The Master Architect

An evening with Albert Speer.

By Peter Foges

Monday, October 04, 2010

Adolf Hitler visits Paris with Albert Speer (left) and artist Arno Breker (right), 1940. Photograph by Heinrich Hoffman. United States National Archives and Records Administration, College Park. 

“Hitler was an astonishing walking encyclopedia of architecture. He carried in his head the detailed plans of most of the important buildings in Europe. Look at these sketches he gave me. This is the Pantheon in Paris and Les Invalides drawn by him from his memory of plans he studied before he’d ever seen them. And here is an outsized triumphal arch and domed hall he sketched in 1925 when even he believed his political dreams were over. ‘I wish I’d been an architect!’ he often used to say.”

Albert Speer was relaxed during our interview and had no qualms about revisiting his lurid past. He could talk about those years for hours in that fluent, Franconian-accented English of his. He learned it from his American and British military guards in Berlin’s Spandau prison where he was incarcerated for war crimes until 1966. He was lucky not to have been hanged with Ribbentrop and the others.

“Why do you agree to meet foreign journalists like me, and patiently answer our endless questions?” I asked him. “It is my duty,” he replied. “I am the only one left of Hitler’s innermost circle. People such as you and your audience have a right to know.” I got the feeling Frau Speer, who was sitting by his side, had heard it all before.

It was a shining midsummer day in 1974, and we were sitting out of doors on the terrace of the large comfortable family home that had once belonged to his architect father, and to which he had returned after Spandau. We were close to the romantic red sandstone Heidelberger Schloss, once sacked by Louis XIV and among the finest palaces in northern Europe. Beyond it we could see the vineyards of the Neckar River valley and the Palatine hills—and a thousand feet below us, the baroque spires and medieval squares of the ancient university town where Goethe had fallen madly in love and General George C. Patton had died. For two hours Speer had been talking about Hitler.

I had traveled from London that morning to interview him for a BBC television documentary I was producing on the bomb plot of July 1944—the failed attempt by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and a group of aristocrats in the army to assassinate Hitler. Thirty years before, almost to the day, Speer had been in Berlin with Joseph Goebbels, snuffing out a coup d’état and ordering the trial and execution of its leaders. Now we were done and he wanted to talk about something else, namely Hitler the architect

“To him, architecture was a magic word,” Speer explained. “It was his hobby and his passion. He was a self-taught amateur, it’s true, but he knew a lot.” The architect was famously charming. The British author Gitta Sereny, who is Jewish, confessed she found “a good deal to like” in him as she grilled him for her book about what she termed “his battle with the truth.” So when Hitler’s master builder, minister of armaments and war production—and, some would say, only true friend—invited me to stay for a drink, who was I to resist?

I sent my crew back to London with the six precious rolls of film containing his chilling account of how he assisted Goebbels and the SS to round up, arrest, and execute Stauffenberg that day. Then I called the Frankfurt airport, rebooked my flight, settled into a comfortable garden chair and accepted a glass of white wine. Speer at that point was a very sprightly and well-preserved man in his seventies. He disappeared into the house, reappearing moments later with a pile of paper and a few big tomes. It seemed rehearsed almost, and I guessed he’d done this before. “See here. These are architectural drawings Hitler made in his beer-hall days in Munich when he’d never been anywhere. He gave them to me: detailed drawings, models, plans. Such things he found spellbinding.” He laid them out on the large glass-topped table while he wife busied herself serving cold cuts and cheese to accompany the excellent Riesling she poured. “Here’s a sketch of Napoleon’s tomb in Paris. Here, Georges Haussmann’s Champs Èlysées completed in 1870.”

Speer admired Haussmann above all others and could rattle off the exact dimensions and angles of all his boulevards. For him Haussmann was the greatest city planner in history. “And here is the Pantheon in Rome, the one built by Agrippa and rebuilt by Hadrian. A Frenchman called Antoine Desgodetz drew detailed elevations and ground plans of the Pantheon and Hadrian’s villa in the late eighteenth century so that neoclassical French and German architects who had never had the chance to visit Rome, could nevertheless study them. I know, because I was made to copy them when I was studying architecture in Berlin at the Charlottenburg Institute of Technology. But Hitler had no formal training. As a young man in Linz and later in Vienna and Munich, he had literally learned these drawings by heart.”

