Early life and career
Dönitz was born in Grünau in Berlin, Germany to Anna Beyer and Emil Dönitz, an engineer. Karl had an older brother, Friedrich. In 1910, Dönitz enlisted in the Imperial German Navy (Kaiserliche Marine). He became a sea-cadet (Seekadett) on 4 April. On 15 April 1911, he became a midshipman (Fähnrich zur See), the rank given to those who had served for one year as officer’s apprentice and had passed their first examination.
On 27 September 1913, Dönitz was commissioned as a Acting Sub-Lieutenant (Leutnant zur See). WhenWorld War I began, he served in the light cruiser SMS Breslau in the Mediterranean Sea. In August 1914,Breslau and the battlecruiser SMS Goeben were sold to the Ottoman navy; the ships were renamed theMidilli and the Yavuz Sultan Selim, respectively. They began operating out of Constantinople (nowIstanbul), under Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, engaging Russian forces in the Black Sea. On 22 March 1916, Dönitz was promoted to Navy First Lieutenant (Oberleutnant zur See). When Midilli put into dock for repairs, he was temporarily assigned as airfield commander at the Dardanelles. From there, he requested a transfer to the submarine forces, which became effective in October 1916. He served as watch officer on U-39, and from February 1918 onward as commander of UC-25. On 5 September 1918, he became commander of UB-68, operating in the Mediterranean. On 4 October, this boat was sunk by British forces and Dönitz was taken prisoner on the island of Malta.
The war ended in 1918, but Dönitz remained in a British camp near Sheffield as a prisoner of war until his release in July 1919. He returned to Germany in 1920.
During the interwar period, Dönitz continued his naval career in the naval arm of the Weimar Republic’s Armed Forces (Reichswehr). On 10 January 1921, he became a Lieutenant (Kapitänleutnant) in the new German Navy (Vorläufige Reichsmarine). Dönitz commanded torpedo boats by 1928, becoming a Lieutenant-Commander (Korvettenkapitän) on 1 November of that same year.
On 1 September 1933, Dönitz became a full Commander (Fregattenkapitän) and, in 1934, was put in command of the cruiser Emden.Emden was the ship on which cadets and midshipmen took a year-long world cruise in preparation for a future officer’s commission.
On 1 September 1935, Dönitz was promoted to Captain (Kapitän zur See). He was placed in command of the 1st U-boat Flotilla Weddigen, which included U-7, U-8, and U-9.
During 1935, the Weimar Republic’s Navy, theReichsmarine, was replaced by the Navy of Nazi Germany, the Kriegsmarine.
Throughout 1935 and 1936, Dönitz had misgivings regarding submarines due to German overestimation of the capabilities of British ASDIC. In reality, ASDIC could detect only one submarine in ten during exercises. In the words of Alan Hotham, British Director of Naval Intelligence, ASDIC was a „huge bluff”.
German doctrine at the time, based on the work of American Naval Captain Alfred Mahan and shared by all major navies, called for submarines to be integrated with surface fleets and employed against enemy warships. By November 1937, Dönitz became convinced that a major campaign against merchant shipping was practical and began pressing for the conversion of the German fleet almost entirely to U-boats. He advocated a strategy of attacking only merchant ships, targets relatively safe to attack. He pointed out that destroying Britain’s fleet of oil tankers would starve the Royal Navy of supplies needed to run its ships, which would be just as effective as sinking them. He thought a German fleet of 300 of the newer Type VII U-boats could knock Britain out of the war.
Dönitz revived the World War I idea of grouping several submarines together into a „wolf pack” to overwhelm a merchant convoy’s defensive escorts. Implementation of wolf packs had been difficult in World War I owing to the limitations of available radios. In the interwar years, Germany had developed ultra-high frequency transmitters which it was hoped would make their radio communication unjammable, while theEnigma cipher machine was believed to have made communications secure. Dönitz also adopted and claimed credit for Wilhelm Marschall’s 1922 idea of attacking convoys using surface or very near surface night attacks. This tactic had the added advantage of making a submarine undetectable by sonar.
At the time, many — including Erich Raeder — felt such talk marked Dönitz as a weakling. Dönitz was alone among senior naval officers, including some former submariners, in believing in a new submarine war on trade. He and Raeder constantly argued over funding priorities within the Navy, while at the same time competing with Hitler’s friends, such as Hermann Göring, who received greater attention at this time.
Since the surface strength of the Kriegsmarine was much less than that of the British Royal Navy, Raeder believed any war with Britain in the near future would doom it to uselessness, once remarking all the Germans could hope to do was die valiantly. Raeder based his hopes on war being delayed until the German Navy’s extensive „Z Plan”, which would have expanded Germany’s surface fleet to where it could effectively contend with the Royal Navy, was implemented. The „Z Plan”, however, was not scheduled to be completed until 1945.
Dönitz, in contrast, had no such fatalism and set about intensely training his crews in the new tactics. The marked inferiority of the German surface fleet left submarine warfare as Germany’s only naval option once war broke out.
On 28 January 1939, Dönitz was promoted to Commodore (Kommodore) and Commander of Submarines (Führer der Unterseeboote).
World War II
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany, and World War II began. The Kriegsmarine was caught unprepared for war, having anticipated that the war’s outbreak would be in 1945, not 1939. The Z Plan was tailored for this assumption, calling for a balanced fleet with a greatly increased number of surface capital ships, including several aircraft carriers. At the time the war began, Dönitz’s force included only 57 U-boats, many of them short-range, and only 22 oceangoing Type VIIs. He made do with what he had, while being harassed by Raeder and with Hitler calling on him to dedicate boats to military actions against the British fleet directly. These operations had mixed success; theaircraft carrier HMS Courageous and battleship Royal Oak were sunk, and battleships HMS Nelson damaged and Barham sunk, at a cost of some U-boats, diminishing the small quantity available even further. Together with surface raiders, merchant shipping lines were also attacked by U-boats.
Commander of the submarine fleet
On 1 October 1939, Dönitz became a Rear Admiral (Konteradmiral) and „Commander of the Submarines” (Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote, BdU, the German equivalent of ComSubPacor ComSubLant); on 1 September the following year, he was made a Vice Admiral (Vizeadmiral).
By 1941, the delivery of new Type VIIs had improved to the point where operations were having a real effect on the British wartime economy. Although production of merchant ships shot up in response, improved torpedoes, better U-boats, and much better operational planning led to increasing numbers of „kills”. On 11 December 1941, following Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, Dönitz immediately planned for implementation of Operation Drumbeat (Unternehmen Paukenschlag). This targeted shipping along the East Coast of the United States. Carried out the next month, with only nine U-boats (all the larger Type IX), it had dramatic and far-reaching results. The U.S. Navy was entirely unprepared for antisubmarine warfare, despite having had two years of British experience to draw from, and committed every imaginable mistake. Shipping losses, which had appeared to be coming under control as the Royal Navy and Royal Canadian Navy gradually adapted to the new challenge, skyrocketed.
On at least two occasions, Allied success against U-boat operations led Dönitz to investigate possible reasons. Among those considered were espionage and Allied interception and decoding of German Navy communications (the naval version of the Enigma cipher machine). Both investigations into communications security came to the conclusion espionage was more likely, or else the Allied successes had been accidental. Nevertheless, Dönitz ordered his U-boat fleet to use an improved version of the Enigma machine (one with four or five rotors, which was even more secure), the M4, for communications within the fleet, on 1 February 1942. The German Navy (Kriegsmarine) was the only branch to use the improved version; the rest of the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) continued to use their then-current three-rotor versions of the Enigma machine. The new system was termed „Triton” („Shark” to the Allies). For a time, this change in encryption between submarines caused considerable difficulty for Allied codebreakers; it took ten months before Shark traffic could be read (see also Ultra codebreaking andCryptanalysis of the Enigma).
By the end of 1942, the production of Type VII U-boats had increased to the point where Dönitz was finally able to conduct mass attacks by groups of submarines, a tactic he called „Rudel” (group or pack) and became known as „wolfpack” in English. Allied shipping losses shot up tremendously, and there was serious concern for a while about the state of British fuel supplies.
During 1943, the war in the Atlantic turned against the Germans, but Dönitz continued to push for increased U-boat construction and entertained the notion that further technological developments would tip the war once more in Germany’s favour while briefing the Führer. At the end of the war, the German submarine fleet was by far the most advanced in the world, and late-war examples, such as the Type XXI U-boat, served as models for Soviet and American construction after the war. These, the Schnorchel (snorkel) and Type XXI boats, appeared late in the war because of Dönitz’s personal indifference, at times even hostility, to new technology he perceived as disruptive. His opposition to the larger Type IX was not unique; Admiral Thomas C. Hart, who commanded the United States Asiatic Fleet in thePhilippines at the outbreak of the Pacific War, opposed fleet boats as „too luxurious”.
Dönitz was deeply involved in the daily operations of his boats, often contacting them up to seventy times a day with questions such as their position, fuel supply, and other „minutiae„. This incessant questioning hastened the compromise of his ciphers, by giving the Allies more messages to work with. Furthermore, replies from the boats enabled the Allies to usedirection finding (HF/DF, called „Huff-Duff”) to locate a U-boat using its radio, track it, and attack it (often with aircraft able to sink it with impunity).
Dönitz wore on his uniform both the special grade of the U-Boat War Badge with diamonds, and his U-Boat War badge from World War I, along with his World War I Iron Cross 1st Class with World War II clasp.
