The career of Albert Speer, architect of Hitler’s unbuildable capital Germania (and of the Nazi war effort), is reviewed in Reputations
The best story I know about Albert Speer is why he became architect of the Third Reich in the first place: because he had a car. That and the fact that before he joined the Nazi party in 1931 he had to walk around a forest all night to think about it. The first is very practical, the second all very Sturm und Drang. Both in his family and in his studies Speer wasn’t considered very good. He was bullied by his two brothers and ignored by his father, also an architect. You can imagine this most fretful of psychological backgrounds. However, Speer persevered, lacking in esteem, but craving it, buried in both self-loathing and ambition. Once he joined the party Speer had the only car in the Berlin Wannsee section. The embryonic Nazi hierarchy needed a reliable taxi service. Speer was suddenly assigned as ‘Motorised SS’. Taxi drivers like to chat. The rest is history. Never has the phrase ‘be careful what you wish for’ proved more rueful.
A third incident illustrates his next nudge up the ladder, along with that absurd Nazi deferral to assumed rank. Speer was on site, managing his builders; Hitler came by, naturally taking an interest, and chatted with the architect for a while, then said ‘Come to lunch upstairs!’ and Speer replied ‘But I haven’t got a jacket!’ to which Hitler simply offered his own. So Speer walked in to lunch with all the other Nazi dignitaries wearing Hitler’s jacket. Speer took his place beside Hitler at the table. From then on, Speer was Hitler’s master builder.
In a meteoric rise, Speer was made German Inspector General of Construction at the age of 31, but Hitler was the looming architect manqué. Speer built huge models of Hitler’s dreams almost direct from Hitler’s sketches, delivering them as presents with undeniable love. In photographs, we see Hitler kneeling at these huge models pondering each imaginary vista populated by model soldiers. We hear of excitable, torchlit excursions across the gardens to Speer’s studios. But Speer was first and foremost deadly efficient at managing building work, completing each task to seemingly impossible deadlines, and even employing competing building firms at the same time so that work could progress faster (4,500 workers in two shifts on the Reich Chancellery in 1938). In this sense he is a Modernist, just as the architecture (in the deepest sense) of the Third Reich is Modernist; a machine for human annihilation. The concentration camps are factories, after all, with their logic just as ruthless.
As architecture Speer’s creations are largely unbuilt, or rather obviously came down almost as quickly as they went up. We have a physical legacy of premature and not so picturesque ruins in Nuremberg, we have a pile of rubble for the Reich Chancellery (the Soviets not agreeing about agreeable ruins), some streetlights around Tiergarten, and most bizarrely some interiors of the Royal Society (which used to be the German Embassy) in Carlton House Terrace. Unbuilt we have the Great Hall about which the less said the better (although since 75,000 Jews were evacuated from their homes just to clear the site we realise it’s improbable Speer could genuinely divorce himself from the Holocaust) and the Reichsmarschall Palace which appropriately looks like half-starved Baroque.
Institute of Technology, Munich
Third Reich Chief Architect
1942-45 Reich Minister for Armaments and War Production
New Reich Chancellery
‘Cathedral of Light’ luminescent architecture using searchlights Zeppelin Field
Joined the Nazi party in 1931 Nuremburg Party Rally arena model won the Grand Prix at the 1937 Paris World Fair
Planned synthetic oil production for (relatively) secure fuel supply
‘One seldom recognises the devil when he has his hand on your shoulder’
Speer ended up, not surprisingly, as a very efficient Minister of Armaments and War Production by 1943. Everybody knows under his control and against all odds, German arms production miraculously rose, only to be undone by Allied might, and by lack of men and oil. As to the architect’s architectural capabilities, even if you are prepared to consider the Reich Chancellery an excellent composition, Barnum meets the Ancients, Albert Speer stepped right into the boots of Paul Troost, a neo-Classicist who Hitler deferred to as Herr Professor. Troost met an untimely demise in 1934, but his Munich House of German Art (completed 1937) still exudes a certain leaden doom. Speer didn’t do Berlin Tempelhof airport either (that was Ernst Sagebiel) with its daring neo-Classical prefabrication, even though Speer is often associated with it. Sagebiel also did the surviving Air Ministry.
Instead Speer shows virtuosity in technocratic organisation. Heinrich Tessenow is often mistakenly blamed, but he was personally more inclined to communism, and denounced his pupil Speer. Tessenow seems to have had the touch to make classicism light, cool, calm and humane in the early modern era, exemplified in his Music Academy in Hellerau, and occupies the passable wing of the neo-Classical revival of the ’80s, where Giorgio Grassi would rehabilitate Tessenow; and Leon Krier, Speer. Despite this, if you listened to Peter Blundell Jones, all you could see when you looked at Speer’s plans for Germania was still that putrid celebration of mythological sacrifice and death that lay at the heart of Nazism. With the ghastly mythology came spectacle, propaganda, film and searchlights. This makes Speer relevant again. Speer’s sequestering of the Air Ministry’s supply of searchlights for the Cathedral of Light at the 1937 Nuremberg rally was as inspired as it was scary, and with it, he represents a warning. As does Gitta Sereny’s exhaustive book Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, published in 1995. The title and length suggests she finds Speer somewhat enigmatic. This enigma is largely down to the fact that at the Nuremberg Trials he argued, uniquely, for his share of collective responsibility which others refuted. In doing so he appeared almost a victim. A media sensation on release from Spandau in 1966, he appeared in the canonical TV series The World at War, pleading at least that he prevented, or subverted, Hitler’s demonic scorched earth policy in the last days of the Western front.
The question of evil aside (after all, you do not blame the desk designer for what is written at the desk), attempts to rehabilitate Speer have been mysterious. In a fit of the highest contrariness, Leon Krier claimed he was the greatest architect of the century. Krier produced a now rare (and therefore expensive), but actually rather meagre volume in this defence. But today, along the suffocating miles of German architectural bookshelves, you will still find no popular monograph. Suave to the end, Speer did let his guard down at least once. A probing Robert Hughes asked him which contemporary architects he thought might work happily for tyrants. Speer answered that he was an admirer of Philip Johnson, and inscribed a book for Hughes to deliver personally. Johnson was at that time building his own versions of horrific bombast all over the downtowns of the United States. Only one year younger than Speer, Johnson had also unashamedly claimed that architects were ‘whores’ and would/should work for anybody. He even harboured his own nasty little Nazi secrets.
Overall, as a consequence of Speer’s reputation, stripped classicism has not fared well other than in Scandinavia and the town halls of metropolitan London. David Chipperfield has elegantly deferred to it and Krier espoused it, but you trip over so many damning reports of Poundbury that it is almost comic. However, beyond style (for here classicism is just a style), Speer anticipates the most efficient and cynical of operatives in the corporate architectural business.
Illustration by Jonathan Farr