Leni Riefenstahl was an intimate friend of Hitler’s, and sculptor Arno Breker was like a son to him; but the artist who worked most closely of all with the Führer, and whose oeuvre is most inextricable from the Third Reich project, was Albert Speer.
A Nazi Party member since 1931, Speer was tapped by Hitler two years later to oversee the artistic and technical design of Nazi rallies. In 1934, Hitler, who saw Speer as a “kindred spirit,” made him the Party’s chief architect; in 1937, he put him in charge of inspecting buildings in Berlin. Speer designed the Zeppelinfeld stadium (where the annual Nuremberg rallies took place), the German pavilion for a world exposition in Paris, and a new Reich Chancellery. His biggest assignment of all – though it never came to fruition – was almost certainly the most massive architectural enterprise ever conceived. The goal was nothing less than to design an entirely new Berlin.
The thoroughly transformed city would be called Germania, and would be the capital not only of Germany but of the whole civilized world, once it came under Hitler’s thumb. There would be new airports, two new railroad stations, four new ring roads, and new suburbs big enough to house 200,000 people. A building called the Grand Hall would have been the world’s largest enclosed space, with a dome sixteen times the size of St. Peter’s Basilica. Unveiled in January 1938, the plans for Germania – which envisioned a gleaming metropolis of white stone that was reminiscent of ancient Rome – provided a vivid measure of the scale of Hitler’s ambition, not to say megalomania. The demolition work necessary to clear the ground for the construction of Germania was carried out by about 130,000 prisoners of war and forced laborers between 1939 and 1942.
Riefenstahl was able to get off scot-free after the war; not Speer. Tried for war crimes at Nuremberg, he was found guilty, but the judges bought his claim to have been unaware of the Holocaust while it was underway and thus sentenced him only to twenty years in prison instead of death by hanging. Not until 2007, sixteen years after his death, did a letter emerge, written by Speer in 1971, in which he admitted to having attended a speech by Gestapo and SS chief Heinrich Himmler outlining plans for the Holocaust. In short, he had known about the extermination of the Jews all along – and it was foolish of anyone to have believed otherwise.
But they did believe. And consequently, during his prison years and afterwards, Speer underwent an considerable image boost. He came to be viewed as the “good Nazi” – as a gifted architect who had simply found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was sheer nonsense. Speer, as noted, had joined the Nazi Party early on. Although he lied about his knowledge of the Holocaust, he never denied having been an ardent believer in Hitler and a fervent supporter of the war. He looked forward to a world run by his Führer; their glorious plans for Germania, after all, would only have made sense if the city was the capital of the entire Western world.
Speer knew, then, the nature of the man he served; and he approved of that man, and dedicated his art to the singular task of glorifying him. He was no victim of circumstance, but a conscious instrument of evil – a stooge of the first order.