Who Were the Spandau Seven?

On October 1st, 1946, twenty-one defendants were led before magistrates one by one and had their sentences delivered at the war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany. Three were acquitted and walked free, eleven were given death sentences and hanged, except for Göring who chose suicide by cyanide poisoning. The final seven received sentences ranging from ten years to life in prison. Since this was a military tribunal governed by four allied military powers, these sentences were not subject to the normal review and appeals process. The accused were found guilty of crimes against humanity and waging aggressive wars, laws not on the books in any country or international treaty at the time.

It was a difficult proposition since the Nazis were assuredly guilty of these crimes had there actually been international laws. Humanity was so outraged that we had few qualms in proceeding against them at the war’s conclusion. The defeated called it ‘victor’s justice’ but little did they know the type of retribution some had planned. At the Yalta conference in 1944, Stalin quite clearly stated that he wanted a minimum of fifty thousand Germans executed after the war which Churchill vehemently opposed, wanting the semblance of justice to be done. Stalin later quietly approached Churchill apologetically saying he was merely joking. The resulting compromise was the Nuremberg trials. The vagaries of the problem eventually led to the establishment of Human Rights and International Laws, but at the time they were improvising.

The remaining seven were Karl Dönitz, Walther Funk, Erich Raeder, Baron Konstantin von Neurath, Baldur von Shirach, Rudolf Hess, and Albert Speer. They remained in Nuremberg for several months while the four occupying powers debated where to permanently house them. Eventually they were moved in 1947 to Spandau prison in the same-named district of Berlin. Each of the powers, England, France, the United States and the Soviet Union shared guard duties. Once a month the control would pass on to the next in rotation. There would always be a mixture of nationalities on guard duty. Albert Speer stated that its complexity was the bureaucratic equivalent of a perpetual motion machine.

The prisoners were first subjected to harsh rules – no talking, and walks to be conducted ten feet apart during half-hour exercise sessions. Up at six a.m. and no sleeping until 10 p.m. Speer had been blackballed at the trial by his co-accused because he was the only one who accepted guilt and apologized for what the Nazis had done. He would also not attempt to obfuscate the history of the Nazi crimes. Although Hitler’s closest confidant for a number of years, Göring succeeded in ostracizing him. Never cowed, Speer spent his prison years in intellectual isolation from the others.

Former navy men, rivals for Hitler’s attentions, Karl Dönitz and Erich Raeder were at odds during their imprisonment. Raeder was convicted due to his aggressive stance toward America, frequently cajoling Hitler to declare war on the U.S. as soon as possible to knock out their navy. Walther Funk, Economics Minister and Baldur Shirach, Hitler Youth leader and Gauleiter of Vienna, were guilty of crimes against humanity, when in their positions of leadership they either deported Jews to death-camps or to work camps where death was the inevitable outcome. They were minor functionaries who had allowed opportunism and engrained anti-Semitism to make them take steps they would live to regret. They became friends but remained aloof with the others. Neurath was an old-school diplomat, head of Foreign Affairs until Ribbentrop took that post, then went to rule in Czechoslovakia where he stepped afoul of Allied retroactive laws by putting down student protests that resulted in their deaths.

Rudolf Hess, probably the luckiest prisoner at Spandau, had narrowly escaped the death penalty by a crafty ruse of insanity. As Deputy Führer and a rabid anti-Semite, he had drafted into law many of the decrees that began the persecution of the Jews in pre-war Germany, most notably the Nuremberg laws. It was his wording on these laws and Hitler merely signed them. During his trial he engaged in quite nutty behavior, and it’s probably due to this that he wasn’t sentenced to death. Another mitigating factor was that he flew to Scotland in 1941, and so was absent during the extermination of European Jewry. Hess kept up the charade of being crazy for years but it had no impact on his treatment and he eventually gave it up. Speer relates one incident when he saw Hess emerging from the shower smiling and chipper but the instant he discovered he was being observed he re-assumed his griping expression of madness. It’s quite possible that Rudolf Hess was very neurotic and borderline psychotic in spite of these moments of lucidity. He was generally unfriendly with his cell-mates except Albert Speer. He hanged himself at the age of 93 with a lamp cord in 1987 when he had been the sole Spandau prisoner for 21 years. He attempted suicide several times, falling in and out of depression through the years, the last twenty-one of which one could consider solitary confinement. After he died Spandau prison was demolished to prevent it from being a neo-Nazi shrine.

The one repentant Nazi was Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments between 1942 and 1945. Although it can be argued that there isn’t concrete evidence that Speer had knowledge of Nazi atrocities, he accepted that he should have known about it and done something to stop it. At Nuremberg he was the only one to accept responsibility, but curiously it’s in his case where the military tribunal has perhaps erred. It is precisely because he had a conscience that he accepts the moral guilt for events during the Nazi reign of terror. It’s in his secret diaries that we gain insights into his thinking.