Commander-in-chief and Grand Admiral
On 30 January 1943, Dönitz replaced Erich Raeder as Commander-in-Chief of the Navy (Oberbefehlshaber der Kriegsmarine) and Grand Admiral (Großadmiral) of the Naval High Command (Oberkommando der Marine). His deputy, Eberhard Godt, took over the operational command of the U-boat force It was Dönitz who was able to convince Hitler not to scrap the remaining ships of the surface fleet. Despite hoping to continue to use them as a fleet in being, the Kriegsmarine continued losing what few capital ships it had. In September, thebattleship Tirpitz was put out of action for months by a British midget submarine. In December, he ordered the battleship Scharnhorst (underKonteradmiral Erich Bey) to attack Soviet-bound convoys, but she was sunk in the resulting encounter with superior British forces led by the battleship HMS Duke of York.
In the final days of the war, after Hitler had installed himself in the Führerbunker beneath the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, Hermann Göring was considered the obvious successor to Hitler, followed by Heinrich Himmler. Göring, however, had infuriated Hitler by radioing Hitler in Berlin asking for permission to assume leadership of the Reich. Himmler also tried to seize power himself by entering into negotiations with Count Bernadotte. On 28 April, the BBC reported that Himmler had offered surrender to the western Allies and that the offer had been declined.
In his last will and testament, dated 29 April, Hitler surprisingly named Dönitz his successor asStaatsoberhaupt (Head of State), with the title of Reichspräsident (President) and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. The same document named Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels as Head of Government with the title of Reichskanzler(Chancellor). Further, Hitler expelled both Göring and Himmler from the party.
Rather than designate one person to succeed him as Führer, Hitler reverted to the old arrangement in the Weimar Constitution. Hitler believed the leaders of the German Army (Heer), Air Force (Luftwaffe), and SS (Schutzstaffel) had betrayed him. Since the German Navy had been too small to affect the war in a major way, its commander, Dönitz, became the only possible successor more or less by default.
However, on 1 May—the day after Hitler’s death—Goebbels committed suicide. Dönitz thus became the sole representative of the crumbling German Reich. He appointed Finance Minister Count Ludwig Schwerin von Krosigk as „Leading Minister” (Krosigk had declined to accept the title of Chancellor) and they attempted to form a government.
That night, Dönitz made a nationwide radio address in which he spoke of Hitler’s „hero’s death” and announced that the war would continue „to save Germany from destruction by the advancing Bolshevik enemy.” However, Dönitz knew even then that Germany’s position was untenable and that the Wehrmacht was no longer capable of offering meaningful resistance. During his brief period in office, Dönitz devoted most of his efforts to ensuring the loyalty of the German armed forces and trying to ensure German troops would surrender to the British or Americans and not the Soviets. He feared vengeful Soviet reprisals against Nazi party members and high-ranking officers like himself, and hoped to strike a deal with the western Allies.
The rapidly advancing Allied forces limited the Dönitz government’s jurisdiction to an area around Flensburg near the Danish border, where Dönitz’s headquarters were located, along withMürwik. Accordingly his administration was referred to as the Flensburg government. The following is Dönitz’s description of his new government:
|“||These considerations (the bare survival of the German people) which all pointed to the need for the creation of some sort of central government, took shape and form when I was joined by Graf Schwerin-Krosigk. In addition to discharging his duties as Foreign Minister and Minister of Finance, he formed the temporary government we needed and presided over the activities of its cabinet. Although he was restricted in his choice to those men who were in northern Germany, he nevertheless succeeded in forming a workmanlike cabinet of experts.The picture of the military situation as a whole showed clearly that the war was lost. As there was also no possibility of effecting any improvement in Germany’s overall position by political means, the only conclusion to which I, as Head of the State, could come was that the war must be brought to an end as quickly as possible, in order to prevent further bloodshed.||”|
|—Karl Dönitz, Ten Years and Twenty Days|
Late on 1 May, Himmler attempted to make a place for himself in the Flensburg government. The following is Dönitz’s description of his showdown with Himmler:
|“||At about midnight he arrived, accompanied by six armed SS officers, and was received by my aide-de-camp, Walter Luedde-Neurath. I offered Himmler a chair and I myself sat down behind my writing desk, upon which lay, hidden by some papers, a pistol with the safety catch off. I had never done anything of this sort in my life before, but I did not know what the outcome of this meeting might be.I handed Himmler the telegram containing my appointment. „Please read this,” I said. I watched him closely. As he read, an expression of astonishment, indeed of consternation, spread over his face. All hope seemed to collapse within him. He went very pale. Finally he stood up and bowed. „Allow me,” he said, „to become the second man in your state.” I replied that that was out of the question and that there was no way in which I could make any use of his services.
Thus advised, he left me at about one o’clock in the morning. The showdown had taken place without force, and I felt relieved.
|—Karl Dönitz, as quoted in The Decline and Fall of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan|
On 4 May, German forces in the Netherlands, Denmark, and northwestern Germany under Dönitz’s command surrendered to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery at the Lüneburg Heath, just southeast of Hamburg, signalling the end of World War II in northwestern Europe.
A day later, Dönitz sent Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg, his successor as the commander in chief of the German Navy, to U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters in Rheims, France, to negotiate a surrender to the Allies. The Chief of Staff of OKW, Colonel-General (Generaloberst) Alfred Jodl, arrived a day later. Dönitz had instructed them to draw out the negotiations for as long as possible so that German troops and refugees could surrender to the Western Powers. However, when Eisenhower let it be known he would not tolerate the Germans’ stalling, Dönitz authorised Jodl to sign the instrument of unconditional surrender at 1:30 a.m. on the morning of May 7. Just over an hour later, Jodl signed the documents. The surrender documents included the phrase, „All forces under German control to cease active operations at 23:01 hours Central European Time on 8 May 1945.” At Stalin’s insistence, on 8 May, shortly before midnight, General Field Marshal (Generalfeldmarschall) Wilhelm Keitelrepeated the signing in Berlin at Marshal Georgiy Zhukov’s headquarters, with General Carl Spaatz of the USAAF as Eisenhower’s representative. At the time specified, World War II in Europe ended.
On 23 May, the Dönitz government was dissolved when its members were arrested by the Allied Control Commission at Flensburg.
Dönitz’s relationship to Jews and Nazism
Despite his postwar claims, Dönitz was seen as supportive of Nazism during the war. Several naval officers described him as „closely tied to Hitler and Nazi ideology.” On one occasion, he went as far as to boast about Hitler’s humanity. Another event, in which he spoke to Hitler Youth in what was defined as an „inappropriate way”, earned him the nickname of „Hitler Youth Dönitz.” He refused to assist Albert Speer in stopping a scorched earth policy dictated by Hitler and is also noted as saying, „in comparison to Hitler we are all pip-squeaks. Anyone who believes he can do better than the Führer is stupid.”
There are several antisemitic statements on the part of Dönitz known to historians. When Sweden closed its international waters to Germany, he blamed this action on their fear and dependence on „international Jewish capital.” In August 1944, he declared, „I would rather eat dirt than see my grandchildren grow up in the filthy, poisonous atmosphere of Jewry.”
On German Heroes’ Day (12 March) 1944, Dönitz declared, without Adolf Hitler, Germany would be beset by „poison of Jewry,” the country destroyed for lack of National Socialismwhich, as Dönitz declared, gave defiance of an uncompromising ideology. At the Nuremberg Trials, Dönitz claimed the statement about „poison of Jewry” was regarding „the endurance, the power to endure, of the people, as it was composed, could be better preserved than if there were Jewish elements in the nation.” Initially he claimed, „I could imagine that it would be very difficult for the population in the towns to hold out under the strain of heavy bombing attacks if such an influence was allowed to work.”
Author Eric Zillmer argues that from an ideological standpoint, Dönitz was anti-Marxist and anti-Semitic. Later, during the Nuremberg Trials, Dönitz claimed to know nothing about theextermination of Jews and declared nobody among „his men” thought about violence against Jews.
Dönitz told Leon Goldensohn, an American psychiatrist at Nuremberg, „I never had any idea of the goings-on as far as Jews were concerned. Hitler said each man should take care of his business, and mine was U-boats and the navy”. To Goldensohn, Dönitz also spoke of his support for Admiral Bernhard Rogge, who was of Jewish descent, when the Nazi Party began to persecute the admiral.
Nuremberg war crimes trials
Following the war, Dönitz was held as a prisoner of war by the Allies. He was indicted as a major war criminal at the Nuremberg Trials on three counts: (1) conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity; (2) Planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression; and (3) crimes against the laws of war. Dönitz was found not guilty on count (1) of the indictment, but guilty on counts (2), and (3).
During the trial, Gustave Gilbert, an American Army psychologist, was allowed to examine the Nazi leaders who were tried at Nuremberg for war crimes. Among other tests, a German version of the Wechsler-Bellevue IQ test was administered. Dönitz scored 138, the third highest among the Nazi leaders tested.
Dönitz disputed the propriety of his trial at Nuremberg, commenting on count (2) that „One of the ‘accusations’ that made me guilty during this trial was that I met and planned the course of the war with Hitler; now I ask them in heaven’s name, how could an admiral do otherwise with his country’s head of state in a time of war?” Numerous (over 100) Senior Allied officers also sent letters to Dönitz conveying their disappointment over the fairness and verdict of his trial.
At the trial Dönitz was charged with :
- Waging unrestricted submarine warfare against neutral shipping (see below).
- Permitting Hitler’s Commando Order of 18 October 1942 to remain in full force when he became commander-in-chief of the Navy, and to that extent responsibility for that crime. His defence was that the Order excluded men captured in naval warfare, and that the order had not been acted upon by any men under his command.
- That knowing that 12,000 involuntary foreign workers were working in the shipyards, he did nothing to stop it.
