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The Question Concerning Technocracy

An Observation on the Political Awakening of Albert Speer

For more than ten years, Albert Speer enjoyed unparalleled success working as a Nazi technocrat, ultimately enjoying a degree of political power second only to that of Adolf Hitler himself. Breaking with his bureaucratic success however, Speer claimed at the Nuremberg Trials that even before Germany had lost the war, his apolitical technocratic weltanschauung had been shattered, and that in 1944 he underwent a political awakening that led him to reject his technological achievements, so that he could focus on undermining Nazism. Because Speer's political transformation was motivated by the "nightmare ... danger of ... technocracy," and because the modern world rests atop substantially technocratic foundations, it is imperative that modern students and citizens analyze and understand the nature of Albert Speer's politicization process.

By Speer's own admission, he had been an enthusiastic technologist and Nazi commander, so how are we to understand his dramatic transition from an "unpolitical" technocrat to an outspoken exponent of world peace? Was Albert Speer apolitical, and if so, what was the relationship between this and his technocratic mode of thought and living? What were the causes and characteristics of Albert Speer's political awakening?

Here we shall examine Albert Speer's hypothesis that he underwent a political awakening, and analyze the processes and events involved in what Speer described as his political evolution. First we shall define the concept of the political awakening, then unpack the theoretical and practical aspects of Albert Speer's theory of political awakening, and close with a comparative analysis of these aspects in order to understand the historical validity of Speer's theory.

What then is a political awakening? Most generally, this concept refers to a person's growing awareness, however sudden or protracted, of the nature and consequences of social interactions, structures, and policies. For a person to experience a political awakening is to claim that person was politically immature, and subsequently became aware of their social position, with respect to social structures and processes. Importantly, the phrase "political awakening" refers solely to the politicization of an individual, and implies no specific perspectives. Thus: a political awakening produces a theoretical social awareness that is then employed as a guide for personal social practice. By the lights of this general definition, we observe that any specific political awakening is best understood by the examination and comparison of its theoretical and practical components, and here we shall turn to an overview of the theoretical framework presented by Albert Speer in regards to his own political awakening; henceforth referred to as Speer's theory of awakening.

A complete, concise timeline of Speer's theory of awakening does not exist in any single source; however, Speer repeatedly referred to the evolution of his politics throughout his memoirs, Nuremberg depositions, prison diary, and in post-Nuremberg interviews. Here we shall combine these sources, focusing on the poignant political events of his life, and construct a historical outline of Speer's theory of awakening that uses his own writings and remarks as a foundation. In order to reproduce Speer's political trajectory as accurately as possible, we will remain close to the evidence, and draw heavily on primary source quotations.

Looking at all of Speer's political commentaries as a set, we find he described his political development in three distinct phases. First, the "unpolitical" period of his life, that began with childhood and ended with a period of sickness in January 1944. Second, his political awakening, that began with his convalescence and ended with his concluding statement at Nuremberg. Third, his maturation, pursuant to the Nuremberg Trials. Here follows a historical exposition of these three phases, and a theoretical reconstruction of Speer's theory of awakening.

In describing the first, "unpolitical" stage of his life, Speer cast a wide net, and claimed he remained apolitical for almost thirty-seven years. Born March 1905, Speer claimed his formative years took place in a system that was "virtually absolutist." "There could be no criticism," and political discourse was uncommon in all social settings, including at home. There were few opportunities "which might have sharpened ... political judgments," and "indifference was characteristic of the youth." Continuing this apolitical trend into his twenties, Speer found himself ill-equipped for political thought and debate, and focused on technical studies, in which he excelled, and thus found satisfaction.

In January 1931, Speer's friends convinced him to attend a Nazi rally, and the next day Speer became a party member. "It was an utterly undramatic decision," Speer claimed, for it was not the party that attracted him; he "was ... but becoming a follower of Hitler." By following Hitler, Speer felt "relieved of having to think," and thus betrayed a sort of "mental slackness," that slackness being a trait in which he "did not differ from millions of others." Although he had become an official member of the Nazis, Speer claimed his interest in the Nazi party was decidedly non-political; he "was above all an architect." To this end, being a party member was beneficial, as it brought him consulting work on a Nazi project, soon followed by the redecoration of Goebbels' office, then the design of the Propaganda Ministry, and Hitler's residence.

Initially, Speer worked under the architect Paul Ludwig Troost, but upon Troost's early death in 1934, Speer became the Reich's top architect. Commenting later on this position, Speer claimed; "I felt myself to be Hitler's architect. Political events did not concern me." In this capacity, as an apolitical technocrat, Speer conferred frequently with other high-level bureaucrats regarding technical and managerial issues, including Dr. Fritz Todt, who in 1940 had become Minister for Armaments and Munitions.

