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Speer’s battle with freedom

Gitta Sereny, the dark chronicler of Nazi Germany, spent many hours in conversation and correspondence with Albert Speer, the organisational genius of that regime. From this sprang her study of immorality, dishonour and ambiguous redemption, “Albert Speer: His battle with truth“. Gitta Sereny’s mother was also the wife of Von Mises from 1938. This connection sprang to life when Abert Speer sent her a clipping in 1977. The clipping was an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on the theories of Von Mises.

Manfred von Poser recalled that Speer had two strong beliefs: a maximum of individual initiative at the expense of state power and a European Community. Whilst the latter may have been expressed in some dark, racialist principle, the former was stillborn within Speer’s thoughts and actions. It is pointless to ask if Speer was a libertarian: since these are principles arrived at through understanding freedom in all its forms, not the inchoate grasping of a malformed mind that understands the damage caused by the state he supported and the evil that it perpetrated.

Yet, Speer understood the failures of the state in some shape and form. He understood its inability to meet its requirements, its responsibilities and the monstrous outcomes of state planning. Not at the beginning of his career within the National Socialist movement, but a gradual awareness as his own responsibilities grew. Speer’s experiences show that a comprehension of state failure is insufficient without a moral framework. It is observing freedom through the wrong end of the telescope. Speer’s alternative did not champion individual liberty at the beginning. It was an instrument for achieving better outcomes and efficiencies. Perhaps during his process of coming to terms with what he did, Speer finally knew that freedom is a moral value. We will never know.

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17 comments to Speer’s battle with freedom

  • Richard Garner

    I have no idea the subject or outcome, but my father also had lengthy conversations with Albert Speer, whilst studying education policy under the Nazis for his teaching degree.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    “Getting caught and getting Christ” is a familiar refrain in American prisons. Sometimes it’s true, but the genuineness of Speer’s regret for his own failures has to be regarded as suspect, however firmly he later convinced himself of it. It is perhaps in his favor that David Irving refers to him somewhere as “The appalling Speer.”

    Character aside, Speer’s success as Minister of Armaments and War Production was largely illusory: aircraft production, for instance, was kept up through the production of increasingly obsolescent aircraft. By the end of the War, the major German fighter, the ME-109, was a twelve-year old design.

    The one thing Speer did as a manager that impresses me is that he insisted that the more responsibility a manager had, the more unstructured his time should be. Contrast that with the modern practice of organising managers’ time to the last half-minute (when do they have time to think?). I’m not really sure Speer’s way is better, but it’s certainly a contrast with current practice.

  • Dale Amon

    I certainly believe in managers time being less structured. There is really only so much that can happen in a meeting or teleconference. I might add though, that many people I know who are high level managers are *not* living highly structured time. They react to events and opportunities; they work at home and gain time to do that thinking… and of course get to work pretty much any 100 hours of the week they choose :-^

  • Dale Amon

    I am not surprised someone in Speers position would come to change his mind. Imagine if some bright young college liberals of today found themselves later in life in exactly the system they have been taught and have dreamed of… they’d soon find they had to murder and imprison and lie and cover up. They would rationalize it for as long as they could to protect themselves from the realization that their cherished beliefs were a failure. Thus went the followers of Lenin; thus went those who abetted every other ideological monster of the 20th century.

    Little monsters they may be at times, but children do not start off as Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Pol Pot’s and Saddam Hussein’s… it is a journey they make, each step of which seems logical and obvious or necessary to them at the time.

    Some, may realize what evil they have gotten themselves into, but once in a self-reinforcing tornado of terror, they have no way out but death.

    I think it is telling that ideas of free-markets were embraced so quickly in former communist lands. People there knew in a way that no academic can ever learn, that it just does not work and the attempt to make it work leads to justification of immoralities beyond imagining.

  • John B

    Surely it does not take a great deal of intellect to see that something is not good or beneficial?
    It seems to me that people tend to get too caught up in theory, or applying reality to philosophical conjecture, rather than just taking things as they present themselves.
    If a point is obtuse then one has to approach it on that basis, but it seems to me that most things, or at least the principles involved, are fairly straightforward.
    It would not have been hard for Speer to realise there was a monstrosity going on and to act on that understanding?

  • Paul Marks

    The failure of Speer is the basic point that Philip Chaston is making.

    Normally a statist can say to themsleves (as well as to others) “the wrong people are in charge – they are corrupt” (or whatever).

    But Speer was in charge – and state economic planning simply did not work, even with him in charge.

    Now he could have lied to himself – and pretended that everything was working.

    The “philosophical” sort of German (the man with his “head in clouds of metaphysics”) could have done that.

    But Speer was a man with a strong sense of empircial reality – the engineer sort of German, so he did not blind himself with a fog of metaphysics (as many of the Nazis did – oh yes they were “intellectuals” do not let the present university crowd deny it).

    So what would work?

    Speer was led step by step to understand that only freedom would work – not out of any moral desire for freedom (not really), but because of the FAILURE of his practices of mass slave labour and government planning.

    This is what attracted him to Mises.

    Ludwig Von Mises (and the rest of the Austrian School) are often denounced as “theoretical”, but it is a very Aristotelian (or Common Sense) sort of theory – it is based in reality.

    Mises says (and in very clear terms) this policy (statism) will NOT work – it will not produce the objectives claimed for it.

    Speer knew that from his own experiences – so a person who could explain WHY this was so, was of obvious importance to him.