Picture the scene: it is over thirty years earlier. A deserted Le Bourget airport outside Paris. Dawn, June 28, 1940, three days after the French surrender. A small plane lands, in the mist, and out step four men. First into the waiting Mercedes is the victorious Führer. The other three, wearing curiously ill-fitting and oddly designed uniforms, are Albert Speer, the master planner for Berlin, Hermann Giessler, a self-taught architect favored by the Führer who had been put in charge of planning “a new Munich and a new Linz,” and Arno Breker, the “Nazi Michelangelo,” maker of massive marble male nudes. These three are the creative court favorites du jour. They are here, under orders, to accompany the conqueror as he takes time out from the important work of rearranging the political geography of Europe, and terrorizing millions, to indulge in three hours of tourism. Doubtless, in Hitler’s eyes that morning, Speer, Giessler and Breker are three bohemians, joined by a fourth—an even greater genius than they, namely himself—on a field trip to study the finer points of urban architecture. Despite never having set foot in the French capital, the Führer, naturally, leads the way. In his classic account, Inside the Third Reich, Speer describes their tour:

We drove directly to the opera, Charles Garnier’s great neobaroque building. A white-haired attendant accompanied our small group through the deserted building. Hitler had actually studied the plans of the Paris opera house with great care. Near the proscenium box he found a salon missing, remarked on it, and turned out to be right. The attendant said that this room had been eliminated in renovations many years ago. ‘There, you see how well I know my way around,’ Hitler commented.”

Two years before, Hitler had been in Rome. Between stiff, awkward, official engagements with Il Duce and the Italian King (it was an unsuccessful state visit, never to be repeated), the Nazi leader insisted on making a private pilgrimage to the Pantheon. “For a short while,” Hitler later recalled, “I stood in this space. What majesty! I gazed at the large open oculus and saw the universe. It was only then I sensed what had given this place its name. Pantheon! God and the World are one!”

Apart from the opera, the other must-see for Hitler was Napoleon’s tomb. He gazed down at the French emperor’s sarcophagus at Les Invalides for “a very, very long time, without uttering a single world, as if mesmerized,” Speer recounted. It was this, combined with his admiration for the Roman Pantheon that set him thinking in the early war years about his own mortal remains, and how they should be displayed for posterity.

“Imagine,” he said to Giessler, to whom he intended to entrust the design, “if Napoleon’s sarcophagus had been placed beneath a large oculus, like that of the Pantheon, how much better that would be. It would be exposed to darkness and light, to rain and snow, and would thus be linked to the universe.” He had his own mausoleum planned out. Munich, he decided, would be the place. It was after all where the party had been born in beer and blood. After the war, he sometimes mused during the interminable late-night monologues to which he would regularly subject his exhausted entourage, he would retire to his boyhood home around Linz, in Upper Austria. Mawkishly he would then describe how when the war was won (in 1945, he thought) his “successor” would take over, freeing him to return to a simple, anonymous life in the Danube hills around 1950—Blondi, the dog, and Eva Braun his only companions. And when he died, he said, they would bring his body to Munich to be interred in the small and simple neoclassical mausoleum he had already designed. “No ornaments, no adornment. I want just a simple stone sarcophagus, on the ground, and open to the sky. It will become a cult center, a shrine as famous in the modern world as the mausoleum at Halicarnassus was in the ancient.”

“In my opinion,” Speer told me as we watched the long slow twilight settle in over the Palatine hills, “Hitler’s true architectural tastes never really progressed beyond the style of the Viennese Ringstrasse which he first set eyes on in 1907 as an impressionable eighteen year old. He arrived from provincial Linz to sit the entrance exam of the visual arts academy, and was bowled over by Null’s opera house and the other grand buildings in the center. Yes, he pretended to embrace a kind of neoclassicism later on and used it to dramatic effect. But deeper down, all his tastes, all his ideas—artistic, architectural, and political—came from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century world of his youth. Where buildings and city landscapes were concerned, he was drawn to what I call decadent baroque, to Gottfried Semper’s Burg Theater—‘the most beautiful theater in the world’ he often exclaimed—and the Danish architect Theophil Hansen’s Vienna City Hall which he always referred to as ‘a Hellenic miracle on German soil.’ Hitler remained frozen in that era until the end.” In Mein Kampf, Hitler described how on his first visit to the Austrian capital, “the whole Ring Boulevard seemed to me like an enchantment out of The Thousand and One Nights”

At the academy, the teen aged future Führer managed to get through the first round of the studio-art exam successfully, but failed the second. “Drawing unsatisfactory,” said the report. “There are too few heads.” He tried again the following year, and failed again this time in round one. As he had submitted mainly sketches of buildings, rather than people, the faculty spokesman, German painter Sigmund L’Allemand, suggested he apply to study architecture instead. However, to qualify, an Austrian high-school diploma was needed, and this Hitler did not have. “From that moment on” Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “I resolved to continue my architectural studies by myself. I would remain an autodidact.”

