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October 12, 2012 9:04 pm
Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying, By Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, Translated by Jefferson Chase, Simon & Schuster, RRP£25/Knopf, $30.50, 448 pages
In 2001, Sönke Neitzel made the sort of discovery that most historians can only dream of. On a routine trip to the Public Record Office in Kew he stumbled across a huge collection of documents from the second world war that nobody appeared to have analysed before. The documents were transcripts of conversations between German prisoners, secretly recorded by the Allies during the war. Unaware that they were bugged, these prisoners spoke with an astonishing frankness about subjects such as rape, killing and even the Holocaust.
Until now, historians interested in the attitudes of German soldiers have had to rely on their memoirs, letters sent home or postwar interviews. The problem with such sources is that they tend to skirt around the sensitive subjects that most interest us. Captured in this cache of documents, by contrast, are the uncensored thoughts and anecdotes of German servicemen who did not know they were being listened to, and who did not yet have the benefit of hindsight.
Neitzel teamed up with social psychologist Harald Welzer, and set about analysing these transcripts – 150,000 pages of them in all. The result of their labours, Soldaten, is a slightly stiff, occasionally long-winded academic study of the attitudes and behaviour of the German armed forces during the war. But it is peppered with vivid, and often shocking, stories told by the soldiers, sailors and airmen themselves. These men not only talk about atrocities, they brag about them. They justify their actions with the most flimsy of reasoning: because “somebody had to do it”, because “orders were orders”, or because the victims, even children, were “partisans”. All those involved in these conversations seem to accept extreme brutality as a perfectly natural part of what they do.
The myth that it was only the SS that indulged in atrocities is here comprehensively laid to rest. As the authors show, ordinary servicemen of all ranks reveal an intimate knowledge of war crimes, and frequently admit to facilitating them, or even directly taking part. Some of the most striking passages, for example, are the transcripts of Luftwaffe pilots who talk gleefully of strafing women and children. Revenge for fallen comrades is a given, regardless of how disproportionate it ends up being. And soldiers admit to raping women for no better reason than that they could: as one veteran of the Russian front joked, “we drove past, simply pulled them into the armoured car, raped them and threw them out again. And did they curse!”
For the authors there is nothing surprising in any of this. Extreme violence, they maintain, is merely one of a range of tools used by soldiers to achieve their goals. Their job during wartime is to kill people, and we should not be surprised if some, perhaps the majority, take pride in a job well done. Comparisons with events in Vietnam and Afghanistan seem to back this up.
For all their academic rigour, however, there is something missing from the authors’ conclusions. Some of the most powerful stories in this book are nothing to do with finishing a job or achieving military goals: they demonstrate violence perpetrated merely for its own sake. Soldiers describe how they are invited to mass shootings of Jews as if they were a form of tourist entertainment. In all theatres there are those who relish the chance to indulge their violent fantasies. “Throwing bombs has become a passion with me,” claims one Luftwaffe officer. “One itches for it; it is a lovely feeling. It is as lovely as shooting someone down.”
According to Freud, it is only the normal laws and constraints of society that keep such psychopathic tendencies in check. If there is one lesson to be learned from these transcripts, it must be a respect for the dreadful forces we unleash whenever these constraints are removed.
Keith Lowe is author of ‘Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II’ (Viking)
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