“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.
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………