- Advice in 1945 when Hitler asked Dönitz whether the Geneva Convention should be denounced. Hitler’s motives were twofold. The first was that reprisals could be taken against Western Allied prisoners of war and second it would deter German forces from surrendering to the Western Allies (as was happening on the Eastern front where the Geneva Convention was in abeyance). Instead of arguing that the conventions should never be denounced, Dönitz suggested that it was not currently expedient to do so, so the court found against him on this issue; but as the Convention was not denounced by Germany, and British prisoners in camps under Dönitz’s jurisdiction were treated strictly according to the Convention, the Court considered these mitigating circumstances.
Among the war-crimes charges, Dönitz was accused of waging unrestricted submarine warfare for issuing War Order No. 154 in 1939, and another similar order after the Laconia incidentin 1942, not to rescue survivors from ships attacked by submarine. By issuing these two orders, he was found guilty of causing Germany to be in breach of the Second London Naval Treaty of 1936. However, as evidence of similar conduct by the Allies was presented at his trial, and with the help of his lawyer Otto Kranzbühler, his sentence was not assessed on the grounds of this breach of international law.
On the specific war crimes charge of ordering unrestricted submarine warfare Dönitz was found „[not] guilty for his conduct of submarine warfare against British armed merchant ships”, because they were often armed and equipped with radios which they used to notify the Admiralty of attack but the judges found that „Dönitz is charged with waging unrestricted submarine warfare contrary to the Naval Protocol of 1936 to which Germany acceded, and which reaffirmed the rules of submarine warfare laid down in the London Naval Agreement of 1930… The order of Dönitz to sink neutral ships without warning when found within these zones was, therefore, in the opinion of the Tribunal, violation of the Protocol… The orders, then, prove Dönitz is guilty of a violation of the Protocol… the sentence of Dönitz is not assessed on the ground of his breaches of the international law of submarine warfare.”
His sentence on unrestricted submarine warfare was not assessed, because of similar actions by the Allies: in particular, the British Admiralty on 8 May 1940 had ordered that all vessels in the Skagerrak should be sunk on sight; and Admiral Chester Nimitz, wartime commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, stated that the U.S. Navy had waged unrestricted submarine warfare in the Pacific from the day the U.S. entered the war. Thus although Dönitz’s was found guilty of waging unrestricted submarine warfare against unarmed neutral shipping by ordering all ships in designated areas in international waters to be sunk without warning, no additional prison time was added to his sentence for this crime.
Dönitz was imprisoned for 10 years in Spandau Prison in what was then West Berlin.
Dönitz was released on 1 October 1956, and he retired to the small village of Aumühle in Schleswig-Holstein in northern West Germany. There he worked on two books. His memoirs, Zehn Jahre, Zwanzig Tage (Memoirs: Ten Years and Twenty Days), appeared in Germany in 1958 and became available in an English translation the following year. This book recounted Dönitz’s experiences as U-boat commander (10 years) and President of Germany (20 days). In it, Dönitz explains the Nazi regime as a product of its time, but argues he was not a politician and thus not morally responsible for much of the regime’s crimes. He likewise criticizes dictatorship as a fundamentally flawed form of government and blames it for much of the Nazi era’s failings.
Admiral Dönitz’s second book, Mein wechselvolles Leben (My Ever-Changing Life) is less known, perhaps because it deals with the events of his life before 1934. This book was first published in 1968, and a new edition was released in 1998 with the revised title Mein soldatisches Leben (My Life as a Soldier).
Late in his life, Dönitz made every attempt to answer correspondence and autograph postcards for others. Dönitz was unrepentant regarding his role in World War II since he firmly believed that no one will respect anyone who compromises with his belief or duty towards his nation in any way, whether his betrayal was small or big. Of this conviction, Dönitz writes (commenting on Himmler’s peace negotiations):
The betrayer of military secrets is a pariah, despised by every man and every nation. Even the enemy whom he serves has no respect for him, but merely uses him. Any nation which is not uncompromisingly unanimous in its condemnation of this type of treachery is undermining the very foundations of its own state, whatever its form of government may be.
Dönitz lived out the rest of his life in relative obscurity in Aumühle, occasionally corresponding with American collectors of German Naval history, and died there of a heart attack on 24 December 1980. As the last German officer with the rank of Grand Admiral, he was honoured by many former servicemen and foreign naval officers who came to pay their respects at his funeral on 6 January 1981. However, he had received only the pension pay of a captain because the West German government ruled all of his advances in rank after that had been because of Hitler. He was buried in Waldfriedhof Cemetery in Aumühle without military honors, and soldiers were not allowed to wear uniforms to the funeral.However a number of German naval officers disobeyed this order and were joined by members of the Royal Navy, such as the senior chaplain the Rev Dr John Cameron, in full dress uniform. Also in attendance were over one hundred holders of the Knight’s Cross.
Wife and children
On 27 May 1916 Dönitz married a nurse named Ingeborg Weber, the daughter of a German general. They had three children whom they raised as Protestant (Evangelical) Christians, viz., daughter Ursula (b. 1917) and sons Klaus (b. 1920) and Peter (b. 1922). Both sons were killed during the Second World War. The younger son, Peter, was a watch officer on U-954and was killed on 19 May 1943, when his boat was sunk in the North Atlantic with all hands. After this loss, the older brother, Klaus, was allowed to leave combat duty and began studying to be a naval doctor. Klaus was killed on 13 May 1944 while taking part in an action against his orders. Klaus convinced his friends to let him go on the torpedo boat S-141 for a raid on HMS Selsey off the coast of England on his twenty-fourth birthday. The boat was destroyed and Klaus died, though six others were rescued. In 1937 Karl Dönitz’s daughter Ursula married the U-boat commander and Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross recipient Günther Hessler.
In popular culture
Karl Dönitz has been portrayed by the following actors in film, television and theater productions.
- Gert Hänsch in the 1976 Czechoslovakian film Osvobození Prahy
- Richard Bebb in the 1973 British television production The Death of Adolf Hitler.
- Raymond Cloutier in the 2000 Canadian/U.S. T.V. production Nuremberg
- Peter Rühring in the 2005 German T.V. miniseries Speer und Er
- David Mitchell in the 2006 British T.V. sketch comedy That Mitchell and Webb Look.
- Simeon Victorov in the 2006 British television docudrama Nuremberg: Nazis on Trial.
- Thomas Kretschmann in the 2011 British/German T.V. production, The Sinking of the Laconia.
Summary of career
Dates of rank
- Fähnrich zur See (Midshipman): 15 April 1911
- Leutnant zur See (Acting Sub-Lieutenant): 27 September 1913
- Oberleutnant zur See (Sub-Lieutenant): 22 March 1916
- Kapitänleutnant (Lieutenant): 1 January 1921
- Korvettenkapitän (Lieutenant Commander): 1 November 1928
- Fregattenkapitän (Commander): 1 October 1933
- Kapitän zur See (Captain): 1 October 1935
- Kommodore (Commodore): 28 January 1939
- Konteradmiral (Rear Admiral): 1 October 1939
- Vizeadmiral (Vice Admiral): 1 September 1940
- Admiral (Admiral): 14 March 1942
- Großadmiral (Grand Admiral): 30 January 1943
- Cadet training on board the Hertha: April 1910–March 1911
- Naval school: April 1911–September 1912
- Serving on board the Breslau: October 1912–September 1916
- Airfield commander, San Stefano and Dardanelles: September–December 1916
- U-boat training: December 1916-January 1917
- Watch Officer, U-39: January 1917–February 1918
- Commander, UC-25: March–September 1918
- Commander, UB-68: September–October 1918
- In British captivity on Malta: October 1918–July 1919
- Staff of the Naval Station of the Baltic Sea: July 1919–March 1920
- Commander, Torpedo Boat V 5: March–April 1920
- Commander, Torpedo Boats T 157 and G 8: April 1920–March 1923
- Adviser and Adjutant, Inspection of Torpedo and Mine Affairs: March 1923–November 1924
- Adviser, Naval Defense Department of the Naval Command: November 1924–October 1927
- Course and Information, SMS Nymphe: October–December 1927
- Navigations Officer, SMS Nymphe: December 1927–September 1928
- Commander, 4th Torpedo Boat Half Flotilla: September 1928–September 1930
- 1st Admiral Staff Officer, Staff of the Naval Station of the North Sea: September 1930–September 1934
- Commander, Emden: September 1934–September 1935
- Commander, 1. Unterseebootsflottille: September 1935–October 1936
- Führer der U-Boote: January 1936–October 1939
- Befehlshaber der U-Boote: October 1939–January 1943
- Oberbefehlshaber der Marine: January 1943–April 1945
- Wehrmacht Commander-in-Chief North: April 1945
- Reichspräsident and Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht: May 1945
Panzer Corps Feldherrnhalle (Germany)
|Panzer Corps Feldherrnhalle|
Divisional insignia of Panzergrenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle
|Active||1934 – 1945|
|Size||2 division, 4 regiments and 8 battalions (peak c.1944)|
|Part of||Third Reich|
|Engagements||Battle of Debrecen
Siege of Budapest
Operation Spring Awakening
|June 1943 – April 3, 1944||Generalleutnant Otto Kohlermann|
|April 3, 1944 – July 8, 1944||Generalmajor Friedrich-Carl von Steinkeller|
|July 8, 1944 – November 1944
November 27, 1944 – May 8, 1945
|Generalmajor Günther PapeGeneral der PanzertruppenUlrich Kleemann|
The Panzerkorps Feldherrnhalle was a German panzer corps formed in October 1944 from the remaining troops of the IV. Armeekorps, the Storm Division Rhodos and Panzer-Grenadier-Brigade 17 formed mostly of SA recruits.
The Panzerkorps Feldherrnhalle fought on the Eastern Front during the Second World War.
The Feldherrnhalle units were the combat formations which drew manpower from the SA. A Nazi organization that traced its history back to the days of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. The corps was named after the Feldherrnhalle in Munich where the attempted coup was crushed by the German state.
