By John O’Donnell
FRANKFURT (Reuters) – As the son of one of Hitler’s closest aides who spent much of his childhood at the dictator’s mountain retreat, Albert Speer knows more than most Germans what it is like to live in the shadow of the country’s Nazi past.
Named after his father who was Hitler’s chief planner and favorite architect, Albert Speer Jr. was so traumatized by the war years that he developed a stutter so strong that he could barely communicate.
“I couldn’t string a sentence together,” he said in an interview with Reuters. “The reason was probably my childhood. The stutter is why I left school. I did a carpentry apprenticeship — if you build you don’t have to talk much.”
Speer later chose to follow in his father’s professional footsteps and become an architect, making his professional break by submitting anonymous proposals for building projects.
Now 71, he has learned to live with the name that plagued him as a young man growing up in a post-war Germany that has spent decades trying to come to terms with its Nazi past and World War Two.
Speer can look back on a career that has seen him become one of Germany’s better-known architects and an acclaimed town planner.
Speer’s practice, based in an imposing former factory in Frankfurt’s fashionable Sachsenhausen district, now works on projects worldwide.
Today, Speer tries to play down the significance of his father’s name although he admits that it shaped his career.
“I am the eldest son of that father and don’t see any reason to take another name. But the name certainly didn’t help me.
“Maybe it’s true, however, that with such a name, you really try hard. Perhaps that’s why this office developed with a big focus on ecology, sustainability and compatible architecture, rather than preconceived architectural structures.”
“Maybe one feels especially obliged to produce humane architecture and city planning when you have had such a father. My ambition to do something for other people is something to do with the name.”
GROWING UP AT HITLER’S RETREAT
Speer, whose father started plans to build Hitler’s imperial capital city to be called “Germania,” spent part of his childhood at the dictator’s Obersalzberg mountain retreat.
He moved to a small apartment in Heidelberg when his father was jailed for 20 years at the Nuremberg trials for his role as armaments minister, enslaving millions for the war effort.
Speer senior’s claim at the time that he knew nothing of the Holocaust — which spared him execution — has since been challenged by historians who showed, for example, that he sanctioned material to extend the Auschwitz death camp.
Albert Speer Jr., however, tries to stay out of the past.
“I am not a person who thinks a lot about the past,” he said. “I would rather think about the future.”
He is a vocal opponent of plans to reconstruct further buildings destroyed in the war such as Dresden’s Frauenkirche, saying they have no place in modern Germany.
The church, almost entirely destroyed by Allied bombings in 1945, was resurrected from rubble and rededicated in October. The project, Speer argued, should remain an exception.
He criticized plans to rebuild Kaiser Wilhelm II’s former residence in central Berlin.
Berlin plans to tear down the Palace of the Republic — the former East German parliament building — to rebuild a replica of the Prussian “Schloss,” the Kaiser’s stately residence that stood on the site until it was razed in 1951.
“When there is something left that’s part of the history of the city, then you should keep it,” said Speer. “But if there is nothing there, to make out as if we would like our old Kaiser Wilhelm back again is absurd. It’s crazy.
“What does the Kaiser’s palace have to do with modern Germany? Absolutely nothing.”
Speer also slated proposals in Frankfurt to rebuild a part of its old town destroyed in bombing raids.
Although he is against rebuilding, Speer is critical of the decision by German planners in the aftermath of World War Two to rip down many old buildings in what he said was the flawed belief that they could create a “new society.”
This policy, together with bomb destruction, transformed many of the country’s once-handsome cities beyond recognition.
“Those in power after World War Two said history doesn’t interest us,” said Speer. “It was not only the history of the Third Reich. They ripped down buildings that were much older.”
“They had hoped that a new society would be created that would be molded by this architecture. But it didn’t work. There was not enough consideration given to the past. People don’t want to live without history.”
West Germany in particular tore down many bomb-damaged buildings quickly after the war and hastily put up modern buildings. Communist East Germany, by contrast, left many of the damaged buildings standing at first because of a lack of funds to demolish them. Many have been renovated since unification.
As his career nears its end, Speer has put his past and his stutter behind him.
“The irony is that today I only talk to politicians, staff, students and others. I never take a pen in my hand.”
Walking in the professional footsteps of three generations of his family before him, does he think he inherited anything from his father that influenced his work?
Speer shrugs his shoulders and laughs. “Hopefully not.”