In 1942, Todt's life came to an unexpected end, whereupon Hitler decreed; "Herr Speer, I appoint you the successor to Minister Todt." In response, Speer later claimed; "I protested." Hitler however "turned to other business," and their relationship, which had previously been "a kind of [artistic and architectural] fellowship," was now marked by "the aloofness of an official relationship."

On assuming his new post, Speer was immediately submerged in the political undercurrents of party life, when Martin Bormann, Joseph Goebbels, and others moved to "cut" him "down to size" politically. Speer "appealed to Hitler," stating he could not work if "subjected to political standards," and thus secured for many workers in his Ministry "a legal protection highly unusual in Hitler's state."

Despite unusual protections however, Speer's own post remained inescapably political, and by February 1943, Speer was forced to leave his comfortable, specialist cocoon, "to plunge into political maneuvering." For the next year, much of his time was consumed politicking, as he formed alliances with Goering and others in response to a series of political crises, and became involved in complex political intrigues that cut across the entire Nazi hierarchy. These experiences exhausted him, and on the 18th of January 1944, over fatigued, Speer entered the hospital. Here Speer lived more than two months; "sick"; "isolated"; and "too far from the true focus of power: Hitler."

Speer's prolonged separation from Hitler "unleashed certain elements," as his fellow ministers worked to undermine his position. Thus, the short-term result of Speer's hospitalization was not so much physical recovery, as it was political endangerment. To counteract his fellow ministers, Speer turned directly to "the true focus of power" for help, however Hitler "reacted neither negatively nor positively." Hitler's indifference disintegrated Speer's "personal feeling toward Hitler," and engendered in Speer a sense of disillusionment. For weeks Speer lay "isolated" and in "resignation," while also concerned that one of his doctors was in fact an assassin, installed by Himmler.

More than two months having passed thus, in fear and with "plenty of time to brood," Speer finally met with Hitler -- and was now "struck by his overly broad nose and sallow color." For "the first time," Hitler's appearance disturbed Speer, and he later recalled; "his whole face was repulsive." Per Speer, this repulsion was a milestone in the next stage of his political development, for here was the moment when his political awareness caused a physical reaction. As Speer turned away from the object of his repulsion, he glimpsed a new mode of consciousness, and began a political awakening;

"After years of frenzy and fever I had for the first time begun to think about the course I was pursuing ... All I wanted ... was to go to ... my wife and children ... to recover my strength. But I did not really know what I wanted my strength for, because I no longer had a goal."

Following this experience, Speer's memoirs are punctuated by statements that suggest a gradual move away from Nazism and technocracy towards universal political principles; "I was beginning to bid farewell"; "I began to show some independence"; "I felt something stirring within me that was quite apart from Hitler: a sense of responsibility toward the country and the people." This new sense of responsibility notwithstanding, on his return to duty Speer was "back in Hitler's circle -- and content"; but this contentment did not long prevail against the force of his rising awareness.

By February 1945, Speer's contentment had become contempt, and, believing that all "sacrifices ... made [in support of the war] ... after January, 1945, were senseless," Speer settled on taking "some decisive action," and planned to assassinate Hitler, by dropping poison gas into his bunker. Speer's plans were thwarted by his inability to access the bunker's ventilation shaft, and though Speer's description of his plan suggests he was fully politically awakened, it was only with the "Annihilation" of the Reich that Speer definitively concluded his "unpolitical" period. On May 1st, 1945, Speer learned of Hitler's death, and in his memoirs remarked; "Only now was the spell broken."

This second stage of Speer's political thought, the era of his awakening, peaked with his closing statement at Nuremberg, when he condemned politically unprincipled technocracy, and claimed politically blind technological advancement both permitted and fomented Nazism, and worse, held within it the seeds of total human destruction;

"Through technical devices like the radio ... eighty million people were deprived of independent thought ... As a result of this there arises the new type of the uncritical recipient of orders ... The more technical the world becomes, the greater this danger will be, and ... A new large-scale war will end with the destruction of human culture and civilization."

Speer thereby consummated his political awakening by renouncing his life's work, technology and technocracy, and by denouncing that which enabled his technocratic success, Nazism and warfare. The end of this trial marked the end of Speer's second political phase, and he was sentenced to twenty years in prison; and this heralded the third, and final phase in his political development: maturation.

In prison, Speer energetically pursued his political maturation and education. He read extensively, drafted his memoirs, and maintained a diary. Following his release, Speer's written works became popular best-sellers, and he continued his political engagement, participated in interviews, and exhorted against the omnipresent "nightmare ... danger" of apolitical technocracy. To remove that danger, Speer proclaimed his new life's purpose was "not only to describe the past, but to issue warnings for the future," and towards that purpose, he "tried not to falsify the past."