Young Albert Speer was Hitler’s protégé. Teenage Hitler dreamed of becoming an architect but the college system had rejected him. As a neo-classical emperor, he needed an architect to impress the world with his imperious ideas and young, impressionable Speer fit the bill. Albert had graduated in classical architecture and most of his designs were imprints of earlier, vintage empires. He designed the stadium at Nuremberg where the annual Nazi rallies were held.

There is much about the German character of the era that can be extrapolated from his designs. It might be said that Speer personified the German psyche of the day – his education was steeped in the classical eras, rigidly following the dictates of design with excessively grandiose marble columns and elaborate stone entrances in order to exaggerate their sense of importance and impact on history. He admits telling Hitler, to hungry acceptance, that he wanted to create buildings that would make excellent ruins for future ages to behold in awe. Hitler found notions of creating uninhibited, individualistic modern or impressionistic art degenerate.

Speer and Hitler saw eye to eye on almost all matters architectural and Speer quickly became his confidant until the war began. However, all plans to renew Berlin or upgrade smaller towns would be put on hold while the war was being pursued. One misfortune for Speer is that he finished the new Reich’s Chancellery building in nine months flat, impressing his boss with his organizational skills which ultimately led to his appointment as Minister for Armaments after the death of his predecessor Todt in a plane crash. Until then, Speer had been a frequent guest at the Berghof, Hitler’s mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps.

It’s through Speer that some of the Führer’s deepest personality quirks are documented. Hitler remarked to Speer during a mountain stroll to the nearby tea-house that he really hated cold weather. It shows how little Hitler knew of his main conquest for ‘lebensraum’ or living space. One wonders why, if he felt this way did he insist in ‘Mein Kampf’ that the East was to be conquered and not a more congenial climate such as the south of France. How little Hitler knew of his targets for expansion other than what had been spawned in his ill-informed imagination! This arrogance would be laid bare in history’s greatest object lesson in the Soviet winters around Moscow and Stalingrad.

Speer kept secret journals written on toilet paper during his imprisonment smuggled out with the help of a medical orderly. It’s due to this subterfuge that we can be thankful we have a cheek-by-jowl history of Hitler’s personality. Speer admits to being influenced by the leadership cult of Hitler and expresses regret at being roped-in by the need to play a part in a historical movement. But we also find out that Speer was not anti-Semitic; he gave up to 80{512b763ef340c1c7e529c41476c7e03bc66d8daea696e1162822661d30dde056} of his book royalties anonymously to Jewish charities. Nor indeed did he hold political views close to his heart, so why did he find it necessary to join the Nazi party?

Hitler in his youth, in the 1890’s would play at schoolyard sword fights and was boyishly fascinated with stories of conquest. Germany set about expanding her territorial borders in the same manner as Napoleon over one hundred years before, but humanity and morality had moved light-years ahead. To get followers, Hitler cultivated this desire for national glory in his listeners at a time when it meant the most to them. Only later would they learn this meant murdering millions of innocents.

Speer was the very embodiment of the elite German of his day; gentlemanly, sophisticated, educated, highly advanced, and industrious. He listened to these mesmerizing speeches about Germany taking her supposedly rightful place among great nations and admits to being taken in. Unlike his co-accused, he repents this youthful and misplaced idol worship and recognizes Hitler as the criminal he was. Perhaps Albert Speer accepted the guilt of the German people vicariously out of a sense of duty to morality itself. Speer led the way for Germany’s rehabilitation, and paid the price for the nation in symbolic penitence. Speer said in his diaries, “The loyalty I practiced to all and sundry, toward Hitler as well as toward Stauffenberg, toward the slave laborers, whom I treated well, toward Sauckel, who rounded them up for me… was… lukewarmness. Much too late I am beginning to grasp that there is only one valid kind of loyalty: toward morality”.

Did Nuremberg substitute Speer for all the thousands of Nazis who the Allies couldn’t track down, document cases against and prosecute in lengthy, expensive and never-ending trials? Stalin would have executed fifty thousand or more, and based on his systematic murder of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn forest, we know for a certainty that he wasn’t joking as he had professed to Churchill. But did we placate Stalin due to our utter exhaustion of the use of mass violence and our desire to live in peace? Based on Stalin’s purges of the thirties in which Khrushchev states Stalin used the court system to murder more than 10,000 political opponents, Soviet judges at Nuremberg had no right to be on this panel. This is morally equivalent to judges with Klan membership sitting on a civil rights trial.

Albert Speer got more than twenty years on arguable evidence of his association to Nazi crimes. Forty years later books by esteemed historians were still trying to answer the question: Did we succumb to Stalinesque justice, with no recourse, no consideration for appeals, no clemency? Was he guilty or just guilty by association? Did we not disregard our own ideals about the burden of proof, the freedoms and rights of an individual that we frequently cite as our reason for going to war? In the tragic story of Albert Speer, can it be asked, without becoming deniers to history’s greatest crime, that we reveal our own wrongdoings more than his? The top British magistrate at Nuremberg stated that Speer was incarcerated for far too long. Read Speer’s diary and let yourself be the judge.

Spandau: The Secret Diaries