On April 30, 1945, as Soviet troops fought toward the Reich Chancellery in Berlin in street-to-street combat, Adolf Hitler put a gun to his head and fired. Berlin quickly surrendered and World War II in Europe was effectively over. Yet Hitler’s chosen successor, Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, decamped with others of the Nazi Party faithful to northern Germany and formed the Flensburg Government.
As Allied troops and the U.N. War Crimes Commission closed in on Flensburg, one Nazi emerged as a man of particular interest: Albert Speer, the brilliant architect, minister of armaments and war production for the Third Reich and a close friend to Hitler. Throughout World War II, Speer had directed an “armaments miracle,” doubling Hitler’s production orders and prolonging the German war effort while under relentless Allied air attacks. He did this through administrative genius and by exploiting millions of slave laborers who were starved and worked to death in his factories.
Speer arrived in Flensburg aware that the Allies were targeting Nazi leaders for war-crimes trials. He—like many other Nazi Party members and SS officers—concluded that he could expect no mercy once captured. Unlike them, he did not commit suicide.
The hunt for Albert Speer was unusual. The U.N. War Crimes Commission was determined to bring him to justice, but a U.S. government official hoped to reach the Nazi technocrat first. A former investment banker named Paul Nitze, who was then vice chairman of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, believed it was imperative to get to Speer. As the war in Europe was winding down, the Americans were hoping that strategic bombing in Japan could end the war in the Pacific. But in order to achieve that, they hoped to learn more about how Germany had maintained its war machine while withstanding heavy bombing. Thus Nitze needed Speer. In May 1945, the race was on to capture and interrogate one of Hitler’s most notorious henchmen.
Just after Hitler’s death, President Donitz and his cabinet took up residence at the Naval Academy at Murwik, overlooking the Flensburg Fjord. On his first evening in power, the new leader gave a nationwide radio address; though he knew German forces could not resist Allied advances, he promised his people that Germany would continue to fight. He also appointed Speer his minister of industry and production.
On May 15, American forces arrived in Flensburg and got to Speer first. Nitze arrived at Glucksburg Castle, where Speer was being held, along with the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who was also working for the Strategic Bombing Survey, and a team of interpreters and assistants. They interrogated Speer for seven straight days, during which he talked freely with the Americans, taking them through what he termed “bombing high school.” Each morning Speer, dressed in a suit, would pleasantly answer questions with what struck his questioners as remarkable candor—enough candor that Nitze and his associates dared not ask what Speer knew of the Holocaust, out of fear that his mood might change. Speer knew his best chance to survive was to cooperate and seem indispensable to the Americans, and his cooperation had a strange effect on his interrogators. One of them said he “evoked in us a sympathy of which we were all secretly ashamed.”
He demonstrated an unparalleled understanding of the Nazi war machine. He told Nitze how he had reduced the influence of the military and the Nazi Party in decision-making, and how he had followed Henry Ford’s manufacturing principles to run the factories more efficiently. He told his interrogators why certain British and American air attacks had failed and why others had been effective. He explained how he’d traveled around Germany to urge his workers on in speeches he later termed “delusional,” because he already knew the war was lost.
In March 1945, he said, with the end in sight, Hitler had called for a “scorched earth” plan (his “Nero Decree”) to destroy any industrial facilities, supply depots, military equipment or infrastructure that might be valuable to advancing enemy forces. Speer said he was furious and disobeyed Hitler’s orders, transferring his loyalty from der Fuhrer to the German people and the future of the nation.
After a week, Nitze received a message from a superior: “Paul, if you’ve got any further things you want to find out from Speer you’d better get him tomorrow.” The Americans were planning on arresting the former minister of armaments and war production, and he would no longer be available for interrogation. Nitze did have something else he wanted to find out from Speer: He wanted to know all about Hitler’s last days in the bunker, since Speer was among the last men to meet with him. According to Nitze, Speer “leaned over backwards” to help, pointing the Americans to where they could find records of his reports to Hitler—many of which were held in a safe in Munich. Nitze said Speer “gave us the keys to the safe and combination, and we sent somebody down to get these records.” But Speer was evasive, Nitze thought, and not credible when he claimed no knowledge of the Holocaust or war crimes against Jews laboring in his factories.
