“Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (4)

In my very first blog post in this book review, I mentioned how German academic, Sönke Neitzel, had discovered that during World War II, British Intelligence had taped German prisoners of war in secret and then transcribed their conversations. This process had produced 50,000 pages of foolscap transcripts. These transcripts have in their turn inspired a four hundred page book called “Soldaten” in which Neitzel and his co-author, Harald Welzer, examine the reasons for the war crimes committed by the Germans, and indeed, by the personnel of a number of other nationalities. Here are our authors and their book:

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The bugged prisoners were kept in three locations – Latimer House near Amersham, Wilton Park near Beaconsfield, both in Buckinghamshire, and Trent Park near Cockfosters in north London. The first two held captured U-Boat submarine crews and Luftwaffe pilots, who were bugged for a week or two before being moved on to conventional captivity. Trent Park was often used for high-ranking officers of the Wehrmacht, whose own personal vanity led them to betray many secrets:

There were large numbers of pro-British German speakers, usually Jews, listening to prisoners’ conversations in a place known as the “M room”. The “M” stood for “Microphoned”. According to Helen Fry, the author of a book about this particular episode, the information pouring out of these pampered Prussians was so top secret that Churchill gave the whole operation an unlimited budget.

Last time we were looking at the reasons that men in war are capable of the most vile violence. Here are the ideas put forward by Neitzel  and Welzer so far . I have tried to include a few short clues of the examples they used:

“There is a  vast gap between what people believe about their moral standards and their actual behaviour”.  (The Good Samaritan episode at Princeton University)

“When you have reacted once in a particular way to a certain situation, you will continue to apply the very same rules.” (German soldiers killling Jews on a large scale)

“The unit was the entire world….what they thought was right, was right and what they thought was wrong, was wrong.” (Only one man refused to take part in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam)

“inhumanity with impunity…..if soldiers commit crimes, and are never punished, they will repeat their behaviour.” (German soldiers raping passing women in Kiev)

“a dynamic of violence” ……… anybody who tries to flee is automatically an enemy who should be shot.” ( A frequent attitude in Vietnam, probably because the Vietcong guerillas were difficult to identify)

One final extremely large motivation towards violence is revenge. In a film, revenge will be the simple, basic story of how a soldier is killed by the enemy, usually in particularly appalling circumstances, and, as he dies, his friend swears to avenge him. For every military revenge film, though, there are many more set in a civilian context.  This may not be the best example, but it’s certainly the most obscure:

In real life,  there were GIs in Vietnam who had re-enlisted to avenge their best buddy who had been killed in the fighting, or tortured to death, and so on. The authors have found a quote:

“I did not hate the enemy for their politics but for murdering Simpson, for executing that boy whose body had been found in the river…Revenge was one of the reasons I volunteered for a line company. I wanted a chance to kill somebody.”

In the Second World War, the situation could be slightly different. American GI, Joseph Shomon said:

“Even in hopeless situations, the Germans would fight to the last, refusing to surrender. Then, when their ammunition was gone, they were ready to give up and ask for mercy but because many Americans had been lost in this delay, our troop often killed the Germans.”

As well as revenge, of course, this shooting of surrendering Germans is a good example of a couple of other reasons for the occurrence of war crimes previously mentioned by Neitzel & Welzer. Firstly, if everybody commits acts of violence and nobody is ever punished for it, then clearly, they can:

“follow what they had already done”.

And secondly:

“what (the unit) thought was right, was right and what (the unit) thought was wrong, was wrong.”

Sometimes soldiers in the two World Wars were actually ordered not to take any prisoners. The latter were then very much more likely to be executed than to be taken back to base. In the Second World War, the German military were ordered by the Führer to hand over immediately to the Sicherheitsdienst (SD, or Security Service) all British Commandos, SAS, SOE and any other type of “irregular” soldier. This was the famous “Kommandobefehl” which you can read about here.

In actual fact, my own Grandad was placed in a similar position on at least one occasion during the First World War. It must have been on the anniversary of the execution of Edith Cavell on ‎October 12th 1915 that he and his colleagues in the Canadian army were told to take no prisoners during that day’s attack. Whether my Grandad carried out the order, I have no idea.

My own perception, though, is that rather than refuse to take prisoners in the usual way, and instead to kill them, it was far more frequent in World War One, to try and spare the lives of the men who had been ordered to attack but who were now in a situation which could only have one outcome. Harry Patch, for example,who at 111 years of age was “the Last Fighting Tommy”, has spoken of how he refused to kill a German soldier:

“Patch came face to face with a German soldier. He recalled the story of Moses descending from Mount Sinai with God’s Ten Commandments, including “Thou shalt not kill” and he could not bring himself to kill the German. Instead, he shot him in the shoulder, which made the soldier drop his rifle. However, he had to carry on running towards his Lewis Gun, so to proceed, he shot him above the knee and in the ankle.”

