Monday, June 6, 2011

ALBERT SPEER, (1905–1981)

Best-known architect of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist regime.

Albert Speer operated at the intersection of architecture, urbanism, Third Reich political propaganda, and, beginning in 1942, large-scale armaments production and industrial organization. Born on 19 March 1905 in Mannheim, Germany, Speer rose to become one of the key figures in the short-lived but immensely powerful and destructive twelve-year Third Reich. Albert Speer studied under the influential architect and popular professor Heinrich Tessenow at the Charlottenburg Technical University in Berlin, absorbing his teacher’s interest in a restrained neoclassicism. This historical bent, combined with Speer’s considerable charisma and gifts for communication and organization, appealed immensely to the rising dictator Adolf Hitler, himself a frustrated architect inclined toward megalomania in matters architectural as well as political. Speer’s close friendship, or at the very least close professional association with Hitler, began after the death of the Nazi architect Paul Ludwig Troost in 1934; it led to a string of large-scale commissions for Nazi Party rallying grounds and stadia in Nuremberg, along with an outsized, imperial replanning of Berlin as ‘‘Germania,’’ the new capital of the Nazis’ vaunted ‘‘Thousand-Year Reich.’’

Together, Hitler and Speer developed detailed models of a new Berlin city center, complete with a domed Great Hall to accommodate rallies of up to 180,000 people; the quarter-mile-long Reich Chancellery on Vossstrasse (constructed 1937– 1939); projects for an array of new ministries; a gigantic triumphal arch known as ‘‘Bauwerk T’’; and, at the end of a monumental north-south axis through the heart of the city, a new railway station adjacent to the new Tempelhof Airport. Realized only in part, the plans and models nevertheless figured centrally in Hitler’s and Speer’s reconceptualizations of Berlin and Munich as ideal Nazi cities, embodiments of a new German community (Volksgemeinschaft). Among the führer’s and General Building Inspector Speer’s favorite topics of discussion were the ruins left by ancient empires at Karnak and Ur, which in turn inspired plans for the use of huge amounts of marble and granite in Berlin, so that the ‘‘Thousand-Year Reich’’ would one day leave similarly inspiring ruins as well.

Speer’s proximity to the führer, coupled with his organizational talents and political skills, enabled him to rise as a very young man to the pinnacle of power in the Nazi hierarchy. Having successfully maneuvered to succeed Fritz Todt (1891–1942) as minister of armaments production in 1942, at the age of thirty-seven, Speer used German and prisoner-of-war labor to erect monuments, Nazi Party rallying grounds, and industrial buildings throughout the Third Reich while overseeing the Reich’s immense infrastructure and its industrial and military supply chain. Speer, whom Karl Hettlage, one of his subordinates, called a ‘‘rational man par excellence’’ (Sereny, p. 296) credited much of his organizational success to the innovations of Fritz Todt and, before him, to ‘‘the real originator of [the] idea of industrial ‘self-responsibility,’’’ Walther Rathenau (Speer to Rudolf Wolters, 1953; quoted in Sereny, p. 296).

Because of Speer’s polish, sophistication, and qualified admissions of war guilt at the Nuremberg war trials of 1946, he received an unusually lenient sentence of twenty years in jail; many other members of the Nazi leadership were executed for their crimes. From jail in Spandau, near Berlin, Speer released sanitized versions of his immensely readable, informative memoirs. These helped make him an important, if still controversial, celebrity in West Germany right up to his release on 30 September 1966 and his death in 1981. Making the hardly believable claim that he was ignorant to the end about the Nazis’ Final Solution, the genocide of Europe’s Jews, the charming and enigmatic Speer combined the qualities of an haut bourgeois architect and master executive technocrat with the ideological relativism and willingness to compromise that snared so many during the darkest years of modern German history.

Speer’s architectural legacy has been to inoculate many German architects and government authorities against overt expressions of monumental, modern classicism, deemed too close to Hitler’s megalomaniacal visions. In reunified, post–Cold War Berlin, such official projects as Axel Schultes’s and Charlotte Frank’s modernist master plan for the government quarter of the early 1990s, their highly sculptural chancellery building (2000), and Sir Norman Foster’s high-tech renovation of the Reichstag building (1999) reflect this aversion to direct classical quotation. Instead, these buildings express the German government’s ambition to erect modern symbols of a new ‘‘Berlin Republic,’’ leader of a modern European nation that is perceived to be simultaneously open, democratic, and progressive.

Primary Sources Speer, Albert. Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs. Translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston. New York, 1970. ———. Spandau: The Secret Diaries. Translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston. New York, 1976. Secondary Sources Bärnreuther, Andrea. ‘‘Berlin in the Grip of Totalitarian Planning: Functionalism in Urban Design between Hostility to the City, Megalomania and Ideas of Order on a New Scale.’’ In City of Architecture/ Architecture of the City: Berlin 1900–2000, edited by Thorsten Scheer et al., 200–211. Berlin, 2000. Lane, Barbara Miller. Architecture and Politics in Germany, 1918–1945. Cambridge, Mass., 1968. Sereny, Gitta. Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth. London, 1995.

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