Nazi Architect Albert Speer

German dictator Adolf Hitler and Architect Albert Speer inspect the building of the Hause Der Deutschen Kunst (House of German Arts) in Munich, Germany. (circa 1935). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

During the Third Reich, Albert Speer was Adolf Hitler's personal architect and, during World War II, became Germany's Minister of Armaments. Speer had come to the personal attention of Hitler and was ultimately invited into his inner circle because of his architectural skill, his attention to detail, and his ability to build grandiose architectural projects on time. 

At the end of the war, because of his high rank and crucial ministry position, Speer was one of the most-wanted Nazis.

Arrested on May 23, 1945, Speer was tried at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity and war crimes, and was convicted based upon his massive use of forced labor.

Throughout the trial, Speer denied any personal knowledge of the atrocities of the Holocaust. Unlike the other top Nazis that were tried at Nuremberg in 1946, Speer seemed remorseful and admitted to a collective guilt for the actions taken by the Nazis during World War II. Speer's complete loyalty and thoroughness in his job while still turning a blind eye to the Holocaust has caused some to label him "the Good Nazi."

Speer was sentenced to 20 years in prison, which he served in Spandau Prison in West Berlin from July 18, 1947 to October 1, 1966.

Life Before the Third Reich

Born in Mannheim, Germany on March 19, 1905, Albert Speer grew up near the town of Heidelberg in a house built by his father, a prominent architect. The Speers, an upper middle-class family, fared better than many Germans, who suffered great deprivation during and after World War I.

Speer, at his father's insistence, studied architecture in college, although he would have preferred mathematics. He graduated in 1928 and stayed on at the university in Berlin to work as a teaching assistant for one of his professors.

Speer married Margarete Weber that same year, over the objections of his parents, who believed she was not good enough for their son.

The couple went on to have six children together.

Speer Joins the Nazi Party

Speer was invited by some of his students to attend his first Nazi rally in December 1930. Drawn in by Adolf Hitler's promises to restore Germany to its former greatness, Speer joined the Nazi Party in January 1931.

Speer would later claim that he was lured by Hitler's plan to unify Germans and strengthen their country, but that he had paid little attention to Hitler's racist, anti-Semitic rhetoric. Speer soon became deeply involved with the Nazi Party and one of its most loyal members.

In 1932, Speer took on his first job for the Nazi Party - the remodeling of the local party district headquarters. He was then hired to redesign Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels' residence. Through these jobs, Speer became acquainted with members of the Nazi leadership, ultimately meeting Hitler later that year.

Becoming "Hitler's Architect"

Adolf Hitler, appointed chancellor of Germany in January 1933, quickly seized power, becoming, in effect, a dictator. The prevailing rise in German nationalism—along with fears about the German economy—gave Hitler the popular support he needed to sustain that power.

To maintain this popular support, Hitler called upon Speer to help create venues at which Hitler could gather his supporters and disseminate propaganda.

Speer received high praise for his design for a May Day rally held at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin in 1933. His use of giant Nazi banners and hundreds of spotlights made for a dramatic setting.

Soon, Speer became closely acquainted with Hitler himself. While remodeling Hitler's apartment in Berlin, Speer frequently dined with the Führer, who shared his passion for architecture.

In 1934, Speer became Hitler’s personal architect, taking the place of Paul Ludwig Troost who had died in January.

Hitler then entrusted Speer with a prestigious assignment—the design and construction of the site of the Nuremberg Nazi Party rallies.

Two Architectural Successes

Speer's design for the stadium was massive in scale, with enough seats in the Zeppelin Field and grandstand for 160,000 people. Most impressive was his use of a row of 150 searchlights, which shot beams of light up into the night sky.

Visitors marveled at these "cathedrals of light."

Speer was then given a commission to construct the New Reich Chancellery, finishing it in 1939. (It was beneath this 1300-foot-long building that Hitler’s bunker, in which Hitler committed suicide at the end of the war, was constructed in 1943.)

Germania: A Grandiose Plan

Pleased with Speer's work, Hitler proposed that he take on the Reich's boldest architectural project yet: the remaking of Berlin into a magnificent new city to be called "Germania."

The plans featured a grand boulevard, a memorial arch, and an array of enormous office buildings. Hitler gave Speer the authority to evict people and demolish buildings to make way for the new structures.

As part of this project, Speer was in charge of the apartments emptied after the evacuation of several thousand Jews from their flats in Berlin in 1939. Many of these Jews were later deported to camps in the East.

Hitler's grandiose Germania, interrupted by the onset of war in Europe (which Hitler himself had instigated), would never be built.

