The Deceptions of Albert Speer: Shifting Shapes of a Holocaust Perpetrator

“I want to also mention a very difficult subject … before you, with complete candor,” Heinrich Himmler began. “I am talking about the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people. It is one of those things that is easily said. ‘The Jewish people is being exterminated,’ every Party member will tell you, ‘perfectly clear, it’s part of our plans, we’re eliminating the Jews, exterminating them, a small matter.’”[1] While the Holocaust was already ongoing and familiar to Party elites, Himmler’s words at Posen were an exceptionally explicit admission of the Nazi state’s plan to wipe out the Jewish people. It pinned responsibility not only on those carrying it out, but on the political class who knew of and in many cases ordered it. Among that political class was Albert Speer. Speer may have protested that he did not know of the genocide. He might have said that Hitler deceived him, that he was complicit in the Holocaust only in that he supported Nazism like all of Hitler’s regime had and failed to ask what had happened to the Jews of Germany. But, regardless of the exonerating narrative he so carefully constructed, Speer was a perpetrator. He signed off on and possibly even spearheaded the expansion of Auschwitz.[2] He visited Mauthausen’s quarry where broken souls were worked to death.[3] And he was there at Posen listening as Himmler described the extermination of the Jews.[4]

Speer underwent a project of exoneration aimed at minimizing his perpetrator status by adopting qualities of contrition, disobedience, and ignorance intended to distract from his personal role in the Holocaust while distinguishing himself from other perpetrators. To demonstrate this claim, we will first observe how his rhetoric of responsibility evades his specific perpetrating actions and separates him from other perpetrators. Next, we will discuss how Speer’s assertion of the collective manipulation of the German people allows him to conflate his specific participation in the Nazi regime with indirect complicity of Germany’s populace. Finally, we will show how Speer adds confusion to his perpetrator status by incorporating elements of witness and rescuer narratives into a readable self.

Central to Speer’s testimony at Nuremburg and his later autobiographical writings are admissions of generalized guilt for the actions of the Nazis designed to distract from questions of his personal role in events. Speer writes, “What mattered more to me was to assert my collective responsibility for all the measures of Hitler.”[5] At Nuremberg he says, “Who else is to be held responsible for the course of events, if not the closest associates around the Chief of State? But this collective responsibility can only apply to fundamental matters and not to details… Even in an authoritarian system this collective responsibility of the leaders must exist.”[6] These calls for “collective responsibility” serve two functions in Speer’s construction of an exonerated self. First, they camouflage the specifics of his perpetrator status behind a veil of generalized fault. Speer even says as much when he writes that collective responsibility can only apply to “fundamental matters.” He admits to the general charge of wrongdoing while avoiding stating exactly what he did wrong. This allows him to construct a readable self that possesses an attitude of contrition and minimal perpetrator status. The second function of assuming collective responsibility is for Speer to distinguish himself from his fellow perpetrators. Whereas Hermann Göring remained defiant throughout his trial, maintaining ignorance about concentration camps while continually whitewashing Hitler, Speer’s assumption of collective responsibility allows him to cloak his statements of similar ignorance in apology, presenting a humanized self garnering enough sympathy from those judging him that he could avoid the death sentence handed to the shameless and argumentative Göring.

Of course, even as Speer claims generalized responsibility to minimize his perpetrator status, his narrative maintains a common quality with other perpetrators in its use of self-victimization. Near the beginning of his memoir, Speer laments about failures in educating and the political indifference of his generation, writing,

…a whole generation was without defenses when exposed to the new techniques for influencing opinion… political indifference was characteristic of the youth…, tired and disillusioned… by a lost war, revolution, and inflation; but it prevented me from forming political standards, from setting up categories on which political judgements could be based.[7]

Speer’s claim that he was part of a generational naivety and lack of informed political principles is consistent with other perpetrator narratives, where it is common for autobiographers to plead that they were uneducated, uninformed, and/or deceived. His focus on his generation’s disillusionment by “a lost war, revolution, and inflation” also plays on the common trope of perpetrators considering themselves victims of circumstance. However, Speer’s invocation self-victimization in this passage is notably subtle. Rather than saying that he himself was victimized and radicalized by the crises of his age, Speer acknowledges his privileged background and relative insulation from common struggles. Speer’s claim to victim status comes from a generalized assertion that his entire generation was victimized and shaped by the crises he was insulated from, and that his disposition was shaped by that of his peers. Speer’s illustration of generational ignorance as the prevailing factor in his personal ignorance reflects a self-ing process in which Speer distracts from his perpetrator status by conflating his specific role as a war criminal involved in the Holocaust with the broad, overarching complicity of the German population, thus minimizing his extraordinary degree of participation.

