Albert Speer Crossing the World

Falling for the Wrong Man

On 17th June 1955, Reichsminister Albert Speer wrote in his diary, "Bad humour for days." He had done his laundry a day earlier than usual, "without asking our Admiralty." A week later Grand Admiral Donitz and Admiral Raeder were still discussing his breach of protocol. "Another of his explosive decisions! An idea leaps into his head and he's got to carry it off right off." Impulsive Speer ignored the Admirals and went out. He had places to be. He wrote, "My Coburg friend has obtained for me the figures for the distances I still have to cover: Vienna to Budapest to Belgrade, 615 kilometres, Belgrade to Sofia to Istanbul, 988 kilometres. I have decided to be in Istanbul on January 1st." He would be "in Istanbul" and he would be in Berlin's Spandau Prison, where he, Raeder, Donitz and others, convicted at Nuremberg as high-ranking Nazis, were serving long sentences, in Speer's case twenty years. He was a man of imagination and energy, of talent and charm, and he fell in love with Adolf Hitler. Convicted of using forced labour as the Fuehrer's wartime Minister of Armaments and Munitions, he was spared the gallows but faced the living death of prison. His imaginative project came to him: he would keep himself going by walking around the world. He used travel books and maps to fix his route and walked it by circulating the prison garden, visualising his journey as he went. His body locked up, his mind became the world, and the changing vista in his head kept him alive to write the reflections he scribbled on toilet paper and smuggled out of jail: on his terrible guilt, which he mostly admitted, on the puzzle of his past devotion to Hitler, on the ambition that had blinded him to the Nazis' dreadful crimes. He recorded his folly and, attempting to redeem himself, his awakening. When he left Spandau after twenty years he had written two books, and walked 24,000 kilometres.

You hear it said: prisons these days, they're like a holiday camp. This seems to me supremely unimaginative about the horrors of confinement. When I was three, my mother tells me, she used to turn me loose and call out the back door occasionally to see if I was around. Which came first, that early freedom or hyperactivity? It has often occurred to me how much more could be achieved, in terms of reading, writing and studying if one were languidly sedentary, instead of compulsively restless. There is a quick fix for this problem: daily running. Writer Haruki Murakami, a lifelong runner said, "Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that's the essence of running and a metaphor for life – and for me, writing as a whole." I agree, although I would put it more like this: "Running is good drugs." After an hour of running no child is annoying, no task is infuriating, and insomnia is simply a neuroticism suffered by other people.

But recently, the allied powers of medicine imposed on me a sentence of no running. I chucked my gear in the laundry, ignored my fellow inmates, was in bad humour for days. I walked laps around the suburb, but it didn't seem enough. So I joined a gym and on a bike going nowhere, in front of a TV playing international news, I pedalled my way across the world.
I pedalled to Pakistan, where Imran Khan appeared. "There are a million armed men in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan," he said. "Every time they're bombed by United States drones, they become more militant." His voice rose, "And so who are the cretins running American policy in the region?" Sweating up and down the hill programme I rode into America, where Jill Biden, the wife of the U.S Vice President, was having a love-in with Piers Morgan. "What do you value most about America?" Morgan asked, and the dewy-eyed Second Lady simpered the required line: she loves American freedom. I rode on, and here was Republican primary candidate Rick Santorum talking blithely about bombing Iran. America, he said, should not have to apologise for creating freedom. His rival Mitt Romney made a speech outlining his ideas for making America great, among them strengthening the military. He would go to war to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons. Over at the news desk they were talking crippling sanctions against Iran, and a U.S. bomb so powerful it could penetrate underground bunkers concealing Iran's nuclear programme.
Crossing the world, going nowhere, Speer remembered: how the Fuehrer planned destruction and the people pledged allegiance, Deutschland uber alles. He'd realised it too late: the leader he'd romanticised was evil and banal, a soulless, low-grade gnome. It ended for him in Spandau, millions dead, his country ruined, a prisoner, travelling in a dream of freedom.
First published in Metro Magazine NZ