By Albert Speer
In general, I don’t think it’s fruitful to spend a lot of time trying to figure Hitler out.
I certainly understand the impulse: when we discover monsters in our midst, we are strongly motivated to examine them carefully. Partly, this is prurient: monsters are fascinating. But partly, this is survival: we must learn to spot them, so that we can stop them sooner in the future.
But to stop them, we don’t really need to understand them; we just need to be able to recognize them. Which is lucky for us, because the truth is that we will never really be able to satisfy ourselves. There is no window into the minds of our villains that will ever truly explain them.
Hitler is the best and most important example of this incomprehensibility. Oceans of ink have been spilled examining and psychoanalyzing Hitler through his books, his speeches, his relationships, and his actions. Nevertheless, he remains a cipher. Why did he do the things he did? Was he an evil mastermind? An ordinary megalomaniac who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time? Was he mentally ill? Did he really believe all the things he preached, or was he merely manipulating the people around him? How are we to understand him?
The question which has always most troubled me (and everyone else) is: did Hitler understand that his actions were wrong? Let’s take, for example, the attempted extermination of the Jewish people: did Hitler understand that that was wrong? Even if he did not, did he get that other people would think it was wrong? He employed euphemisms when discussing it, which implies that he did, but then, what did he make of that? Did he believe that he acted for good but that he alone in the world saw the truth? Did he believe that everyone secretly agreed with him and that only he had the courage to admit it? Or did he fail to trouble himself with questions of right and wrong at all?
As I said, I don’t usually think too much about these questions, since I believe that they are unanswerable. We will never know what Hitler “really” believed – it is enough to know what he definitely did.
But I recently read Albert Speer’s memoir, ‘Inside the Third Reich’, and it got me grasping again after this old question. Speer was Hitler’s architect and then, later, his Minister of Armaments. He spent quite a lot of time in Hitler’s company, and in his memoirs, he mentions something that Hitler said to him in 1936:
“There are two possibilities for me: to win through with all my plans, or to fail. If I win, I shall be one of the greatest men in history. If I fail, I shall be condemned, despised, and damned.”
Despite my own good advice, I have become fixated on this quotation because it implies that Hitler was aware that other people would consider his actions atrocious. He may have thought they were wrong. He may have considered the atrocity negotiable – he seemed to believe that victories would justify him – but he was cognizant of the fact that, in the world he inhabited, his plans were unacceptable. He saw that, in order to be seen as heroic, he would need to remake the world.
I am particularly struck by his use of the word ‘damned’. Damnation is total; it describes the unredeemable. His use of it suggests that he understood the scale of the problem. It means he knew that his actions would be considered not merely bad, but in fact evil. And, to be frank, I sort of quail before the idea of a mind which can see the evil it is about to do as evil and still do it.
Of course, I am not sure I believe that Hitler actually said that. Speer is fascinating to read in part because he is totally untrustworthy. Clearly a sycophant, he managed to intercalate himself into Hitler’s innermost circles; nevertheless, in his memoirs (written from prison), he positions himself as an intellectual, and pretends to have been able to analyze the workings of the Third Reich from an emotional distance. He does not speak to the atrocities he helped commit, and does not offer a satisfying explanation for how he was taken in. He clearly understands that his proximity to Hitler is the selling point of his memoir, and he endeavors to highlight their closeness while shielding himself from calumny.
And this quote is exactly the kind of quote of which we should be skeptical: historical, self-aware, foreshadowing, significant, intimate. It’s too neat, too good. It is entirely possible, if not likely, that Hitler never said anything such thing.
Which speaks to my original point: we will never know. And even if the quote is legitimate, even if it offers a glimpse into Hitler’s darkness, it’s probably better not to peer too hard after it. Ultimately, Hitler will never satisfy those of us who want to understand evil – he will never yield up his own true beliefs. Maybe it will suffice to say that, in this one case, Hitler was correct: he did fail, and so he is condemned, despised, and damned.