“Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (2)

Last time I wrote about “Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer. This is a book about the appalling attitudes and shocking behaviour of, primarily, the German armed forces during World War II. What makes the book so interesting though, is that the two authors range relatively far and wide in their search for an explanation for the Germans’ extreme violence:

“At Princeton University in 1973, a remarkable experiment was carried out. Forty Theology students were told to write a short essay about the Good Samaritan and then it would be recorded for radio at another building.”

Here’s a view of that beautiful university:

The students completed their essays about the Good Samaritan and waited for the word to leave. Eventually an obvious authority figure arrived and told them loudly:

“Come on!!! You’re all going to be late !!! Come on!!! GO !!  GO !!   GO !! “

When the Theology students got close to the building where they would record their essays for radio, they found a man lying on the pavement, eyes closed, coughing and moaning. It was impossible to miss him. He was clearly in a bad way:

Of the forty students, 24 ignored him completely and only 16 stopped to help. A number of the 24 lied that they had not seen him, which was completely impossible.  “Soldaten” argues that this proves, and it is rather difficult to contradict them, that:

“There is a vast gap between what people believe about their moral standards and their actual behaviour”.

Take that sliding scale to its logical end and we are faced with “Autotelic violence”. This is violence for its own sake, violence carried out because you like it, you enjoy it. My best example would be the German pilot over London who machine gunned the civilians as they walked peacefully along Downham Way and then bombed the seven and eight year old children waving to him in the playground of a school in Catford. You can read this appalling story here and, if you are still in any doubt, here.

If you have followed the links and read the two accounts, then let’s take a quick look at some of those transcripts made by British Intelligence. This is Lieutenant Pohl who flew a light bomber in the early part of the war when Germany invaded Poland:

“On the second day, I had to bomb a station at Posen. Eight of the bombs fell among houses. I did not like that.

On the third day I did not care a hoot and on the fourth day I was enjoying it. I chased single soldiers over the fields with machine gun fire, and people in the street… I was sorry for the horses.”

One valuable piece of advice from the two authors is that

“If we cease to define violence as an aberration, we learn more about our society and how it functions than if we persist in comfortable illusions about our own basically nonviolent nature. If we reclassify violence as part of the inventory of possible social actions among communities, we will see that such groups are always potential communities of annihilation.“

In other words, we are deluding ourselves if we think we have overcome our willingness to be violent. Our apparently civilised world is no different from anybody else’s world.

This is emphasised by the book’s detailed examination of the events lived through by Michael Bernhardt, which suggest very strongly that the behaviour of the group reinforces the behaviour of the individual. This idea we have already seen, to some extent, when discussing “inhumanity with impunity” in a previous post. Michael said:

“The only thing that counted was how people thought of you in the here and now…the unit was the entire world…what they thought was right, was right and what they thought was wrong, was wrong.”

Despite his name, Michael Bernhardt was not German but American. He served in Vietnam and, when the time came, he refused to take part in the My Lai massacre of 400-500 old men, women and children. You can read about these terrible events here, and here:

For this refusal to participate in a war crime, Michael Bernhardt was ostracised by every single one of his fellow soldiers, even though back in the USA he was to receive the New York Society for Ethical Culture’s 1970 Ethical Humanist Award.

In other words, in the world of Bernhardt’s fellow soldiers, “what (the unit) thought was right, was right and what (the unit) thought was wrong, was wrong.”

Can everybody use that excuse though? Even the SS ?

We will see next time.









Filed under Criminology, History, Politics, Russia

21 responses to ““Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (2)

  1. GP

    Very interesting, John. You locate the most interesting information!

    • I tend to watch TV documentaries a lot, and if I see a particular “expert” who is interesting, then I check if he’s written anything that (1) looks good and (2) isn’t expensive.
      I have been very impressed by the German intellectuals who are prepared to write about their grandfathers’ crimes but never try to defend them. That attitude is certainly not the case in some European countries, including Poland where they have now passed a law making it a crime to say that the Poles took part in the Holocaust, for example.

      • GP

        Isn’t that law a bit late? Who might still be alive from that zone in time besides those that were children?

      • I do apologise, I didn’t make myself clear. What the Poles have done is to say that if you are talking or writing about the Holocaust as a Polish person, you are not allowed to say that any Pole took part in the Holocaust at any point of WW2. So, if a 25 year old writer or broadcaster says that a number of Poles, back in 1943, profited from the Holocaust, for example, or drove lorries for the SS or delivered the gas capsules for the gas chambers, then that 25 year old commits a criminal offence.
        And you are correct about people in the Holocaust, both victims and criminals. Only children under 10, for example, are likely to be alive.

