Soldaten: Protokolle vom Kämpfen, Töten und Sterben (German) Hardcover – 1 Apr 2011
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The material that historian Sönke Neitzel uncovered in British and American archives is nothing short of sensational. While researching the submarine war in the Atlantic in 2001, he discovered the transcripts of covertly recorded conversations between German officers in which they talked about their wartime experiences with an unprecedented degree of openness. The deeper Neitzel dug into the archives, the more material he found. In the end, he and social psychologist Harald Welzer analyzed a total of 150,000 pages of source material. The result is a newly published book with the simple title of "Soldaten" ("Soldiers"), published by S. Fischer Verlag. The volume has the potential to change our view of the war.
The recordings, which were made using special equipment that the Allies used to secretly listen in on conversations between German prisoners of war in their cells starting in 1939, offer an inside view of World War II. In doing so, they destroy once and for the myth of a "clean" Wehrmacht.
In "Soldiers," which is subtitled "Transcripts of Fighting, Killing and Dying," the soldiers talk about their views of the enemy and their own leaders, discuss the details of combat missions and trade astonishingly detailed accounts of the atrocities they both witnessed and committed.
The authors do not elaborate upon the centuries of German chauvinism and militarism. However, they briefly touch upon these matters as they write, "The Prussian-led wars from 1864 to 1871 that created the unified German nation had rooted military values deep within German society, and even many of those critical of the state shared them." (p. 35).
Considering all the attention given to the Nazi animus against Jews, and of the presumed extent of Nazi indoctrination of German society, the reader may be surprised at the fact that politics or Nazi ideology was seldom the focus of the thinking of the German POWs, and even that was a patchwork of diverse and contradictory statements. (p. 234). In fact, the vast majority of topics, among the captured Germans, had centered upon mundane and soldier-related matters. (p. 319).
Even so, the Wehrmacht was actively involved in the murders of Jews not only in individual cases, but also in virtually all large-scale Jew-killing operations, such as that at Babi Yar. (p. 100). In addition, Neitzel and Welzer cite historian Wolfram Wette, who estimated that, among the 17 million members of the Wehrmacht, there were only 100 attempts to rescue Jews. (p. 100).
When German racism was verbalized by the German POWs, it was directed not only against Jews. The Germans consistently looked down on Slavs as beneath them. (p. 90; 379, #351). One German POW regretted that the Germans and the English were fighting each other instead of jointly fighting the Slavs. (p. 237). Not mentioned is the fact that, in his earlier years, Hitler had entertained similar thoughts.
German racism against Slavs was very relevant to murderous and genocidal German acts against Slavs. (p. 90). One German, Pohl, involved in the bombing and strafing of Polish civilians in 1939, expressed regret only over the death of horses. (p. 45). The Germans demonized and murdered Polish POWs (p. 304), systematically murdered Polish intelligentsia (p. 148), killed individual Poles for the most trivial of offenses (pp. 150-151), and destroyed entire villages (with all their people) in massive, collective reprisals. (p. 147).
Unlike the Holocaust of Jews, the Nazi German genocide of Slavs was often indirect. About 2.5 million to 3.3 million of the 5.3-5.7 million Soviet POWs, (that is, 45-57%), in Nazi German captivity, died because of deliberate genocidal starvation. (p. 90). To put the foregoing figures in perspective, only about 1-3% of Anglo-American POWs died in German captivity. (p. 332). The genocide of Russian POWs was ameliorated only by the later German need of workers for forced labor. (p. 96). [The same, of course, held in the case of the genocide of Jews.]
Let us now consider another topic. In a surprising number of cases, German soldiers exploited Jewish and non-Jewish women sexually before murdering them. (p. 118, 165-175). This is in spite of the Nazi concept of RASSENSCHANDE (racial shame), or perhaps out of fear of being exposed for engaging in it.
Neitzel and Welzer cite a wealth of interesting information. For instance, during WWII, only 146 American soldiers were put to death for desertion as against some 20,000 German soldiers and approximately 150,000 Soviet soldiers. (p. 272).
The authors clarify Milgram's famous experiment. This experiment has been used to prove that "ordinary" people are liable to commit the most heinous acts if some authority figure tells them that it serves some higher good. However, it turns out that subjects are much less likely to be unilaterally obedient to authority figures if these figures are close to them socially. (p. 357).