For decades, Albert Speer insisted that he knew nothing of the planning of the Holocaust. He escaped the hangman’s noose at Nuremberg in a convincing performance of contrition, and survived his 20-year sentence to achieve respectability as the example of a good German caught up in madness, bereft of insight during the reign of the most calculatingly brutal regime in history.
While his contrition might have been real, his cover story apparently was a lie. A letter written by Speer in 1971 makes clear that Speer had explicit knowledge of the plans for the extermination of the Jews of Europe:
A newly discovered letter by Adolf Hitler’s architect and armaments minister Albert Speer offers proof that he knew about the plans to exterminate the Jews, despite his repeated claims to the contrary.
Writing in 1971 to Hélène Jeanty, the widow of a Belgian resistance leader, Speer admitted that he had been at a conference where Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and Gestapo, had unveiled plans to exterminate the Jews in what is known as the Posen speech. Speer’s insistence that he had left before the end of the meeting, and had therefore known nothing about the Holocaust, probably spared him from execution after the Nuremberg trials at the end of the second world war. …
In the letter to Jeanty, written on December 23 1971, Speer wrote: “There is no doubt – I was present as Himmler announced on October 6 1943 that all Jews would be killed”. He continued: “Who would believe me that I suppressed this, that it would have been easier to have written all of this in my memoirs?”
Historians always looked at Speer’s claims of innocence about the Holocaust with some suspicion. William Shirer, whose Rise and Fall of the Third Reich remains the seminal work on Nazi Germany, wondered in his history how Speer could have remained ignorant of the death-camp system. Speer drew his workers from the same system, and demanded more and more as the war progressed. Any ignorance on their provenance or their fate had to either be willful or faked.
They also questioned his sentencing, even at the time of the Nuremberg trials. The men who supplied the forced labor to Speer had their necks stretched, while Speer essentially walked away from the ruins of Nazi Germany. Why? Speer made a calculated decision to defy Hermann Goering and admit all of the horrors of the Third Reich, expressing remorse and sorrow all along the way. Goering had rallied the rest of the defendants to assume a defiant tone, defending the Nazis and blaming the atrocities on everyone else. The tribunal allowed itself to be impressed by Speer’s no-nonsense admissions of the obvious and rewarded him with his life.
Now it appears that Speer was more calculating even than most thought. The letter makes clear that Speer knew exactly what the Nazis would do to the Jews, and cared so little that he helped them work prisoners to death. Essentially, Speer lived a lie for the last half of his life, aided and abetted by a credulous West that for some reason wanted to believe his strange protestations of innocence.
UPDATE: It wasn’t Wannsee, as I initially wrote; Wannsee was January 1942.