“He is just like us!” gushed George Ball, a high-level American diplomat, upon meeting Albert Speer shortly after the end of the war. Yes, that Albert Speer—minister of armaments, exploiter of slave-labour, close associate of Goebbels, friend of Hitler.
Nearly forty years after his death, the question about his career that sticks with me is: “How did Speer manage to rehabilitate his reputation to such an extent that he became a wealthy author supported by prominent journalists, historians, and politicians from both sides of the political spectrum?” Surely, his supporters couldn’t have believed him when he denied knowing about the Holocaust. How did they overlook his use of slave labour to keep the German economy going? What was behind their suspension of disbelief?
The self-interest of his audience is a good place to start looking for an answer. Like Speer, a large class of educated professionals had done well out of their service to the state. Speer’s claims that he did not know about the crimes and that he was not really a Nazi provided cover for them and a template for their own self-justification. Mark Falcoff, in reviewing Magnus Brechtken’s Albert Speer, Eine Deutsche Karriere in the October 2020 issue of The New Criterion, notes that “The public and private hierarchies of the Bonn republic were in fact honeycombed with minor replicas of Albert Speer.”
When I think of Speer, I try to reconcile two images. One is of the urbane, charming, almost romantic figure who had been cleansed by his time in Spandau prison. The other is of our former neighbour, Mrs. Skorupa, who had come to Canada as a Displaced Person after the war; she had been one Speer’s multitude of slaves, assigned to work in a munitions factory. Unlike Speer, she did not have the support of the sleek and self-satisfied. And unlike Speer, she did not have the luxury of forgetting about forced labour. But now, with each passing year, the slave-master’s false mask chips and fades while the image of my kind neighbour stands unchanged as a silent witness to evil. I wonder what George Ball would have made of her.