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 Soldiers by Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer Translated from the German by Jefferson Chase. Copyright © 2013 by Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer Translated from the German by Jefferson Chase. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“A remarkable archive of the testimony of German prisoners-of-war.”
“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.”
“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.”