The initial unit, the SA-Standarte Feldherrnhalle (a Standarte was an organization of regimental size) was formed after the death of Ernst Röhm on Night of the Long Knives, when the SA’s position as the major paramilitary formation of the NSDAP was taken over by the SS. It was made up of the most promising SA men drawn from SA units all over Germany. The Standarte was a not a combat unit. Its role was to provide guard units for SA government offices around Nazi Germany.
In March 1938, men from the Standarte were among the first units which marched into Austria during the Anschluss. In September 1938, the Feldherrnhalle was placed under the control of the Wehrmacht, and the cadre of the unit was transferred to the Luftwaffe, forming the Luftlande-Regiment (glider infantry regiment) Feldherrnhalle, a part of the 7. Flieger-Division. The remainder of the regiment was transferred to the Heer, forming the 120. Infanterie-Regiment (mot) of the 60. Infanterie-Division (mot) and 271. Infanterie-Regiment of the 93. Infanterie-Division.
The cadre for the 60. Infanterie-Division came from Gruppe Eberhardt (also known as Sonderverband Danzig). The Gruppe was a unit of Ordnungspolizei and SA men, commanded by Major General Friedrich-Georg Eberhardt. During the Invasion of Poland, Gruppe Eberhardt was responsible for the capture of the Danzig Post Office, defended by the Polish postal workers commanded by a reserve officer. After fierce fighting, the Polish militia retreated to the cellar, however the Gruppe Eberhardt could not capture the building. The Gruppe finally defeated the Poles and secured the building by forcing the Danzig Fire Brigade to flood the cellar of the building with gasoline. When the militia surrendered, they were subjected to several days of continuous torture and humiliation and then executed.
After the Polish campaign, Gruppe Eberhardt was dissolved and the members were used to form the 60. Infanterie-Division (mot), the majority of SA men joining the 120. Infanterie-Regiment (mot). The division was not ready for the campaign in the West, and formed a part of the OKH Reserve during this period, being based in Lorraine (Lothringen).
In January 1941, the division was moved to Romania. In April, the 60th took part in Operation Marita, the invasion of the Balkans and Greece. The formation acquitted itself well in the fighting in Serbia, and at the end of the campaign was moved back into Romania to join Army Group South, which was preparing for Operation Barbarossa. On June 1941, the division crossed the Soviet border and began the advance towards Crimea and eventually Rostov on Don. During the blitzkrieg campaign, the division again performed superbly, advancing as a part of Panzergruppe 1. By the end of the campaign, the division had taken part in the capture of Rostov-on-Don before the Army Group was ordered to abandon the city and form defensive lines for the winter. Over the winter of 1941–1942 the division managed to hold its position despite terrible conditions and ceaseless Soviet counterattacks.
In 1942, the division took part in Fall Blau, the advance through the Don Basin towards Stalingrad. As a part of Generaloberst Paulus’ 6. Armee, the division was involved in heavy fighting during the Battle of Stalingrad. When Soviet offensives encircled Paulus’ Army, the division continued resisting the Soviets until the final collapse of the German defense in February 1943.
The remnants of the division which had been on leave or convalescing were ordered to the south of France to begin reforming the division, to be upgraded as a Panzergrenadier division and redesignated 60. Panzergrenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle.
The 271st Regiment fought with distinction during the Battle of France, taking part in the assaults on the Maginot Line and advancing south, crossing the rivers Seille and Meurthe inAlsace-Lorraine. The regiment ended the campaign on the Moselle between Nancy and Epinal, advancing south where it ended near the region of the River Moselle between Nancy and Epinal on June 25, 1940. The 93. Infanterie-Division was stationed on the French Coast after the capitulation of France.
In March 1941, the regiment, along with the rest of the 93. Infanterie-Division, was ordered to the east to take part in Operation Barbarossa. The division was to form a part of Army Group North, tasked with advancing on Leningrad. After the launch of the offensive on June 22, 1941, the regiment distinguished itself in heavy fighting during the advance. At the end of the campaign, the division was stationed near Leningrad, and over the winter of 1941–1942 saw heavy fighting against fierce Soviet counterattacks.
The division remained in combat near Leningrad throughout 1942. In August, the regiment was granted the title Feldherrnhalle in honour of the outstanding performance it had shown during the battles in France and Russia. The regiment was redesignated 271. Grenadier-Regiment Feldherrnhalle. The regiment remained in action on the Northern front, fighting at the siege of Cholm and the Battle of Velikiye Luki. In the summer of 1943, the Feldherrnhalle regiment was withdrawn from the division and sent back to Southern France to form join the remnants of the 120. Infanterie-Regiment (mot) which were in the process of reforming the 60. Infanterie-Division (mot) as the 60. Panzergrenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle.
The new division spent the rest of the year forming and training in Southern France. In November, all the divisional units had their numbers removed and were granted the titleFeldherrnhalle. The 271. Grenadier-Regiment Feldherrnhalle formed the Grenadier-Regiment Feldherrnhalle and the reformed 120. Grenadier-Regiment Feldherrnhalle became Füsilier-Regiment Feldherrnhalle. In December, the division was ordered back to the eastern front, to join the Third Panzer Army which was involved in heavy fighting near Vitebsk in Belorussia. Arriving in early January 1944, the division fought exceptionally during the fierce battles around the city.
After executing a fighting withdrawal through Belorussia, the division was air-lifted via Tartu airport to the Narva front, where the III. SS Panzerkorps was involved in heavy fighting for the bridgehead over the Narva river. The division remained in combat on the Narva front, distinguishing itself in what would be known as the Battle of Narva (1944).
In May, the division was ordered south to bolster the forces of Army Group Centre, engaged near Mogilev and Orsha. With the launch of the Soviet Operation Bagration in June 1944, the division was pushed back towards Minsk, where it was encircled. In late July, after heavy resistance and several failed breakout attempts, the division was annihilated near the city.
The remnants of the division, along with other units such as the 26th Infantry Division, were refitted near Warthelager near Poznań in September 1944. The formation of several newFeldherrnhalle formations began at the same time.
106. Panzer-Brigade Feldherrnhalle
The 106. Panzer-Brigade Feldherrnhalle was formed from a cadre of SA men. The 106th boasted a strong consignment of the latest Panther ausf. G tanks, a fully mechanized Panzergrenadier battalion and a company of the brand new Jagdpanzer IV/70s. The brigade was sent into action in Alsace-Lorraine against the American forces of General Patton’s US Third Army. The 106th fought well during the withdrawal into Germany. On April 6, 1945, the remnants of the brigade were assigned to the ad-hoc Panzer-Division Clausewitz. The brigade’s survivors surrendered to the Americans on May 8, 1945.
110. Panzer-Brigade Feldherrnhalle
The 110. Panzer-Brigade Feldherrnhalle was the second Feldherrnhalle panzer brigade. Formed from a cadre of SA men, the 110th was strongly equipped with a battalion of Panthers and a battalion of mechanized infantry. The 110th was sent to Romania, where it supported the forces of Army Group South Ukraine during the withdrawal into Hungary. The brigade, along with the reformed Panzergrenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle took part in the Battle of Debrecen in October 1944, acquitting itself well. During these battles, the 110th fought alongside the13. Panzer-Division. In November 1944, the brigade was disbanded and absorbed into the 13. Panzer-Division. As a result, the 13. Panzer-Division was renamed 13.Panzer-Division Feldherrnhalle.
The Panzergrenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle was only partially formed by September 1944, when it was ordered to the front in Hungary to strengthen Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico, which was threatening to collapse in the face of a major soviet offensive near Oradea and Debrecen. The division, in truth only the size of a brigade, was committed to battle in mid-October, and ordered to hold a major crossing point on the Tisza River. When the Soviet spearhead threatened to encircle several panzer divisions near Debrecen, the division was thrown into battle in an ultimately successful attempt to cut off and annihilate the Soviet units. During the following battle, the division fought alongside both the 13. Panzer-Division Feldherrnhalle andschwere-Panzer-Abteilung 503 (sPzAbt 503) for the first time.
After enjoying major success of the Battle of Debrecen, the division fought in co-operation with sPzAbt 503 and was soon involved in the withdrawal towards Budapest. The Panzergrenadier Division, sPzAbt 503 and the 13. Panzer-Division Feldherrnhalle, by now exhausted and dangerously understrength, were pushed back into the city. On December 21, 1944, sPzAbt 503 was renamed schwere-Panzer-Abteilung Feldherrnhalle.
On December 31, the three formations were encircled along with IX. SS-Gebirgskorps. For the next month, the Feldherrnhalle units desperately held out for rescue. After the failure ofOperation Konrad, Armeegruppe Balck’s rescue attempts, the pocket collapsed and the divisions were destroyed on February 12, 1945. Among those to escape the pocket was a group of several hundred Feldherrnhalle men.
After the annihilation of three Feldherrnhalle units in Budapest, plans were made to not only reform the three units, but also for the creation of a Panzer Corps, along the lines of thePanzerkorps Großdeutschland or the Fallschirm-Panzerkorps Hermann Göring.
The survivors of the encirclement, along with large numbers of new SA recruits, were formed into three new units. The remnants of the Panzergrenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle becamePanzer-Division Feldherrnhalle 1. Although not a full strength division, the unit was equipped with the latest equipment and well trained.
The 13. Panzer-Division Feldherrnhalle became Panzer-Division Feldherrnhalle 2. This division was virtually identical to the Feldherrnhalle 1. It was commanded by the ace panzer commander Generalmajor Dr. Franz Bäke.
The remnants of the sPzAbt Feldherrnhalle were reformed, although the detachment never reached its former strength.
