Albert Speer was Hitler's Minister of Armaments from 1942 onwards, and for much of the 1930s and early 1940s was the closest thing that Hitler had to a friend. He was tried at Nuremberg in 1945 - 1946 for various war crimes and crimes against humanity, and found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, though he was acquitted on the other two counts (participating in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of crime against peace, and planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace). He was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment at Spandau, which he served.
At his trial, Speer was the one Nazi leader who admitted at least a sense of general responsibility for the crimes of the Nazi regime. However, he was always very careful to deny direct knowledge for the greatest crime of all - the Holocaust. If it had been shown that he knew, he surely would have been hanged, like Fritz Sauckel, the man who rounded up the labour that Speer used to keep the factories running.
These seconds 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.
However, his claims to not have known became more controversial as the years went along, and new information surfaced, particularly about his presence at the Posen Conference on October 6, 1943, at which Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler gave a speech in which he detailed 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 was mentioned several times in the speech, and Himmler seemed to address him directly.
In Inside the Third Reich, Speer mentioned his own address to the officials (which took place earlier in the day), but did not mention Himmler's speech. He later claimed that he left before Himmler gave his speech. However, in Inside the Third Reich, 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 suggested this necessarily implied he must have still been present at Posen then, and must have heard Himmler's speech. In response, Speer claimed 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 - a claim which strains credulity on such an important point.
Speer died in 1981 whilst on a visit to London. To the end of his life, he maintained that he did not know about the Holocaust, and that he was not at Posen for Himmler's speech. It's hard to find a historian who accepts the former contention anymore. Gitta Sereny, in her book Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth, concluded that Speer must have known about the Final Solution at least by the time of the Posen conference, whether or not he was actually present at Himmler's speech. She based this judgment on extensive conversations with Speer, analysis of his published and unpublished writings, and interviews with Speer's family and colleagues. In Sereny's view, Speer's acknowledgment of his guilt as a Nazi and his complicity in crimes of which he claimed to be unaware was part of a complex process by which he evaded acknowledgment of the full truth.
I wrote my major paper in law school on a comparative study of Speer's case at Nuremberg versus that of Sauckel. My conclusion was that Speer should have been hanged with Sauckel. Speer's responsibility as the man who employed the slave labour was at least as great as that of Sauckel, who procured that labour. Also, Speer's position in the Nazi hierarchy was far more significant than Sauckel's. Finally, I was convinced beyond a reasonable doubt, as Sereny was, that Speer knew about the Holocaust, no matter how much he struggled with this knowledge in later years.
Questions such as: "what did Albert Speer know?" are useful, however, because they provided a window into a bigger question: "what did the average German know?"
It's a question that leads us to... us.
It's easy now to look back at the Nazis and say that was then, and there, and they were a singular kind of evil. We look at the likes of Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich, who have assumed an almost cartoon-like quality over the decades, and then look around and comfort ourselves with the thought that it could never happen to us. They were an anomaly, we say. Monsters. It could never happen again, and certainly not here.
But those men were the exception. Speer was the rule. He was a bright, civilized man, filled with ambition. He was the thoroughly modern man who enabled the monsters to flourish. It's was probably the key factor that saved his life at Nuremberg - compared with a thug like Sauckel, or a killer like Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Speer looked normal, because he was normal. Subconsciusly, he reminded the Western judges of themselves. They could convict him, and the could sentence him to prison, but they couldn't bring themselves to hang him, because they couldn't bring themselves to see him as he was - just as guilty as the monsters. He was, in the end, their kind of Nazi.
That was their tragic mistake. Without Speer, and millions like him, there would have been no Nazi regime, no Second World War, no Holocaust. He wasn't less guilty; he was the most guilty of them all - not because he was a monster, but because he wasn't.
When one looks at the life and career of Albert Speer, the correct question isn't to ask what he knew, or even what he wanted to know, but what he didn't want to know. Then we have to ask ourselves what happens when everyone in government, and industry, and our society in general, acts like Speer. What happens when people just don't want to know anymore?
That's the question that, in our own way, we all need to ask ourselves, every day. It's not the next Adolf Hitler we need to be looking for, it's the next Albert Speer, hiding inside each and every one of us.