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Hitler's Faults

Albert Speer has a new book out and turned up on Newsday (BBC2) to plug it. As usual, his air of bewildered humility served him well, despite some fairly close questioning from Ludovic Kennedy.

As we already knew from previous appearances, Speer is willing to be contrite about Nazi atrocities, but only on the understanding that he knew very little about them. Undermining Speer’s position on that point is the fact that as Hitler’s armaments minister he was necessarily one of the best-informed men in Germany. Nevertheless his puzzled frown has remained firmly in place, throughout his stretch in Spandau and on into sweet liberty. Time goes by, people forget, but Speer is too canny ever to forgive himself out loud. By now he probably sincerely believes that he didn’t know quite what was happening to the Jews. It all came as a huge disappointment to him.

But when Ludo pressed that very point, Speer dropped eine kleine clanger. ‘I can’t say I didn’t know it had happened,’ he conceded. A civilised moment of hesitation, and he continued: ‘I was only astonished by how it had happened... the way it was done.’ If this meant anything, it meant that Speer knew the Jews were being wiped out, but thought that they were being wiped out in some acceptable way. Ludo was content to leave Speer’s utterance hanging in the air, having rightly judged it to require no comment. If Speer couldn’t see that he had been self-revealing, there was no point telling him.

In Spandau, Speer had had ‘quite a good connection with Rudolf Hess.’ Another moment of hesitation, and then once again the delicious qualifier: ‘Despite all the differences we had in the political field.’ According to Speer, there were two parties among the incarcerated hierarchs. One party saw Hitler as having been without ‘faults’. The other party could see that Hitler had had ‘faults’. Speer quietly aligned himself with the second party. One almost found oneself nodding understandingly.

Yes, Speer would have us believe, he had known a thing or two. He hadn’t been that easy to fool. On the other hand, he would also have us believe, he hadn’t known a thing or three. He hadn’t been that difficult to fool. After all, how else had Hitler swung that business about the Jews except by exploiting the natural, human gullibility of men like Speer?

That, at any rate, was the impression Speer strove to conjure up, speaking very slowly, not so much because his English is rudimentary as because his mouth was full of butter, which was not melting. He came over — he has always come over — as a charming, even nice, bloke. Though his quarrels with Hitler probably sprang more from impatience at counter-productive imbecility than from outrage at moral squalor, there is no reason to think that Speer was devoid of a sense of right and wrong. But to judge him even to that extent is to evince dangerous confidence, unless we are very sure that we would have behaved better ourselves.

14 March, 1976

[ The original unedited version of this piece can be found in our Observer TV column chapter ]