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Dec. 2, 2005

Albert Speer casts a long shadow

Journalist recalls meeting with Nazi war criminal as Nuremberg 60th anniversary marked.

Last week marked the 60th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg trials in Germany. Twenty-four top Nazis, including Hermann Goering, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Rudolf Hess, were brought to the Bavarian city, which had previously been a focus of Nazi activities during the war and its run-up.

Also on trial was Hitler’s favorite architect and close personal friend, Albert Speer – a central figure in the Nazi leadership who became the minister of armaments. Speer was given 20 years in prison, rather than the death penalty, due in part to the fact that he always expressed repentance for his involvement in the war.

It is certain that Speer was well aware of what was going on in the death and labor camps in Europe, but he maintained that he was not responsible for this, even though he used slave labor for his armament factories. After learning from a friend what was happening in Auschwitz, Speer claimed in his trial that he purposely avoided visiting the death camp or trying to get information on what was going on there.

In October 1973, just seven years after he was released from Berlin’s Spandau Prison, Speer was secretly brought to England for two days by the BBC to record an interview on the subject of his time in Spandau, as well as his Nazi past. As a young photojournalist with BBC Television News, I was asked to meet with and photograph him.

Although I was given the option to turn down the assignment, I decided to do the photography, knowing in my own mind that despite the fact that 30 years earlier there was a huge Nazi machine that was trying to eliminate all the Jewish people, they did not succeed, and here I was, a Jewish photographer, as living proof of this. There was no logic in my thoughts, only conflict and uncertainty. Was I doing the right thing? When I would meet Speer, I would not discuss anything to do with the war, I would just concentrate on the job in hand.

The location where Speer was staying during his short visit, the secluded Great Fosters Hotel, was a closely guarded secret. The British media were anxious to be able to talk to Speer and even more so to take photographs of him. The BBC wanted to ensure that only they interviewed him on this occasion and that the photographs that I would take would be released the next day, but would not reveal the place where they were taken.

Oct. 23 was a crisp, bright autumnal day. The big forecourt outside the 16th century hotel glistened from the overnight rain in the low early-morning sun.

I approached the reception desk and asked them to tell a particular guest that my name was Edgar Asher from the BBC and that I had arrived for our prearranged meeting.

A few minutes passed and a tall, dapper, elderly man, dressed in a single-breasted dark suit, gray hair at the temples, came slowly down the 17th century oak staircase holding on purposefully to the balustrade. I recognized him and rose to meet him as he came towards me. “I’m Edgar Asher from the BBC,” I said a little nervously as I put out my hand out to greet him. He gave a faint smile and shook my hand. “Albert Speer, I’m pleased to meet you.”

Speer and I sat down in the hall and I explained to him my ideas to photograph him. He gave a slight smile and suggested in an affable way, in his very good English, that we begin. We went into the hotel’s magnificent garden and slowly made our way along the paths leading to its centre. At intervals, I would ask Speer to stop and I would frame a picture of him, sometimes with his back to the camera to emphasize the isolation. I wondered what was going through this man’s mind as he walked in the English countryside, perhaps thinking of earlier days in the Third Reich when he, like Hitler, thought that the German army would soon be in control of Britain. After about half an hour of photography, I suggested we drive to nearby Windsor Castle.

The weather remained kind as we walked through the main gateway of the castle. I told Speer just to walk around and I would take pictures of him as I required. Nobody took a second look at him as he made his way along cobbled streets. Only I knew the secret of this man. I noticed, outside the castle wall, a newspaper stand and I suggested that he buy a newspaper and then sit down on a park seat and be seen reading the paper. He complied with all my requests with his usual half-smile.

During our morning together, the one to one relationship became easier, but Speer was not a man to engage in idle chat and I was too overawed in his presence to ask him the many, many questions that went through my mind. After all, I was taking photographs of a man who, not so many years earlier, had been a confidante of one of the most despicable, cruel tyrants of all time.

Just over a month after my unusual encounter with Speer, I saw that there was a letter addressed to me in the photo library. It was a handwritten letter to me from Speer sent from his home in Heidelberg. He had apparently requested from the BBC some pictures for himself.

“Dear Mr. Edgar Asher,” he wrote, “Your photos are wonderful. May I thank you sincerely for them, they are treasured as a souvenir to my day in Windsor! With kind regards. Yours sincerely, Albert Speer.”

I know what was going through my mind on that unusual day in Windsor, but I would really like to know what was going through Albert Speer’s mind on his one and only two-day journey to Britain.