Historians have written about the rise of Nazi Germany and wondered how a civilized country could have become ruled by criminals trying to conquer Europe. How did well-intentioned educated people become so captivated by Hitler’s magnetism that they could accept secret police, concentration camps, slave labour, and nonsensical rhetoric of Aryan heroism and anti-Semitism? If history were to repeat itself would you sell your soul for this way of life and false ideals?
Sell your soul for the chance to design glorious buildings?
Hitler’s rise to dictatorial power in the 1930’s took place at a time when democracy seemed to be failing in Germany. A series of short-lived coalition governments had found no answers to the country’s economic depression, social unrest and military impotence. More Germans began to favour this new charismatic leader who understood the importance of law and order and who promised a huge blue-print for recovery.
For one young architect called Albert Speer, it was also an incredible chance to design glorious buildings for the regime. He allowed himself to be so dazed, by this wonderful opportunity and his appointment later as minister in charge of armament production, that he turned a blind eye to all that was wrong in Nazi views.
Sell your soul to a charismatic evil man?
After the war Speer was found guilty at the Nuremberg trial of co-operating with the SS to use concentration camp victims as slave labour. One of his friends had visited Auschwitz and suggested to him in the summer of 1944 what was going on there. But he preferred not to know; not to find out more but to get on with his own huge task of keeping the war effort going. Relatively few people knew about the extermination of the Jews. Many who had heard about it simply refused to believe. The mass killings were beyond imagination. Sell your soul to this social evil? Many war criminals gave it away hook, line and sinker.
When defeat was staring the Nazi’s in the face, Hitler ordered a scorched earth policy, trying to destroy his own side’s factories, bridges, etc to delay the advancing allied armies and buy a little time for the regime. Speer however was more concerned about saving all these resources for the sake of German reconstruction after the war and risked his life by going against Hitler’s orders.
In the last days of the war Speer travelled to the Fuhrer’s bunker in order to say goodby to a man to whom he still felt such deeply mixed emotions. Such was the spell that Hitler’s magnetic personality had cast over him, he was risking the dictator’s wrath and vengeance — as well as the firing of Russian planes and troops as they closed in on the centre of Berlin.
At his trial Speer felt despair at what had happened and his role in it. If we were to retry him now we might ask “Did you sell your soul in return for fame and power?” In the end he resolved to regard his own fate as insignificant, not to struggle for his own life, but to assume the responsibility in a general sense. When asked to comment on the indictment – unlike the partially evasive and disdainful remarks of his fellow defendants — he wrote
“The trial is necessary. There is a shared responsibility for such horrible crimes even in an authoritarian state.”
Speer had never agreed with Hitler regarding the goal of world domination. Nevertheless he accepted the collective guilt of the Nazi leadership including himself for the monstrous crimes that produced so many shattered lives.
If a basically and decent man like Speer could have so fallen for the temptation of pride, fame and power, I wonder how many of the rest of us would have responded had we been exposed to similar allures? Would you likewise be tempted to sell your soul for these allures?
Had we lived at that time how many of us would have bravely stood up to tyranny for the sake of humane and ethical considerations? How many of us would have fallen for a false ideal? Could we too have sold our souls for praise, popularity, fame or power?
And today how many of us allow ourselves to slide into mistakes, errors of judgement, and down right wrong-doing? — albeit not with the horrendous consequences that merited a prison term of twenty years which was Speer’s alloted time in Spandau prison, but nevertheless with personal consequences for those around and others affected by our actions. Excessive ambition and arrogance in one’s own rightness can sometimes result in personal ruin.
There are several theories of personal growth and decline. According to one way of thinking, we all have inclinations towards self-orientation and love of things of the world. These are hooks into which temptation can lead us astray.
How not to sell your soul
If this is correct then it perhaps follows that if people follow their higher principles and put the quality of relationships with others above self-serving actions then they will grow spiritually into mature, wise individuals. But if they sell their souls for self-interest and allow it to rule their lives then their natural goodness is corrupted and they will more and more adopt rejecting and disdainful attitudes; more and more decline into self-importance and self-indulgence.
In other words it is the difference between on the one hand developing quality relationships to enable good things to be achieved and on the other hand becoming isolated from others through neglecting their needs and becoming unproductive in one’s personal and working life.
To make such a choice requires honest self-assessment. I would suggest we need the courage of an Albert Speer to face our limitations and mistakes and to stop falling into self-deception and denial; and the humility to accept our decline and turn to follow a new path of growth and redemption.