“It became evident right away that Speer was worried he might be declared a war criminal,” Nitze later said. On May 23, British and American officials called for a meeting with Flensburg government cabinet members aboard the ship Patria and had them all arrested. Tanks rolled up to Glucksburg Castle, and heavily armed troops burst into Speer’s bedroom to take him away. “So now the end has come,” he said. “That’s good. It was all only kind of an opera anyway.”
Nitze, Galbraith and the men from the bombing survey moved on. In September 1945, Speer was informed that he would be charged with war crimes and incarcerated pending trial at Nuremberg, along with more than 20 other surviving members of the Nazi high command. The series of military tribunals beginning in November 1945 were designed to show the world that the mass crimes against humanity by German leaders would not go unpunished.
As films from concentration camps were shown as evidence, and as witnesses testified to the horrors they endured at the hands of the Nazis, Speer was observed to have tears in his eyes. When he took the stand, he insisted that he had no knowledge of the Holocaust, but the evidence of slave labor in his factories was damning. Speer apologized to the court and claimed responsibility for the slave labor, saying he should have known but did not. He was culpable, he said, but he insisted he had no knowledge of the crimes. Later, to show his credentials as a “good Nazi” and to distance himself from his co-defendants, Speer would claim that he’d planned to kill Hitler two years before by dropping a poison gas canister into an air intake in his bunker. On hearing that, the other defendants laughed in the courtroom.
In the fall of 1946, most of the Nazi elites at Nuremberg were sentenced either to death or to life in prison. Speer received 20 years at Spandau Prison in Berlin, where he was known as prisoner number 5. He read continuously, tended a garden and, against prison rules, wrote the notes for what would become bestselling books, including Inside the Third Reich. There was no question that Speer’s contrition in court, and perhaps his cooperation with Nitze, saved his life.
After serving the full 20 years, Speer was released in 1966. He grew wealthy, lived in a cottage in Heidelberg, West Germany, and cultivated his image as a “good Nazi” who had spoken candidly about his past. But questions about Speer’s truthfulness began to dog him soon after his release. In 1971, Harvard University’s Erich Goldhagen alleged that Speer had been aware of the extermination of Jews, based on evidence that Speer had attended a Nazi conference in 1943 at which Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s military commander, had spoken openly about “wiping the Jews from the face of the earth.” Speer admitted that he’d attended the conference but said he had left before Himmler gave his infamous “Final Solution” speech.
Speer died in a London hospital in 1981. His legacy as an architect was ephemeral: None of his buildings, including the Reich Chancellery or the Zeppelinfeld stadium, are standing today. Speer’s legacy as a Nazi persists. A quarter-century after his death, a collection of 100 letters emerged from his ten-year correspondence with Helene Jeanty, the widow of a Belgian resistance leader. In one of the letters, Speer admitted that he had indeed heard Himmler’s speech about exterminating the Jews. “There is no doubt—I was present as Himmler announced on October 6 1943 that all Jews would be killed,” Speer wrote. “Who would believe me that I suppressed this, that it would have been easier to have written all of this in my memoirs?”
Books: Nicholas Thompson, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War, Henry Holt and Company, 2009. Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany, Simon & Schuster, 2006. Dan Van Der Vat, The Good Nazi: The Life and Lies of Albert Speer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1997.
Articles: “Letter Proves Speer Knew of Holocaust Plan,” By Kate Connolly, The Guardian, March 12, 2007. “Wartime Reports Debunk Speer as the Good Nazi,” By Kate Connolly, The Guardian, May 11, 2005. “Paul Nitze: Master Strategist of the Cold War,” Academy of Achievement, http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/nit0int-5. ”Speer on the Last Days of the Third Reich,” USSBS Special Document, http://library2.lawschool.cornell.edu/donovan/pdf/Batch_14/Vol_CIV_51_01_03.pdf. “The Long Arm of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey,” by Rebecca Grant, Air Force Magazine, February, 2008.
Film: Nazi Hunters: The Real Hunt for Hitler’s Henchmen, The “Good” Nazi? History Channel, 2010, Hosted by Alisdair Simpson