This past week I visited friends in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego, a place with virtually perfect weather and stunning outdoor scenery.
After a few days there, perhaps to remind myself of what I was missing in DC, I made a trip east over the mountains to hike in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Descending into the desert plain the temperature steadily climbed from the 70’s of San Diego to over 100.
The scenery changed too—the lush green of the temperate coast was replaced by the shimmering reds and yellows of cactus and desert geology. The trail I hiked, Plum Canyon, slowly but steadily climbed through a bone-dry wash inhabited by jack rabbits and birds.
The scale of the place is so vast, vertically and horizontally, that judging distances visually is just about impossible. The mountains extend up thousands of feet and the desert stretches to the horizon and beyond. The ridge ahead could be a mile away or five.
After hiking for hours I made it back to the car and continued east, eventually to the Salton Sea, the bizarre 525 square mile lake created in 1905 when the Colorado River was accidentally diverted from its course for over a year, flooding a huge area in the process. Today, it is an increasingly salty (and smelly) gigantic bird bath where few fish survive and development hopes spring eternal.
Too tired to drive back to San Diego, I found a place in the desert, well south of Palm Springs, which sounded interesting. Called the La Quinta resort, it was located in a city of the same name. In fact, the city is named after the resort which was created in 1926 as a get-away for Hollywood types like Frank Capra.
I packed light for this trip and my choice of a book to read was based solely on size and weight, a small (and old) paperback called, Spandau, the Secret Diaries of Joseph Speer. Speer, you will recall, was Adolph Hitler’s architect and armaments minister during the Second World War. At the famous Nuremberg War Crimes trial he was sentenced, along with others, to a lengthy prison sentence, to be served at a prison in Berlin called Spandau.
On checking into the hotel I requested a quiet room and was given one of the original “casitas” dating from the 1920’s. It was both charming and cheap as few others go to the desert in August. While looking around the small cottage I came across a Hollywood “star” on the wall dedicated to Marlene Dietrich, the famed German-American actress and performer. I learned that she had stayed there. So, I would be spending the evening, spiritually at least, with two famous Germans, Dietrich who spurned the Nazis and worked in the Allied War effort, and Speer who ranked among Hitler’s closest advisers. Perhaps the ghosts of terror, past.
Marlene Dietrich was born in 1901 and was famous in the Berlin scene in the 1920’s. She became an America citizen in 1939, on the eve of the war. Her time in Germany in the late 20’s and 30’s must have convinced her of the brutality of the Nazis and of what would lie ahead.
She was a passionate advocate for the Allies, selling more war bonds than anyone else. She traveled to Algeria, Italy, France and Germany with Patton and other generals to entertain troops. She even helped the OSS, the early clandestine spy branch, by recording songs for use in demoralizing enemy soldiers. Dietrich was awarded the Medal of Freedom by the US in 1947.
One wonders whether she and Speer ever crossed paths in pre-war Germany. They were close in age. Speer joined the Nazi Party in 1931 and certainly was spending time in Berlin after he was chosen as the Reich’s architect. After the war began, he played a central role in the production of weaponry.
Speer, alone among his compatriots, accepted practical and moral responsibility for the role that he played. Justice Robert Jackson, the chief US prosecutor at the trials, told Speer that he respected him for his behavior at Nuremberg. In fact, once imprisoned with the Grand Admirals and others, Speer was ostracized by them for his position on Hitler and the immorality of the Nazi cause.
Speer spent 20 years at Spandau trying to understand his relationship with Hitler as well as his own actions. His diaries capture a circuitous mental route where he deals with the demons of his war crimes, an often solitary confinement, the effective loss of his family, and the need to keep his mind alive.
The Spandau Diaries reveal much about Hitler and his maniacal actions but it can also be read as a book about a man’s journey as he confirms his guilt while exploring its almost limitless depths. Speer comes across as complicit, remorseful and even decent. It’s a book worth reading because it is so morally complex and at times ambiguous, just like the characters that inhabit it.
Speer once said that the only kind of loyalty that matters is our loyalty to morality.
I guess he would have known.
Sources: The Dairies, Wiki, Keegan’s The Second World War, La Quinta Historical Backgrounder