NYU Black Renaissance Noire Volume 18 Issue 3 - Fall 2018 - Page 124

essay By Stanley Cohen Albert Speer Among the notable reads in 1971 were the Pentagon Papers and Albert Speer’s “Inside the Third Reich,” published in English the year before. Disparate as it might initially appear, each work touched directly or indirectly on the nature of responsibility of individuals for illegal or immoral acts that they witnessed or were engaged in on behalf of their patron governments. It was the year we encouraged, with extensive bombing support, the South Vietnamese Army to invade Laos; it was the year that Lt. William Calley was convicted for his role in the Mỹ Lai massacre and sentenced to life imprisonment, only to have it commuted to house arrest and a shortened sentence by President Nixon. It was the year I acquired an option for the film rights to Albert Speer’s memoir. To comprehend responsibility for being complicit, or just standing by while these events were unfolding, Speer’s experience was, for me, an extreme but perfect starting point for exploration of that subject. r Albert Speer Speer, an architect charmed by Hitler in 1931, rose to become Minister of Armaments and Munitions. Highly competent, he enabled Nazi Germany to prolong the war. At the Nuremberg Tribunal, he successfully disarmed the judges by assuming responsibility, while denying knowledge of what others were doing. He accepted a degree of guilt for Nazi acts because, or so he claimed, he did not know, but should have known, if he had made the effort to do so. His defense, which differed from his colleagues, allowed him to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to twenty years at Spandau prison. “Inside the Third Reich” was published not long after his release. Speer’s book was written to deflect charges of direct personal accountability for the horrors perpetrated by the regime he supported. And although the film was never made, I did have the opportunity to meet with Speer at his home in Heidelberg. Responsibility, argued the historian, Lord Acton, was not susceptible of division; participation was participation. “Historic responsibility,” he noted “has to make up for the want of legal responsibility.” Historians have both the obligation and “the power to inflict a moral judgment.” And that applies to the person who authorizes the act, to the person who commits the act, and to those who rationalize the act. This was the underlying basis of my conversations with Speer. Now there is no direct comparison nor a moral equivalence between Nazi Germany and events presently transpiring in our country; nor am I implying a parallel. What reminded me of my conversations with Speer, however, is what I perceive as a change, albeit gradual and gentle, of the attitude toward those who observe or listen to wrongdoings and remain silent. This can be attributed to, inter alia, the #MeToo movement as well as the March for Our Lives. The impact of these movements has been to expand the concept of responsibility to encompass and include those who remain silent or passive in light of sexual harassment or gun violence. Today, it is time for the expanded definition to be applied to the silence of those in the President’s entourage as well as to Republican Party leaders. In our next conversation, I assured Speer that I did not want to talk about Poznan; nor was I going to raise the subject of his precise knowledge of what was occurring in the death camps or his use of slave labor. Not that I thought those matters were unimportant; I believed the answer was obvious. Instead, I wanted to concentrate on the “smaller” events that he had mentioned in his autobiography, those little steps that snare us into the burden of responsibility, of being complicit with greater evil. And while this theme was evident in Speer’s book with his rationalization of ambitious drive obscuring tragic events, I felt that he had successfully avoided direct accountability for his conduct, conduct which was as compelling as if he was at the Poznan gathering or had been a guard in the camps. At the particular time I first met with him, there emerged the controversy as to whether he was present at a 1943 Himmler speech in Poznan, encouraging the Gauleiters to accelerate the Final Solution. Indeed, one of our talks was abruptly interrupted when an article appeared placing him at that meeting. Speer needed a respite to prepare a response consistent with his insistence of ignorance. The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities at Bard College is an expansive home for thinking about and in the spirit of Hannah Arendt. Complicity of Silence