October 27, 2007 1:57 am

Tapping Hitler’s Generals

Tapping Hitler’s Generals: Transcripts of Conversations 1942-1945
edited by Sonke Neitzel
Frontline Books £30, 416 pages
FT bookshop price: £24

Between 1942 and 1945, British military intelligence listened in on conversations between senior German prisoners of war. This secret surveillance was recorded on gramophone discs and some of the material has been transcribed to form this book. Tapping Hitler’s Generals is the most intimate record of what German staff officers thought of their role in the second world war.

The recordings took place in Combined Services interrogations centres around London. Sometimes, to get the prisoners to open up, British intelligence would mix Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe prisoners so they would have to explain more fully their part in the war. Or a German agent provocateur might be set among them to start a debate about a particular commander or conflict. The results make for a fascinating – and chilling – insight into the German view of the war.

In September 1944, two German prisoners described an incident on the Eastern Front that had happened the previous year when three German officers had invited themselves into a Russian peasant family’s cottage to drink their wine rations. The Hauptmann (a rank equivalent to captain) was annoyed at the small amount of alcohol available and turned his anger on the Russian family. “I can’t stand the sight of these peasants’ faces!” he said. He then pulled out his pistol and shot the Russian man of the house. The wife screamed and the captain shot her as well.

The children then began crying and to drown out their noise, the captain brought in a soldier to play an accordion. But eventually the weeping of the children irritated the German and he had them killed as well.

The incident shocked even the captain’s comrades and the next day he was brought before a court martial. He denied being drunk and gave the court the following defence: “They weren’t human beings, they only count as animals; nothing at all can happen to us.”

The judge disagreed and sentenced him to prison, although some German officers wanted him executed. However, a week later, a message came directly from Hitler himself, saying that although he agreed with punishing the captain he “refused to authorise the death sentence, because according to his standards, the Russians are not human beings”.

In the end, the guilty captain didn’t even go to prison, fighting instead in a penal battalion on the Eastern Front.

This and many other first-hand stories secretly recorded by eavesdroppers on the prisoners of war reveal how the racist Nazi ideology corrupted the morality of the German army.

It also punctures the myth that somehow the Wehrmacht was above such atrocities, which were committed by rogue SS elements . This remarkable book proves that this was not true. The ordinary soldier was as much to blame as the Nazi party hardliners.

Tim Newark is the author of ‘The Mafia at War’ (Greenhill)

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