Nazi War Crimes as Described by German Soldiers

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Niccolo and Donkey
Nazi War Crimes as Described by German Soldiers

Der Spiegel

Jan Fleischauer

April 8, 2011


The myth that the Nazi-era German armed forces, the Wehrmacht, was not involved in war crimes persisted for decades after the war. Now two German researchers have destroyed it once and for all. Newly published conversations between German prisoners of war, secretly recorded by the Allies, reveal horrifying details of violence against civilians, rape and genocide.

It is March 6, 1943, and two German soldiers are talking about the war. Fighter pilot Budde and Corporal Bartels were captured by the British a few weeks earlier. The war is over for them, and it's time to share memories.

Two other pilots, Bäumer and Greim, also had their share of amusing experiences, which they described in a conversation with other soldiers.

Disconcerting Tone
It is an unfamiliar and disconcerting tone that soldiers Budde, Bartels, Bäumer and Greim use in these conversations. It has little to do with the tone one encounters in television documentaries or memoirs about the war. But it's the way soldiers talk when they are together and chatting about their experiences.

The public discourse about war is characterized by contempt for the bloody sides of the military profession, a contempt to which soldiers themselves conform when they are asked to describe their experiences. But there is also another view of war, one in which it is not only an endless nightmare, but also a great adventure that some soldiers later remember as the best time of their life.

In World War II, 18 million men, or more than 40 percent of the male population of the German Reich, served with Germany's military, the Wehrmacht, and the Waffen-SS. Hardly any other segment of time has been as carefully studied in academia as the six years that began with Germany's invasion of neighboring Poland in September 1939 and ended with the total capitulation of the German Reich in May 1945.

Even historians find it difficult to keep track of the literature on the deadliest conflict in human history. The monumental "Germany and the Second World War," which was completed three years ago by the Military History Research Institute in Potsdam near Berlin and is seen as the standard German work on the war, encompasses 10 volumes alone.

Every battle in this monstrous struggle for control over Europe has its fixed place in the historical narrative today, as does, of course, the horrible violence that left 60 million dead around the world, including the suffering of the civilian population, the murder of the Jews and the partisan war in the East.

Sugarcoating Reality
But how the soldiers experienced the war, how the constant presence of death and violence changed them, what they felt and feared, but also enjoyed -- all of this tends to be marginalized in historical accounts. History was long suspicious of the subjective view of the events it considers, preferring to stick to verifiable dates and facts.

But this also has to do with the incompleteness of sources. Military letters, reports by contemporary witnesses or memoirs provide a sugarcoated version of reality. The recipients of these personal accounts were the wives and families of soldiers or the broader public. Descriptions of the daily business of war, in which soldiers just happened to massacre the residents of a village or "brush" a few girls, as rape was called in the troops' jargon, had no place in these accounts.

It isn't just that the recipients' expectations stood in the way of soldiers providing truthful accounts of what had actually happened -- the time that had passed since the war also distorted the soldiers' views of their experiences. In other words, anyone who wants to obtain an accurate picture of how soldiers see a war must gain access to them and gain their trust as early as possible, so that they can speak openly without the fear of being called to account afterwards.

What already seems hardly feasible for current military operations like the war in Afghanistan is nearly impossible when it comes to an event that happened so long ago as World War II.

Nevertheless, two German historians have managed to produce precisely such a documentary of perceptions of the war using live historical recordings.

In Their Own Words
The material that historian Sönke Neitzel uncovered in British and American archives is nothing short of sensational. While researching the submarine war in the Atlantic in 2001, he discovered the transcripts of covertly recorded conversations between German officers in which they talked about their wartime experiences with an unprecedented degree of openness. The deeper Neitzel dug into the archives, the more material he found. In the end, he and social psychologist Harald Welzer analyzed a total of 150,000 pages of source material. The result is a newly published book with the simple title of "Soldaten" ("Soldiers"), published by S. Fischer Verlag. The volume has the potential to change our view of the war.

The recordings, which were made using special equipment that the Allies used to secretly listen in on conversations between German prisoners of war in their cells starting in 1939, offer an inside view of World War II. In doing so, they destroy once and for the myth of a "clean" Wehrmacht.

In "Soldiers," which is subtitled "Transcripts of Fighting, Killing and Dying," the soldiers talk about their views of the enemy and their own leaders, discuss the details of combat missions and trade astonishingly detailed accounts of the atrocities they both witnessed and committed.

There are always reasons given for killing. Sometimes the reason can be as simple as someone not walking to the other side of the street quickly enough or not handing over an item right away.

Allies Hoped to Discover Military Secrets
By the spring of 1945, about a million members of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS had been captured by British or American forces. Most were placed into normal POW camps after being captured. But between September 1939 and October 1945, more than 13,000 German prisoners were transferred for closer "observation" to special facilities that the Allies had initially established in England, at the Trent Park manor north of London and at Latimer House in Buckinghamshire, and at Fort Hunt in the US state of Virginia starting in the summer of 1942.

