Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Reading, memories of father

I’m reading one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. It’s Albert Speer’s “Spandau: The Secret Diaries.”

Speer (1905-1981) was Adolph Hitler’s architect and, from 1942 to 1945, the minister of armaments for the Nazi regime.

“Spandau” is a one-volume compendium drawn from the more than 20,000 pages of “diary notes, authorized letters and smuggled letters, written in the smallest script I could manage, on leaves of calendars, scraps of notepaper, cardboard lids, toilet paper” that Speer managed to send to his wife and children during his 20-year incarceration for war crimes.

Speer came to realize that he was, if there was such a being, Hitler’s closest friend. This haunted him, but it also gave him a strange and unsettling kind of satisfaction.

Speer did not really admire Hitler — or rather he admired him in a very selective way — but he found Hitler hypnotically compelling and there was a side of the Fuhrer he genuinely liked. He did not condone the atrocities. In essence, he made a Faustian bargain with a “great” terrible man.

Speer tacitly agreed to look the other way whenever possible, in exchange for which he would be given architectural and urban design opportunities never before enjoyed by a single individual. “I was 30 when he laid a world at my feet,” Speer wrote in his diary entry for Oct. 2, 1946.

Hard to resist that.

My father, who has been dead more than a dozen years now, was fascinated by World War II, particularly by Hitler. When I was 14, he urged me to read Speer’s “Inside the Third Reich,” which is essentially an autobiography. I read the book because I wanted that exclusive arena of closeness to my father.

There is nothing quite so satisfying as sharing the experience of a great book with someone whose response to that book you know you will prize. I’m not so fond of reading a book together (you read a page aloud, I read a page), but reading the same book at the same time is one of the supreme joys of life.

The life of a reader is essentially a lonely one. There have been hundreds of times when I have been reading a book when, with a sudden inrush, I have wanted to talk with someone about the book — indeed that passage in that book — and there is no one to call. Many, many times I have blurted to a friend, “You have to read this book!” but it almost never happens. Others have instructed me to read such and such a book — with equal futility.

Still, you have to read “Spandau: The Secret Diaries.”

Eager to please my cerebral father, I read Speer’s memoir in earliest adolescence, just at that moment when we are wrestling with the “fallenness” of the world and the gap between what people say and what they actually do, between the world as it is presented to us in civics texts and the world as it really does business.

It was a time of bewilderment to me. My boy’s brain that summer was wrestling with three men: Adolph Hitler, who is our culture’s embodiment of evil; Albert Speer, who exemplifies the problem of character and the problem of ambivalence; and my father, a small town banker with unusual intellectual fascinations.

In the most heartbreaking passage of the diaries, Oct. 14, 1946, Speer imagines the effect his life and now his incarceration will have on his children. They will “want to know how I could have participated in a regime that the entire world feared and despised? They will imply that they will always remain the children of a war criminal.”

Speer was the only major Nazi figure at the Nuremberg war trials to take responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich. He insisted he knew nothing specific about the Nazi program to exterminate the Jews, but at the same time he said he was in a position to know more than he chose to know.

He got a comparatively light sentence — 20 years. Many others received life sentences, and the principal surviving Nazi leaders were hanged in the same prison where Speer was beginning his long sentence. On the day of the executions, Oct. 16, 1946, Speer wrote, “Now the thought of that fills me with something akin to envy: It’s all over for them. I still have to face 20 years. Yesterday I tried to imagine myself leaving prison after two decades, an old man.”

The dangerous thing about Hitler is that he had an entrancing effect on people who knew better. He still does. I know a number of people who are fascinated with the swastika, the Nazi regime, the SS and the Gestapo, and — principally — Hitler, to the point that it feels a little icky. They swear that their interest is purely “academic,” but one senses that that is not quite true.

William Shirer, the author of the monumental “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” spent time in Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, before the outbreak of the war. He attended several of the great party rallies at Nuremberg. Those rallies, by the way, were designed by Speer.

You’ve seen them in the old black and white films: the giant flags and banners, the monumental architecture, tens of thousands of young “Aryan” men goose stepping in perfect synchronization, the heroic columns of light. And, at the rostrum, the fiercely gesticulating Hitler modulating his voice up and down the scale of violence from calm “analysis” of the world situation to slavering diatribes against the “stab in the back,” America (“a mongrel race”), and of course international Jewry.

Shirer, who was born in Iowa, regarded Hitler as a fraud and a mountebank who somehow got control of one of the world’s most civilized nations. He dismissed “Mein Kampf,” which he read carefully, as a pathetic tissue of racism, illogic, jingoism, special pleading, self-love, ungrammatical writing and megalomania.

And yet, Shirer confessed, at the big Nuremberg rallies before the war, in spite of his capacity to see the vulgar gangster behind the theatrical hypnotist, he nevertheless found himself mesmerized by Hitler. This made Shirer extremely upset with himself.

Speer was another highly intelligent person who could not quite decide what to make of Hitler.

On Feb. 10, 1947, Speer wrote the following riveting and troubling paragraph. “People (Nazis in the prison) are increasingly representing Hitler as a dictator given to raging uncontrollably and biting the rug even on slight pretexts. This seems to me a false and dangerous course. If the human features are going to be missing from the portrait of Hitler, if his persuasiveness, his engaging characteristics, and even the Austrian charm he could trot out are left out of the reckoning, no faithful picture of him will be achieved.”

That’s the kind of passage I would like to sit down with my father to discuss.

(Clay Jenkinson is the director of the Dakota Institute. He is also the Theodore Roosevelt Scholar-in-residence at Dickinson State University. He lives in Bismarck.

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