The Architecture of Evil: Albert Speer and the Notion Science and Technology are Amoral
November 14, 2012
Someone designed the furnaces of the Nazi death camps. Someone measured the size and weight of a human corpse to determine how many could be stacked and efficiently incinerated within a crematorium. Someone sketched out on a drafting table the decontamination showers, complete with the fake hot-water spigots used to lull and deceive doomed prisoners. Someone, very well educated, designed the rooftop openings and considered their optimum placement for the cyanide pellets to be dropped among the naked, helpless men, women, and children below. This person was an engineer, an architect, or a technician. This person went home at night, perhaps laughed and played with his children, went to church on Sunday, and kissed his wife goodbye each morning.
The technical professions occupy a unique place in modern society. Engineers and architects possess skills most others lack — skills that allow them to transform dreams of design into reality. Engineers can convert a dry, infertile valley into farmland by constructing a dam to provide irrigation; they have made man fly; and architects have constructed buildings that reach thousands of feet into the sky. But these same technical gifts alone, in the absence of a sense of morality and a capacity for critical thought and judgment, can also make reality of nightmares. Ferdinand Porsche, the engineer who designed the Volkswagen — an automobile that revolutionized personal travel for the common man — also designed a terrifying battle tank that helped kill millions of Russians on the Eastern Front. Wernher von Braun, who would later design the Saturn V rocket that brought American astronauts to the Moon, designed the V-2 rockets with which the Nazis terrorized Antwerp and London in the waning months of the Second World War.
Few men better exemplify this danger than Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s chief architect. From bold, looming edifices, to giant swastika banners, to the intimidating searchlights of the “cathedral of light” piercing the night sky around one of the Nazi Party rallies at Nuremberg, Speer’s designs became icons of Nazi megalomania. He shared with the dictator a vision of a redesigned Berlin that, when the Third Reich conquered the world, would be a lasting monument to its power for ages to come. “Your husband is going to erect buildings for me such as have not been created for four thousand years,” Hitler told Speer’s wife, reflecting both the scale of their shared ambition and the shared admiration and peculiar friendship that developed between the two men over the course of the war.
Hitler was so enthralled with Speer’s creativity and ability to carry out orders with efficiency and speed that he appointed Speer Minister of Armaments and War Production for the Third Reich during the height of World War II. In this powerful office, Speer was for the final three years of the war in charge of supplying the German military. He oversaw the management of a substantial portion of the German economy; he kept the factories running, and the troops supplied with tanks, bombs, planes, and ammunition, continuing to increase production even during the height of Allied bombing. These accomplishments earned him recognition, from both within the Third Reich and outside it.
Among Speer’s major responsibilities was procuring manpower to keep the factories in operation — and he thus played a major role in instituting the Nazi forced-labor programs. On trial at Nuremberg after the war, Speer claimed full moral responsibility for the whole of the actions of the Nazi Party, and yet professed that he had no knowledge of the extermination of the Jews or the atrocities taking place in concentration camps. Whether or not he was telling the truth about his ignorance of these atrocities has been hotly debated ever since. What is indisputable is that the court did not sentence him to death, as it did many of his peers. Instead he spent twenty years in prison, time he spent reflecting on his memories, coming to terms with his actions, and writing about his life and the inner workings of the Nazi Party — writings he later published as Inside the Third Reich (1970) and Spandau: The Secret Diaries (1976).
Albert Speer did not, as far as any historians know, personally design any death chambers, nor did he personally kill another human being. But Speer did use his brilliant technical expertise and talents to enable the war efforts of the most evil regime in history, allowing it to murder millions of human beings. But even as we condemn him, we must ask — especially we engineers and technicians — is Speer so different from us? How many of us would be willing to compartmentalize our emotions, suppress our consciences, almost to sell our souls, for the opportunity to work on the grand projects that Speer was involved in? How many of us are so focused on solving a technical problem that we fail to contemplate where that solution might lead?
To many engineers, Speer and his experiences during the war may seem irrelevant today. But although there seems to be little chance (we hope) of a highly industrialized power again waging a war of world conquest, the essential questions that Speer faced still pertain to the work of many engineers today. You may be an engineer sitting in front of a computer-aided design screen, creating a seemingly benign component that will become part of some sophisticated weapons system that will be sold to unknown people in a far-off land. You may be a computer security researcher, or a virologist, and discover some new potential weapon or security vulnerability, and have to decide how to make the information public to shield against such attacks, but without helping those who would launch them. Or you may design automobile parts, and be faced with a compromise between saving your company production costs and protecting the lives of customers.
Almost every engineer in the course of his career faces moral decisions that are similar to, if less weighty than, the ones that Albert Speer faced. In examining Speer’s life, we must ask to what extent his character is representative of the technical personality in general. The challenge today’s engineer must confront — as, by extension, must each of us who is wrapped up in the modern scientific-technical project — is to wear Speer’s shoes and to ask honestly, without the benefit of historical hindsight, “What would I have done?”…