The purpose of the special camps was to extract military secrets from the soldiers. The Allies hoped to win information that would give them a strategic advantage. In addition to the cells being bugged with hidden microphones, a number of informers were planted among the prisoners whose assignment was to guide the conversations in the desired direction.

It can be assumed that most of the prisoners were not aware that they were being spied on, and even if they were, they quickly abandoned all caution in their conversations with fellow soldiers. The human need to converse is noticeably stronger than the fear that the enemy could be listening in.

Thousands of Transcripts
The archives contain an impressive volume of material obtained in this manner. The British prepared 17,500 transcripts, ranging from half a page to more than 20 pages each. The Americans have also preserved thousands of verbatim transcripts of the secretly recorded conversations in German, most of which included an English translation.

The decision to transfer POWs to Trent Park or Fort Hunt was made by Allied intelligence officers who selected suitable candidates in a multistage interrogation process. While the British focused their attention on higher-ranking officers and thus the Wehrmacht elite, the Americans were more likely to listen in on the conversations of regular combat troops. About half of the inmates at Fort Hunt were ordinary soldiers, especially from the army, a third were non-commissioned officers and only a sixth were higher-ranking officers.

The sheer diversity of the voices describing their own experiences provides an almost comprehensive view of the war from the soldier's perspective. The bugged prisoners included soldiers from almost every part of the military, from combat swimmers in a naval unit to a general. The material also covers an astonishingly wide range of operational areas. Almost all of the prisoners who ended up in the special camps were captured on the Western Front or in Africa, but because most soldiers fought on various fronts during the course of the war, there are also many accounts of the war in the East, which differed markedly from the Western Front.

Scientists and academics have always been interested in the question of how quickly perfectly normal people can turn into killing machines. The material Neitzel and Welzer uncovered for their book suggests that the answer is simple: very quickly indeed.
Niccolo and Donkey
'I Felt Sorry for the Horses'
It makes sense that war brutalizes people. Anyone who is exposed to extreme violence over an extended period of time eventually loses his inhibitions and becomes a perpetrator of violence himself. This is the view held by academics that study violence from a socio-psychological point of view. It's a view that is supported by the autobiographical literature, where men appear to go from stroking their children's hair one moment to being cold-blooded killers the next.

But anyone who reads the wiretapping transcripts that Neitzel and Welzer have analyzed is forced to conclude that it doesn't take much to convince men in uniform to kill others. In many cases, it appeared to take just a few days before the soldiers lost their inhibitions about taking lives. In fact, more than a few even openly admitted to enjoying the act of killing.

The use of violence is an appealing experience, and it is one that comes much more easily to people than we have become accustomed to believing after 65 years of peace in Europe. Sometimes all it takes is a weapon or an airplane, as the following conversation between a German pilot and a reconnaissance soldier on April 30, 1940 reveals:

Boasting about Their Exploits
When soldiers talk about the war, words like "death" and "killing" are hardly ever used. And why should they be? It's obvious that the important thing is the result, not the work itself. A construction worker, as Neitzel and Welzer point out, wouldn't talk about stone and mortar during his lunch break.

Many of the transcribed conversations have the feel of party banter. The prisoners aren't interested in having heart-to-heart talks with each other. They seem surprisingly composed, given the horrors they have experienced. Instead, they seek to entertain and even amuse each other. As is often the case when men recount their exploits to each other, there is also a boastful aspect to their stories.

At least as revealing as the stories the prisoners tell each other are their reactions to what they are hearing. Where certain things are taken for granted, there is no sense of confusion, argument or protest. That also reveals what these men considered to be normal, and what they felt was a violation of the norms.

The soldiers seldom talk about dying, and they rarely discuss their own feelings or fears. Perhaps that is because there is no entertainment value to be had in despair or fear of death. In the soldier's world, admitting that one is not able to cope with an extreme situation is generally seen as evidence of weakness. Admittedly, that is no different with civilians, who are equally loath to confess, except perhaps to very close friends, that they were so afraid they almost wet their pants or had to vomit.

No Distinctions
Men love technology, a subject that enables them to quickly find common ground. Many of the conversations revolve around equipment, weapons, calibers and many variations on how the men "whacked," "picked off" or "took out" other human beings.

The victim is merely the target, to be shot and destroyed -- be it a ship, a building, a train or even a cyclist, a pedestrian or a woman pushing a baby carriage. Only in very few cases do the soldiers show remorse over the fate of innocent civilians, while empathy is almost completely absent from their conversations. "The victim in an empathic sense doesn't appear in the accounts," the authors conclude. Many of the bugged Wehrmacht soldiers also do not distinguish between civilian and military targets. In fact, just a short time after the beginning of the war, such distinctions did not exist except on paper. Following the attack on the Soviet Union, no distinctions were made at all.

Some soldiers are even particularly proud of having killed as many civilians as possible. In January 1945, Lieutenant Hans Hartigs of Fighter Wing 26 talks about a raid over England in which the goal was to "shoot at everything, just nothing military." "We mowed down women and children in baby carriages," the officer reports with satisfaction.