The corps was activated at the end of February, with most of the combat units being sent into action at the end of March 1945. The corps executed a fighting withdrawal towards Viennaand then into southern Austria. Over the last months of the war, the corps saw heavy fighting and acquitted itself well. By the beginning of May 1945, the shattered remnants of the corps broke up and attempted to reach the American lines, where they surrendered on May 9, 1945.
- Generalleutnant Otto Kohlermann (June 1943 – 13 February 1944)
- Oberst Albert Henze (13 February 1944 – April 3, 1944)
- Generalmajor Friedrich-Carl von Steinkeller (April 3, 1944 – July 8, 1944)
- Generalmajor Günther Pape (July 8, 1944 – November 1944)
- General der Panzertruppen Ulrich Kleemann (November 27, 1944 – May 8, 1945)
Orders of Battle
Battle of Debrecen, Hungary, October 1944
60. Panzergrenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle
- Division Stab
- Füsilier-Regiment Feldherrnhalle
- Grenadier-Regiment Feldherrnhalle
- Panzer-Abteilung Feldherrnhalle
- Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung Feldherrnhalle
- Artillerie Regiment Feldherrnhalle
- FlaK-Bataillon Feldherrnhalle
- Pionier-Bataillon Feldherrnhalle
- Nachrichten-Kompanie Feldherrnhalle
Budapest, Hungary, February 1945,
Panzer-Division Feldherrnhalle 1
- Division Stab
- Panzer-Regiment Feldherrnhalle
- Panzergrenadier-Battalion (half-track)
- schwere Panzer-Abteilung Feldherrnhalle
- Panzergrenadier-Regiment Feldherrnhalle
- Panzerjäger-Abteilung Feldherrnhalle
- Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung Feldherrnhalle
- Pionier-Bataillon Feldherrnhalle
- Artillerie-Regiment Feldherrnhalle
- Nachrichten-Kompanie Feldherrnhalle
Operation Spring Awakening, Hungary, March 1945
- Korps Stab
- Korps-Füsilier-Regiment Feldherrnhalle
- Schwere-Panzer-Abteilung Feldherrnhalle
- 404. Artillerie-Regiment
- 404. Panzer-Pionier-Bataillon
- 44. Panzer-Nachrichten-Bataillon
- Panzer-Feldersatz-Regiment Feldherrnhalle
- Panzer-Division Feldherrnhalle 1
- Panzer-Division Feldherrnhalle 2
All About Albert Speer…
Albert Speer, born Berthold Konrad Hermann Albert Speer, ; March 19, 1905 – September 1, 1981) was a German architect who was, for a part of World War II, Minister of Armaments and War Production for the Third Reich. Speer was Adolf Hitler’s chief architect before assuming ministerial office. As „the Nazi who said sorry”, he accepted responsibility at the Nuremberg trialsand in his memoirs for crimes of the Nazi regime. His level of involvement in the persecution of the Jews and his level of knowledge of the Holocaust remain matters of dispute.
Speer joined the Nazi Party in 1931. His architectural skills made him increasingly prominent within the Party and he became a member of Hitler’s inner circle. Hitler commissioned him to design and construct a number of structures, including the Reich Chancellery and theZeppelinfeld stadium in Nuremberg where Party rallies were held. Speer also made plans to reconstruct Berlin on a grand scale, with huge buildings, wide boulevards, and a reorganized transportation system.
As Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, Speer was so successful that Germany’s war production continued to increase despite massive and devastating Allied bombing. After the war, he was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the Nazi regime, principally for the use of forced labor. He served his full sentence, most of it at Spandau Prison in West Berlin.
Following his release from Spandau in 1966, Speer published two bestselling autobiographical works, Inside the Third Reich and Spandau: The Secret Diaries, detailing his often close personal relationship with Hitler, and providing readers and historians with a unique perspective on the workings of the Nazi regime. He later wrote a third book, Infiltration, about the SS. Speer died of natural causes in 1981 while on a visit to London, England.
Speer was born in Mannheim, into a wealthy middle class family. He was the second of three sons of Albert and Luise Speer. In 1918, the family moved permanently to their summer home, Schloss-Wolfsbrunnenweg, in Heidelberg.According to Henry T. King, deputy prosecutor at Nuremberg who later wrote a book about Speer, „Love and warmth were lacking in the household of Speer’s youth.” Speer was active in sports, taking up skiing and mountaineering. Speer’s Heidelberg school offered rugby football, unusually for Germany, and Speer was a participant. He wanted to become a mathematician, but his father said if Speer chose this occupation he would „lead a life without money, without a position, and without a future”. Instead, Speer followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and studied architecture.
Speer began his architectural studies at the University of Karlsruhe instead of a more highly acclaimed institution because the hyperinflationcrisis of 1923 limited his parents’ income. In 1924 when the crisis had abated, he transferred to the „much more reputable” Technical University of Munich. In 1925 he transferred again, this time to the Technical University of Berlin where he studied under Heinrich Tessenow, whom Speer greatly admired. After passing his exams in 1927, Speer became Tessenow’s assistant, a high honor for a man of 22. As such, Speer taught some of Tessenow’s classes while continuing his own postgraduate studies. In Munich, and continuing in Berlin, Speer began a close friendship, ultimately spanning over 50 years, with Rudolf Wolters, who also studied under Tessenow.
In mid-1922, Speer began to date Margarete (Margret) Weber (1905–1987). The relationship was frowned upon by Speer’s class-conscious mother, who felt that the Webers were socially inferior (Weber’s father was a successful craftsman who employed 50 workers). Despite this opposition, the two married in Berlin on August 28, 1928; seven years were to elapse before Margarete Speer was invited to stay at her in-laws’ home.
Joining the Nazis (1930–1934)
Speer stated he was apolitical when he was a young man, and that he attended a Berlin Nazi rally in December 1930 at the urging of some of his students. He was surprised to find Hitler dressed in a neat blue suit, rather than the brown uniform seen on Nazi Party posters, and was greatly impressed, not only with Hitler’s proposals, but also with the man himself. Several weeks later he attended another rally, this one was presided over by Joseph Goebbels. Speer was disturbed by the way Goebbels whipped the crowd into a frenzy. Despite this unease, Speer could not shake the impression Hitler had made on him. On March 1, 1931, he applied to join the Nazi Party and became member number 474,481.
Speer’s first Nazi Party position was as head of the Party’s motorist association for the Berlin suburb of Wannsee; he was the only Nazi in the town with a car. Speer reported to the Party’s leader for the West End of Berlin, Karl Hanke, who hired Speer — without fee — to redecorate a villa he had just rented. Hanke was enthusiastic about the resulting work.
In 1931, Speer surrendered his position as Tessenow’s assistant because of pay cuts and moved to Mannheim, hoping to use his father’s connections to get commissions. He had little success, and his father gave him a job as manager of the elder Speer’s properties. In July 1932, the Speers visited Berlin to help out the Party prior to the Reichstag elections. While they were there, Hanke recommended the young architect to Goebbels to help renovate the Party’s Berlin headquarters. Speer, who had been about to leave with his wife for a vacation in East Prussia, agreed to do the work. When the commission was completed, Speer returned to Mannheim and remained there as Hitler took office in January 1933.
After the Nazis took control, Hanke recalled Speer to Berlin. Goebbels, the new Propaganda Minister, commissioned Speer to renovate his Ministry’s building on Wilhelmplatz. Speer also designed the 1933 May Day commemoration in Berlin. In Inside the Third Reich, he wrote that, on seeing the original design for the Berlin rally on Hanke’s desk, he remarked that the site would resemble a Schützenfest — a rifle club meet. Hanke, now Goebbels’ State Secretary,challenged him to create a better design. As Speer learned later, Hitler was enthusiastic about Speer’s design (which used giant flags), though Goebbels took credit for it. Tessenow was dismissive: „Do you think you have created something? It’s showy, that’s all.”
The organizers of the 1933 Nuremberg Nazi Party rally asked Speer to submit designs for the rally, bringing him into contact with Hitler for the first time. Neither the organizers nor Rudolf Hess were willing to decide whether to approve the plans, and Hess sent Speer to Hitler’s Munich apartment to seek his approval. When Speer entered, the new Chancellor was busy cleaning a pistol, which he briefly laid aside to cast a short, interested glance at the plans, approving them without even looking at the young architect. This work won Speer his first national post, as Nazi Party „Commissioner for the Artistic and Technical Presentation of Party Rallies and Demonstrations”.
Speer’s next major assignment was as liaison to the Berlin building trades for Paul Troost’s renovation of the Chancellery. As Chancellor, Hitler had a residence in the building and came by every day to be briefed by Speer and the building supervisor on the progress of the renovations. After one of these briefings, Hitler invited Speer to lunch, to the architect’s great excitement. Hitler evinced considerable interest in Speer during the luncheon, and later told Speer that he had been looking for a young architect capable of carrying out his architectural dreams for the new Germany. Speer quickly became part of Hitler’s inner circle; he was expected to call on Hitler in the morning for a walk or chat, to provide consultation on architectural matters, and to discuss Hitler’s ideas. Most days he was invited to dinner.
The two men found much in common: Hitler spoke of Speer as a „kindred spirit” for whom he had always maintained „the warmest human feelings”. The young, ambitious architect was dazzled by his rapid rise and close proximity to Hitler, which guaranteed him a flood of commissions from the government and from the highest ranks of the Party.Speer testified at Nuremberg, „I belonged to a circle which consisted of other artists and his personal staff. If Hitler had had any friends at all, I certainly would have been one of his close friends.”
First Architect of the Third Reich (1934–1939)
When Troost died on January 21, 1934, Speer effectively replaced him as the Party’s chief architect. Hitler appointed Speer as head of the Chief Office for Construction, which placed him nominally on Hess’s staff.
