Essays: The man from Spandau |
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The man from Spandau

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 this point is the fact that as Hitler’s Minister in charge of production 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 with 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. He just didn’t have much 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.

And, of course, we can’t be sure. One of the several mighty strengths of Solzhenitsyn, whose name continued to bulk large on the week’s television, is that he has been right through the very wringer he is talking about, and is thus in a position to judge other people’s behaviour from a sure knowledge of his own. ‘Gulag Archipelago’ is a subtle work easily falsified by summary. The same applies to the man who wrote it. Solzhenitsyn’s ringing messages to the West need to be understood critically rather than adopted as slogans. ‘Can we trust Russia or should we listen to... Solzhenitsyn?’ asked David Dimbleby on Panorama (BBC1), thereby posing a false alternative. It is quite possible to mistrust Russia profoundly without endorsing Solzhenitsyn’s Spenglerian notion that the West is in decline.

Answering the question, Edward Heath had the good sense to say that Russia was unlikely to do well in Africa. Hubert Humphrey, in his new guise as the man who had always been right about Vietnam, made the same point on a transatlantic hook-up. Heath and Hube the Cube weren’t going to be panicked. The show subsided into a filmed campaign profile on Jimmy Carter, an extremely off-putting Presidential candidate with a Kennedy haircut and a nasty line in showbiz lingo: ‘full of love,’ ‘beautiful,’ ‘compassionate,’ etc. An even less appetising politico called Lester Maddox accused Carter of high-pocrisy.

More Americana on Second House (BBC2), which was very informative about the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, which during the Depression had 40,000 artists on the payroll at $23.86 a week. Some of them were still around to tell Melvyn Bragg the tale. Zero Mostel (‘What are you shaking for, Melvyn?’) opined that big paintings came into fashion because the WPA allocated piece-work rates according to size. The camera enterprisingly toured the sites of some of the surviving murals, which despite a tendency towards massively muscled socialist-realism were surely at least as interesting as the products of the post-war abstract expressionist movement which grew up partly as a reaction.

Meanwhile, back at the latest crisis in Western confidence, The Money Programme (BBC2) was on about Adam Smith, with Bob McKenzie and His Hand-signals chairing an unusually intelligible discussion among economists. The clearest point to emerge was that Smith’s disbelief in planning made sense in a society where the consumer was the sovereign, but that in a society where the producer was the sovereign you had to plan. At least one economist present, though, wouldn’t accept this. Bob’s hand-signals were in great shape but his grip on the language was less sure. Trying to say ‘mental mutilation,’ he first of all said ‘mutual mentalation,’ then said ‘mental mutualation,’ and then gave up.

Now Is Too Late (Yorkshire), a play by Larry Wyce, was high-grade women’s magazine romance, with a nice performance from chummy Felicity Kendal as a wife who rebels against being an ornament. Anton Rodgers was the heavy husband. In The Brothers (BBC1) the harassed Edward immortally shouted: ‘All I want to know is what’s going on!’ Well, for one thing, his brother Brian — the one who came back from the giggle-farm with a moustache — has made an appearance in the new series of Hadleigh (Yorkshire), still with the moustache but calling himself Bill in an American accent.

But the record for being in two places at once was taken by Muhammad Ali, who succeeded in being on both Today (Thames) and Nationwide (BBC1) simultaneously. Needless to say, he too was plugging a book — in tones rather more engaging than Albert Speer’s.

The Observer, 14th March 1976

[ A shorter, edited version of this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]