“Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (6)

Last time I was looking at the relatively long list of motivations for the extreme violence used by the German army in World War Two. This list was supplied by Messrs Neitzel and Welzer in their book “Soldaten”. If you remember, Sönke Neitzel had discovered in the British National Archives that, during World War II, British Intelligence had recorded German prisoners of war in secret and then transcribed their conversations. This process had produced 50,000 pages of transcripts as they chatted, mainly at Trent Park near Cockfosters, but also at Latimer House near Amersham and at Wilton Park near Beaconsfield, which are both in Buckinghamshire:

All the reasons on the list of motivations for extreme violence came together from 1939 to 1945, as a maniac only five feet seven inches tall and who couldn’t grow a full moustache claimed that the Germans were the Master Race and had the right to wipe out completely from the face of the earth one of the oldest communities on the planet, the Jews. How you eliminated the Jewish men, women, children and babies was not important, so long as they all died, every single one of them:

The conversations taped at Trent Park, therefore, are frequently way beyond incredible. How could you be a member of the human race and say things and do things such as these people did ? How could anybody treat genocide as a sport? an entertainment?

First is SS Oberscharführer Fritz Swoboda:

“…there was a column of 500-600 men. They came in through the gate and went to the firing range. There, they were killed, six at a time, picked up and taken away and the next six would come. At first you said, great, better than doing normal duty, but after couple of days you would have preferred normal duty. It took a toll on your nerves. Then you just gritted your teeth and you just didn’t care. There were some of us who got weak in the knees when shooting women even though we had selected experienced front line soldiers. But orders were orders.”

Edwin, Graf von Rothkirch was recorded as saying:

“I was at Kutno. I wanted to take some photographs…that’s my only hobby…and I knew an SS-leader there quite well and I was talking to him when he said, “Would you like to photograph a shooting?”. I said, “No, the very idea is repugnant to me.” “Well, it makes no difference to us. They are always shot in the morning, but if you like, we still have some and we can shoot them in the afternoon sometime. You can’t imagine how these men have become completely brutalised.”

Kammeyr, a mechanic in the Kriegsmarine said:

“Nearly all the men there were interned in large camps. I met a fellow one evening and he said “Some of them are going to be shot tomorrow. Would you like to see it?” A lorry went there every day and he said “You can come too”.

The lorry arrived and stopped. In a sort of sandpit there was a trench about twenty metres long. I didn’t know what was happening until I saw the trench. They all had to get into it and were hurried into it with blows from rifle-butts and lined up face to face; the feldwebel had a tommy-gun. There were five of them, they shot them one after the other. Most of them fell like that with their eyeballs turned up. There was a woman among them. I saw that. It was in Libau.”

Luftwaffe Lieutenant–Colonel von Müller-Rienzburg said :

“The SS issued an invitation to go and shoot Jews. All the troops went along with rifles and shot them up. Each man could pick the one he wanted.”

First Sergeant von Bassus, rather incredulous,  asked :

“You mean to say that it was sent out like an invitation to a hunt?”

And von Müller-Rienzburg replied: “Yes.”

Lieutenant-Colonel August von der Heydte also reported in hearsay, second hand fashion, that executions resembled hunts.

Lieutenant–Colonel von der Heydte recounted how:

The SS-Führer Böselager was having dinner and after dinner he said: “Now we’ll go and have a look at..(place of execution).   They drove out in a car and shotguns were lying about, ordinary ones, and thirty Polish Jews were standing there. Each guest was given a gun; the Jews were driven past and every one was allowed to take a pot shot at a Jew. Subsequently they were given the coup de grâce.”And finally, Luftwaffe First Lieutenant Fried: “I was at Radom and an SS captain said : Would you like to come along for half an hour? Get a tommy gun and let’s go.. I had an hour to spare so I went, We went to a kind of barracks and slaughtered 1,500 Jews.  There were some twenty men with tommy guns. It only took a second and nobody thought anything of it.”:

Although the types of appalling behaviour that Neitzel and Welzer have detailed in their book “Soldaten” have happened with disgraceful frequency, it would be wrong to think that the problem is an insoluble one.

Firstly, before young people are even old enough to consider the armed forces they should be made abundantly aware in their schools that racism is completely unacceptable. Outside the schools, the concept of free speech must not become an excuse to allow race hatred. Otherwise, race hatred will end in the shocking events I have described above. Punishments for race hatred should involve custodial sentences, if only a few days. They should not include fines.

In the Armed Forces, old, experienced combat veterans should explain to new recruits what combat will be like, what emotions you can expect to feel and what is unacceptable behaviour. War crimes should not be tolerated and the guilty parties should always serve time in prison.

Hopefully, this would avoid a situation where civilians are just as frightened to see the arrival of the British, the Americans and the French as they would be with the arrival of any number of less disciplined and less well trained armed forces.



Filed under Criminology, History, Politics, Russia

19 responses to ““Soldaten” by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer (6)

  1. I am relieved to see the quotations from a few who found it repugnant

    • All of the soldiers were given the option of not doing it. In a group of 30, the usual result was that 30/30 would do it. If one man refused, then sometimes three or four others would join him. If you said that you couldn’t do it because you were a softie, not a real man, that was accepted and you would probably find yourself fighting the Russians at the front. If you said that it was wrong to kill fellow human beings in this way, then you went in the trench with them.
      Those details all all come from a PBS TV programme called “Radical Evil”, the work of American academics and an American army psychologist. I may well feature it one day. Its results when human beings were put to the test were astonishing.