      • GP

        I see what you mean and I understand. It’s a shame though. To just have history learned the way they want it to be, rather than what it was. Every country has spots in history they wish they could forget, but we can’t erase what has already occurred.

      • The champions at that are the Japanese. A friend of mine works in Japan and he said that you would have to be at university to get the true story of events in the Pacific War. Many secondary school children are told that Pearl Harbor was just a run-of-the-mill naval battle with nothing special about it. They have no idea that it was the biggest piece of cheating in the 20th century.

  2. Interesting as this is, I am sceptical about sociology’s approach to human behaviour

    • I’m sorry, Derrick, but I don’t really understand your question. Please could you rephrase it, and then I’ll give it a go!

      • Sorry to be so obscure. What I mean is that sociologists so often look at actions and figures without taking into account sufficient factors of the qualities of human nature. Yes, there have been many studies demonstrating that we are all capable of extreme cruelty, but I don’t believe that we can all take such pleasure in it. There are also many pacifists who take a stance against war – not that I am necessarily advocating this.

      • Thank you for expanding your first remark, Derrick. I suppose that ultimately it will be a question of deciding for ourselves whether we think that every single human being is capable of committing every single act in the almost infinite panoply of cruel acts Mankind has invented.
        As a registered Old Codger, I actually think that the person’s readiness to act abominably may depend on his age. Young men slice people up but old people don’t want to waste their time on such things.
        Even so, that still leaves us with the problem that John Knifton, a nice old bloke of 68, wouldn’t hurt a fly, yet when he was 25, if you’d put him that platoon of men at the end of the blog post, he might well have killed Russians like everybody else. I suppose that I would have to hope that there wasn’t too much “inhumanity with impunity” going on at the time.

      • Thanks a lot, John. I am just grateful I just missed call-up

  3. “Herd” mentality is extremely enticing and very strong. We all have a sense of wanting to belong. And when exposed to violence on a regular basis, this then becomes the norm. Standing up with integrity and moral standards is what we of this world need to be learning. Not too many are thinking of the long term effects of complying but, John, you can be assured I am. I am like Michael, standing up for what is right and refusing to partake in any form of violence. Great post! Thank you!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Amy. I think that the only way that we can be good human beings is to stand up for what is kind and decent, but also to keep fighting against the dark things that are inside all of us.
      And those dark things clearly include violence, which is so very easy for so many people to unleash. But we have to fight that inclination and resist it. As somebody once said, “Deliver us from evil” and that is the way forward.
      Have you ever looked at the Dalai Lama’s daily tweets, Amy? I think you’d like them!

      • Thank you, John. I just went there and I bookmarked his site. I got kicked off Twitter last year for saying “God bless you” too many times. Good ole’ censure.

        I continue on my Journey as I with intention seek that which is in me that still needs to be aligned with Light and Love. Anyone who says they don’t have darkness within is in denial. Once recognized we can stop fighting that darkness and actually turn it into a positive. I have many times and I am just so grateful that I have been given this chance to grow and learn. BIG SMILES!

      • What you did to be excluded from Twitter really made me laugh!! Seriously, though “May your God bless you” might be more acceptable. For atheists, you’ll have to stick with “I hope you win the lottery!”

      • That is how stupid all this censuring is, John. I was told I was a spammer. LOL

  4. Human nature surprises us and at the same it does not!

  5. This is fascinating to read John. Whilst I think we all have the ability in us to commit violent acts, I also think there are some who have the courage and strength to stand up to violent action, pacifists and conscience objectors for example took part in the second world war but didn’t actually fight. Perhaps they go against this train of thought. The initial story of the students also shows that we all know the right thing to do, but how many of us actually do it. I regularly came across a similar scenario at school, when talking about internet safety. When asked what to do to keep safe, all children know the standard answer, but yet they still go in chat rooms, send unsuitable images and fill up their Facebook pages with ‘friends’ because it’s ‘trendy’ to do so. Im looking forward to more.

    • To be honest, I simply don’t know how the two authors fitted in pacifists and conscientious objectors. A best-guess would be that once you’ve got as far as carrying a machine gun through a jungle in Vietnam, a guarantee comes into operation that none of your group is a pacifist, or a “conchie”, as they used to be called. I have always opposed such people but when I read
      “Conscientious Objectors of the First World War: A Determined Resistance”
      by Ann Kramer, I realised that most of them had enormous courage.

      I was talking to a 13 year old boy in my form once and he said “I’ve got a 13 year old girl as an internet friend. She lives in London.” “I bet it’s a 45 year old man. You want to be careful”. “No, it’s a girl.” “How do you know?” “She sent a photo”. “I bet it’s just a man pretending”. “No, she said she was a girl”
      and so on.

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