A final way in which Speer minimizes and confuses his perpetrator status is by incorporating qualities common to other kinds of autobiographical narratives. The most common of his manufactured qualities are those of a witness. He recounts a conversation Karl Hanke, his friend, in 1944: “He advised me never to accept an invitation to inspect a concentration camp in Upper Silesia… He had seen something which he was not permitted to describe and moreover could not describe.” Speer continues by saying that he never asked any questions and using that inaction to appeal to his aforementioned “collective responsibility” for Auschwitz.[8] Speer’s plea of ignorance, even if he admits it was willful, is a common perpetrator quality. But it also distinguishes him as a witness to the genocidal activities of others rather than the perpetrator of Auschwitz he actually was. Thus, his deflection towards a witness narrative remains largely in line with the qualities of a perpetrator narrative, but with added details that minimize his role. Speer adopts a different method of disassociating from more obvious perpetrators by incorporating rescuer qualities into his narrative. Throughout his memoirs, he portrays himself as an internal resistor of Hitler, the most obvious instance of this being Speer’s blatant lie that he concocted a plot to kill the Führer with poison gas.[9] Of the camps in particular, he says had he gotten his wish for more people to be allocated as slaves to his factories, he would have unintentionally ensured that more people survived.[10] Speer’s assumption of rescuer qualities, in the former case those of a resistor to Hitlerism and in the latter those of a literal rescuer of victims, confuses and distracts from his perpetrator status by disassociating him from other Hitlerites while constructing a version of himself who is minimally involved and retrospectively sympathetic towards those he victimized.

It is clear that Speer uses deceptive tactics to present a readable narrative tailored toward exoneration that distracts from its perpetrator qualities. His primary method of doing so is by presenting a self accepting of collective accountability, allowing him to hide his personal accountability and distinguish himself from other perpetrators. In addition, Speer clouds his unique involvement in Nazi crimes by framing himself as a product of the times and a victim of circumstance in a manner reminiscent of other perpetrators. Finally, Speer confuses his perpetrator status by incorporating elements of witness and rescuer narratives.

Speer’s manipulation of autobiographical narratives to present a readable self exonerated from explicit participation in the Holocaust leaves questions about Speer’s understanding of his actual self as an autobiographer. This has interesting implications for the self-ing process and its relationship with authenticity. To what degree can an edited, readable self be distinguished from a manufactured self? In other words, is it possible for an autobiographer such as Speer with clear incentives to construct a persona based around contrition to create a readable self that is fundamentally contradictory to the actual self? Granting that Speer’s readable self exaggerates his disloyalty towards Hitler in the latter half of the Second World War, was it or would it have been possible for Speer to maintain that construction while his actual self remained a shameless supporter of National Socialism? These questions are difficult to answer given how little is known of Speer’s actual attitudes during and after the war and his unreliability as an narrator. But exploring how much of Albert Speer is lies, how much is truth, and how much is neither of the above may provide surprising avenues for understanding Holocaust autobiography.

[1] Himmler, Heinrich. Translated by Stephane Bruchfeld, Gordon McFee, and Ulrich Rössler. Himmler’s Posen Speech – “Extermination”. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. Accessed May 21, 2021.

[2] “SPIEGEL’s Daily Take: Speer’s Hidden Hand at Auschwitz.” SPIEGEL International. SPIEGEL Gruppe, May 10, 2005.

[3] Pike, David W. Spaniards in the Holocaust: Mauthausen, Horror on the Danube, 340. Google Books. Illustrated ed. Routledge, 2003.

[4] Connolly, Kate. “Letter Proves Speer Knew of Holocaust Plan.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, March 13, 2007.

[5] Speer, Albert. Inside The Third Reich, 516. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1970.

[6] Ibid., 86

[7] Ibid., 8

[8] Ibid., 375-376

[9] Ibid., 429, 517

[10] Ibid., 375

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