Speer Becomes Minister of Armaments

In the early stages of the war, Speer had no direct involvement in any aspect of the conflict, instead staying occupied with his architectural duties. As the war escalated, however, Speer and his staff found themselves forced to abandon their work on Germania. They turned, instead, to building bomb shelters and repairing the damage done in Berlin by British bombers.

In 1942, things changed when high-ranking Nazi Fritz Todt died unexpectedly in an airplane crash, leaving Hitler in need of a new Minister of Armaments and Munitions.

Fully aware of Speer’s attention to detail and ability to get things done, Hitler appointed Speer to this important position.

Todt, who had been excellent at his job, had expanded his influence to include everything from the production of tanks to management of water and energy resources to adapting the Russian railroad tracks to fit German trains. In short, Speer, who had no previous experience with munitions or the war industry, suddenly found himself in charge of nearly the entire war economy.

Despite his lack of specific experience, Speer used his formidable organizational skills to master the position. Faced with Allied bombings of key production sites, challenges of supplying a two-front war, and an increasing shortage of manpower and weapons, Speer miraculously managed to increase the production of arms and munitions annually, peaking only near the end of the war in 1944.

Speer’s amazing results with Germany’s war economy is estimated to have lengthened the war by months or possibly even by years, but in 1944 even he could see that the war could not go on for much longer.

Captured

With Germany facing certain defeat, Speer, who had been an absolutely loyal follower, began to change his opinion of Hitler. When Hitler sent out the Nero Decree on March 19, 1945 ordering all supply facilities within the Reich to be destroyed, Speer countered the order, successfully preventing Hitler’s scorched-Earth policy from being put into effect.

One-and-a-half months later, Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945 and Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7th.

Albert Speer was found and captured by the Americans on May 15. Thankful to have captured him alive, interrogators desperately wanted to know how he had kept the German war economy going while under such duress. During seven days of interrogation, Speer calmly and thoroughly answered all of their questions.

While much of Speer’s success stemmed from creating an extremely streamlined operation, another part came from using slave labor throughout the war to resupply both armaments and munitions. Specifically, this slave labor came from both Jews in ghettos and camps as well as other forced laborers from across the occupied countries.

(Speer would later claim during his trial that he had never personally ordered the use of slave labor; rather, he had asked his commissioner of labor deployment to find laborers for him.)

On May 23, 1945, the British officially arrested Speer, charging him with crimes against humanity and war crimes.

A Defendant at Nuremburg

The International Military Tribunal, created jointly by the Americans, British, French, and the Russians, set out to prosecute Nazi leaders. The Nuremberg Trials began on November 20, 1945; Speer shared the courtroom with 20 co-defendants.

While Speer never admitted to personal guilt for the atrocities, he did claim collective guilt as a member of the party leadership.

Incredibly, Speer claimed ignorance of the Holocaust. He also declared that he had tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Hitler using poison gas. That claim, however, has never been substantiated.

The sentences were handed down on October 1, 1946. Speer was found guilty on both counts, mainly related to his role in the forced labor program. He was given a sentence of 20 years. Of his co-defendants, eleven were sentenced to death, three were given life imprisonment, three were acquitted, and three others received sentences from 10 to 20 years.

It is generally agreed that Speer escaped the death sentence by his demeanor at court, specifically because he seemed at least somewhat remorseful and accepted at least some of the responsibility of his actions.

On Oct 16, 1946, the ten who had received death sentences were executed by hanging. Hermann Goering (commander of the Luftwaffe and former head of the Gestapo) committed suicide the night before he was to have been executed.

Speer's Incarceration and Life After Spandau

Entering into incarceration on July 18, 1947 at the age of 42, Albert Speer became prisoner number five at Spandau Prison in West Berlin. Speer served his entire 20-year sentence. The only other inmates at Spandau were the six other defendants who had been sentenced along with him at Nuremberg.

Speer coped with the monotony by taking walks in the prison yard and raising vegetables in the garden. He also kept a secret diary for the entire 20 years, written on scraps of paper and toilet tissue. Speer was able to smuggle them out to his family, and later published them in 1975 as a book, Spandau: The Secret Diaries.

During his final days of imprisonment, Speer shared the prison with only two other inmates: Baldur von Schirach (leader of the Hitler Youth) and Rudolf Hess (Deputy Führer to Hitler before he flew to England in 1941).

At midnight on October 1, 1966, both Speer and Schirach were released from prison, having served their 20-year sentences.

Speer, 61 years old, rejoined his wife and his adult children. But after so many years away from his children, Speer was a stranger to them. He struggled to adjust to life outside of prison.

Speer began work on his memoir, Inside the Third Reich, published in 1969.

Fifteen years after his release, Albert Speer died of a stroke on September 1, 1981 at the age of 76. While many call Albert Speer “the good Nazi,” his true culpability in the Nazi regime has long been the subject of controversy.