Ignoring the Obvious

Albert Speer did very bad things. Although you’ve probably never heard of Speer, at one time he was Hitler’s chief architect and second most powerful man in the Reich.

But that’s not why he’s interesting.

Speer is one of the few Nazi elite not to be hanged after the Nuremberg trials. In fact, Speer was outspoken about Hitler’s regime and willing to accept responsibility for his role. In the words of Margaret Heffernan, “The hard part for Speer was seeing what it was that he took responsibility for.”

Speer’s biographer, Gitta Sereny, said “Speer didn’t see anything he didn’t want to see. I think he would have liked to have that capacity, but he just didn’t. Speer was in fact a highly talented man, highly intelligent, but studied obliviousness was his defense. And the defence was there because he somehow knew there was something wrong.”

How could Speer be so blind?

In her book, Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, Sereny chronicles how Speer was willfully blind to the full horror of his past actions. In the words of one observer, “Sereny probes Speer’s culpability with more rigor than it received at the Nurember trials.” Ultimately, Sereny discovers, Speer’s love for Hitler blinded him.

“In the early years, Speer is very hung up on Hitler—and in a very personal way,” she said. “It’s something quite apart from politics. It is more of a father-son feeling. Speer found that difficult to give up; he depended on it. He needed it to feel whole.”

Speer’s first meeting with Hitler in 1933 was something close to a master class in influence.

“Can you imagine this,” said Speer. “Here I was, young, unknown, and totally unimportant, and this great man, for whose attention—just for one glance—our whole world competed, said to me, “Come and have lunch.’ I thought I’d faint.”

As a function of his role as an architect, Speer's coat was dusty. Hitler, upon noticing, lent him one of his own.

“Can you conceive what I felt?” Speer asked again. “Here I was twenty-eight years old, totally insignificant in my own eyes, sitting next to him at lunch, wearing his clothes and elected—at least that day—as virtually his sole conversation partner. I was dizzy with excitement.”

But it wasn’t just Hitler’s power and authority that enveloped Speer; Hitler, the master of influence, saw more in the mediocre architect than he saw in himself. And Speer was given more important commissions for the new Reich, confirming that Hitler believed him to be talented, important, and artistic—all of the things Speer longed to be and, up until this point, others had failed to see.

“He saw himself as Hitler’s son,” said Sereny. “All of his chances, his opportunities, came to him through Hitler. He liked Hitler and he loved Hitler—and it was reciprocated. Hitler really loved Speer and Speer grew to love Hitler. The thing is, the people around Hitler became what he wanted them to be.”

Heffernan, in her book Willfully Blind, wrote “With his own identity so entirely dependent, nothing critical of Hitler could ever be allowed to impinge on Speer’s consciousness. He saw pools of blood near one of his building sites. One of the architects in his practice resigned after Kristallnacht.” But says Speer, “my mind was on other things.”

When the Jews were being evacuated from Berlin in 1941, Speer wrote about “a feeling of unease, a foreboding of dark events.” How could someone be so uneasy if he knew nothing, Sereny wondered.

“By that time,” Sereny wrote, “I was very familiar with that sudden sharp look from under those thick black eyebrows when he sensed disbelief. It was not only his look which became both hooded and guarded; his voice on the whole invariably quiet could also suddenly change. ‘I was blind by choice,’ he said coldly, ‘but I was not ignorant.’”

As time went on, Speer’s blindness and ignorance became increasingly difficult to sustain. No longer designing memorials for the thousand-year Reich, he occupied himself with arming Germany and ensuring the lubrication of the war machine. “In appointing him to this position,” Heffernan writes, “Hitler had identified Speer’s true genius: which was not as an architect but as a manager and administrator. But just as Speer discovered his true talents, they embroiled him in atrocities. Now he was spending more time with Hitler’s inner circle, privy to conversations about the Jews.

“This is when,” Speer says, “I should have begun to realize what was happening. This was the point, I now think, when, had I wanted to, I could have detected hints.”

When Sereny asked Speer about what he would have done had he known about the Final Solution, he replied “don’t you know that this is a question I have asked myself a million times, continuously hoping that i would be able to give myself an answer I could live with? My answer to myself is always the same,” he said, his voice dark and hoarse, “I would somehow have gone on trying to help that man win his war.”

Sereney says Speer’s moral corruption “had its seed in his emotional attachment to Hitler—he likened it to Faust’s fatal bargain with Mephitopheles. Achievement and success rooting in ever deeper over the years, he lived—almost addictively—in an increasingly vicious cycle of need and dependence.”

Sereny says “Not knowing, that’s fine. Ignorance is easy. Knowing can be hard but at least it is real, it is the truth. The worst is when you don’t want to know—because then it must be something very bad.”

As Colm O’Gorman said, we make ourselves powerless when we pretend we don’t know. Heffernan concludes, “That’s the paradox of blindness: we think it will make us safe even as it puts us in danger.“

Want to learn more about Speer? Read Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth.

This adapted from Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril.