“Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (1)

“Soldaten”, which means “Soldiers” is a book about the many atrocities committed by the German armed forces during World War II, although the two young authors do not hesitate to include other conflicts if they wish to make a particular point. War crimes by American forces in both Vietnam and Iraq are therefore included:

The two young authors are both highly distinguished academics, Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer.

Harald Welzer (above) was born in Hannover in 1958 and he is a German social psychologist, having studied sociology, psychology and literature at the University of Hannover.

Born in 1968, Sönke Neitzel (above) studied at the University of Mainz and is Professor of Military History at the University of Potsdam. He has previously held professorships at the London School of Economics, the University of Karlsruhe, the University of Bern, the University of Glasgow and the University of Saarbrücken.

The two young men belong to a burgeoning group of modern German academics who are completely willing to study and to write about Hitler, Nazism and the conduct of the German people during World War II. They are not in the slightest bit biased towards the Germans and they do not try to defend the behaviour of the Nazis. Overall, in “Soldaten”, they treat the Nazi period, quite rightly, as if Hitler’s Germany was so far away in the past that it has become a foreign country. Things were done differently there:

I read “Soldaten” recently and I found it absolutely stunning. I even read the first fifty pages twice to make sure that I had understood it all fully.

The book is based on what was probably Sönke Neitzel’s luckiest day ever. He discovered that during World War II, British Intelligence had taped German prisoners of war in secret and had then transcribed their conversations. This process had produced 50,000 pages of transcripts, which he was able to locate and then to read. Neitzel later found that the National Archives in Washington DC had around 100,000 further pages of prisoners’ conversations. The transcripts from the German prisoners in England have produced a 400 page book which I am going to review in almost note form.

In the earliest pages, it is explained that:

“the brutality, harshness and absence of emotion are what is so disturbing for us, sixty years after the fact…..killing and the worse sorts of violence were part of everyday reality (back then).”

The book will seek to explain why these levels of violence came about, and whether they were unique to this period of the twentieth century.

One idea, mentioned as early as page four, is that when you have reacted once in a particular way to a certain situation, you will continue to apply the very same rules:

“In the Third Reich, people didn’t need to be anti-semitic to murder Jews, or altruistic to rescue them….it was enough to be in a social situation in which one or the other course of action seemed called for. After that, people tended to follow what they had already done…massacre or rescue.”

When the course of action chosen is massacre, the situation may also incorporate the idea of “inhumanity with impunity”. Clearly, if everybody commits acts of violence and nobody is ever punished for it, then this promotes situations where people can “follow what they had already done”. Here is an example from a conversation between German POWs which was taped by British Intelligence:

Soldier A : “Kharkiv was a delightful town. At Taganrog too, there were splendid cinemas and wonderful cafés.

Everywhere we saw Russian women doing compulsory service.

We drove past, pulled them into the armoured car, raped them and threw them out again. And did they curse!”

Where does “inhumanity with impunity” come from? Well, on page 25 of “Soldaten, an explanation is given:

“In psychological terms the inhabitants of the Third Reich were as normal as people in all other societies at all other times. The spectrum of perpetrators (of violence) was a cross section of normal society. No specific group proved immune to the temptation of “inhumanity with impunity”.

The Third Reich did not though, reduce the variations of individual personalities to absolute zero. But it showed them to be of comparatively slight, indeed often negligible, importance.

In other words, we are more or less all capable of carrying out dreadful acts, because our characters do not differ enormously from those of other people. And that is why those variations are of negligible importance. All of us, every single one, can do dreadful evil.

They were people just like any other, under that showy uniform………




Filed under Criminology, History, Russia, Science

18 responses to ““Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (1)

  1. Appalling, all the same. I like the nod to L.P. Hartley

    • I knew you would, Derrick! The worrying thing about “Soldaten” is that it shows comprehensively that we all have this type of behaviour inside us, and that we need to fight continually against giving in to it.

  2. Thank you for sharing!!.. there has been many attempts with past (and present) generations to glorify war or conflict, but it is what it is… “What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or in the holy name of liberty or democracy?” ( Mahatma Gandhi)… 🙂

    Until we meet again, hope all is well in your part of the universe and life is all that you wish for it to be.. 🙂

    • There will be five more posts about this book, which answered comprehensively the question that has been in my mind ever since I saw my first picture of a concentration camp, namely, “How can people do this?”.
      There will be three factors, absence of punishment, group behaviour and applying the same reactions repeatedly in a given situation.
      And, of course, those three things are not unique to the Nazis. Anybody with a weapon in their hand is a candidate.
      “My Lai” and Iraq will crop up later, and I hope that as an ex-soldier,you won’t be upset by that.

