The Feast of the Goat and Speer

By Mario Vargas Llosa
By Joachim Fest

“Sometime we must probe more deeply the problem of complicity.

Is civilization possible without it?” – Robert Penn Warren

In 1945, an American officer interrogating the captured Nazi war criminal Albert Speer finally broke down and challenged him to explain how he could live with himself after all that he had done. “After a moment of embarrassed silence,” as Joachim Fest relates the story, Speer answered by saying that the officer knew “nothing about life in a dictatorship, nothing of the ever-present fear and nothing of the game of danger that also went with it; above all he understood nothing about the charisma of a man such as Hitler.”

These two new books, a biography of Speer and a historical novel about the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, try to come to an understanding of what Speer meant by the charisma of tyrants, especially when experienced at close range, as well as the moral effects of living under a dictatorship. In doing so, they both examine the “problem of complicity.”

The regimes of Hitler and Trujillo were, respectively, the cold and the hot of twentieth-century dictatorships. Nazi Germany was a blend of primitive myth and modernity, a dispassionate combination of twisted idealism and industrialization. Insofar as it operated effectively at all, and most of the time it didn’t, it turned evil into a matter of bureaucratic efficiency.

It was a contemporary of Speer’s who first drew attention to the way he symbolized a type of individual becoming increasingly common in the modern world: the epitome of the “managerial revolution,” “the pure technician” with a near total “lack of psychological and spiritual ballast.” According to Joachim Fest, Speer considered his moral indifference to be justified both by his professional duties as the Third Reich’s Armaments Minister as well as by the prevailing image of the artist as a genius outside of bourgeois society and exempt from any human rule.

It was as an artist, specifically an architect, that Speer first came to Hitler’s attention. Together they imagined building a perfectly inhuman Germany. His architectural designs, especially for Berlin (or Germania, as it was to be called), consisted mainly of plans for turning the places where people lived and worked into colossal marble tombs. In his ignoring of human values there was a foreshadowing. The real question wasn’t how much Speer knew about Nazi war crimes, but whether he even cared.

Fest, who worked with Speer on his memoir of life inside the Third Reich, is, as always, a perceptive and insightful observer. Rather than attempt to recreate Speer’s life in detail he focuses his study on key issues such as how Speer managed to organize the German economy so successfully, the extent of his complicity and culpability for war crimes, and the nature of his personal relationship with Hitler.

Hitler’s attraction to Speer has often been described as erotic, with one observer even telling Speer that he was “Hitler’s unrequited love.” For Speer, Hitler’s favour clearly offered a way to satisfy his own powerful ambition. But he also found the dictator a hypnotic figure, and it’s probably fair to say he was a bit in love. Certainly his daring return to the Fuhrer’s bunker to say a final good-bye was a romantic gesture.

The strange magic Speer felt in Hitler’s presence is also testified to by many of those who were close to Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo, popularly known as the Goat, ruled the Dominican Republic from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. In The Feast of the Goat, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa presents a portrait of the tyrant as an old man, though not even a failing prostate has dampened his appetites. Unlike the coolness of Hitler’s immediate court, Trujillo’s inner circle was a red-hot circus of depravity, sadism, lechery and greed.

As Hugh Trevor-Roper observed in The Last Days of Hitler, “the competitive servility of a court is always odious; combined with eloquent humbug, it is nauseating.” In hindsight, Trujillo’s courtiers, like Hitler’s, seem merely contemptible. And yet there is no denying the force of personality so many of the people who knew them attributed to these dictators. Here is Llosa describing one of Trujillo’s Generals approaching the great man:

He never allowed anyone to treat him with disrespect. But, like so many officers, so many Dominicans, before Trujillo his valor and sense of honor disappeared, and he was overcome by a paralysis of his reason and his muscles, by servile obedience and reverence. He often had asked himself why the mere presence of the Chief – his high-pitched voice and the fixity of his gaze – annihilated him morally.

Moral annihilation is the end of complicity in a dictatorship.

The Feast of the Goat is a difficult book. This is in part because of the subject matter, especially when Llosa comes to describe the horrific torture of Trujillo’s assassins. But it is also made difficult by the structure of the narrative, which has three strands. The first, which is the only part of the book that is wholly invented, deals with the return of Urania Cabral to the Dominican Republic in the mid-1990s. 35 years earlier her father Agustin, a disgraced ministers, offered her as a sacrifice to the Goat in an attempt to regain his place in Trujillo’s entourage. The second story line follows Trujillo himself on the day of his assassination, while the third tells the story of his assassins.

Such a complex narrative makes it hard for the novel to pick up speed. Llosa’s moral outrage, however, still packs a powerful punch.

Civilization, as Robert Penn Warren observed, involves complicity. This doesn’t mean that good can come from a dictatorship – though there are always some who like to point out the economic benefits of totalitarianism – but rather that a civilization, or civil society, depends upon a structure of corporate or co-operative effort. Totalitarianism, enforced by propaganda, intimidation and fear, hi-jacks this structure, making every member of society complicit in its crimes. As one of the characters in The Feast of the Goat puts it: Who wasn’t a Trujillista during the Trujillo years?

Fest concludes by pointing out how the likes of Hitler and Trujillo will always crop up again. They are simply forces of nature. It is their courtiers – the managers, lackeys, propagandists, technocrats, and office-seekers – that are “the product of a long process of civilization.” And so we are always unconsciously preparing the ground.

Review first published January 19, 2002.


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