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German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying

Written by Sonke NeitzelAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Sonke Neitzel and Harald WelzerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Harald Welzer


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: September 25, 2012
Pages: 448 | ISBN: 978-0-307-95815-0
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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On a visit to the British National Archive in 2001, Sönke Neitzel made a remarkable discovery: reams of covertly recorded, meticulously transcribed conversations among German POWs during World War II that recently had been declassified. Neitzel would later find another collection of transcriptions, twice as extensive, in the National Archive in Washington, D.C.

These discoveries, published in book form for the first time, would provide a unique and profoundly important window into the true 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. Collaborating with renowned social psychologist Harald Welzer, Neitzel examines these conversations—and the casual, pitiless brutality omnipresent in them—to create a powerful narrative of wartime experience.

[Originally published as Soldaten.]


Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition

What the Soldiers Discussed

“I heard of a case of two fifteen-year-old boys. They were wearing uniform and were firing away with the rest. But they were taken prisoners. A corporal in hospital told me that. They were wearing soldiers’ uniform, so what could one do. And I myself have seen that there are twelve-year-old boys in the Russian Army, in the band, for instance, wearing uniform. We once (captured) a Russian military band and they played wonderfully. It was almost too much for you. There was such depth of feeling and yearning in their music; it conjured up pictures of the vastness of Russia. It was terrific, it thrilled me through and through. It was a military band. To get back to the story, the two boys were told to get back westward and to keep on the road. If they tried to run into the woods at the first bend of the road they would get a bullet in them. And they were scarcely out of sight when they slunk off the road, and in a flash they had disappeared. A large detachment was immediately sent to look for them, but they couldn’t find them. And then they caught the two boys. Those were the two. (Our people) behaved well and didn’t kill them there and then, they took them before the C.C. [concentration camp] again. Now it was clear that they’d done for themselves. They were made to dig their own graves, two pits, and then one of them was shot. He didn’t fall into the grave, he fell forwards over it. The other was told to push the first one into the pit before he was shot himself. And he did so, smiling—a boy of fifteen! There’s fanaticism and idealism for you”!2

This story, as told by Staff Sergeant Schmid on June 20, 1942, typifies how the soldiers talk in the protocols. As in all everyday conversations, the speaker repeatedly changes the subject, following a chain of associations. In the middle, when Schmid is talking about music, it occurs to him how much he enjoys Russian music, whereupon he briefly describes it before continuing his narrative. Schmid’s anecdote begins harmlessly enough, but turns truly horrific at the end with the execution of the two young Russian soldiers. The narrator reports that not only were the two youths murdered, they were made to dig their own graves. The execution runs into a complication, and that leads to the eventual moral of the story. The young soldier about to be killed proves “fanatic” or “idealistic,” eliciting the staff sergeant’s admiration.

At first glance what we have here is a spectacular combination of topics—war, enemy soldiers, youths, music, Russian expanses, crimes against humanity, and admiration for one’s adversary—that don’t seem to cohere. Yet they are narrated in a single breath. That is the first thing we need to recognize. The stories we will be examining in this book deviate from what we expect. They were not intended to be well rounded, consistent, or logical. They were told to create excitement, elicit interest, or provide space and opportunity for the interlocutor to add commentary or stories of his own. In this respect, as is true for all everyday conversations, the soldiers’ stories tend to jump around in interesting ways. They are full of ruptures and sidebar narratives, and they aim to establish consensus and agreement. People do not converse solely in order to exchange information but to create a relationship with one another, establishing commonalities and assuring themselves that they are experiencing one and the same world. The soldier’s world is that of war. That is what makes their conversations seem so extraordinary to readers today. For the soldiers themselves, they were perfectly normal.

The brutality, harshness, and absence of emotion of war are omnipresent, and that is what is so disturbing for us reading the dialogues today, more than sixty years after the fact. Involuntarily, we can only shake our heads in dismay and frequent incomprehension. Yet in order to understand the world of these soldiers, and not just our own world, we need to get beyond such moral reactions. The matter-of-factness with which extreme acts of brutality are related shows that killing and the worst sorts of violence were part of the narrator’s and audience’s everyday reality. The POWs discussed such topics for hours on end. But they also conversed about airplanes, bombs, radar devices, cities, landscapes, and women:

Müller: When I was at Kharkiv the whole place had been destroyed, except the centre of the town. It was a delightful town, a delightful memory! Everyone spoke a little German—they’d learnt it at school. At Taganrog, too, there were splendid cinemas and wonderful cafés on the beach. We did a lot of flying near the junction of the Don and the Donetz. . . . It’s beautiful country; I travelled everywhere in a lorry. Everywhere we saw women doing compulsory labour service.

Faust: How frightful!