      • Not to worry… as a soldier I witnessed first hand mankind’s inhumane treatment to their fellow mankind… which is why I hesitate to use the word “civilized”… 🙂

  3. Interesting that these authors are willing to write about. I’m always amazed and appalled at what people will do in war. Sounds like theses authors are willing to understand why that happens.

    • Young Germans seem increasingly willing to face up to what their forebears did, and to treat them almost as a different nation. One huge step was an exhibition of photographs in Berlin which showed that the Wehrmacht, the ordinary army, behaved just as appallingly as the SS. Previously, people had thought this was not the case, which meant that their grandad was not a war criminal. The exhibition proved otherwise, and caused huge controversy.
      After that, though, more and more people seemed willing to face the horrors of their past and to want to know what happened and why. “Soldaten” will answer the second question, “Why?”, and in the remaining blog posts will demonstrate quite clearly that any group of people, of whatever nationality, are capable of similar behaviour.
      Here’s the link to a review of that exhibition:
      Incidentally, I am not a Christian Scientist, just a person who can spell “Google”.

  4. Interesting post, John. Human “inhumanity with impunity” is evident throughout the recorded history of our species. That’s why it is so important that we do not feed our bestial nature.

  5. Thank you. And five more posts to come, where the authors prove that such behaviour isn’t limited to Germans but that anybody is capable of it, and that we must keep fighting back against any of the factors which might cause us to behave in this way.
    Over here in Merrye Englande, there has been recently enormous discussion about racism in our society, and many white people have been appalled by what black people have to endure every single day of their lives. As a soccer fan, I was very struck by what an extremely respected black player said, namely that you have to be twice as good to get in the England team. I thought we were doing quite well, but clearly, the battle may never be over.

  6. Chris Waller

    I think that in the aftermath of the Second World War Britain pointed to the Nazi atrocities as the kind of thing that only Johnny Foreigner would do, but if we look back at the behaviour of Britain in the past – e.g. slavery, the Great Famine in Ireland, etc. etc. – then, as you note, we are all capable of it. A sad comment on human nature.

    “Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” ― Primo Levi

  7. I don’t think I will read this book !

  8. Deeply disturbing, John. Yet your closing words are so so true. ALL of us are capable of atrocities that are horrific in nature. There is a beast in ALL of us, and it depends upon each human psyche, which to choose, that of the devil or that of the angel, both found within. I choose angel. Or as pretty much as possible to that concept.

    • Yes, we are, sadly, all capable of dreadful wrongdoing, but this book does go a long way to explaining the worst excesses of war. As you so rightly say, though, we all have to fight back against bad thoughts, and making judgements about people because they are ugly or not white or poor or wearing old fashioned shoes or any one of the thousands of categories that all human beings divide their fellow men into.
      I haven’t been to church in years and years but I always like the story when ” a certain lawyer said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?”. And the answer he gets says it all.

  9. I think It’s important to try and understand why these things happen, rather than just accepting and condoning (depending upon your stance) them. If we don’t understand, then how can we learn not to repeat them. I have no doubts that everyone is capable of committing atrocities, the first ‘kill’ maybe sickens you, turns your stomach or even repulses you, but each subsequent one has probably less of an effect and so becomes ‘easier’. After all, the German people who committed these acts were in most cases, just ordinary folk and yet they performed monstrous acts of violence.

    • Yes they did. German doctors were still euthanizing special needs children in their hospital in September 1945, having told the occupying forces not to come in because of a typhoid epidemic. Neitzel and Welzer do provide us with reasons though, and they are reasons that stand up to scrutiny. Firstly, there is the application of the same rules to the same situation over and over again, and then secondly, there is the lack of punishment, what they call “inhumanity with impunity”. Later we shall see that if the person is part of a group and that group act in a certain way, then we are happy to go along with it. Those three aspects of behaviour are enough to produce Auschwitz. Five more posts to come, and the next one explains group behaviour using university students.

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