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Was hast du in dem Krieg zu tun, Großpapa?
on 29 June 2013
`Soldaten' by Sönke Neitzel & Harald Welzer (Simon & Schuster 2012, ppk 2013 £9.99)
(publisher's review copy)
MI 19 (as it became) supported its normal interrogation of PoWs by housing some in bugged quarters where, although German personnel had been warned about this possibility certainly from 1941 (after von Werra's successful (and amazing) escape from Canada), they chatted to each other in an unguarded way. Sometimes a PoW would be lodged with a stool-pigeon who would draw them out on a desired matter. The result was important, even crucial intelligence and not a few surprises. The conversations were listened to and transcribed and, where appropriate, recorded. The English translations of the transcripts were stored, and in 1999 were released to the National Archives under code WO 208.
Neitzel, a German academic historian working in England, discovered these and has worked through tens of thousands of pages of transcripts to select the examples that he is using here. This is a data mine that others will probably explore differently in the future.
With the psychologist Welzer he has distilled them into a study of the German fighting man of WW2. Their sources also include equivalent American records from Fort Hunt. Originally published in German in 2010, we now have `Soldaten' in translation, and fascinating it is. Some may have `met' Nietzel through his participation in a recent Channel 4 programme on the topic.
Initially most of the targeted subjects were Luftwaffe aircrew or U-boat survivors, chosen for their military intelligence value. However it was not just technical revelations that surfaced, but also attitudes.
In 1941 my grandmother was waddling down the street in Freshwater when a German aviator attempted to machine-gun her. From the rear she looked much like the Grandma in Giles' cartoons. The Luftwaffe transcripts show not only that aircrew could clearly see what they were shooting at, but that civilian targets were deliberately selected, and that shooting them up was frequently described as `fun'.
The clearing of North Africa brought us and the Americans a vast haul of Wehrmacht PoWs, including sixteen Generals. MI19 had prepared for this and installed them in a mansion in Hertfordshire, Trent Park, where they could relax in `country house' conditions. This brought us a higher level of information altogether as they discussed amongst each other Hitler, impending V-weapons, the war, and what became known as the Holocaust.
Many of the lower ranks captured in Normandy and interrogated at two other properties had served in the East and this brought us chapter and verse on this and demonstrated the Wehrmacht's enthusiastic participation in mass murder, which has already been written up at considerable length by many German authors. This book is full of chilling details of the most abominable, wilfully sadistic atrocities, some attended for entertainment by civilians and off-duty soldier spectators. Lt Gen Kittel recorded how he actually stopped a mass execution by the SS - because he feared the corpses would contaminate the groundwater. He told them to do the business further away. Sometimes you are reading a mass-murderer's own words. Not all the victims are Jews, and not all the perpetrators and accomplices are German (for instance the French police).
The transcripts also show examples of atrocities in the West - a Frenchman shot out of hand by a soldier because he wanted the Frenchman's bicycle - a Dane on a tram casually shot for offending a German - and sexual crimes left, right and centre including French and Czech girls forced Wehrmacht brothels. The work moves on to Wehrmacht opinions of the Waffen SS and accounts of their crimes.
One of the puzzles is how many PoWs held on to the idea that there might still be some victorious solution for Germany in spite of having access to English newspapers that told them what was really going on, even after Stalingrad, and the defeat of the Afrika Korps. Along with this was their touching but somewhat misguided faith in their ghastly Fuhrer. Once seeds of doubt do creep in, so also some apprehension about `International Jewry' seeking some revenge.
Throughout, the psychology is explored dispassionately, objectively, and in great depth, as Welzer tries to explain how members of a nation that had produced great art, music and literature (let alone Martin Luther) descended into such an abyss of cruelty and behaved as they did. But in Don Marquis' phrase, it's "only an explanation it's not an excuse".
The sources are meticulously documented and there are reproductions of some contemporary photographs printed in the text. The translator appears to be American. The actual transcripts quoted are in their original English, not double-translated. Some very minor nitpicks: Heydrich was assassinated in Prague, not Poland (p.81); `ejected' is inappropriate for clambering out of a WW2 aircraft (pp 160, 263, 264); `rear' is inappropriate and I think means `reaction' (p.180); von Werra escaped from Canada, not from us (p.349); and I am puzzled as to why the transcripts are invariably called `protocols'.
The criminal culpability of the non-SS German Forces, already well documented, is here laid bare in voluntary, self-incriminating statements by its own members. It is not to be believed that they did not pass on what they had seen when on home leave; the entire nation, even if it had failed to draw inferences from the expropriation of the Jews from 1933 onwards, must have been aware of its army's record of atrocities. When Kipling wrote in 1919 of `Lesser breeds without the Law' he was referring to the Germans. This book demonstrates that the cap fits.