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On April 9, 1944, The Observer published a profile of Albert Speer, "dictator of the Nazi industry". Speer, who had started his career as Hitler's architect, had by then been Minister of Armament for two years, and so succesfully that historians would later calculate that his efficient organization of the war industry made Germany hold out for two more years. From this hypothetical perspective, the number of 'extra' war dead as a result of his fabled managerial talent runs into the tens of milions.

The Observer described Speer as:

...the pure technician, the classless bright young man without background, with no other original aim than to make his way in the world and no other means than his technical and managerial ability. It is the lack of psychological and spiritual ballast, and the ease with which he handles the terrifying technical and organisational machinery of our age which makes this slight type go extremely far nowadays.

Almost seventy years later, there are shelfloads of books about Speer, including his own memoires and biographies by Joachim Fest and Gitta Sereny. A dramatic angle, however, proves most insightful in explaining this "slight type", as Esther Vilar did in her play 'Speer'.

Staged in Berlin (1998) and London (1999), 'Speer' uses a clever mix of history and fiction to portray Speer as a modern manager without a conscience, in effect dramatizing the profile of The Observer, which concluded prophetically:

This is their age; the Hitlers and Himmlers we may get rid of, but the Speers, whatever happens to this particular specimen, will long be with us.

Vilar wrote 'Speer' in 1998, long before the economic crisis broke out that put the play's theme back on Western media agendas: the lack of morality of the manager, who wields great power but purely as a technician, ruling the world based on spreadsheets. Today his principle sin is greed, but again "the lack of psychological and spiritual ballast" is baffling.

Vilar's Speer formulates the manager's outlook like this:

A politician should be guided by morality. For him the question is: what should be done? For the manager it's the results which count. His question is, what can be done? ...And what can be done will be done... Whether what can be done is the right thing to do, others have to decide...

German-Argentine writer Esther Vilar is known from her work from the 1970s, including 'The Manipulated Man' in which she sharply attacked feminist thinking of the time. In 'Speer' she creates a fictional arena based on historical facts for a suspenseful verbal duel between an idealistic communist and the pragmatic technocrat Albert Speer.

Set in 1980 in East Berlin, the play revolves around a meeting between Speer and a communist named Bauer. Speer is already in his seventies and has become a minor celebrity after being released from prison, where he has served a twenty year sentence imposed under the Nuremberg trials. Bauer, twenty years his junior, first takes the role of amateur historian, excited with the opportunity of meeting "one of the century's most important figures" to ask Speer about his experiences under Hitler. To Speer this is just a tired ritual.

Don't you think I know why people are so keen to meet me? The ones my age intend to interrogate me about my conduct at the end of the war. After all, I betrayed our Führer. And the younger ones, the ones your age, are dying to interrogate me about my beginnings. How could I have joined those gangsters? Hadn't I read Mein Kampf? So here I am, thirty-five years after Nuremberg, still faced on a daily basis with my own mini-trial.

Bauers enthusiastic questions soon become more pointed, and Speer's role slowly shifts from the amiable elderly man, the 'good Nazi' who repented and is now a writer and TV guest, to a cornered Nazi whose morality is questioned, starting with his success as a writer.

Thirty million dead, Herr Speer! Died on battle fields, in air-raid shelters, labour camps, gas chambers... And you say... You say that of all things, your success as a writer... The reason today's public is so interested in your oeuvre is that no one can understand how such a sympathetic man can be responsible for so many corpses!

To not spoil too much of the play's plot, let it suffice to say that Bauer goes on to lay a cunning trap for Speer, and manages to lay bare the amoral opportunism of this manager, "a born doer", whose only concern is "what can be done". As Speer defends himself:

That's why it's so dangerous if someone like me should fall into the hands of the wrong politicans: because there are certain questions someone like me doesn't ask himself!

It is interesting to compare Vilar's Speer to Adolf Eichmann as portrayed in Hannah Arendt's famous book 'Eichmann in Jerusalem' (1964), and recently in the film 'Hannah Arendt', which (re)introduces Arendt's work.

After having witnessed Eichmann's trial Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil" to describe this "Schreibtischmörder", who had managed the logistics of transporting European Jews to the death camps. Eichmann (or at least Eichmann as portrayed, the matter is contested) didn't fit into the then-accepted category of diabolical Nazis, as he appeared not to be ideologically driven but just following orders. He was the ultimate bureaucrat, and what was frightening was his lack of personal judgment.

In the epilogue to 'Eichmann in Jerusalem' Arendt wrote:

Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been farther from his mind than to determine with Richard III "to prove a villain." Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.

Speer, to be sure, was more than a bureaucrat – he rose to the second most powerful position of the Third Reich – but he, too, seemed motivated only by his career advancement. Whether Speer realized what he was doing remains a fiercely debated question, and one that is at the heart of Vilar's play. (Speer himself always maintained that he didn't know of the Holocaust taking place, or at least: "If I didn't see it, then it was because I didn't want to see it.")

Ultimately, the main difference between Speer and Eichmann may have just been that Speer was more successful in "looking out for his personal advancement". With two 'successful' careers behind him, the play stages for Speer the kind of trial that Arendt would have wished for Eichmann, not political and designed for public edification, but a personal reckoning with the aim of understanding this particular type of evil.

'Speer' does so unflinchingly, and while it is specifically rooted in German history of the 20th century – both the Nazi era and the communist DDR – it transcends its historical context through its universal themes of power, morality and humanity.

It would certainly be interesting to see this play staged again in today's context.

Quotes from 'Speer' are from the English version, translated by Martin Wagner.

The article 'Albert Speer - Dictator of the Nazi Industry' by Sebastian Haffner is online in the Guardian/Observer paid archive. It should become available in the public domain in 2014.

Hannah Arendt's five-part coverage of the Eichmann trial for the New Yorker, the basis for her later book, is online in magazine format: I, II, III, IV, V.

Update: See also the behind-the-scenes documentary 'Klaus Maria Brandauer: Speer in London', directed by translator Martin Wagner.


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