This, then, was Albert Speer's theory of awakening. With this theory in hand, and turning now from Speer's theory to Speer's practice, we must ask: if Speer "tried not to falsify the past," did he succeed? In working to answer this question, let us begin by considering the internal consistency of Speer's memoirs, Inside the Third Reich.

In his first chapter, Speer stated he joined the Nazis for an "unpolitical" and "undramatic" reason: because Hitler's "magnetic force had reached out to him." Yet, however undramatic the membership procedure might have been, what could have been more melodramatic than joining a political party with a history of violence, because of a "magnetic" attraction to its leader, after having heard that leader speak on but a single occasion? If not quite dramatic, Speer's reasons for becoming a Nazi were at the very least romantic. Furthermore, in casting himself as apolitical, Speer appealed to his "mental slackness" in deciding to join the Nazis, and claimed he shared this trait with "millions of others." But Speer's decision to join the Nazis did not mean officially joining "millions of others," for, as he stated, he became party member 474,481.

Numerous concerns of this variety surface the more closely one reads Speer's memoirs, and a general pattern of subtle distortion begins to emerge. However, the points raised here are relatively minor, and, when considered individually, are not conclusively damning. Indeed, the nature of these concerns appears almost stylistic, though the problem is decidedly factual. Nonetheless, let us continue along this line of observation, and pay special attention to the connection between Speer's compositional style and his theory of awakening. As we shall discover, Speer presented contradictory information in such a manner as to produce an overall effect of sympathy for his "unpolitical" plight, and thusly Speer misled uncritical audiences, quietly diminished all doubts, and built popular acceptance for his theory of awakening.

Having observed the existence of minor distortions, and considered the influence of their cumulative effect, let us now look at Speer's major claim: that he remained apolitical until 1944. In describing his rise to power, Speer worked from the apolitical foundations laid in chapter one, and then focused his reader on technical achievements for the next twenty-two chapters. In the twenty-third chapter, Speer then suggested it was his sudden exposure to the political infighting of his co-workers that resulted in his hospitalization. But was Speer truly unfamiliar or uncomfortable with politicking? By Speer's own description he obtained "a legal protection highly unusual in Hitler's state" by way of Hitler's favour, and persistently outmaneuvered the conspiracies of others, when, for example, he circumvented the machinations of powerful "enemies" such as Xaver Dorsch, Fritz Sauckel, Robert Ley, Martin Bormann, and Joseph Goebbels. Could such maneuvering suggest Speer was non-political? Similar examples of political ability permeate Inside the Third Reich, and number in the many tens. Setting aside particular instances however, we must address the following, more general question: is it possible that the person regarded as the second most powerful person in the Nazi hierarchy was apolitical?

Approaching the question of Speer's politics in this way, we find that the fabric of his "unpolitical" yarn quickly unravels. Could any apolitical bureaucrat have risen to, or sustained himself for any length of time, in any position of Nazi power, let alone the position of Minister for Armaments and Munitions? Amidst the vicious Nazi hierarchy, which was organized not by merit, but by Hitler's bloodthirsty doctrine that "struggle is the father of all," how could an apolitical technocrat possibly have survived the constant flanking, outflanking, and repositioning that obtained among the circle of men surrounding Hitler? As Speer himself noted, Hitler was "the true focus of power," and was moved far less by merit than by displays of power -- a claim supported not only by other observers, but even accepted as fact in modern textbooks (which aspire to represent historical consensus). If Speer had truly been apolitical in practice, he would have quickly been ousted. It may be the case that Speer had no particular, well-defined political ideals, however even if true, this is irrelevant to our investigation; one need not be an educated political theorist to be a skilled power politician in practice. Although Speer may not have articulated himself using the explicitly political language of his peers, there can be no doubt his offices were political, and obtained and sustained only by political desire and ability.

The conclusion above arises from analysis of the internal consistency of Speer's own claims, and this conclusion is born out by the historians Gitta Sereny and Matthias Schmidt, who undertook exhaustive examinations of documentary records in their studies of Speer's political history and character.

Schmidt, in his 1984 study, Albert Speer: The End of a Myth, demonstrated that Speer was a fully political actor, who "used any weapon he could to cling to his position." Schmidt evaluated examples of political ability such as the ones examined above, and determined Speer was "a pragmatist and tactician of the first rank." "Everyone who tried to curb his ambitions learned about Speer's power the hard way." Regarding Speer's theory of awakening, Schmidt concluded that apolitical, Speer was not. It "would be a fundamental mistake" to accept Speer's claim that he was "the prototypical 'technocrat'," for "Speer had only one goal in mind: to make history."