  2. GP

    People continually find ways to be horrific to one another.

    • We certainly do and we need to fight a continual battle with the worst aspects of ourselves. I mentioned a PBS TV programme called “Radical Evil” in my reply to Derrick Knight. It is superb, if harrowing, not least because of the contribution from Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a military psychologist from the US army. He’s easily as clever as a university professor and certainly a man to listen to.

  3. I have never handled or fired a gun. Giving a man a gun I imagine to be a great test of his character. When Germans were given guns they became Nazis and when they were taken off them they became German again.

    • I like your your sequence of German (no gun)–Nazi (when he has a gun)–German again (no gun), and I would agree with it 100%
      Immediately after the war ended my Dad had the dubious privilege of going to Germany to interrogate suspected Nazis and to see what lovely things they had been up to. He never really talked about it, but he did tell me that he couldn’t find a single one.
      So their sequence would run…………….

      German with no gun

      Still a German and, yes, I had a gun but I never fired it. Me, a Nazi ? NO. not me. I didn’t even know any Nazis. I saw Hitler in the cinema once.

      Back to still being a German, Long Live Democracy !!!

  4. John, thanks for continuing this series from Soldaten. It’s painful but essential reading.

    • I would say, “My pleasure” but it doesn’t seem entirely appropriate! I once met a gentleman who, as a child, had been at Auschwitz where he met Dr Mengele. He knew I was a teacher. He told me “Tell as many people as you can about all this, because otherwise it will happen again.”
      That’s why your choice of the word “essential”, is entirely appropriate. All human beings, particularly men, are capable of amazing violence and unless we realise this, and fight back against it, God knows where it may end.

  5. Pierre Lagacé

    I know this will happen again and again when fear and hatred are instill in people.

    • You are so right. And the blame can be laid at the feet of so many people. Organised religion, newspapers, politicians who need a quick war to make themselves appear macho and tough, when all that is needed is a smile and a good attitude, and you can get along with anybody.
      I have never thought that hatred was the default setting of the human race, but it doesn’t take a great deal to make that come about when we have our Hitlers and all our other dictators pouring hatred into our minds

      • Pierre Lagacé

        Hitler and his acolytes were condoned by the German people for whatever reasons they had. This is what we have been seeing around the world and the worst is still to come. I don’t see if the tide can be turned back.

  6. Chris Waller

    This makes even more depressing reading. It is difficult not to be pessimistic about the future of the human race. One recalls the words of Adolph Eichmann with which he sought to exculpate himself: “I was just doing my job.” Even now Putin and Xi Jinping are shaping up for new confrontations over Ukraine and Taiwan respectively. I fear we may see another major conflict very soon.

  7. If you ever get the chance to see “Radical Evil” then I think you would enjoy it, if “enjoy” is the word. It is a documentary which explains just how Eichmann came to think that he was only doing his job, just like the Wehrmacht soldiers who on each of two consecutive days, killed 100,000 Jews and Slavs. Worryingly, it isn’t even particularly difficult if you know what you’re doing.
    Personally, I get rather fed up with Putin and the crazy things that they do and then deny. And why are the Chinese constantly so aggressive, making claims not only on Taiwan but also on little rocks in the sea that are nowhere near China.
    Still neither Putin or Xi Jinping will live for ever. Hopefully!

  8. Aw, John. Again I feel sickened. The atrocities humans are capable of leave me speechless just incapable of making any sense of these acts of horror.

    • You are absolutely right, Amy. We are a desperately evil species when we put our minds to it. Much worse than any species of animal, except our nearest relative.the chimpanzee.
      Still, I am happy that the authors of “Soldaten” have worked out the reason for all this. Basically…….
      “human beings are more than willing to carry out the most evil acts, provided that they are ordered to, that everybody else is happy about doing it and that they don’t get punished.”
      Any two out of three and evil may be unleashed!

  9. This is another fascinating insight into a terrifying period John. I’ve just read a book by Andrew Roberts “Hitler and Churchill – Secrets of leadership” in which he discusses how so many ‘ordinary’ people came to be brutal killers so willingly. An experiment in the US got ordinary people to test a man strapped to a chair with electrodes attached to his body. If he answered questions wrongly they were to subject him to increasing levels of electricity and so pain. It turned out that 65% of participants willingly turned the voltage up to 450v. – a lethal dosage. The man however, was not given the shock but acted out the pain unbeknown to the participants. Whilst not totally conclusive, it did show that ‘ordinary’ people would happily cause suffering, pain and even death, by following the instructions of others without question. It also suggests that the killing of the Jews in WW2 was not in itself anti-semitism, but in many cases the natural propensity for obedience and comradeship. It’s a very interesting read.

    • Yes, those are the conclusions of “Soldaten” pretty much, and also of a TV programme I will talk about soon, called “Radical Evil”.
      Basically, human beings are more than willing to carry out the most evil acts, provided that they are ordered to, that everybody else is happy about doing it and that they don’t get punished. It talks about the electric chair experiment, and also about a crowd of people who all watched a young woman being raped, being raped again and finally, being killed. Not one phoned the police.
      In actual fact, the more people who know about a violent act being carried out, the less chance there is that anybody will do anything.

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