My Grandad was wounded in the legs on two occasions, so perhaps the Germans did the same kind of thing.

We have a long, bloody way to go with “Soldaten” yet, so let’s finish with some wise words from Harry Patch, the last British soldier of World War One, who lived to become a pacifist:

When the war ended, I don’t know if I was more relieved that we’d won or that I didn’t have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle—thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Charles Kuentz, Germany’s only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that ? “


Filed under Canada, Criminology, France, History, Politics, Science

20 responses to ““Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (4)

    • Absolutely. The TV programme where he meets the last German soldier is very, very moving and made me shed a tear or two. I must put his book “The Last Fighting Tommy” on my “to read” list.

  1. Least we judge. One of the best known and most notorious events during the battle of Agincourt is the massacre of the French prisoners by their English captors at the end of the first phase of fighting.

    • I have only vague memories of how that was explained by Shakespeare. My bet is on the people with the English baggage train being massacred by the French, in other words, it was portrayed as a justified reprisal. This is a historian at work:
      He portrays it with a very different explanation, which was actually common practice right up to the Second World War.
      Some of the massacres (which were indubitably war crimes) I would certainly have taken part in. Killing Germans who fought to the last bullet and then surrendered is, to me, completely understandable as is a story of American soldiers who entered a concentration camp and captured all of the guards. After a look round at what they had done to the prisoners, they shot the lot. Too many of the guards got away scot free in such situations.

  2. I think revenge is often a driving force behind this course of action. I can imagine being in the situation where you have seen your friends killed you would want revenge on anyone in the enemy’s uniform, it wouldn’t matter who that was as they were there to be killed. As a soldier, you are trained to kill, and as such that is right and fits with the idea of what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong does it not? Fascinating reading as always John.

    • I’m glad I still keep you interested! An admiral, I think it was, had motivational signs put up which read “Kill more Japs”.

      Admiral Halsey was, of course, completely right. That is how you win wars. Killing prisoners you have taken, though, to me, is wrong, largely because in situations like Vietnam, the prisoners were not necessarily guilty, especially if soldiers were planting guns in their huts a couple of days before.
      More posts to come yet, though, and the discovery that homo sapiens did far worse stuff than killing innocent prisoners !

  3. John, thanks for tackling this thought-provoking topic of the violence of war. As I see it, until humankind perceive the futility of violence and war, we will continue to kill each other.

    • You are 100% right. For me, though, the problem is that violence is one of the main attributes of such a large number of human beings, and personally, I don’t think such a strong attribute of so many people will ever be eradicated. I can imagine that even on the Day of Judgment, in every graveyard in the world there will be fighting as the resurrected corpses quarrel with each other as to who gets to ride first on the train to heaven.

  4. I agree with harry Patch. An interesting study of human nature.

    • Yes, Harry Patch was a great man, a philosopher from the working class, a simple man who had seen war at first hand.
      Today is Remembrance Day, and don’t forget that WW1 claimed 74,000 Indian lives and WW2 claimed 87,000, plus up to three million in “war related famine and disease”.

  5. Thank you for sharing!!.. in history’s past the issue were not widely known, due to the lack of technology, people simply didn’t care and/or it were unpatriotic… the issue was simply covered over to protect a image… with today’s technology and knowledge, reality is rearing its head and seeing it for what it is… and I suspect that there will always be elements of today’s world societies that will choose the sword over the pen as time ( and knowledge) has shown that mankind is not as “civilized” as they wish for the universe to believe… 🙂

    • Thank you very much for your views. I would agree with what you say whole heartedly, particularly the role played by technology. And you are certainly correct about the countries nowadays which prefer to act as swaggering bullies, rather than behave half decently.
      I found a good example recently of how the reality of war can hit home. When the First World War broke out in 1914, there were over a million volunteers in Britain, such numbers that the government had to send many of them straight back home to wait and be called. By 1916, the casualties suffered necessitated conscription. By then, every newspaper had published page after page of death notices, with the result that 41,000 men went into the army, but 750,000 attempted to register as “pacifists because of their religion”.

  6. John, how I pray that our younger generations realize how damaging and horrendous war is and it does not stop when the soldier comes home. War is an evil atrocity that in my opinion, needs to be wiped off the face of the earth.

    • I agree with you 100%. The problem is that politicians can make themselves seem strong by starting quarrels with other countries, Russia and China being good examples. The aggressiveness of these two is really beyond my understanding. It’s as if the bigger the country the more menacing they become, and all of it for no really good reason.

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