favor with Hitler, and by the summer of 1944 had lost control of production. He was still a prominent figure within the Reich, though, and continued to play a role in directing war industry. However, by early 1945 there was little industry left to manage and Speer spent most of his time trying to convince Hitler not to destroy German infrastructure. He was arrested in May 1945.

Speer was convicted of war crimes in 1946, primarily for his use of slave labor, and was sentenced to twenty years in prison. While in prison he wrote his memoirs, against prison rules, and had them sent to a friend on the outside. In them, he claimed to have been unaware of the Holocaust and other Nazi war crimes. Further, he said he was generally apolitical and not anti-Semitic. These lies were believed by many historians for decades. The “Speer Myth” of a Nazi in the inner circle who was unaware of Germany’s crimes was used by many other high-ranking Nazis as evidence for their own claims of ignorance. His memoirs sold well, and he lived in comfort until his death in 1981. Speer’s legacy is a dangerous one. Only in the 1990s did it become widely known that his claims of innocence were baseless and false. It is concerning that one so high in the Nazi regime was able to remain a respected member of high society after the war. That his charm and intelligence was enough to deflect attention for decades speaks volumes about what society is willing to overlook.

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