“Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (5)

Last time, we were looking at “Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer:

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The book relates how German prisoners of war were listened to by German speaking operators, usually Jews, who wrote down the horrific tales they told. Here are some Wehrmacht prisoners, crossing one of the Great Lakes on their way to a Prisoner of War camp:

And here is one of those listeners, back in England:

Towards the end of their book, “Soldaten”, Neitzel and Welzer provide a brief summary of what they have discovered:

“A lot of what appears horrible, lawless, and barbaric is part of the normal frame of reference in wartime. Stories about German cruelty don’t attract any more attention in World War II than they do in reports by US soldiers in Vietnam. Instances of cruelty rarely seem spectacular to the majority of soldiers. Such violence is instrumental in nature. It’s hardly any surprise that it occurs in war.”

To be honest, I’m not too sure that I agree with all of that. My perception is these horrific events were much more the norm with the German forces in World War Two than they were with either the British or the Americans in World War II or in other wars.

Having said that, the Germans did not carry out My Lai and the Germans were not present in the Korean War. My Dad’s friends in the RAF, not Germans, were the ones who sank two U-boats after VE-Day and, as a little boy, I remember a friend of mine telling me how his Dad, a soldier in India, Burma and Siam witnessed appalling incidents of violence, cruelty and murder in native villages, and he wasn’t in the Japanese army. He was in the British army.

During World War Two, though, the majority of the incidents of extraordinary cruelty and barbarity took place on the Eastern Front, committed by Germans on Russian victims. One of the tapes mentioned in Post No 1 was of a man whose surname was Graf. He was an ordinary Wehrmacht soldier:

“The Russian POWs had nothing to eat for three or four days, then the guard would hit one over the head and he was dead. The others set on him and cut him up and ate him as he was.”

Here are some Russian prisoners:

All of the various motivations for violence come together when the Final Solution is considered:

As far as the Final Solution is concerned, this type of violence is seen as one possibility in the list of possible social actions between communities. In this case, it was violence by more or less every German against every Jew they could find:

In Allport’s Scale, it is Stage Five of five, namely “the extermination or removal of the out-group”. Other examples include Cambodia, Rwanda and Armenia.

In the Second World War, say the authors, individuals tended to repeat their previous behaviour, especially if they had escaped punishment for it. One of the most frequent actions on the Eastern Front was the massacre of defenceless people as a reprisal for the death of a German soldier:

If people commit acts of violence and nobody is ever punished, we have “inhumanity with impunity”, which describes perfectly German behaviour in captured Poland and the Soviet Union. Killing young children was not a problem:

“Autotelic violence” is violence for its own sake, because the perpetrator finds it exciting and entertaining, whether it is the first killing or the thousandth:

Individual soldiers usually did what the group did. The group was their entire world and their standards of behaviour were considered the ones to follow.

If some of the group wanted to kill Jews and then throw them into a ditch, it soon became acceptable behaviour. So did the mechanised slaughter of the death camps :

One other, final, factor helping to trigger off the violence by the Germans in the Second World War was their desire for revenge after defeat in 1918. In German thinking, their defeat came about not because the Allied armies were victorious, but because the German army was betrayed by the people back home in Germany, such as the Communists, the Socialists and the Jews. (And most of the Communists and the Socialists were Jews anyway.)

The solution was easy. Kill them all. The Communists, the Socialists, the Jews, the Gays, the Gipsies, Black People, everybody who didn’t agree with you. That’s a long road to go down. And it’s marked with a corpse every few yards:


Filed under Criminology, History, Politics, Russia

21 responses to ““Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (5)

    • Yes, and the irony is that none of these men were formally punished although the Soviets did not treat their German POWs particularly well. To quote Wikipedia:
      “A commission set up by the West German government found that 3,060,000 German military personnel were taken prisoner by the USSR and that 1,094,250 died in captivity”. Many of the rest spent ten years in sunny Siberia. One policy that the Soviets always stuck to was to shoot any SS men they captured, including all the men who had a burn scar where the official SS tattoo was placed.

  1. Were you reading the book in the mornings or at night?

    • I read mostly at night, before I fall asleep, book in hand. I try very hard, too, to spend all of Sunday reading. Having said that, I have found writing these blog posts quite traumatic, especially after writing five books about the deaths of 120+ young men in the war.
      We must never forget the Holocaust and the desire men have to kill, kill, kill. I spoke years ago to an old man who had been a little boy in Auschwitz, and he told me “You are a teacher. You must tell everybody about what happened here so that it doesn’t happen ever again.” Sadly, that scenario has already come true, but I am determined to do my bit!

  2. GP

    There are horrible stories out of all sides – war brings out the worst in humans.

    • I certainly agree with you there, but the extra layer of evil comes when war gives humans an opportunity to put into practice such Looney Tunes ideologies as Nazism, and the ideas of racial purity. Don’t forget that, according to Wikipedia, “Dachau, the first Nazi concentration camp in Germany, was established on March 10, 1933, slightly more than five weeks after Adolf Hitler became chancellor”.
      And the killing went on after the war too. American soldiers in the occupying forces found a hospital out in the forest where the doctors had refused them entry because of a typhoid outbreak. That was a smokescreen to hide the fact that the doctors were busy murdering disabled children, children with mental problems and so on, to keep the German race strong and healthy. They kept this up until September 1945. Five months of mass murder, with hundreds of innocent children slaughtered.

  3. It’s quite horrific really, although throughout history, and in all wars, there have been numerous barbaric acts against others, usually civilians oddly enough. Ruling the masses by fear no doubt!

    • You are absolutely right, but the danger is that the numerous barbaric acts, the attempts to rule the masses by fear, can soon be transformed into something a lot bigger, namely the desire to exterminate the other group of people. This is something which has occurred several times in our lifetimes, such as Rwanda when “the Tutsi minority ethnic group, as well as some moderate Hutu and Twa were slaughtered by (Hutu) armed militias” That was a death toll of 1,100,000, with a killing rate faster than the Nazis!

  4. Chris Waller

    Those photographs are absolutely horrifying. The one of the hand hanging out of the crematorium furnace speaks volumes. A hundred thousand years of evolution, ten thousand of ostensible ‘civilisation’ and we don’t seem to have progressed very far. It makes a depressing comment on the human race.

    • How true that is! Originally I was going to say that only the Germans had carried out genocide but it was simply not true. The British wiped out the Tasmanian aborigines and killed huge numbers of Boers and Africans in their camps during the Boer War. I had always thought too that the Americans had given blankets infected with measles to Native Americans but, as it was in 1763, it is the British who should be blamed. Even so, killing the buffalo was arguably a decent attempt at eradicating the tribes who lived on the plains.

  5. I’m sorry, John, but with the atrocities that are happening in today’s world, I couldn’t finish reading this. It is just too hard, too harsh, and my soul cannot take any more violence.

    • Don’t worry, Amy. I’ve found it extremely difficult to write about some of dreadful things that men can carry out. I’m only writing about them to show that such conduct bubbles away, deep, deep, within human beings, and that we all have to fight a continual battle not to fall into the trap of violence and killing.
      Events at the Capitol show how fools can easily be persuaded into behaviour unprecedented in your country’s history. And all of those individuals almost hypnotised into such outrageous conduct by seeing the world through social media, which enforced the idea that whatever one man said was correct, and that the wrongs he identified must be put right, by any method available.

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