In connection to Speer's compositional style and his pattern of distortion, Schmidt observed that when discussing the purported assassination attempt on Hitler, Speer again perpetrated a misleading fabrication. In his memoirs, Speer claimed he made the following deposition at Nuremberg; "I hesitate to describe details, because such things are unpleasant. I am doing so only because the court has requested it. ... I do not intend to cite my role during this phase as part of my defense." Schmidt claimed the sentence "I do not intend to cite my role during this phase as part of my defense" was never spoken by Speer, and aptly observed that by recounting his deposition in this way, Speer presented himself as "embarrassingly modest." However, examination of the trial transcript for June 20th, 1946 reveals both sentences quoted by Speer were in fact spoken -- but not in the order Speer presented them. The sentence in question occurs four pages prior to the statement it was appended to. Hence, though Schmidt was incorrect in claiming the sentence was never spoken, his conclusion that Speer presented himself as "embarrassingly modest" remains valid, because even the mention of an assassination plot hatched by Speer (let alone the legal presentation of such a plot) could only put Speer into a more positive light in the eyes of his judges.

In this connection, the mere discussion of an assassination plot detracts from understanding Speer's political development, for there is no evidence that he ever pursued such a plot, apart from his own distorted remarks. This may well be the reason Speer limited himself to mentioning the supposed plot, and refrained from developing the plot as a part of his legal defense, which could have subjected his claims regarding the plot to intense legal scrutiny. Similarly, there is also no evidence that while Speer was in the hospital Himmler sent a doctor to assassinate him, or that he was in any way defenseless, or removed from the intrigues of Nazi party life. On the contrary, Schmidt claimed that while hospitalized "Speer had no intention of letting any intrigues encroach upon his realm of power," and actively continued his work, in both technical and political capacities.

In light of historical distortions such as these, Sereny entitled her book Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth. During her own battles against Speer's distortions, Sereny interviewed Speer and inquired about the Holocaust, to which Speer replied he had no awareness of it, but "sensed ... dreadful things were happening." In response, Sereny observed; "You cannot sense ... in a void. You knew." Here, Speer presented a letter he had written in 1977, in which he stated "I still consider my main guilt to be my tacit acceptance ... of the persecution and the murder of millions of Jews." Having already repaid his war debt in prison, and having become a successful writer, Speer now openly acknowledged his "tacit acceptance" of the Holocaust -- in direct contradiction to his statements at Nuremberg. The important point here was, as Sereny observed; "If Speer had said as much in Nuremberg, he would have been hanged." This fact notwithstanding, Speer continued to dissociate himself from Nazi offenses, while remaining nostalgic about his role as head technocrat of the Nazi war-machine, stating; "I haven't done so badly. After all, I was Hitler's architect; I was his Minister of Armaments and Production."

Thus, we observe the impossibility of Speer accepting political realities outside of his (purportedly) apolitical void, and the consequent impossibility of reconciling Speer's political theory of awakening with his own historical practice. How then must we interpret Speer's transition from an "unpolitical" technocrat to an exponent of political peace? Was Speer an apolitical technocrat, and if so, what were the characteristics of his political awakening?

In the preceding pages we have demonstrated: Speer's many distortions, and the inconsistency of his remarks; the inescapable reality that his Nazi offices were obtained and sustained only by political ability; his misrepresentation of the facts regarding his unsupported claim that he planned to assassinate Hitler; that he was not forthcoming at Nuremberg, and that statements he made in 1977 would have resulted in his execution in 1946. By the combination of these facts, we observe that Speer was not apolitical, underwent no unique political awakening, and made no transition from unpolitical technocrat to some other mode of life and mentality. Both Speer's political trajectory and his theory of awakening collapse into a single stage of political practice, and regardless of changes in the manner in which Speer enunciated his political principles, Speer had but one mode of political operation: a "pragmatist and tactician of the first rank."

In this fact, Speer is little different from other historical figures who have publicly recanted one mode of life at a politically propitious moment in order to increase the chance of their continued well-being. Accordingly, there is no reason to accept Speer's claim that his political awareness had been dulled by a technocratic mentality that had resulted from events and processes that operated beyond his influence, and for which, therefore, he was not to be held fully responsible. It may be the case, as Speer claimed, that "As a result of [technological advancement] ... there arises the new type of the uncritical recipient of orders"; however, irrespective of new types or the technological context, it is, and always has been, the responsibility of those who follow political orders and undertake political actions to take ownership for those choices and acts. Speer did not "sense ... in a void," and neither did he act in a void.

Ultimately then, what is the most reasonable interpretation of Albert Speer's claims that he was apolitical until 1944 and that he "tried not to falsify the past"? He lied.


Part of the series: UWO

[ essay :: history, politics ]

Last updated February 07, 2014