What the Soldaten did
HISTORY:A book based on transcripts of secretly recorded conversations between German prisoners of war reveals much about the involvement of ordinary soldiers in the atrocities committed by the Third Reich
Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying – The Secret Second World War Tapes of German POWs, By Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, Simon & Schuster, 448pp, £20
‘On the second day of the Polish war,” recalled a German Luftwaffe pilot named Pohl in conversation with a fellow prisoner of war, “I had to drop bombs on a station at Posen. Eight of the 16 bombs fell on the town, among the houses. I did not like that. On the third day I did not care a hoot and on the fourth day I was enjoying it. It was our before-breakfast amusement to chase single soldiers over the fields with fire and to leave them lying there with a few bullets in their back.”
Secretly recorded by the Allied intelligence services while he and thousands of other enemy soldiers were held as POWs, Pohl’s statement disappeared into the depths of dusty archives in Britain, the US and elsewhere.
Despite their being declassified in the mid-1990s it was not until 2001 that the German historian Sönke Neitzel discovered, almost by accident, thousands of similar transcripts of conversations between German POWs in the national archives in Kew and Washington DC. These transcripts are an extremely valuable new source for historians interested in the history of warfare, not least because they offer a vivid insight into the mentality of ordinary soldiers in seemingly uninhibited conversations.
The transcribed conversations also end a long-standing controversy about the knowledge and involvement of ordinary German soldiers in atrocities committed by the Third Reich between 1939 and 1945. From 1995 to 1998 an exhibition called Crimes of the Wehrmacht toured the world, providing visual evidence of the German army’s complicity in the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity. The exhibition’s claims were disputed by a number of elderly visitors, many of whom had themselves served in the Wehrmacht.
The evidence on display, they claimed, had been fabricated in order to undermine the “fact” that the German army, unlike the more ideologically driven SS, had fought a “clean” war. The surveillance protocols brought to light in Soldaten reveal how widespread the knowledge of ordinary soldiers truly was in the genocide of Europe’s Jews.
In December 1944, to quote one example of many, two German POWs discussed the execution of Jews in Latvia:
A: Have you also known places where Jews have been removed?
A:Was it carried out quite systematically?
A: Women and children – everybody?
B: Everybody. Horrible!
The transcripts document what historians of the second World War have known for some time, namely that “practically all German soldiers knew or suspected that Jews were being murdered”.
However, the transcripts also suggest that many ordinary soldiers were strikingly indifferent to the fate of the Jews, preferring to swap stories about medals, girls and comrades. Others actively participated in the mass murders:
C: The SS issued an invitation to go and shoot Jews. All the troops went along with rifles and . . . shot them up. Each man could pick the one he wanted . . .