One of Speer’s first commissions after Troost’s death was the Zeppelinfeld stadium—the Nuremberg parade grounds seen in Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda masterpiece Triumph of the Will. This huge work was capable of holding 340,000 people. The tribune was influenced by thePergamon Altar in Anatolia, but was magnified to an enormous scale. Speer insisted that as many events as possible be held at night, both to give greater prominence to his lighting effects and to hide the individual Nazis, many of whom were overweight. Speer surrounded the site with 130 anti-aircraft searchlights. This created the effect of a „cathedral of light” or, as it was called by British Ambassador Sir Neville Henderson, a „cathedral of ice”. Speer described this as his most beautiful work, and as the only one that stood the test of time.
Nuremberg was to be the site of many more official Nazi buildings, most of which were never built; for example, the German Stadium would have accommodated 400,000 spectators, while an even larger rally ground would have held half a million Nazis. While planning these structures, Speer invented the concept of „ruin value”: that major buildings should be constructed in such a way that they would leave aesthetically pleasing ruins for thousands of years into the future. Such ruins would be a testament to the greatness of the Third Reich, just as ancient Greek or Roman ruins were symbols of the greatness of those civilizations. Hitler enthusiastically embraced this concept, and ordered that all the Reich’s important buildings be constructed in accord with it.
Speer could not avoid seeing the brutal excesses of the Nazi regime. Shortly after the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler ordered Speer to take workmen and go to the building housing the offices of Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen to begin its conversion into a security headquarters, even though it was still occupied by von Papen’s officials. Speer and his group entered the building, to be confronted with a pool of blood, apparently from the body of Herbert von Bose, von Papen’s secretary, who had been killed there. Speer related that the sight had no effect on him, other than to cause him to avoid that room.
When Hitler deprecated Werner March’s design for the Olympic Stadium for the 1936 Summer Olympics as too modern, Speer modified the plans by adding a stone exterior. Speer designed the German Pavilion for the 1937 international exposition in Paris. The German and Sovietpavilion sites were opposite each other. On learning (through a clandestine look at the Soviet plans) that the Soviet design included two colossal figures seemingly about to overrun the German site, Speer modified his design to include a cubic mass which would check their advance, with a huge eagle on top looking down on the Soviet figures. Both pavilions were awarded gold medals for their designs. Speer would also receive, from Hitler Youth Leader and later fellow Spandau prisoner Baldur von Schirach, the Golden Hitler Youth Honor Badge with oak leaves.
In 1937, Hitler appointed Speer as General Building Inspector for the Reich Capital with the rank of undersecretary of state in the Reich government. The position carried with it extraordinary powers over the Berlin city government and made Speer answerable to Hitler alone. It also made Speer a member of the Reichstag, though the body by then had little effective power. Hitler ordered Speer to make plans to rebuild Berlin. The plans centered on a three-mile long grand boulevard running from north to south, which Speer called the Prachtstrasse, or Street of Magnificence; he also referred to it as the „North-South Axis”. At the north end of the boulevard, Speer planned to build theVolkshalle, a huge assembly hall with a dome which would have been over 700 feet (210 m) high, with floor space for 180,000 people. At the southern end of the avenue would be a huge triumphal arch; it would be almost 400 feet (120 m) high, and able to fit the Arc de Triomphe inside its opening. The outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to the postponement, and eventual abandonment, of these plans. Part of the land for the boulevard was to be obtained by consolidating Berlin’s railway system. Speer hired Wolters as part of his design team, with special responsibility for the Prachtstrasse. When Speer’s father saw the model for the new Berlin, he said to his son, „You’ve all gone completely insane.”
In January 1938, Hitler asked Speer to build a new Reich Chancellery on the same site as the existing structure, and said he needed it for urgent foreign policy reasons no later than his next New Year’s reception for diplomats on January 10, 1939. This was a huge undertaking, especially since the existing Chancellery was in full operation. After consultation with his assistants, Speer agreed. Although the site could not be cleared until April, Speer was successful in building the large, impressive structure in nine months. The structure included the „Marble Gallery”: at 146 metres long, almost twice as long as the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles. Speer employed thousands of workers in two shifts. Hitler, who had remained away from the project, was overwhelmed when Speer turned it over, fully furnished, two days early. In appreciation for the architect’s work on the Chancellery, Hitler awarded Speer the Nazi Golden Party Badge. Tessenow was less impressed, suggesting to Speer that he should have taken nine years over the project. The second Chancellery was damaged by the Battle of Berlin in 1945 and was eventually dismantled by the Soviets, its stone used for a war memorial.
During the Chancellery project, the pogrom of Kristallnacht took place. Speer would make no mention of it in the first draft of Inside the Third Reich, and it was only on the urgent advice of his publisher that he added a mention of seeing the ruins of the Central Synagogue in Berlin from his car.
Speer was under significant psychological pressure during this period of his life. He would later remember:
Soon after Hitler had given me the first large architectural commissions, I began to suffer from anxiety in long tunnels, in airplanes, or in small rooms. My heart would begin to race, I would become breathless, the diaphragm would seem to grow heavy, and I would get the impression that my blood pressure was rising tremendously… Anxiety amidst all my freedom and power!
Wartime architect (1939–1942)
Speer supported the German invasion of Poland and subsequent war, though he recognized that it would lead to the postponement, at the least, of his architectural dreams. In his later years, Speer, talking with his biographer-to-be Gitta Sereny, explained how he felt in 1939: „Of course I was perfectly aware that [Hitler] sought world domination … [A]t that time I asked for nothing better. That was the whole point of my buildings. They would have looked grotesque if Hitler had sat still in Germany. All I wanted was for this great man to dominate the globe.”
Speer placed his department at the disposal of the Wehrmacht. When Hitler remonstrated, and said it was not for Speer to decide how his workers should be used, Speer simply ignored him. Among Speer’s innovations were quick-reaction squads to construct roads or clear away debris; before long, these units would be used to clear bomb sites. As the war progressed, initially to great German success, Speer continued preliminary work on the Berlin and Nuremberg plans, at Hitler’s insistence, but failed to convince him of the need to suspend peacetime construction projects. Speer also oversaw the construction of buildings for the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, and developed a considerable organization to deal with this work.
In 1940, Joseph Stalin proposed that Speer pay a visit to Moscow. Stalin had been particularly impressed by Speer’s work in Paris, and wished to meet the „Architect of the Reich”. Hitler, alternating between amusement and anger, did not allow Speer to go, fearing that Stalin would put Speer in a „rat hole” until a new Moscow arose. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Speer came to doubt, despite Hitler’s reassurances, that his projects for Berlin would ever be completed.
Minister of Armaments
Appointment and increasing power
On February 8, 1942, Minister of Armaments Fritz Todt died in a plane crash shortly after taking off from Hitler’s eastern headquarters atRastenburg. Speer, who had arrived in Rastenburg the previous evening, had accepted Todt’s offer to fly with him to Berlin, but had canceled some hours before takeoff (Speer stated in his memoirs that the cancellation was because of exhaustion from travel and a late-night meeting with Hitler). Later that day, Hitler appointed Speer as Todt’s successor to all of his posts. In Inside the Third Reich, Speer recounts his meeting with Hitler and his reluctance to take ministerial office, only doing so because Hitler commanded it. Speer also states thatHermann Göring raced to Hitler’s headquarters on hearing of Todt’s death, hoping to claim Todt’s powers. Hitler instead presented Göring with the fait accompli of Speer’s appointment, causing Göring to leave without even attending Todt’s funeral.
At the time of Speer’s accession to the office, the German economy, unlike the British one, was not fully geared for war production. Consumer goods were still being produced at nearly as high a level as during peacetime. No fewer than five „Supreme Authorities” had jurisdiction over armament production — one of which, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, had declared in November 1941 that conditions did not permit an increase in armament production. Few women were employed in the factories, which were running only one shift. One evening soon after his appointment, Speer went to visit a Berlin armament factory; he found no one on the premises.
Speer overcame these difficulties by centralizing power over the war economy in himself. Factories were given autonomy, or as Speer put it, „self-responsibility”, and each factory concentrated on a single product. Backed by Hitler’s strong support (the dictator stated, „Speer, I’ll sign anything that comes from you”), he divided the armament field according to weapon system, with experts rather than civil servants overseeing each department. No department head could be older than 55 — anyone older being susceptible to „routine and arrogance” — and no deputy older than 40. Over these departments was a central planning committee headed by Speer, which took increasing responsibility for war production, and as time went by, for the German economy itself. According to the minutes of a conference at Wehrmacht High Command in March 1942, „It is only Speer’s word that counts nowadays. He can interfere in all departments. Already he overrides all departments … On the whole, Speer’s attitude is to the point.” Goebbels would note in his diary in June 1943, „Speer is still tops with the Führer. He is truly a genius with organization.” Speer was so successful in his position that by late 1943, he was widely regarded among the Nazi elite as a possible successor to Hitler.
While Speer had tremendous power, he was of course subordinate to Hitler. Nazi officials sometimes went around Speer by seeking direct orders from the dictator. When Speer ordered peacetime building work suspended, the Gauleiters (Nazi Party district leaders) obtained an exemption for their pet projects. When Speer sought the appointment of Hanke as a labor czar to optimize the use of German labor, Hitler, under the influence ofMartin Bormann, instead appointed Fritz Sauckel. Rather than increasing female labor and taking other steps to better organize German labor, as Speer favored, Sauckel advocated importing labor from the occupied nations — and did so, obtaining workers for (among other things) Speer’s armament factories, using the most brutal methods.
