Playwright Esther Vilar intends to change all that. Lyn Gardner reports
There are few people prepared to apologise for Hitler. No one, bar a few lunatics and extremists, would argue that Goebbels, Himmler and other leading Nazis were actually rather nice chaps when they weren't busy exterminating Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and dissidents. But Albert Speer is another case, Hitler's minister of armaments and the architect of his proposed world capital of Germania, who served 20 years in Spandau Prison for war crimes, has a reputation of being the only respectable Nazi. A nice man, not a political man, who repented of his crimes. Some even say that his only crime was being over-zealous, being too efficient.
When he died in 1981, the New York Times, a paper read daily by millions who lost their families in the Nazi death camps, described Speer as 'a friend of the people'. His biographer, Gita Sereny, was not immune to his famous intelligence, charm and good looks. In the first line of her book, Albert Speer: His Battle With The Truth, she admits to liking him. She gives him a remarkably generous hearing.
Yet, as one of the characters says in Speer, a new play by Esther Vilar that opens at London's Almeida Theatre this week, 'No one can understand how such a sympathetic man can be responsible for so many corpses.' After all, Albert Speer was a convicted war criminal. For the last three years of the war he was the second most powerful man in the Third Reich and Hitler's most trusted lieutenant. Is it really possible, as he claimed at the Nuremberg trials and maintained until the end of his life, that he knew nothing of what was happening to the Jews? That he was not a party to genocide, although willing to apologise for it? Did he lose his soul but then have the moral courage to search and find it again? If, by the end of his 20 years in Spandau, Speer was really so repentant, would he not have kept silent and hidden himself away, rather than embarking on a lucrative career writing bestselling books and making media appearances? There is no doubt where Vilar stands on the subject.
'Speer was the perfect liar. It is impossible that he did not know about the Final Solution. I find it ridiculous so many people fell for it,' says Vilar, whose Jewish father and gentile mother fled Germany in the thirties and settled in Argentina.
'People fell for it because they wanted to. They wanted an example of a moral, decent German, a man who said he had done wrong. Speer became their cause.' Vilar's play is a two-hander between Speer and a Stasi officer, set one evening in 1980 in Communist East Berlin at the Academy of Arts, where 40 years before Hitler and Speer conceived the triumphant city they planned as the capital of a Nazi world. The beauty of the work is that, while Vilar the woman may wear her prejudices on her sleeve, Vilar the playwright gives her villain every chance to defend himself.
Speer, who in the play claims to face 'a nightly Nuremberg' 35 years after the end of the war, is, on paper at least, a persuasive figure. He seems likely to be given a seductive allure by the actor who portrays him, the Austrian Klaus Maria Brandauer, who in Itsvan Svabo's movie Mephisto played an ambitious actor who makes a pact with the Nazis and cunningly suggested the attractions of dancing with the Devil.
Vilar has no concerns that Brandauer, who also directs, might make Speer just a little bit too attractive.
'I am delighted Brandauer has so much charm and plays Speer in a way that is hard to resist,' she says. 'It puts the audience in much more danger. I made it my obligation to find all the arguments I could for Speer, and to let him pronounce them. I leave it to the audience to make up their minds about him.' Tomorrow that audience will briefly include the Queen, who will drop in on rehearsals as part of a rare day-long tour of British theatre.
When the play was premiered in Berlin last winter and a performance broadcast live on TV to German-speaking Europe, it caused quite a stir. It came at a time when some intellectuals in Germany were arguing that it was time to end the debate about Germany's guilt over its Nazi history. There are plenty who say that the trauma is over and a line should now be drawn.
It's not an argument that cuts any ice with Vilar. 'If you want to forget Hitler and Speer, then you should also forget Goethe and Schiller. You can't keep the good parts of your history and culture and expect the world just to forget about the rest.' Part of the impact of those original Berlin performances was that they actually took place in the high-ceilinged hall of the Academy of Arts, where the play is set. It was here that Hitler and Speer met and talked on a daily basis, and that East German border guards were later quartered as they prevented their countrymen from escaping over the nearby Wall.
Not surprisingly perhaps, with so many ghosts stalking the place, some people took Vilar's fictional scenario as a truth. Indeed, it is all too horribly plausible that in the perilous economic climate of the late seventies and early eighties, some in East Germany might have seen Speer, Hitler's organisational genius, as just the man to take control of the country's economy. After all, while Speer was serving his sentence in prison, plenty of other former high-ranking Nazis carved themselves hugely successful business careers.
And, of course, Speer had already proved himself more able than most. After he took over as armaments minister in 1942, his efficiency is said to have prolonged the war by two years, the same two years during which the Nazi genocide machine was working hardest. If Speer had got his way, the Nazis would have put more resources into their atomic programme, and the outcome of the war might have been very different. It was only Hitler's hatred of Einstein and what he called 'Jewish physics' that prevented it. Writing in Spandau in 1953, Speer regretfully commented, 'Thanks to the insane hatred of the leadership, we allowed ourselves to lose a weapon of decisive importance.' Who wouldn't want such an efficient and far sighted man on their side - whether to run their war, their government, their economy or their multinational corporation? 'Efficiency was so important to Speer that nothing else counted,' says Vilar. 'He didn't care what should be done - he cared for only what could be done. I think modern management needs to look at that and beware.' Perhaps in an age when no one is guilty and yesterday's villains are rehabilitated as today's heroes, we should not be surprised that many feel equivocal about Albert Speer. Certainly in an age when efficiency and cost-effectiveness are prized above the happiness of human beings, this story is one that we should heed.
Esther Vilar's play asks audiences what kind of man Albert Speer was and what he might become after 20 years in prison. But what we should also ponder is that it is relatively easy to rid the world of monsters like Hitler. It is the Speers who are so much harder to deal with.
Speer is at the Almeida, London N1 (0171-359 4404), from tomorrow.