Book Review—"Inside the Third Reich"—A Cautionary Tale
When “Inside the Third Reich” by Albert Speer, arrived in bookstores in 1970, the Vietnam war was raging unabated. In an interview with Speer, published in Playboy Magazine at the time, Speer was asked to comment on whether or not the United States was guilty of crimes against humanity and crimes of aggressive warfare. Speer refused. He said: “I will not comment directly on the rights and wrongs of Vietnam or any contemporary war, because my own guilt for the horrors of World War Two is much too great to allow me to smugly sit back and pass judgement on others. But I would comment indirectly by saying that the lessons of Nazi Germany and World War Two apply to all nations and all wars. The main reason I wrote my memoirs was not to rehash history but to hold the past up to present and future generations as a mirror in which they may behold similar seeds of destruction in themselves.”
It's comments like these that makes Speer's book so very valuable: it’s a cautionary tale. Speer, who rose to become Hitler's second in command, did not set out to become a monster. But because of his unbridled ambition, and his willingness to close his eyes to the evil and corruption of the Nazi party, from Hitler on down, he ended up being held accountable for monstrous deeds. “If I had to draw one single lesson from the horrors of World War Two, it would be not to depersonalize your enemy. Once this happens—whether it is a case of Nazi and Jew, Communist and capitalist or black and white—the great crimes are not only feasible but inevitable.” In light of today’s events, he could have added Christian and Muslim. It seems hatred burns as brightly today as it did then, resulting in continued human atrocities, though not on the scale of Nazi Germany.
Albert Speer began as a lowly architect for the Nazi party, designing displays for party functions, and rose to become Hitler’s architect, with a commission to design Germania, an orgiastic delight for a megalomania like Hitler, with dome, arch and boulevard on a grand scale, to trump anything like them in the world. The photos inside the book of scale models of these grand structure are startling. Says Speer: “Their proportions were alien, inhuman, reflecting the coldness and inhumanity of the Nazi system. ‘I am building for eternity,’ Hitler used to tell me, and that was true. But he was never building for people.” Speer adds: “There was an ultimate coldness about Hitler. I never met anyone else with whom I felt this sense of something missing, this impression that at the core of his being there was just a deadness.”
With an eye for detail and a tremendous capacity for work (14 and even 16 hour days were common) Speer was elevated to Minister of Armaments, second in power only to Hitler. At an airplane plant in Dessau, Speer was shown a comparative graph of projected German and American bomber production over the following three years. The figures were overwhelmingly in favor of the Americans. It was a foretaste of things to come, overwhelming American military superiority that would destroy the Nazi war machine. Hitler refused to believe it. “The Americans are a mongrel race, sapped of creative vitality. . . .” Like everything else about Hitler, it was pure delusion, especially coming from someone who had never set foot in an American factory, or in America itself.
About the Nazi leaders: “From the moment they assumed power and got their hands on the state treasury, they lined their own pockets, amassing personal fortunes, profiteering from government contracts, building huge palaces and country villas with public funds, indulging in a lavish life style more suited to the (Italian) Borgias than to self-styled revolutionaries.
"(Herman) Goering was a thief on a grand scale, looting museums and art collections of Europe for his private hoards. (Martin) Borman was either at your feet or at your throat, the worst type of peasant, with the worst type of peasant cunning; he knew how to fool people into believing he was an insignificant and trustworthy aid of the Fuehrer, while all the time he was building up his own private empire. Joseph Goebbles (pronounced "Gerbles') wanted to sweep away the existing order and replace it with a socialist utopia. During the war, he said that the greatest mistake we had made was not joining up with Stalin and the Communists to jointly crush the West, and he pointed out the similarities between our ideologies. He used to say that ex-Communists made the best Nazis.”
Besides offering an insight into the madness of Nazi leadership, Speer also tells how America bombing of German cities was highly ineffective, and indeed hardened the resistance of the German people. Also, that Hitler believed strongly in “providence,” or what he thought of as providence, a mysterious force that enabled him to overcome huge odds and rise to power, and to achieve his initial and devastating victories against the West. But like the evil characters in Shakespeare’s plays, who goad leaders into performing cruel and malicious acts only to abandon them in their hour of need, Hitler’s confidence in “providence” led to absurd and disastrous decisions that led to his downfall.
“The ideological differences that divide mankind today are, when seen in historical perspective,” writes Speer, “as transient and evanescent as the religious quarrels of the 16th and 17th centuries; the difference is that in the 20th Century, man has the power to totally destroy the race or nation he views as the enemy.” Speer adds: “If Adolph Hitler had possessed a button that would destroy the entire world, he would have pressed it in the end. Today, there are such buttons. . . .”
Speer had much to answer for in the Nuremberg trials. He avoided the hangman’s noose due to his effort to ease the suffering of slave laborers, and his measures taken to stop Hitler’s scorched-earth policy that saved countless (German) lives. As it was, he spent 20-years in Spandau Prison. “So many people expect me to offer justification for what I did,” Speer said, who died in 1981. “I cannot. There is no apology or excuse I can ever make. The blood is on my hands. I have not tried to wash it off—only to see it.”
I read this book in 1975, and find it as relevant to today’s world of continued racial and religious hatred, war and violence. The writing is clear, the story compelling, the lessons are timeless.