Thirty years later the Führer ordered the rebuilding of thirty German cities, and Speer’s particular mission was to reshape Berlin. “My architecture was essentially political, a display of power,” said Speer without a hint of apology. “Some clever English critic recently called it ‘total’ architecture. The Romans understood this. When they built the new marbled Rome, the Emperors Augustus and Hadrian set out to intimidate, to create awe. My Berlin was designed to do the same. It was modeled on Roman lines. A new imperial Roman city would be laid out with the main avenue being a north-south cardo maximus. This bisected a decumanus maximus running east-west, in the city center, and there, where they crossed, was the forum, where the great public buildings were positioned. Berlin was going to have that. At our intersection we were going to create a huge public forum with massive monuments and state buildings on display—the so-called opera publica. That was where the almost unbelievably massive Volkshalle was going to be. Hitler wanted it to be a copy of the Pantheon in Rome—but twenty times larger.” At this point Speer took out a drawing folded into one of the books he had fetched and spread it on the stone terrace floor. It must have measured three feet by six. “There,” he said. It was the plan, rendered in faded shades of brown and green on a scale of 1: 4,000. At the top of the by-now deeply creased architect’s sheet, it simply said: “A new plan for Berlin, based on an idea of the Führer’s, and worked out in detail by A. Speer.” “Hitler was of course a megalomaniac,” said the former Nazi Inspector General of Buildings for the Renovation of the Federal Capital, matter-of-factly.

Speer was so damned detached, it was hard for me to reconcile this scene with reality. “I can’t believe I’m sitting with a man who knew Hitler, was his friend and was part of the whole evil machine,” I found my inner self exclaiming naively, over and over, as I sat alongside him getting what was, to all intents and purposes, a private academic tutorial in Nazi Architecture and City Planning 101 from the master. The great British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper always used to say Speer the rational technocrat and careerist was a worse war criminal than the fanatics around Hitler who had actually believed in something, however insane and evil, and should have been executed alongside them.

“It’s hard to get a sense of the sheer size of it from this. Basically, in Hitler’s mind, he was constructing something based both on Rome and Haussman’s Paris, only bigger. He was obsessed by the Champs Élysées, with its Arc de Triomphe built by Napoleon. Our north-south axis—Victory Avenue—was to be three times longer and seventy meters wider than Haussman’s boulevard, and traffic free, with a tunnel beneath for cars. Our Victory Arch at the northern end was to be a hundred meters high, far higher than the Arc de Triomphe. And the diameter of the dome of the People’s Hall to the south was to have been six times that of St. Peter’s in Rome. He had no real interest in the rest of the plan, in residential districts, traffic plans, parks. Obviously I had to deal with those things behind his back. You can’t just have monuments. There must be an organic urban scheme as well. I can hear him now when I showed the other districts of the city I was working on. ‘But where are the plans for the Grand Avenue, Speer? Let’s take a look.’ To him it was one gigantic operatic stage. When we have built Berlin, he used to say to me, where will that leave London or Paris? Berlin will one day be the capital of the world.”

Early on, Speer told me, Hitler was tempted by the idea of a green field-city on a virgin site—a fascist Washington. An area was actually earmarked by Hitler in flat marshy Mecklenburg to the north of Berlin, near the Baltic. “Eventually he came to the conclusion that artificially created capitals are lifeless,” Speer said.

So, the old provincial Prussian backwater would remain the capital of Germany, after all, but it would have to be made architecturally worthy of the new Reich. Hitler was fond among his inner circle of reminding them that Bismarck had preached pan-Germanism to the Catholic Bavarians and Frenchified Rhinelanders after the coming of the second Reich. He, in his turn, would give the far-flung Germans of his third Reich—among them Austrians and Sudeten Czechs—a sense of identity and community by changing the old city’s name. From now on Berlin would be known as Germania.

I sensed Speer was tired. It was time to go, and I thanked Frau Speer and bid her goodnight. As he walked me to my car, he asked whether I knew what the very last photograph ever taken of Hitler was. “The very last one—the final image of the Führer—was taken in the bunker” he said. “It shows him intently examining a model of his beloved Linz. He intended to rebuild the little city on the Danube where he’d been a boy and turn it into the culture capital of the whole of Germany. What he was staring at were Hermann Giessler’s plans, with great museums and theaters and the like. Now, with Russian shells exploding forty feet above his concrete reinforced head, and Berlin in flames, it was of course nothing but a pathetic dream. Yet there he is, like Wagner’s Rienzi, bitterly imagining what might have been.”

(Speer was referring there to the final scene of Wagner’s portentous 1842 opera Rienzi—first seen by a bedazzled Hitler in Linz when he was fifteen—based on the true story of Rienzi di Cola, the fourteenth-century populist tribune who raised the power of the Roman people at the expense of the nobles but ended up opposed by all. As he faces death in the burning Capitol, the tribune curses Rome and its ungrateful citizens. “May they be destroyed! Let Rome collapse!” The handwritten score for Rienzi was given to Hitler by Wagner’s family as a fiftieth-birthday gift. Among his most cherished possessions, it was allegedly with him in the bunker at the end).

After a comfortable night and early breakfast in the Zum Ritter, Heidelberg’s oldest inn, I drove to Frankfurt airport and was in London for lunch. Some years later, a BBC colleague invited Albert Speer to London to talk about Hitler the artist and architect, as he had talked to me, but this time on the record. Speer, naturally, agreed, and was filmed and taped at BBC Television Center for an entire day. That evening he retired to his room in the nearby Kensington Hilton, had a massive heart attack, and died in the night.