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Enchanted by Evil : ALBERT SPEER: His Battle With Truth, <i> By Gitta Sereny (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 757 pp.)</i>

<i> Alexander Stille's most recent book is "Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic" (Pantheon)</i>

Perhaps the most enigmatic and interesting member of Hitler’s inner circle, Albert Speer was the only Nazi leader tried at Nuremberg who expressed remorse and accepted responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich, while continuing to deny any specific knowledge of its most horrific act, the systematic extermination of the Jews.

Highly intelligent, educated and refined, from a prominent German family, Speer was light-years removed from the stereotypical Nazi leaders--the corrupt, morphine-addicted Hermann Goering, and the fanatical and sadistic SS leader Heinrich Himmler, who could carry out a policy of mass murder without a twinge of conscience. But if the Nazi movement had only been able to attract these grotesque figures it would probably have never gotten beyond the failed beer-hall putsch of 1923. To fathom how the Nazis were able to dominate German life and conquer most of Europe, one needs to understand how it succeeded in winning the allegiance of men of Speer’s caliber.

An organizational genius rather than a great architect, Speer attracted Hitler’s attention, at the age of only 28, by completing a major building renovation in just three weeks. Suddenly one day, Hitler plucked the young Speer out of the crowd, and invited him to lunch, lending him one of his own jackets for the occasion. From that point, Speer became a favorite of the Fuhrer and, as his personal architect, the agent of Hitler’s megalomaniacal dreams of physically transforming Germany into a 20th-Century version of the Roman Empire.

This combination of almost unlimited power and flattering personal attention was an irresistible, addictive mixture for the ambitious young Speer. In this prodigiously researched and deeply engrossing biography, Gitta Sereny argues that Speer’s unhappy and emotionally arid childhood made him especially vulnerable to Hitler’s seemingly paternal affection. The quiet but unemphatic anti-Semitism of Speer’s German upper-middle-class background helped inure him from the unpleasant implications of Hitler’s obsession with the Jews.

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Their grandiose architectural plans were interrupted by World War II when Speer began building for the German army. Gradually, his extraordinary organizational ability made him indispensable to Germany’s war efforts and in 1942, he was made Hitler’s minister of armaments. Speer performed veritable miracles in keeping Germany’s arms production going in the face of relentless Allied bombing, rebuilding factories almost overnight and constructing massive underground cities for war production.

Naturally, Speer’s role as armaments minister involved him in some of the most grisly sides of the Nazi regime. His ministry depended increasingly on slave labor imported from the conquered territory of Eastern Europe and by the end of the war, Speer had 14 million laborers working in subhuman conditions under his command. Speer tried to remain detached from the nitty-gritty details of arms production. “I’m not happy to face it,” he later said, “but in the context of my life then, these workers’ only significance was what they could produce toward our war effort. I didn’t see or think of them as human beings, as individuals.”

(Speer’s role in the slave labor program earned him a 20-year stay at Spandau prison, but his apparent lack of involvement in the killing of prisoners and his relative candor at Nuremberg spared him the death sentence.)

Much of this book tries to explain how, as Sereny puts it, Hitler was able to “convince a nation of culturally sophisticated men and women that wrong was right. In his conversation with the author, Speer insisted on the importance of Hitler’s ability to modulate his behavior so as to be all things to all people. While he ranted and raved about the Jews with cruder audiences, he presented a much quieter and more reasonable front to men like Speer.

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Hitler imposed a strict division of labor and it was considered improper and even dangerous to inquire about things outside one’s own sphere of activity. Knowledge of the most gruesome aspects of Hitler’s program was jealously guarded and most members of Hitler’s inner circle lived in a rarefied, privileged world, dominated by tea parties, music recitals and a warm family atmosphere. When Speer went to visit the concentration camp at Mathausen, he was given a VIP phony tour with well-fed prisoners in immaculate model barracks.

To function effectively, Speer needed to have a clear, unvarnished grasp of reality. At the same time, to serve such an atrocious cause, he also needed an extraordinary capacity for avoiding or repressing the devastating consequences of his work. The deeper Speer became involved in the war effort, the harder it became to maintain the equilibrium between these conflicting needs; in early 1944, this led him to a physical and emotional breakdown.

Sereny says Speer’s collapse was a result of a speech that Himmler gave in late 1943, during which he explicitly informed the Nazi high command about the extermination of the Jews to bind everyone there as accomplices. Speer insisted until his death that he was not at the speech, but Sereny argues that he probably did hear Himmler’s talk or would have certainly learned about it the very next day when he saw many of those who had been in the audience.

Whatever the case, Speer became increasingly skeptical about Germany’s war effort--even as he continued to dedicate all his energies to its behalf. Typical of the ambiguity of Speer’s personality, he developed friendly relations with some of the conspirators in the plot to assassinate Hitler in July, 1944, without actually involving himself in the conspiracy.

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Speer did not, however, directly challenge the Fuhrer’s authority until at the end of the war, when Hitler ordered a “scorched earth” policy that would have caused much of Germany to have gone up in smoke with its great leader. At that point, Speer courageously defied Hitler’s orders, risking his life to avoid wholesale destruction of German industry and even dreaming up a half-baked plot to kill Hitler himself. And yet, in the final days of the war, he again risked his life by flying back to Berlin to say goodby to his once-beloved Fuhrer.

It is significant that Speer actually contacted the author after reading an article of hers on the Nazi period, which is in keeping with his desire to control and manipulate the picture of himself that would be handed down to posterity. And yet by granting Sereny an extraordinary degree of access to his personal papers, he gave her the means to show the ways in which he frequently changed or distorted key details in the various drafts of one of his own memoirs, “Inside the Third Reich.”

Speer presented himself as a sincerely penitent man who had tried his utmost to confront the truth, while his critics have portrayed him as a slick opportunist who has distorted the facts to rehabilitate his image. One of the principal virtues of Sereny’s book is that it avoids this schematic black-and-white opposition, understanding that these seemingly irreconcilable opposites can reside within the same individual.

Sereny’s passionate involvement with her subject may have given us what some may find an overly sympathetic portrait of Speer and his associates. But since Speer and so many others are now gone, she has performed a tremendous service by gathering so many eyewitness accounts, by showing the considerable human variety among the people of the Third Reich and by giving three-dimensional weight to people who are rarely seen as anything other than caricatures of evil.

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