Albert Speer was born in Mannheim, Germany. He was educated in architectural studies at the Institute of Technology in Karlsruhe, and later at the Universities of Munich and Berlin. Inspired by Hitler's oratory prowess, he joined the National Socialist party in January 1931, where he developed a close friendship with Hitler. He believed Hitler and the Nazis could answer the communist threat and restore the glory of the German empire that he considered lacking under the Weimar Republic.
Speer quickly proved his worth by his efficient and creative staging of Nazi events. He designed monuments and decorations, as well as the parade grounds at Nuremberg where a party congress was held in 1934 and captured on film by Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will. That Nuremberg rally was the archetype of what became identifiable as a Nazi-style of public rallies as spectacles, characterized by huge crowds of uniformed marchers, striking lighting effects, and impressive flag displays directed by Speer.
In 1937, Hitler gave Speer the opportunity to fulfill his youthful architectural ambitions by appointing him Inspector General of the Reich. Hitler selected Speer, his "architect of genius," to construct the Reich Chancellery in Berlin and the Party palace in Nuremberg. Hitler also commissioned him to refurbish Berlin, a project for which Speer prepared grandiose designs that were never completed.
Speer became one of the most loyal members of the Nazi regime and was a member of Hitler's inner circle. In 1938, he was awarded the Nazi Golden Party Badge of Honor. A year later, Speer's office assumed control of the allocation of apartments belonging to Berlin Jews who were evicted. His workload grew in 1941 after Berlin's Jews were deported to the east.
When Fritz Todt was killed in an air accident in February 1942, Speer was appointed to succeed him as Minister of Armaments. He later took on the grander title of Minister of Armaments and War Production and became the principal planner of the German war economy, responsible for the construction of strategic roads and defenses, as well as military hardware.
Despite the unrelenting Allied bombing attacks designed to disrupt war production, Speer managed to increase armament production dramatically. In 1941, Germany produced 9,540 front-line machines and 4,900 heavy tanks; in 1944, output reached 35,350 machines and 17,300 tanks. This impressive growth was achieved as a result of Speer's use of prisoners of war and civilian slave laborers in the munitions factories. By September 1944, some seven and a half million foreigners worked as slave laborers and, in violation of the Hague and Geneva Conventions, Speer exploited two million prisoners of war in the production effort.
Speer's relations with Hitler deteriorated when Speer disobeyed Hitler's order to destroy Nazi industrial installations in areas close to the advancing Allies. He later claimed that he independently conspired to assassinate Hitler, though historians doubt whether he ever meant to execute this plan.
Speer was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal in 1946. He had been charged with employing forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners in the German armaments industry. His testimony was notable because he was the lone defendant to accept responsibility for the practices of the Nazi regime — both for his actions and for those not under his control. He was sentenced to twenty years' imprisonment in Spandau prison, after which he published his best-selling memoir, Inside the Third Reich (1970). He described himself in this account as a technician unconcerned with politics, but he still took responsibility for his role in aiding the Nazis, and expressed his regret at having done so. Again, he assumed responsibility for those actions beyond his immediate control, and expressed regret for his inaction during the slaughter of the Jews.
Speer died in London in 1981.
Sources: Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Vol. 3. Tel Aviv: Sifriat Poalim Publishing House, 1990. 1395-1396.
Shirer, William. The R ise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960.
Wistrich, Robert S. Who's Who in Nazi Germany. London: Routledge, 1982. 236-239.