In 2001, spurred by a nagging curiosity over a transcript of a secretly recorded conversation he had come across in his research on the German U-boat wars, historian Sönke Neitzel paid a visit to the British national archives. He had heard of the existence of recorded interrogations of German POWs, but never about covert recordings taken within the confines of the holding cells, bedrooms, and camps that housed the prisoners. What Neitzel discovered, to his amazement, were reams of untouched, recently declassified transcripts totaling nearly eight hundred pages. Later, Neitzel would find another trove of protocols twice as extensive at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
Though initially recorded by British intelligence with the intention of gaining information that might be useful for the Allied war effort, the matters discussed in these conversations ultimately proved to be limited in that regard. But for Neitzel and his collaborator, renowned social psychologist Harald Welzer, they would supply a unique and profoundly important window into the mentality of the soldiers in the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, the German navy, and the military in general, almost all of whom had insisted on their own honorable behavior during the war. It is a myth these transcripts unequivocally debunk.
Soldaten closely examines these conversations, and the casual, pitiless brutality omnipresent in them, from a historical and psychological perspective. What factors led to the degradation of the soldiers’ sense of awareness and morality? How much did their social environments affect their interpretation of the war and their actions during combat? By reconstructing the frameworks and situations behind these conversations, and the context in which they were spoken, a powerful, unflinching narrative of wartime experience emerges. The details of what these soldiers did, after all, are not filtered the way they might be in letters to family, or girlfriends and wives, or during interrogations by the enemy. In Soldaten, Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer offer an unmitigated window into the mind-set of the German fighting man, potentially changing our view of World War II.
Q: Soldaten has already been published in German. What was the reaction in Germany to your research and conclusions?
A: There was a very intense and broad discussion about our findings, simply because the book offers the first empirically based insight into the mindset of the German soldiers and perhaps of soldiers in general. The public reaction was very much concentrated on the brutality of the soldier’s stories. But our argument, that there is a general grammar of war and that from a psychological perspective, less had changed in wars since 1945 than we thought, was interestingly not so intensely discussed. People like to keep inconvenient truths at a historical distance: bad enough that the soldiers in WWII were really brutal. But today’s wars are surely more civilized...
Q: What were your reactions when you discovered that this trove of source material existed and started reading the reports for the first time?
A: Well, when I [Neitzel] visited the Public Record Office in London in November 2001, I expected to find a few pages of inconsequential chatter, but not a treasure trove of tens of thousands of pages of so far unknown bugging reports. I was electrified; I delved into their conversations and was sucked in by the internal world of war that unfolded before me. It was unbelievable to find a new source on the exceptionally well-documented WWII.
Q: Your analysis provides a unique view into the minds of soldiers and the psychology of war. Were you surprised by anything you discovered?
A: The banality of war was astonishing. How normal mass violence was for the soldiers, that it belonged to their everyday world, like building a house for a brick-layer. And it was most interesting to see that these warriors acted on the same patterns in war that modern societies do in peace time: they did their work, they strived for social acceptance, and were not particularly interested for higher-level questions. Only the circumstances immediately around them were relevant to them.
Q: Why haven’t we known about these secretly recorded conversations until now? Wouldn’t they have been useful as evidence in the trials following the war?
A: The British and the American authorities forbade the use of the documents in the trials because they wanted to keep their cunning bugging methods top secret. They were only released in 1996. However, it wouldn’t have made a huge difference if this material had been used for example in Nuremberg. The chatter of the POWs on atrocities was in most cases not precise enough to convict anybody.
Q: How representative is the sample of German soldiers who were under surveillance? Were there soldiers of all ranks and from all branches of the military?
A: The 14,000 German soldiers who were bugged by the British and the Americans came from all imaginable backgrounds, from all regions of the Reich, all possible political convictions, and from all branches, including the Waffen-SS. The sample is not representative in a statistical sense, but gives the richest picture of the mind sets of soldiers ever recorded.
Q: Do you believe that any of the POWs knew that they were being bugged? Would this have led them to censor their conversations?
A: Only a very few of the German POWs had the idea that they were bugged. Interestingly, even those men didn’t censor their conversations and still spoke about atrocities, National Socialism, etc. The urge to chat with their fellow soldiers was obviously too strong.
Q: How does the information you uncovered change our understanding about what German soldiers knew in regards to the Holocaust and other atrocities?
A: If we read the bugging reports on the mass-murders of Jews, the killing of civilians, and the shooting of enemy soldiers, the stories themselves are in general not new—although there is material for example about rapings and the participation in mass killings of Jews for fun that doesn’t appear in other sources. But what is new is the total absence of surprise among the German soldiers. There is no story about violence, no matter how absurd the story might be, that caused a reaction of disbelief. There is almost nobody, who said to a fellow, “you are a bragger, this story can’t be true—Germans don’t do things like that.” Not everybody knew everything about the Holocaust, and many felt ashamed about it, but in the end it was regarded as “normal,” something which belonged to this war, something one couldn’t do anything against.
Q: Some of the discussions among the soldiers are quite disturbing as they recount acts of brutality and sexual violence. How did you distinguish between descriptions of actual events and what may have been bravado on the part of men discussing conquests with their comrades?
A: We tried very hard to check in contemporary documents, diaries, etc. to determine if the stories were true or not. But in the end this aspect is not decisive. Sometimes these conversations between young men are obviously intended to outdo their counterpart: to have killed more enemies, to have shot down more planes, to have witnessed more brutal war crimes, to have raped more women, etc. Therefore we get a clear feeling of what was expressible in a conversation with a fellow soldier—what stories they tell, what stories they do not tell, what they regard as a war crime, what wasn’t a war crime, etc. This enables us to reconstruct their frame of reference, their perception of the war and that time.
Q: Did the soldiers appear to espouse Nazi ideology or were they more accurately following along with a group mentality? Did actual experience in the field shift the soldiers’ understanding of the war from their initial frame of reference?
A: The overwhelming majority of the POWs were not interested in National Socialism, the new order of Europe or any other political issue. Their perspective was the core group they belonged to, their unit, their duty, the next battle, or their weapons of war. This social environment stood not in a distinguishable connection with political issues for them. However, they were living in a National Socialist Society; therefore most of the soldiers shared Nazi values like the inequality of races and most of them were anti-Semites. But being anti-Semitic is something different from wishing to exterminate the entire population of Jews. Our material shows this difference clearly; most of the soldiers are soldiers, but not “willing executioners.” We think that ideology is not a decisive factor to explain why the majority of the German soldiers acted in WWII the way that they they did.
Q: One of the reasons the book is called Soldaten is because so much of what the POWs discussed is not unique to German soldiers during WWII, but part of what all soldiers experience during wartime. Do you feel there are lessons here for the modern military in regards to the way that soldiers are trained or what they are asked to do?
A: We think that there is something like a general grammar of war and a general dynamics of violence in fighting, and that there is a much stronger link from WWII to today’s wars than we had thought. Especially in Germany, people think that the Wehrmacht was a criminal Nazi army and that the current Bundeswehr has nothing to do with it. Well, the Wehrmacht committed all kinds of atrocities on an unpredicted scale, it served the National Socialist regime, so in that sense the Bundeswehr is very different. But the overwhelming majority of the 17 million Wehrmacht soldiers were by no mean ideological warriors. Although the frame of the military and especially the society was different in the 1930s and 40s, the grammar of war is still the similar. Therefore we see no big difference between a Wehrmacht sniper and a Special Forces sniper of the Bundeswehr in Afghanistan or of the U.S. Army in Iraq.