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 . . .
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.