Leadership Lessons: Witnessing history

  • Published
  • By Keith L. Barr
  • 319th Air Base Wing historian
People often ask me, as an Air Force historian, how I acquired an interest in history. It goes back a long way. By the time I joined the military in 1970, I had seen three presidents (Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon), visited the Kennedy White House, and shaken hands with Muhammad Ali. These experiences gave me a taste of being involved in history and as time went on I wanted more of it. Perhaps the closest brush with the past came after Uncle Sam assigned me to a unit in Germany not far from the ancient city of Heidelberg.

On Feb. 22, 1974, I had an unparalleled experience. I met and shook the hand of a man who had shaken the hand of a man who shook the world.

I had taken a streetcar to Heidelberg on a crisp winter weekend for a rest and to find Albert Speer. Speer had been "Architect of the Third Reich" and, later in the war, Minister for War Production and Armaments. In this capacity he facilitated the mass production of the V-2 rocket, among other things.

According to an article the British newspaper The Observer published April 9, 1944, "Speer is, in a sense, more important for Germany today than Hitler, Himmler, Goering, Goebels, or the generals. They all have, in a way, become mere auxiliaries of the man who actually directs the power machine..."

At Speer's trial in Nuremberg in 1945, he was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 20 years in Spandau prison in Berlin. At that time Speer said, "I suppose if Adolf Hitler had ever had a friend, I would have been that friend." In early 1974, Speer, was a man of 68. I had taken his autobiography, "Inside the Third Reich," to read on the plane ride to Europe.

On that February morning forty years ago, I hiked the long way from the Heidelberg Castle to the street where he lived. Finally, I came to number 50, a large house situated higher up the mountain and overlooking the Neckar River below. I was greeted at the door by Margarete Speer, his wife. I asked Frau Speer if Herr Speer was home and showed her my copy of his book. She smiled a lot and spoke in German as she lead me down a little entrance hall and into a room on the right. Evidently this was Speer's writing room or study and I was struck by the number of works of art, statues and paintings.

When he finally came, I almost didn't recognize him. His pictures do him almost no justice although I could see the resemblance. Speer was a tall man, somewhat heavier than how I pictured him and with much longer and bushier hair - white and thinning on top. He struck me as a rather careworn appearing college professor might look. I shook his offered hand and mumbled about an autograph and my having a pen and I'm sure he knew I was a bit ruffled. He took the book and pen and offered me a seat in front of his desk while he sat down to write.

Speer asked me where I was from and when I said, from the United States, he asked whether I was on holiday. I told him I was a soldier whereupon he wanted to know what I did. I told him I was a private and I drove a jeep and was stationed in Mannheim. He noted my Ex Libris sticker in the book with my name and asked, "You are Keith L. Barr?" I said yes. He then inscribed a greeting and a signature on the title page while I sat there watching. When he was writing I said that I liked his book and he thanked me. When he finished, he asked if I liked it in Germany. I said I did and that I had ancestors from here. And then he wanted to know where they were from and if I had any relatives here. I told him they were from Oberholtzklau but had immigrated in 1714 so I didn't think I had any relatives there.

"Have you been to the states?" I asked. "No," he said, "but I will probably go someday." I didn't think he meant it.

I asked him if he still planned buildings and he said, "No, it is my son who does that. I have too much other work to do - these papers," pointing to the many typewritten pages lying about on the desk.

Getting up to leave after he had returned the book and pen I asked him if he planned another book, maybe. He said, "Ah yes, maybe!" I thanked him for his time and he shook my hand and said, "Good Luck!"

And then I feel like I must have virtually run out of the house because I was still very excited by my brush with history. Walking back along the Wolfsbrunnenweg I thought about how very simple the whole thing was and my biggest impression was the kind and friendly way both Speer and his wife had treated me - a complete stranger and American to boot!

After all these years there have been more opportunities to witness history up close and personal, as they say.

A number of them have been a result of my association with the military. Many of us, even in the last few months have had the chance to see a few four star generals and even the Air Force Chief of Staff right here in Grand Forks Air Force Base. You were witnesses to history then and possibly at other times in your career. And, you will probably have many more such experiences during your time in the Air Force that you can look back on and remember in the years that lie ahead.