    In the end there is no great clash between the empirical and the a priori – not in the long term.

    For right “theory” (reasoniing) is, in the end, reflected in terms of results in the world.

    There may be no “empirical test” as physical science understands it (the test is logical one – to test all the links in the chain of reasoning that makes up a “theory”) but the practical man (and Speer was a practical man) can see in terms of general results over a period of years.

  • Paul, I hope this is not too OT, but I wonder how much is Austrian culture different from the German one, and with that in mind, do you think there is a particular cultural reason that the Austrian school of economics originated in Austria of all places?

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    It’s a good thing for the allies that Germany was NOT run efficiently! Hitler wanted a popular war, and he wanted to keep the little women at home, where they belonged, raising the next generation of Nasties. If he’d actually been concerned with efficiency, and had put women into factories so that the men could fight- he might have won the war!
    By the time Speers came along, it was too late.

  • thefrollickingmole

    The Sereny book is a great read.

    My impressions?
    A bloke who though if they could just get past this unpleasentness (war, genocide etc) then he would shape the perfect world to come.

    I think he did regret the outcomes of the war but mourned for the “glorious future” that was missed.

    That given, Id have loved to have had him as a dinner guest, just for some of the insights into a broken system.

    Ps: It may be a little harsh to blame him for the obselete designs. Remember there was a near bar on new design work for a critical period because it was only going to be a “short” war.
    And remember his subordinate was hung for war crimes, while he was not.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Ps: It may be a little harsh to blame him for the obselete designs. Remember there was a near bar on new design work for a critical period because it was only going to be a “short” war.

    The FW-190 was in production before the ban and was much superior to the ME-109. When Speer became Minister of Armaments and War Production, he failed to shift production over to the better plane. Although many FW-190s were made, many more could have been.

    And remember his subordinate was hung for war crimes, while he was not.


  • I don’t know what to make of Speer. On the one hand, I can easily see myself getting into a similar situation. I work hard, and like to do things I’m good at. Speer found a boss who gave him things to do that he could do; and well. In another life, if Speer had been working for Churchill, he would likely be a popular hero.
    As has been said above, once you get in so far, it is almost impossible to get out. He original designed buildings for Hitler, and somehow ended up attempting to run his war machine for him. Whether he had the inclination or the opportunity to derail National Socialism is between him and his maker.

    The fact that there are people who could work happily either for a murderous despot, or someone entirely different is perhaps a subject for a whole other discussion.

  • Anon

    Speer was in charge – and state economic planning simply did not work, even with him in charge.

    I think this sort of statement needs to be qualified.

    Total German war output in WWII was reputedly lower than in WWI even though the war lasted longer. This was partly because Hitler blamed WWI defeatism on the effect of domestic shortages. Thus in WWII luxuries were available for much longer and it took quite a while to get on a total war footing.

    German war production reached its peak in 1944 after Speer took over. He placed Germany on a total war footing.

    Speer wasn’t responsible for economic planning except in the sense of producing war materials. In that he must be judged a relative success.

    That’s not ignore the moral facts that his actions prolonged the war causing an extension of death and depended to a large measure on the deployment of slave labour (his claim of ignorance being laughable).

  • I believe Speer admitted himself that he made use of slave labour, and it was the Holocaust he was ignorant of.
    I do have a hard time believing that.

    Morally it’s very muddy here… at the risk of indulging in moral relativism, one could argue that the slaves he deployed were “saved” from the gas chamber, equally one could argue that being worked to death was a worse fate.

  • Anon

    Morally it’s very muddy here

    Quite! That’s why I chose to be anon when posting from work.

    I’m quite uncomfortable with the idea of discussing the success or failure of “planning” using Speer. Not least because the Nazi economy was planned from 1933 to 1945. The fact that the plan changed from one that celebrated craftsmanship to one that used the production line due to Speer only can tell us that the latter plan was better than the former, not that planning will always fail.

    It’s plausible that planning works given narrow short term objectives. Win the war but accept that planning for victory will cause unintended harmful consequences. The conceit of progressives is that they can use planning for multiple objectives, for the long term and without any conception of side effects.

  • If you are an architect and planner, then you may well want to design and plan things on a large scale. That goes with the common human ambition to want to be important and be close to power and influence. In an environment where those in power and influence are doing evil things, well, some people who would not necessarily do evil things in a more civilised environment still become the henchmen of those doing evil. They may know that evil is going on (and I find it impossible to believe that Speer did not know about the Holocaust, for instance) and may participate in it, but they simultaneously have sleepless nights about it.

    I don’t honestly think that makes you any better. Murdering people out of expedience and ambition rather than out of fanaticism doesn’t make any difference for the person murdered. In a more civilised environment such people will not do evil, and yes, if he had worked for Churchill rather than Hitler we might now well consider Speer a hero, but the truth is he did evil.

    The Soviets insisted that Speer serve every minute of the sentence he was given at Nuremberg, and they were right to.

  • Very impressive stuff. thanks for sharing

  • lucklucky

    “The FW-190 was in production before the ban and was much superior to the ME-109.”

    No it was not where it mattered. High altitude against bombers and Mustangs.
    Only with Ta-152 they could get a fighter that surpassed Bf109. The problem was so big that Germans considered in 1943 producing the Italian Fiat G-55 that could get the DB-603.

    Concerning Speer i always thought of him as a narcisist. When was fashionable being a Nazi he was. Then he changed to look good again.