THE MEMOIRS of Albert Speer have received favorable, even enthusiastic notices in the English and American press, and the first question to ask is why, after 25 years, anyone still cares to read about the in-fighting among Hitler’s top lieutenants, or about his megalomanic building plans, or about the effects of allied bombing on German industrial output. There probably are people of Speer’s and my generation who wallow in reliving again the experience that took the best years of their lives. Such readers are interested in finding a Nazi who is literate, thoughtful, and repentant. But they ought to know that it was the American publisher who insisted that Speer must come to grips with the Jewish question.
Speer claims that in 1931, when he joined the Nazi party at the age of 26, he was not aware that Hitler was a “rabid anti-Semite.” He had heard him and Goebbels speak once, but had not read Mein Kampf. He had engaged in political discussions with fellow students and was aware that “in order to become respectable,” the Nazis had tuned down their “socialist” rhetoric, the feature most distasteful to Speer’s middle-class family. Possessed of such political sophistication and confronted with the highly politicized atmosphere at the Berlin Institute for Technology, where he was an assistant, Speer, we are asked to believe, failed to notice that by 1931 Hitler had only two whipping boys: the Treaty of Versailles and the Jews. Or so Speer has convinced himself 40 years after the event.
Without doubting the sincerity of the author’s contrition, I call to witness my own memory of the time: there were two Nazi dailies on display at Berlin newsstands, with banner headlines proclaiming the brave deeds of their goon squads; Hitler himself, called to testify at the trial of some S.A. murderers, had sanctioned political assassination. At Speer’s Institute, Jewish students and professors were being molested. And Speer found all this embarrassing enough so that he concealed his conversion from his parents.