On December 10, 1943, Speer visited the underground Mittelwerk V-2 rocket factory that used concentration camp labor. Shocked by the conditions there (5.7 percent of the work force died that month), and to ensure the workers were in good enough shape to perform the labor,Speer ordered improved conditions for the workers and the construction of the above-ground Dora camp. In spite of these changes, half of the workers at Mittelwerk eventually died. Speer later commented, „[t]he conditions for these prisoners were in fact barbarous, and a sense of profound involvement and personal guilt seizes me whenever I think of them.”
By 1943, the Allies had gained air superiority over Germany, and bombings of German cities and industry had become commonplace. However, the Allies in their strategic bombing campaign did not concentrate on industry, and Speer, with his improvisational skill, was able to overcome bombing losses. In spite of these losses, German production of tanks more than doubled in 1943, production of planes increased by 80 percent, and production time for Kriegsmarine’s submarines was reduced from one year to two months. Production would continue to increase until the second half of 1944, by which time enough equipment to supply 270 army divisions was being produced—although the Wehrmacht had only 150 divisions in the field.
In January 1944, Speer fell ill with complications from an inflamed knee, and was away from the office for three months. During his absence, his political rivals (mainly Göring, and Martin Bormann), attempted to have some of his powers permanently transferred to them. According to Speer, SS chief Heinrich Himmler tried to have him physically isolated by having Himmler’s personal physician Karl Gebhardt treat him, though his „care” did not improve his health. His wife and friends managed to have his case transferred to his friend Dr. Karl Brandt, and Speer slowly recovered.In April, Speer’s rivals for power succeeded in having him deprived of responsibility for construction, and Speer promptly sent Hitler a bitter letter, concluding with an offer of his resignation. Judging Speer indispensable to the war effort, Field Marshal Erhard Milch persuaded Hitler to try to get his minister to reconsider. Hitler sent Milch to Speer with a message not addressing the dispute but instead stating that he still regarded Speer as highly as ever. According to Milch, upon hearing the message, Speer burst out, „The Führer can kiss my ass!” After a lengthy argument, Milch persuaded Speer to withdraw his offer of resignation, on the condition his powers were restored. On April 23, 1944, Speer went to see Hitler who agreed that „everything [will] stay as it was, [Speer will] remain the head of all German construction”.According to Speer, while he was successful in this debate, Hitler had also won, „because he wanted and needed me back in his corner, and he got me”.
Fall of the Reich
Speer’s name was included on the list of members of a post-Hitler government drawn up by the conspirators behind the July 1944 assassination plot to kill Hitler. The list had a question mark and the annotation „to be won over” by his name, which likely saved him from the extensive purges that followed the scheme’s failure.
By February 1945, Speer, who had long concluded that the war was lost, was working to supply areas about to be occupied with food and materials to get them through the hard times ahead. On March 19, 1945, Hitler issued his Nero Decree, ordering a scorched earth policy in both Germany and the occupied territories. Hitler’s order, by its terms, deprived Speer of any power to interfere with the decree, and Speer went to confront Hitler, telling him the war was lost. Hitler gave Speer 24 hours to reconsider his position, and when the two met the following day, Speer answered, „I stand unconditionally behind you.” However, he demanded the exclusive power to implement the Nero Decree, and Hitler signed an order to that effect. Using this order, Speer worked to persuade generals and Gauleiters to evade the Nero Decree and avoid needless sacrifice of personnel and destruction of industry that would be needed after the war.
Speer managed to reach a relatively safe area near Hamburg as the Nazi regime finally collapsed, but decided on a final, risky visit to Berlin to see Hitler one more time. Speer stated at Nuremberg, „I felt that it was my duty not to run away like a coward, but to stand up to him again.” Speer visited the Führerbunker on April 22. Hitler seemed calm and somewhat distracted, and the two had a long, disjointed conversation in which the dictator defended his actions and informed Speer of his intent to commit suicide and have his body burned. In the published edition of Inside the Third Reich, Speer relates that he confessed to Hitler that he had defied the Nero Decree, but then assured Hitler of his personal loyalty, bringing tears to the dictator’s eyes. Speer biographer Gitta Sereny notes, „Psychologically, it is possible that this is the way he remembered the occasion, because it was how he would have liked to behave, and the way he would have liked Hitler to react. But the fact is that none of it happened; our witness to this is Speer himself.”Sereny goes on to note that Speer’s original draft of his memoirs lacks the confession and Hitler’s tearful reaction, and contains an explicit denial that any confession or emotional exchange took place, as had been alleged in a French magazine article.
The following morning, Speer left the Führerbunker, with Hitler curtly bidding him farewell. Speer toured the damaged Chancellery one last time before leaving Berlin to return to Hamburg . On April 29, the day before his suicide, Hitler prepared his final political testament. That document excluded Speer from the Cabinet and specified that Speer was to be replaced by his subordinate, Karl-Otto Saur.
After Hitler’s death, Speer offered his services to the so-called Flensburg Government, headed by Hitler’s successor, Karl Dönitz, and took a significant role in that short-lived regime. On May 15, the Americans arrived and asked Speer if he would be willing to provide information on the effects of the air war. Speer agreed, and over the next several days, provided information on a broad range of subjects. On May 23, two weeks after the surrender of German troops, the Allies arrested the members of the Flensburg Government and brought Nazi Germany to a formal end.
Speer was taken to several internment centers for Nazi officials and interrogated. In September 1945, he was told that he would be tried for war crimes, and several days later, he was taken to Nuremberg and incarcerated there. Speer was indicted on all four possible counts: first, participating in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of crime against peace, second, planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace, third, war crimes, and lastly, crimes against humanity.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, alleged, „Speer joined in planning and executing the program to dragoon prisoners of war and foreign workersinto German war industries, which waxed in output while the workers waned in starvation.”Speer’s attorney, Dr. Hans Flächsner, presented Speer as an artist thrust into political life, who had always remained a non-ideologue and who had been promised by Hitler that he could return to architecture after the war. During his testimony, Speer accepted responsibility for the Nazi regime’s actions:
In political life, there is a responsibility for a man’s own sector. For that he is of course fully responsible. But beyond that there is a collective responsibility when he has been one of the leaders. Who else is to be held responsible for the course of events, if not the closest associates around the Chief of State?
An observer at the trial, journalist and author William L. Shirer, wrote that, compared to his codefendants, Speer “made the most straightforward impression of all and … during the long trial spoke honestly and with no attempt to shirk his responsibility and his guilt”.Speer also testified that he had planned to kill Hitler in early 1945 by dropping a canister of poison gas into the bunker’s air intake. He said his efforts were frustrated by a high wall that had been built around the air intake. Speer stated his motive was despair at realizing that Hitler intended to take the German people down with him. Speer’s supposed assassination plan subsequently met with some skepticism, with Speer’s architectural rival Hermann Giesler sneering, „the second most powerful man in the state did not have a ladder.”
The court’s judgment stated that:
… in the closing stages of the war [Speer] was one of the few men who had the courage to tell Hitler that the war was lost and to take steps to prevent the senseless destruction of production facilities, both in occupied territories and in Germany. He carried out his opposition to Hitler’s scorched earth program … by deliberately sabotaging it at considerable personal risk.
Twelve of the defendants were sentenced to death (including Bormann, in absentia) and three acquitted; only seven of the defendants were sentenced to imprisonment. They remained in the cells at Nuremberg as the Allies debated where, and under what conditions, they should be incarcerated.
- On July 18, 1947, Speer and his six fellow prisoners, all former high officials of the Nazi regime, were flown from Nuremberg to Berlin under heavy guard. The prisoners were taken to Spandau Prison in the British Sector of what would become West Berlin, where they would be designated by number, with Speer given Number Five. Initially, the prisoners were kept in solitary confinement for all but half an hour a day, and were not permitted to address each other or their guards. As time passed, the strict regimen was relaxed, especially during the three months in four that the three Western powers were in control; the four occupying powers took overall control on a monthly rotation. Speer considered himself an outcast among his fellow prisoners for his acceptance of responsibility at Nuremberg.
Speer made a deliberate effort to make as productive a use of his time as possible. He wrote, „I am obsessed with the idea of using this time of confinement for writing a book of major importance … That could mean transforming prison cell into scholar’s den.” The prisoners were forbidden to write memoirs, and mail was severely limited and censored. However, as a result of an offer from a sympathetic orderly, Speer was able to have his writings, which eventually amounted to 20,000 sheets, sent to Wolters. By 1954, Speer had completed his memoirs, which became the basis of Inside the Third Reich, and which Wolters arranged to have transcribed onto 1,100 typewritten pages. He was also able to send letters and financial instructions, and to obtain writing paper and letters from the outside.His many letters to his children, all secretly transmitted, eventually formed the basis for Spandau: The Secret Diaries.
With the draft memoir complete and clandestinely transmitted, Speer sought a new project. He found one while taking his daily exercise, walking in circles around the prison yard. Measuring the path’s distance carefully, Speer set out to walk the distance from Berlin to Heidelberg. He then expanded his idea into a worldwide journey, visualizing the places he was „traveling” through while walking the path around the prison yard. Speer ordered guidebooks and other materials about the nations through which he imagined he was passing, so as to envision as accurate a picture as possible. Meticulously calculating every meter traveled, and mapping distances to the real-world geography, he began in northern Germany, passed through Asia by a southern route before entering Siberia, then crossed the Bering Strait and continued southwards, finally ending his sentence 35 kilometers south of Guadalajara, Mexico.
Speer devoted much of his time and energy to reading. Though the prisoners brought some books with them in their personal property, Spandau Prison had no library so books were sent from Spandau’s municipal library. From 1952 the prisoners were also able to order books from the Berlin central library in Wilmersdorf. Speer was a voracious reader and he completed well over 500 books in the first three years at Spandau alone. He read classic novels, travelogues, books on ancient Egypt, and biographies of such figures as Lucas Cranach, Friedrich Preller, and Genghis Khan. Speer took to the prison garden for enjoyment and work, at first to do something constructive while afflicted with writer’s block. He was allowed to build an ambitious garden, transforming what he initially described as a „wilderness” into what the American commander at Spandau described as „Speer’s Garden of Eden”.
