Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Rereading Albert Speer’s “Inside the Third Reich” By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Hitler rose to power because he exploited in Germans that sense of what Speer called “personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy,” which “was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims.” He turned history into a reservoir of resentments. And he spoke simply. Speaking simply, in this case, meant discarding complexity and disregarding truth.

The book was a worn, thick burgundy paperback, spine splintered in three parts, tiny print crammed on its pages. I read it in the bedroom downstairs, our family dumping ground of books and newspapers, old clothes, forgotten things. I must have been about ten. On the University of Nigeria campus, where I grew up, books (and videocassettes) drifted in and out of homes, borrowed and returned, creased and torn, passed around. I read everything - thrillers, history, romance, classics -some in a cursory way, with passages skipped. But this book absorbed me. I remember certain lines, as words will sometimes float in memory long after a book is forgotten. A theory of ruins. I remember a mute dog named Blondi. I remember the photographs. Grainy, black-and-white images that spoke of European mysteriousness.

Almost thirty years later, I have just reread Albert Speer’s “Inside the Third Reich.” To return to the books of my childhood is to yield to the strain of nostalgia that is curious about the self I once was. What could I, at the age of ten, have found so engaging in the memoir of a Nazi, Adolf Hitler’s de-facto No. 2 man? Perhaps it was the book’s narrative energy, its lucid tone and textured scenes, which create a kind of fluency. Speer’s affluent but unappealing childhood would have interested me—his sickliness, his distant parents, who employ maids in white aprons and fret about their social standing. 

So, too, the palace intrigues of Hitler’s petty court, unctuous men tiptoeing around him, swallowing words that might offend him, jostling for his praise. The characters are compelling, and might have seemed all the more piquant by being “real” people. They are flatly sketched from anecdote, but the unencumbered clarity of their portrayal has a peculiar appeal: the fat, self-indulgent Hermann Göring, drinking champagne and hoarding stolen art; the small-eyed soullessness of Heinrich Himmler. The uncomplicatedness of these sketches functions, too, as emotional directive: we are to feel disgust for Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, a gentle pity for Hitler’s partner, Eva Braun.

And then there is the character of Hitler himself. It might have amused me that a man whose “magic” Speer often refers to did not seem at all magical. In Speer’s telling, Hitler is duplicitous and vacuous, so intimidated by accomplished people that he surrounds himself with shallow hangers-on; he is humorless and only laughs at the expense of others; he tiresomely repeats himself and is delusional, even before the war, with what Speer describes as “fantastic misreadings” of reality. Yet Speer was devoted to him. Awed by him, loyal to him.

In this litany of Hitler’s flaws, Speer demonstrates a slick honesty whose goal is to disarm. If it disarmed me as a child, it repels me as an adult. His rueful acknowledgment of his dedication to Hitler, and his philosophical puzzlement at his own complicity, seeks to cast a glaze of innocence over more: