You teachers out there, admit it; there are some works – or problems or labs or wars or figures, depending on your subject – that you always come back to. Maybe you love Hamlet and figure out a way to work it into every class you teach. Maybe the Civil War fascinates you and plays a prominent role in your courses. Maybe you think that Eleanor Roosevelt was one cool lady, and you figure out a way to work her into as many of your lessons as you can. My suspicion is that all teachers do this: we all have things – subjects, figures, questions – that we keep coming back to not only because we love them, but because we can mine so much of value from them for our students.
One of my favorites is Albert Speer. Born in 1905 in Mannheim, Germany, Speer studied to become an architect. He joined the Nazi party in 1931 and caught the attention of Adolf Hitler, who later made him Minister of Armaments. There is considerable debate among historians as to how loyal a Nazi Speer actually was: while he used slave labor from concentration camps and was responsible for an incredibly efficient armament production machine for the Nazis, he is also said to have been part of an (obviously failed) assassination plot against Hitler and encouraged his comrades to try to lose the war as quickly as possible as soon as it became clear that Germany was going to lose anyway. He was concerned about not bringing more destruction and misery to the German people, and was said to be loudly in favor of simply surrendering without further resistance.
Speer was also one of the few to admit guilt and express remorse during the Nuremberg trials. While he plead “not guilty,” he cooperated with the tribunal and tried to encourage his fellow defendants to do the same. He escaped a death sentence; he spent 20 years in Spandau prison and died of natural causes in London in 1981.
I haven’t read much of Speer’s work – he wrote two books – but I keep coming back to his final statement to the Nuremberg Tribunal in August of 1946 – Speer spoke on the 31st of that month. I’ve used this piece in pretty much every class I’ve taught; it works equally well in composition classes as an achingly persuasive essay it does in public speaking classes as a well-crafted piece of rhetoric (and I particularly love how beautifully it works when read with Reagan’s Comments at the Brandenburg Gate). I’ve used it in grammar classes as well, as part of the reading comprehension component. The statement serves me very well in every classroom.
Despite the man’s despicable past, Speer did give the world an all-around great piece of writing. Teaching my students to see beyond the swastika and recognize that this man, for all his faults, had something important and worthwhile to say is a particularly important lesson, and is one that I very much enjoy working through in every class I teach.
The final statement is difficult to find online, so I transcribe it here for you. I hope you see some of the same brilliance and eloquence in it that I see, and I welcome your thoughts and comments.
Mr. President, may it please the Tribunal: Hitler and the collapse of his system have brought a time of tremendous suffering upon the German people. The useless continuation of this war and the unnecessary destruction make the work of reconstruction more difficult. Privation and misery have come to the German people. After this trial, the German people will despise and condemn Hitler as the proved author of its misfortune. But the world will learn from these happenings not only to hate dictatorship as a form of government, but to fear it.
Hitler’s dictatorship differed in one fundamental point from all its predecessors in history. His was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made a complete use of all technical means in a perfect manner for the domination of its own country.
Through technical devices like the radio and the loudspeaker, eighty million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man. The telephone, teletype and radio made it possible, for instance, that orders from the highest sources could be transmitted directly to the lowest ranking units, by whom, because of the high authority, they were carried out without criticism. From this it resulted that numerous offices and headquarters were directly attached to the supreme leadership, from which they received their sinister orders directly. Another result was the far- reaching supervision of the citizens of the State and the maintenance of a high degree of secrecy for criminal events.
Perhaps to the outsider this machinery of the State may appear like the cables of a telephone exchange – apparently without system. But, like the latter, it could be served and dominated by one single will.
Earlier dictators during their work of leadership needed highly qualified assistants, even at the lowest level, men who could think and act independently. The totalitarian system in the period of modern technical development can dispense with them; the means of communication alone make it possible to mechanize the lower leadership. As a result of this there arises the new type of the uncritical recipient of orders.
We had only reached the beginning of the development. The nightmare of many a man that one day nations could be dominated by technical means was all but realized in Hitler’s totalitarian system.
Today the danger of being terrorized by technocracy threatens every country in the world. In modern dictatorship this appears to me inevitable. Therefore, the more technical the world becomes, the more necessary is the promotion of individual freedom and the individual’s awareness of himself as a counterbalance.
Hitler not only took advantage of technical developments to dominate his own people – he nearly succeeded, by means of his technical lead, in subjugating the whole of Europe. It was merely due to a few fundamental shortcomings of organization, such as are typical in a dictatorship because of the absence of criticism, that he did not have twice as many tanks, aircraft, and submarines before 1942.
But if a modern industrial State utilizes its intelligence, its science, its technical developments and its production for a number of years in order to gain a lead in the sphere of armament, then, even with a sparing use of its manpower, it can, because of its technical superiority, completely overtake and conquer the world, if other nations should employ their technical abilities during that same period only on behalf of the cultural progress of humanity.
The more technical the world becomes, the greater this danger will be, and the more serious will be an established lead in the technical means of warfare.
This war ended with remote-controlled rockets, aircraft with the speed of sound, new types of submarines, torpedoes which find their own targets, with atom bombs, and with the prospect of a horrible kind of chemical warfare.
Of necessity the next war will be overshadowed by these new destructive inventions of the human mind.
In five to ten years the technique of warfare will make it possible to fire rockets from continent to continent with uncanny precision. By atomic fission it can destroy one million people in the centre of New York in a matter of seconds with a rocket manned, perhaps, by only ten men, invisible, without previous warning, faster than sound. Science is able to spread pestilence among human beings and animals and to destroy crops by insect warfare. Chemistry has developed terrible weapons with which it can inflict unspeakable suffering upon helpless human beings.
Will there ever again be a nation which will use the technical discoveries of this war for the preparation of a new war, while the rest of the world is employing the technical progress of this war for the benefit of humanity, thus attempting to create a slight compensation for its horrors?
As a former minister of a highly developed armament system, it is my last duty to say the following:
A new large-scale war will end with the destruction of human culture and civilization. Nothing prevents unconfined technique and science from completing the work of destroying human beings, which it has begun in so dreadful a way in this war.
Therefore, this Trial must contribute towards preventing such degenerate wars in the future and towards establishing rules whereby human beings can live together.
Of what importance is my own fate after everything that has happened in comparison with this high goal?
During the past centuries the German people have contributed much towards the creation of human civilization. Often they have made these contributions in times when they were just as powerless and helpless as they are today. Worthwhile human beings will not let themselves be driven to despair. They will create new, lasting values and, under the tremendous pressure brought to bear upon everyone today, these new works will be of particular greatness.
But if the German people create new cultural values in the unavoidable period of their poverty and weakness – but at the same time in the period of their reconstruction – then they will, in that way, make the most valuable contribution to world events which their position allows them to.
It is not war alone which shapes the history of humanity, but also, in a higher sense, the cultural achievements which one day will become the common property of all humanity. But a nation which believes in its future will never perish. May God protect Germany and the culture of the West.
photo courtesy of The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum via the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law