Speer’s supporters maintained a continual call for his release. Among those who pledged support for Speer’s sentence to be commuted were Charles de Gaulle, U.S. diplomatGeorge Ball, former U.S. High Commissioner John J. McCloy, and former Nuremberg prosecutor Hartley Shawcross. Willy Brandt was a strong advocate of Speer’s, supporting his release,[ sending flowers to his daughter on the day of his release, and putting an end to the de-Nazification proceedings against Speer, which could have caused his property to be confiscated. A reduced sentence required the consent of all four of the occupying powers, and the Soviets adamantly opposed any such proposal.Speer served his full sentence, and was released on the stroke of midnight as October 1, 1966 began.
Release and later life
Speer’s release from prison was a worldwide media event, as reporters and photographers crowded both the street outside Spandau and the lobby of the Berlin hotel where Speer spent his first hours of freedom in over 20 years. However, Speer said little, reserving most comments for a major interview published in Der Spiegel in November 1966, in which he again took personal responsibility for crimes of the Nazi regime. Abandoning plans to return to architecture (two proposed partners died shortly before his release), he revised his Spandau writings into two autobiographical books, and later researched and published a third work, about Himmler and the SS. His books, most notablyInside the Third Reich (in German, Erinnerungen, or Reminiscences) and Spandau: The Secret Diaries, provide a unique and personal look into the personalities of the Nazi era, and have become much valued by historians. Speer was aided in shaping the works by Joachim Fest andWolf Jobst Siedler from the publishing house Ullstein. However, Speer found himself unable to re-establish his relationship with his children, even with his son Albert, who had also become an architect. According to Speer’s daughter Hilde, „One by one my sister and brothers gave up. There was no communication.”
Following the publication of his bestselling books, Speer donated a considerable amount of money to Jewish charities. According to Siedler, these donations were as high as 80% of his royalties. Speer kept the donations anonymous, both for fear of rejection, and for fear of being called a hypocrite.
As early as 1953, when Wolters strongly objected to Speer referring to Hitler in the memoirs draft as a criminal, Speer had predicted that were the writings to be published, he would lose a „good many friends”. This came to pass, as following the publication of Inside the Third Reich, close friends, such as Wolters and sculptor Arno Breker, distanced themselves from him. Hans Baur, Hitler’s personal pilot, suggested, „Speer must have taken leave of his senses.” Wolters wondered that Speer did not now „walk through life in a hair shirt, distributing his fortune among the victims of National Socialism, forswear all the vanities and pleasures of life and live on locusts and wild honey”.
Speer made himself widely available to historians and other enquirers. He did an extensive, in-depth interview for the June 1971 issue ofPlayboy magazine, in which he stated, „If I didn’t see it, then it was because I didn’t want to see it.” In October 1973, Speer made his first trip to Britain, flying to London under an assumed name to be interviewed on the BBC Midweek programme by Ludovic Kennedy. Upon arrival, he was detained for almost 8 hours at Heathrow Airport when British immigration authorities discovered his true identity. The Home Secretary, Robert Carr, allowed Speer into the country for 48 hours. While in London eight years later to participate in the BBC Newsnight programme, Speer suffered a stroke and died on September 1, 1981. Speer had formed a relationship with a German woman living in England, and was with her at the time of his death.
Even to the end of his life, Speer continued to question his actions under Hitler. In his final book, Infiltration, he asks, „What would have happened if Hitler had asked me to make decisions that required the utmost hardness? … How far would I have gone? … If I had occupied a different position, to what extent would I have ordered atrocities if Hitler had told me to do so?” Speer leaves the questions unanswered.
Legacy and controversy
The Soviet War Memorial, constructed using marble from Speer’s Chancellery
Little remains of Speer’s personal architectural works, other than the plans and photographs. No buildings designed by Speer in the Nazi era remain in Berlin; a double row of lampposts along the Strasse des 17. Juni designed by Speer still stands. The tribune of the Zeppelinfeldstadium in Nuremberg, though partly demolished, may also be seen.Speer’s work may also be seen in London, where he redesigned the interior of the German Embassy to the United Kingdom, then located at 7–9 Carlton House Terrace. Since 1967, it has served as the offices of the Royal Society. His work there, stripped of its Nazi fixtures and partially covered by carpets, survives in part.
A perhaps more important legacy was the Arbeitsstab Wiederaufbau zerstörter Städte (Working group on Reconstruction of destroyed cities), authorized by Speer in 1943 to rebuild bombed German cities to make them more livable in the age of the automobile. Headed by Wolters, the working group took a possible military defeat into their calculations. The Arbeitsstab’s recommendations served as the basis of the postwar redevelopment plans in many cities, and Arbeitsstab members became prominent in the rebuilding.
Actions regarding the Jews
As General Building Inspector, Speer was responsible for the Central Department for Resettlement. From 1939 onwards, the Department used the Nuremberg Laws to evict Jewish tenants of non-Jewish landlords in Berlin, to make way for non-Jewish tenants displaced by redevelopment or bombing. Eventually, 75,000 Jews were displaced by these measures. Speer was aware of these activities, and inquired as to their progress. At least one original memo from Speer so inquiring still exists, as does the Chronicle of the Department’s activities, kept by Wolters.
Following his release from Spandau, Speer presented to the German Federal Archives an edited version of the Chronicle, stripped by Wolters of any mention of the Jews. When David Irving discovered discrepancies between the edited Chronicle and other documents, Wolters explained the situation to Speer, who responded by suggesting to Wolters that the relevant pages of the original Chronicle should „cease to exist”. Wolters did not destroy the Chronicle, and, as his friendship with Speer deteriorated, allowed access to the original Chronicleto doctoral student Matthias Schmidt (who, after obtaining his doctorate, developed his thesis into a book, Albert Speer: The End of a Myth). Speer considered Wolters’ actions to be a „betrayal” and a „stab in the back”. The original Chronicle reached the Archives in 1983, after both Speer and Wolters had died.
Knowledge of the Holocaust
Speer maintained at Nuremberg and in his memoirs that he had no knowledge of the Holocaust. In Inside the Third Reich, he wrote that in mid-1944, he was told by Hanke (by thenGauleiter of Lower Silesia) that the minister should never accept an invitation to inspect a concentration camp in neighboring Upper Silesia, as „he had seen something there which he was not permitted to describe and moreover could not describe”. Speer later concluded that Hanke must have been speaking of Auschwitz, and blamed himself for not inquiring further of Hanke or seeking information from Himmler or Hitler:
These seconds [when Hanke told Speer this, and Speer did not inquire] were uppermost in my mind when I stated to the international court at the Nuremberg Trial that, as an important member of the leadership of the Reich, I had to share the total responsibility for all that had happened. For from that moment on I was inescapably contaminated morally; from fear of discovering something which might have made me turn from my course, I had closed my eyes … Because I failed at that time, I still feel, to this day, responsible for Auschwitz in a wholly personal sense.
Much of the controversy over Speer’s knowledge of the Holocaust has centered on his presence at the Posen Conference on October 6, 1943, at which Himmler gave a speech detailing the ongoing Holocaust to Nazi leaders. Himmler said, „The grave decision had to be taken to cause this people to vanish from the earth … In the lands we occupy, the Jewish question will be dealt with by the end of the year.” Speer is mentioned several times in the speech, and Himmler seems to address him directly. In Inside the Third Reich, Speer mentions his own address to the officials (which took place earlier in the day) but does not mention Himmler’s speech.
In 1971, American historian Erich Goldhagen published an article arguing that Speer was present for Himmler’s speech. According to Fest in his biography of Speer, „Goldhagen’s accusation certainly would have been more convincing”had he not placed supposed incriminating statements linking Speer with the Holocaust in quotation marks, attributed to Himmler, which were in fact invented by Goldhagen. In response, after considerable research in the German Federal Archives in Koblenz, Speer said he had left Posen around noon (long before Himmler’s speech) in order to journey to Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenburg. In Inside the Third Reich, published before the Goldhagen article, Speer recalled that on the evening after the conference, many Nazi officials were so drunk that they needed help boarding the special train which was to take them to a meeting with Hitler. One of his biographers, Dan van der Vat, suggests this necessarily implies he must have still been present at Posen then, and must have heard Himmler’s speech. In response to Goldhagen’s article, Speer had alleged that in writing Inside the Third Reich, he erred in reporting an incident that happened at another conference at Posen a year later, as happening in 1943.
In 2005, British newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported that documents had surfaced indicating that Speer had approved the allocation of materials for the expansion of Auschwitz after two of his assistants toured the facility on a day when almost a thousand Jews were murdered. The documents supposedly bore annotations in Speer’s own handwriting. Speer biographer Gitta Sereny stated that, due to his workload, Speer would not have been personally aware of such activities.
The debate over Speer’s knowledge of, or complicity in, the Holocaust made him a symbol for people who were involved with the Nazi regime yet did not have (or claimed not to have had) an active part in the regime’s atrocities. As film director Heinrich Breloer remarked, „[Speer created] a market for people who said, ‘Believe me, I didn’t know anything about [the Holocaust]. Just look at the Führer’s friend, he didn’t know about it either.'”
In 2007, however, correspondence between Speer and a Belgian resistance widow Hélène Jeanty, indicated that Speer had indeed been present for Himmler’s presentation. 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…Who would believe me that I suppressed this, that it would have been easier to have written all of this in my memoirs?”