“Inside the Third Reich,” the lengthy 1969 memoirs of Hitler’s cabinet minister Albert Speer (1905–1981), makes for very interesting reading.
As the Minister of Armaments and War Production who used foreigners and prisoners of war for slave labour to sustain Germany’s war efforts, Speer was a member of Hitler’s “inner circle” for more than a decade. After World War II ended, he was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials in 1946. Speer managed to persuade five of eight British, French, American, and Soviet judges that he was largely unaware of the persecution and mass-murder of Jews, thereby avoiding the death penalty. Instead, he received a 20-year prison sentence. After his release from prison in 1966, evidence emerged to suggest that he knew far more than he had let on in 1946.
The book’s second chapter, titled, “Profession and Vocation,” is among the most fascinating. It details how Speer, along with millions of other Germans, fell under Hitler’s spell in the 1930s, making the National Socialists Germany’s largest political party.
An educated man, Speer described hearing the National Socialist leader for the first time:
“Hitler spoke urgently and with hypnotic persuasiveness. The mood he cast was much deeper than the speech itself, most of which I did not remember for long. Moreover, I was carried on the wave of the enthusiasm which, one could almost feel this physically, bore the speaker along from sentence to sentence. It swept away any skepticism, any reservations. Opponents were given no chance to speak. This furthered the illusion, at least momentarily, of unanimity. Finally, Hitler no longer seemed to be speaking to convince; rather he seemed to feel that he was expressing what the audience, by now transformed into a single mass, expected of him.”
Speer’s response was like that of so many other Germans:
“Here, it seemed to me, was hope. Here were new ideals, a new understanding, new tasks. The peril of communism, which seemed inexorably on its way, could be checked, Hitler persuaded us, and instead of hopeless unemployment, Germany could move toward economic recovery. He had mentioned the Jewish problem only peripherally. But such remarks did not worry me, although I was not an anti-Semite; rather, I had Jewish friends from my school days and university days, like virtually everyone else.”
Some weeks later, Speer listened to Joseph Goebbels, who went on to serve Hitler as Reich Minister of Propaganda. Speer described their masterful ability to manipulate emotion:
“Both Goebbels and Hitler had understood how to unleash mass instincts at their meetings, how to play on the passions that underlay the veneer of ordinary respectable life. Practiced demagogues, they succeeded in fusing the assembled workers, petits bourgeois, and students into a homogeneous mob whose opinions they could mold as they pleased. … To compensate for misery, insecurity, unemployment, and hopelessness, this anonymous assemblage wallowed for hours at a time in obsessions, savagery, license. This was no ardent nationalism. Rather for a few short hours the personal unhappiness caused by the breakdown of the economy was replaced by a frenzy that demanded victims. And Hitler and Goebbels threw them the victims. By lashing out at their opponents and vilifying the Jews they gave expression and direction to fierce, primal passions.”
Having joined the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) and becoming Member Number 474,481 in January of 1931, Speer stated:
“I knew virtually nothing about Hitler’s program. He had taken hold of me before I had grasped what was happening.”
In his book, Speer admitted to intellectual laziness:
“Why, for example, was I willing to abide by the almost hypnotic impression Hitler’s speech had made upon me? Why did I not undertake a thorough, systematic investigation of, say, the value or worthlessness of the ideologies of all the parties? Why did I not read the various party programs, or at least Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Rosenberg’s Myth of the Twentieth Century? As an intellectual I might have been expected to collect documentation with the same thoroughness and to examine various points of view with the same lack of bias that I had learned to apply to my preliminary architectural studies. … For had I wanted to, I could have found out even then that Hitler was proclaiming expansion of the Reich to the east; that he was a rank anti-Semite; that he was committed to a system of authoritarian rule; that after attaining power he intended to eliminate democratic procedures and would thereafter yield only to force. Not to have worked that out for myself; not, given my education, to have read books, magazines, and newspapers of various viewpoints; not to have tried to see through the whole apparatus of mystification – was already criminal. At this initial stage my guilt was as grave as, at the end, my work for Hitler. For being in a position to know and nevertheless shunning knowledge creates direct responsibility for the consequences – from the very beginning.”
But for Speer and so many others, intellectual laziness brought its own pleasure:
“My inclination to be relieved of having to think, particularly about unpleasant facts, helped to sway the balance. In this I did not differ from millions of others.”
This relief from having to think proved to be dangerous and toxic:
“Such mental slackness above all facilitated, established, and finally assured the success of the National Socialist system. How incalculable the consequences were!”
Only after the war did Speer fully appreciate the high price that he—and millions of others—paid for this intellectual laziness:
“In 1931, I had no idea that fourteen years later I would have to answer for a host of crimes to which I subscribed beforehand by entering the party. I did not yet know that I would atone with twenty-one years of my life for frivolity and thoughtlessness and breaking with tradition. Still, I will never be rid of that sin.”
How convenient it would be to dismiss Speer and the millions of other Germans who supported the National Socialists as people with whom we could not identify: uninquisitive, impressionable, and morally inferior. Convenient, yes, but also foolish. The world has changed since World War II, but the people in it have not. Canadians possess the same human nature as Germans. And, unless human nature has changed significantly in the past 90 years, Canadians today are as susceptible to manipulation and emotionalism as Germans were in the 1930s.
Are we any less capable than Germans of falling for hypnotic persuasiveness, of being carried on a wave of enthusiasm that sweeps away skepticism and reservation? When opponents are not given a fair chance to speak, do Canadians buy into the illusion of unanimity? Are Canadians immune to being fused into a homogeneous mob whose opinions can be moulded by politicians, media, and other authorities? How many Canadians undertake a thorough, systematic investigation of claims made by political activists, health authorities and other “experts”? How many Canadians read books, websites, and newspapers of varied viewpoints? How many Canadians appreciate being relieved of having to think, particularly about unpleasant facts?
As Speer explained it, the triumph of National Socialism (1933–1945) was facilitated and established by intellectual laziness. As he put it:
“Not trying to see through the whole apparatus of mystification was already criminal, and being in a position to know and nevertheless shunning knowledge creates direct responsibility for the consequences – from the very beginning.”
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Intellectual laziness is the cement which holds the road’s bricks together.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.