What the Soldaten did
D: You mean to say it was sent out like an invitation to a hunt?
In interpreting transcripts such as these, Neitzel sought help from Harald Welzer, a well-known German social psychologist whose earlier book, Perpetrators, provided an insightful analysis of the situational (rather than ideological) factors that turned ordinary men into killers during the second World War. The resulting book is structured according to themes central to the wartime experience, such as ideology; fighting, killing and dying; annihilation; sex; and technology; and it offers an astute analysis of the captured soldiers’ psychology.
Understanding the perpetrators
The authors refrain from adopting a moralising tone in interpreting their gruesome findings. However repulsive the war crimes described in the transcripts might appear from today’s perspective, Neitzel and Welzer attempt to understand the perpetrators’ world view and insist, quite rightly, that condemnation is much less analytically valuable than a careful reconstruction of attitudes and assumptions that make seemingly incomprehensible crimes conceivable. The authors conclude that the decisive factor in making atrocities possible was not so much Nazi ideology as “a general realignment from a civilian to a wartime frame of reference”, making it possible to condone during wartime certain violent practices that would have been inconceivable in peacetime.
The authors themselves admit that there are certain limits to the explanatory value of their sources. First, it could be argued that the material on which Soldaten rests is not representative of all conversations in POW camps. The Allies were clearly collecting evidence of war crimes (of which there was plenty) and probably ignored conversations about food or families back home, let alone those remarks that expressed criticism of Hitler’s regime. It is also likely that many of the POWs before May 1945 – unable to continue the fight and thus somewhat “emasculated” from a soldier’s perspective – bragged about, exaggerated or even imagined wartime exploits.
Secondly, one could ask how specific the findings of Soldaten are to the Wehrmacht and, indeed, to the second World War. Would the recorded private postwar conversations of, say, Red Army soldiers who participated in rapes and murders during the war have been any different? The recent images of British army personnel clearly enjoying the torture of Iraqi prisoners or the leaked video footage of a US helicopter crew killing civilians in Baghdad “for fun” suggest that Neitzel and Welzer are describing a more universal condition of soldiers at work. This does not in any way exculpate the Wehrmacht, but it does raise important questions about the effects of war on those who carry it out – men who are often quite capable of returning to “normal” lives after committing their murderous deeds.
In Soldaten, we see the second World War – a conflict that killed more than 50 million people – through soldiers’ eyes and are reminded (if such a reminder is required) of its brutal, inhumane nature. But the book’s greatest strength is that it deftly illustrates what ordinary men are capable of under the violent conditions of war.