- Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying. The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs by Sönke Neitzel, Harald Welzer
Among the crimes involving the German armed forces (Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS) during World War II were the mass murder of Soviet POWs; anti-partisan operations encompassing the mass killing and plunder of civilians; and deep complicity or sometimes active participation in the extermination of occupied Europe’s Jews. Yet such were the German armed forces’ size and diversity, and such is the often challenging nature of the available relevant primary sources, that there remains considerable debate over just how far German military personnel in general were involved in such crimes, their motivations for involvement, and their attitudes towards the Nazi regime and the war more widely.
Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer’s excellent, vividly written study makes a highly significant contribution to debates on the mentality of German military personnel under the Third Reich. It is based, innovatively, upon transcripts of secretly recorded wartime conversations between German POWs in British and US captivity. The transcripts’ main strengths as a source are that most of the POWs were talking quite freely, disregarding the possibility that they were under surveillance, and that the prisoners’ social spectrum was broader than that of the generally better-educated soldiers whose letters home have featured widely in other studies.
Neitzel and Welzer argue that ideological fanaticism and its concomitant brutality were less pronounced among German military personnel than some studies have claimed, though they do identify stronger tendencies amongst Waffen-SS personnel in this regard. They nevertheless explain how the Third Reich boosted the self-esteem [End Page 281] of many ordinary Germans during the 1930s, and note the grim effect that this had. For not only did falling unemployment, the Nazis’ Strength Through Joy organization, and other phenomena appear to demonstrate that the regime was improving the lives of “ordinary” citizens; Germans were also made to feel superior to “out” groups, particularly Jews, and this led them to approve of many of the regime’s antisemitic measures. Such attitudes, the authors assert, also help explain why even some non-Nazi German POWs supported much of the regime’s antisemitic program, even if their support fell short of approving of mass extermination. Indeed, some POWs, aware of the mass murder of Jews through hearsay, first-hand experience, or even personal involvement, deemed such actions necessary. Others deemed them not so much morally wrong as merely unwise, in that they might provoke enemy retaliation.
Military personnel’s readiness to fight was also shaped by deep-seated military values that were prevalent in German society well before the advent of the Third Reich. These values were exemplified by the importance soldiers placed upon winning military decorations, and by the fact that even non-Nazi POWs were appalled by Field Marshal Paulus’ perceived dereliction of duty when he surrendered at Stalingrad. On the other hand—though Neitzel and Welzer do not explicitly draw the connection themselves—notions of soldierly honor may help to explain why many German POWs, their anti-Slavic propensities notwithstanding, were disgusted by the appalling conditions they had hitherto witnessed in Wehrmacht-run camps for Soviet POWs.
When it came to armed opponents, German military personnel reserved their greatest contempt for partisans. Neitzel and Welzer suggest that the key factors impelling German military personnel to extreme violence in anti-partisan operations were their fear of and contempt for irregular warfare. These attitudes were augmented by the difficulty in distinguishing between partisans and the general civilian population. The authors cite similarities between German conduct in this regard and that of US forces in Vietnam. This reviewer would ascribe somewhat greater importance to Nazi ideology in this context than do Neitzel and Welzer, but would certainly concur that such situational factors were very important.
Of the Germans’ conventional land-based opponents, the British received the most praise from the POWs. The Americans received rather less...