DURING the first three years of the Second World War, Nazi Germany took only timorous steps to mobilize her economy for total war. But in 1942, the Royal Air Force offensive against the Reich began to produce serious damage. German losses in men and materiel on the Eastern front also rose alarmingly and American production was by this time fully engaged on the side of the Allies. although Hitler had sought to avoid the domestic difficulties that would be occasioned by an economic war of attrition, he could delay no longer and in February 1942 (after the death of Fritz Todt) the Fuehrer transformed his favorite architect, Albert Speer, into a war-production czar. Speer was designated minister of armaments production and given control of the organization for defense construction (Organization Tod). In the course of 1942 and 1943 he gained additional authority by absorbing some of the powers that had been held by the ministry of economics, Hemann Goering's organization, and by various segments of private industry.

In a surprisingly short time, Speer registered significant gains in armaments production. In part this was due to the fact that the German economy had heretofore not been geared for total war, and once slack and waste were cut back, productivity inevitably rose. The new minister of armaments production also showed a real gift for organization. Highly successful in gaining the confidence of business leaders and technicians, he thereby also harnessed entrepreneurial energy and initiative for the war effort. Equally important was Speer's ability to fight through the maze of squabbling party leaders, bureaus and state offices that characterized Hitler's Reich. Armed with a large measure of the Fuehrer's confidence and support, Speer was able to concentrate authority, productive capacity, raw material and labor by wrestling them away from his rivals.

Unfurling the banner of patriotism and wartime necessity, Speer shamed and cajoled some state and party officials into cooperation. But many of his other competitors, including the Nazi Gauleiters, were tough political veterans, and such men did not yield easily. On a higher level lay the great Nazi satraps -- PArty Secretary Martin Bormann, Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels, Reichsfuehrer SS and Chief of the German Police Heinrich Himmler -- all masters fo the art of mayhem that characterized Nazi factional warfare. Speer survived (and thrived for a number of years) in this arena only because he could beat the likes of Bormann and Himmler at their own game. This not only required skill and strength, but a willingness to play on a chessboard in which the counters included slave labor, concentration camp inmates, looted property and the favor of a Fuehrer who showed no reluctance to slaughter millions while he led Europe to ruin.

Little wonder that such a gifted, tough and flexible man as Albert Speer should have lasted through the war and even managed to get past the Nuremberg trial with minimal injury. Of the Reich ministers who served to the end, only the repentant speer eluded a sentence of life imprisonment or death at Nuremberg. Released from prison in 1966, after serving a term of 20 years, he produced two compelling best sellers; Inside the Third Reich (1970 and Spandau (1976). The two volumes were gracefully written, providing vivid pictures of life under Hitler and of speer's experiences and reflections during incarceration. Of course, Speer was not always able to keep a firm grasp on the distinction between penance and vindication, but this does not gainsay that both volumes were useful and engrossing.

Unfortunately, Speer's third book, Infiltration, has all the vices, and none of the virtues, of its predecessors. Employing the ammunition provided by Heinrich Himmler's documentary files in the West German Archives in Coblenz, Speer refights his wartime battles against the SS for control of German industry. More detail is provided than in the earlier accounts, but the basic picture does not change. Himmler endeavored to undercut Speer's claim to total industrial control through pressure and intrigue, and in the end he largely succeeded. Forty years later, Speer is still struck by Himmler's duplicity and viciousness; still dazed by his own blindness and earlier amorality. He wanders among the surviving documents stumbling over his own actions, responsibilities and complicity, like a sleepwalker bumping into the household furniture.

EVen now he does not grasp the implications of ethnic prejudice. On two occasions he declares that the extermination of Jews was madness in part because the "remarkable intelligence" of Jews would have made them good industrial workers -- far better than Poles who were slovenly and inefficient!

Speer also continues to have difficulty facing the obvious fact that Himmer did give fair warning, and on occasion was brutally frank, about exterminations. Citing the Reichsfuehrer's speech to the GAuleiters on Oct. 6, 1943, Speer claims that even in this detailed survey of the annihilation of Jews, Himmler avoided using the word "murder." The speech text shows clearly however that Himmler used the words umbringen oder umbringen zu lassen -- and that means "kill or let be killed" -- no matter how one turns or explains away the meaning of the German language.

To compound the volume's varied difficulties, the organization and style border on the catastrophic. The reader is hurled into a bottomless pit of complexity and intrigue without introduction or explanation. The chapter organization and writing are repetitive and redundant while the transition is excruciating and frequently impenetrable.

Infiltration surely belongs on the library reference shelf, but only the most devoted World War II buffs will find Albert Speer's third attempt worth the effort.