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Speer in Spandau

WHEN HE WAS IN Spandau prison, Albert Speer walked long distances to stay in shape. He calculated the number of paces to Istanbul, checked off the number of paces he walked each day in the prison yard, and eventually, without having left Berlin, he reached his destination. Later on he got as far as Beijing. It’s one of the more believable stories in his book Spandau: The Secret Diaries, which I have just read again. This time I read it in English, although there was a day when I could read it fairly easily in German. All his books are good for your German, but I am not at all sure they are good for your soul. As a writer, he never let up on his act as the civilized man, the true artist, who got caught up in the dream world of the fake artist Hitler because it offered such irresistible aesthetic opportunities.

The message being, you might have been him. To deny this, you have to be unembarrassed about speaking with a confidence that feels like bluster. But surely he was pulling a fast one, which he made all the more persuasive by pulling it slowly. Over the years, after the war, both in prison and out, he told the world that he should have known what the Nazis were up to, and could not forgive himself for his ignorance. But he did know, and he was never ignorant. He was especially vulnerable on that last point because he liked to be seen as the man who knew everything. He resolved the paradox by a quietly histrionic trick of looking puzzled at all times, as if those big questions were too much even for a man with such a fine taste in tailoring. In the movie Downfall he is chiefly present as a model for black leather overcoats, but we are asked yet again to believe that when Hitler ordered him to destroy the remains of Germany’s infrastructure, Speer disobeyed the order, in the interest of future generations. His account of how he defied Hitler’s order was probably at least partly true, but confidence is not increased by the fact that his account of how little he knew about the Final Solution was at least partly a lie. Still, his guilt remains a personal question for all of us who were alive in those years, even if we were not born until near the very end of them. What would we have done? Something to ponder while we, too, go walking to Beijing.