Müller: They were employed on road-making—extraordinarily lovely girls; we drove past, simply pulled them into the armoured car, raped them and threw them out again. And did they curse!3

Male conversations are like this. The two soldiers protocolled here, a Luftwaffe lance corporal and a sergeant, at times describe the Russian campaign like tourists, telling of “delightful” towns and memories. Then, suddenly, the story becomes about the spontaneous rape of female forced laborers. The sergeant relates this like a minor, ancillary anecdote, before continuing to describe his “trip.” This example illustrates the parameters of what can be said and what is expected in the secretly monitored conversations. None of the violence related goes against his interlocutor’s expectations. Stories about shooting, raping, and robbing are commonplace within the war stories. Rarely do they occasion analysis, moral objections, or disagreements. As brutal as they may be, the conversations proceed harmoniously. The soldiers understand one another. They share the same world and swap perspectives on the events that occupy their minds and the things that they’ve seen and done. They narrate and interpret these things in historically, culturally, and situatively specific frameworks of reference.

Our aim in this book is to reconstruct and describe these frameworks in order to understand what the soldiers’ world was like, how they saw themselves and their enemies, what they thought about Adolf Hitler and Nazism, and why they continued fighting, even when the war seemed already lost. We want to examine what was “National Socialist” about these reference frameworks and to determine whether the largely jovial men in the POW camps were indeed “ideological warriors” who set out in a “war of annihilation” to commit racist crimes and stage massacres. To what extent do these men conform to the category, popularized by Daniel Goldhagen in the 1990s, of “willing executioners”? Or, alternatively, do they more greatly resemble the more differentiated, morally ambiguous picture of Wehrmacht soldiers that has emerged from the popular historical exhibits by the Hamburg Institute for Social Research and countless historical examinations? Today’s conventional wisdom is that Wehrmacht soldiers were part of a gigantic apparatus of annihilation and thus were participants in, if not executioners of, unparalleled mass murder. There is no doubt that the Wehrmacht was involved in criminal acts, from the killing of civilians to the systematic murder of Jewish men, women, and children. But that tells us nothing about how individual soldiers were involved in such criminality, or about the relationship they themselves had toward their deeds—whether they committed crimes willingly, grudgingly, or not at all. The material here gives detailed information about the relationships between individuals and their actions and challenges our common assumptions about “the Wehrmacht.”

One fact needs to be acknowledged. Whatever they may encounter, human beings are never unbiased. Instead, they perceive everything through specific filters. Every culture, historical epoch, or economic system—in short every form of existence—influences the patterns of perception and interpretation and thus steers how individuals perceive and interpret experiences and events. The surveillance protocols reflect, in real time, how German soldiers saw and commonly understood World War II. We will show that their observations and conversations are not what we would usually imagine—in part because they, unlike we today, did not know how the war would end and what would become of the Third Reich and its Führer. The soldiers’ future, both real and imaginary, is our past, but for them it was an unfinished book. Most of the soldiers are scarcely interested in ideology, politics, world orders, and anything of that nature. They wage war not out of conviction, but because they are soldiers, and fighting is their job.

Many of them are anti-Semites, but that is not identical with being “Nazis.” Nor does anti-Semitism have anything to do with willingness to kill. A substantial number of the soldiers hate “the Jews” but are shocked at the mass executions by firing squads. Some are clear “anti-Nazis” but support the anti-Jewish policies of Hitler’s regime. Quite a few are scandalized at hundreds of thousands of Russian POWs being allowed to starve to death, but do not hesitate to shoot POWs themselves if it seems too time-consuming or dangerous to guard or transport them. Some complain that Germans are too “humane” and then tell in the same breath and in great detail how they mowed down entire villages. Many conversations feature a lot of boasting and chest-puffing, but this goes well beyond today’s males’ bragging about themselves or their cars. Soldiers frequently seek to rack up points with tales of extreme violence, of the women they raped, the planes they shot down, or the merchant ships they sank. On occasion, we were able to determine that such stories were untrue and intended to make an impression, even by relating, for instance, how they sank a ship that was transporting children. That is beyond the pale today, but the parameters of what could be and was said then were different from what obtains today, as are the things which they hoped would elicit admiration and respect. Acts of violence, back then, belonged to that category. Most of the soldiers’ stories may initially seem contradictory, but only if we assume that people act in accordance with their “attitudes,” and that those attitudes are closely connected with ideologies, theories, and grand convictions.

In reality, people act as they think is expected of them. Such perceived expectations have a lot less to do with abstract “views of the world” than with concrete places, purposes, and functions—and above all with the groups of which individual people are a part.

To understand and explain why German soldiers waged war for five years with a ferocity still unparalleled today, causing an eruption of violence that claimed 50 million lives and decimated an entire continent, we have to see the war, their war, through their eyes. The following chapters will be concerned in detail with the factors that influenced and determined the soldiers’ perspective, their frames of reference. Readers who are not interested in Nazi and military frames of reference and are more curious about the soldiers’ narratives and discussions about violence, technology, extermination, women, or the Führer should proceed directly to page 44. After we have given a detailed account of the soldiers’ views on fighting, killing, and dying, we will compare war as waged by the Wehrmacht with other wars, thereby elucidating what was specifically “National Socialist” about World War II. This much we can reveal in advance: the results of this examination will often be unexpected.

Seeing the War with Soldiers’ Eyes: Analyzing Frames of Reference

Human beings are not Pavlovian dogs. They don’t react with conditioned reflexes to predetermined stimuli. Between stimulus and reaction, something highly specialized happens which epitomizes human consciousness and which distinguishes our species from all other forms of life. Humans interpret what they perceive and on the basis of interpretation draw conclusions, make up their minds, and decide what to do. Belying Marxist theory, human beings never act on the basis of objective conditions; nor do they act, as disciples of rational choice theory long wanted us to believe, solely with an eye toward cost-benefit calculations. Waging war is neither the only logical result of cost-benefit analysis nor a necessary consequence of objective circumstances. A physical body will always fall according to the laws of gravity and never otherwise, but whatever human beings do they could always have done differently. Nor do magic entities such as “mentalities” make people behave a certain way, although psychological structures no doubt influence what human beings do. Mentalities precede but do not determine decisions. Even if people’s perceptions and actions are bound up with social, cultural, hierarchical, and biological or anthropological circumstances, human beings always enjoy a certain freedom of interpretation and action. But the ability to interpret and decide presupposes orientation and knowledge of what one is dealing with and what consequences a decision can have. And a frame of reference is what provides orientation.

Frames of reference vary drastically according to historical periods and cultures. Orthodox Muslims, for instance, categorize suitable and unsuitable sexual behavior within a completely different framework from that of secular inhabitants of Western society. Nonetheless, no member of either group is able to interpret what he sees outside references not of his own choice or making. They influence, guide, and even steer his perceptions and interpretations. That is not to say that transgressions of a preexisting frame of reference do not occur in special situations. It is possible to observe or think something new. But this is relatively seldom the case. Frames of reference guarantee economy of action so that most of what happens can be sorted within a familiar matrix. That makes things easier. People called upon to act don’t need to start from the very beginning with the question: what is actually going on here? In the vast majority of cases, the answers to this question are preprogrammed and accessible, saved in a corpus of cultural orientation and knowledge. Most everyday tasks are taken care of by routines, habits, and certainties, and that saves individual human beings a colossal amount of work.

Thus when we want to explain human behavior, we first must reconstruct the frame of reference in which given human beings operated, including which factors structured their perception and suggested certain conclusions. Merely analyzing objective circumstances is inadequate. Nor do mentalities explain why someone did a specific thing, especially in cases where members of a group whose minds were all formed the same way arrive at entirely different conclusions and decisions. This is the systemic limit upon theories about ideological wars and totalitarian regimes. The question always remains: how are “world views” and “ideologies” translated into individual perceptions and interpretations and how do they affect individual behavior? In order to understand those things, we analyze frames of reference as a way of reconstructing the perceptions and interpretations of people in specific historical situations, here German soldiers during World War II.
Sonke Neitzel|Harald Welzer|Author Q&A

About Sonke Neitzel

Sonke Neitzel - Soldaten

Photo © Petra A. Killick

Sonke Neitzel is a professor of International History at the London School of Economics. He has previously taught modern history at the University of Glasgow, University of Mainz and has also held posts at the universities of Karlsruhe, Bern, and Saarbrucken. He is currently editor of the journal German History in the Twentieth Century.

About Harald Welzer

Harald Welzer - Soldaten

Photo © Thomas Langrede

Harald Welzer is head of the Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research at the KWI Essen. He teaches social psychology at the universities of Hanover and Witten-Herdecke.

Author Q&A

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.



Praise for Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer's Soldiers

“An essential documentary record; seldom has surveillance been put to such important use.”
The Guardian
“Invaluable. . . . Historians often dream of being able to eavesdrop on history, but few can hope to obtain such spectacularly direct access as that presented in this major addition to the literature on the Second World War. . . . The transcripts of conversations between German prisoners of war, secretly recorded by the British and American intelligence services, offer a vivid and at times surprising insight into the mentality of the German military. . . . [Soldaten] presents an unprecedented source for understanding the ability to massacre.”
The Observer
“These extraordinary bugged conversations reveal through the eyes of German soldiers with stark clarity and candor the often brutal reality of the Second World War, providing remarkable insight into the mentality and behavior of the Wehrmacht.”
—Sir Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler: A Biography
“The myth that Nazi-era German armed forces [were] not involved in war crimes persisted for decades after the war. Now two German researchers have destroyed it once and for all. . . . The material [Neitzel and Welzer] have uncovered in British and American archives is nothing short of sensational. . . .[Soldaten] has the potential to change our view of the war.”
Der Spiegel

“A trove of transcripts of bugged recordings providing specific, startling evidence that German soldiers in World War II were not just following orders. . . . Unique—and essential to any understanding of German mentalités in the Hitler era.”
Kirkus Reviews

“A remarkable archive of the testimony of German prisoners-of-war.”
The Telegraph

“This should be required reading for all those who believe that wars could be done cleanly.”
—Martin Meier, Neues Deutschland

“A significant contribution on the mental history of the Wehrmacht . . . The authors have written an incredibly readable book.”
Die Zeit

“An equally fascinating and shocking book about the everyday madness of the Nazi war of extermination, which once again confirms Hannah Arendt’s thesis about the ‘banality of evil’ . . . A scholarly sensation.”
—Goethe Institut

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