In March 1943, Solm, a seaman on a submarine, tells a cellmate how he "knocked off a children's transport" in which more than 50 children drowned. The transport he mentions was most likely the British passenger ship City of Benares , which was sunk in the north Atlantic on Sept. 17, 1940.

Lack of Moral Qualms
War does not eliminate the importance of moral categories, as one might expect, but it does alter their range of validity. This also applies to the battles of World War II. As long as the soldier operates within the limits he considers necessary, he perceives his actions as legitimate. This can easily encompass acts of extreme brutality. This is why the soldier seems to have no particular moral qualms about engaging in behavior that would trigger revulsion in times of peace.

When morality is not abrogated but merely suspended, rules continue to exist. Pilots who have been shot down and are still hanging from their parachutes were not legitimate targets, whereas the crews of wrecked tanks were given short shrift. Partisans were always shot on the spot, the logic being that anyone who ambushed one's fellow soldiers deserved nothing better. Executing large numbers of women and children by firing squads was considered savage in the Wehrmacht, which doesn't mean that it didn't happen repeatedly.

In October 1944, radio operator Eberhard Kehrle and SS infantryman Franz Kneipp had a casual conversation about the practice of fighting partisans.

'Let's Kill 20 Men so We Can Have Some Peace and Quiet'
The story Lance Corporal Sommer tells about a lieutenant whom he served under on the Italian front shows how common it was to terrorize the civilian population:

'We Threw Her Outside and Shot at Her'
Hardly anyone is immune to the temptations of "unpunished inhumanity," as the philosopher Günter Anders once aptly described unbridled terror. Where the door is opened to violence, even good family men quickly shed their inhibitions. Nevertheless, armies differ in their methods, as was the case in World War II.

The Red Army was hardly inferior to the Wehrmacht in terms of its propensity for violence. In fact, the pronounced culture of violence on both sides led to a disastrous radicalization of the war in the East. The Anglo-Saxon forces behaved in a far more civilized way, at least after the first phase of the fighting in Normandy, in which the Western allies also took no prisoners.

The way a body of soldiers proceeds in the regular use of violence is not dependent on the individual. Putting one's faith in self-restraint would be to misunderstand the psychodynamics of armed conflicts. What is in fact critical is the expectation of discipline that comes from above.

War crimes occur in almost every prolonged armed conflict, as evidenced recently by the photos taken by an American "kill team" in Afghanistan, which shocked the public when the images were published two weeks ago. Everything depends on whether these crimes are also seen as crimes by the military leadership and if the perpetrators are then punished accordingly. Even before the war against the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht leadership established that there was no need to punish soldiers for attacks on Russian civilians, and that Red Army officers were to be shot immediately.
Niccolo and Donkey
Trading Stories Like Sex Tourists
A side of the daily routine during war that is understandably left out of military letters and memoirs is the soldiers' sex life, even though sexuality plays an important role in every army. According to the research literature, the generals had great trouble keeping the men's sex drives under control with brothels. Sexually transmitted diseases were so widespread in the military that entire companies were routinely required to undergo treatment.

The record of a bugged conversation from June 1944 reveals the importance of womanizing among the men. The transcriber decided to summarize the discussion instead of noting the men's exact words:

When the people listening in on the conversations took the trouble to transcribe everything that was being said, the talk, predictably enough, revolved around where the best girls were to be had, how much they cost and what other sexual opportunities there were behind the front. In one such conversation, the men trade stories like experienced sex tourists.

Readily Available Sex
Today, we easily forget that the majority of the Wehrmacht soldiers went abroad for the first time as a result of the war. When the Nazis came into power, less than 4 percent of Germans in the Reich had passports. For these men, the charms of life in another country, far away from their wives and children, included exotic food and the excitement of armed conflict, as well as the enjoyment of readily available sex. It's no accident that many tended to romanticize their memories after the fact.

While accounts of mass rape provoked at most a mild rebuke from their conversation partners, a number of soldiers clearly still felt that the sexual violence at times reached a limit which should be respected, even in the locker-room environment of the POW camp.

Sadistic Sexual Violence
The material contains a series of descriptions of acts of sexual violence so sadistic that modern-day readers would find them difficult to bear. As a rule, they are told in the third person, a tactic that the teller uses to distance himself from the story he is telling. Sometimes he also makes it clear that what he saw or heard disgusts him.

The outrage some felt over the sexual practices of some of their comrades had exceptions, however. When it came to stories of sex with Jewish women, there were no limits. As a rule, all sexual contact with Jews was forbidden, even in the Wehrmacht. The military leadership gave no quarter to "racial defilement." But this didn't stop the soldiers from sexually assaulting Jewish women, or to claim to offer protection in return for sex. Many of the women were shot afterwards to prevent them from incriminating the soldiers.

Wehrmacht Soldiers Knew about the Holocaust
How much did the Wehrmacht soldiers know about the Holocaust? Noticeably more than they were later willing to admit. To this day, the Wehrmacht's participation in the Holocaust remains disputed. The exhibition "War of Extermination. The Crimes of the Wehrmacht," which the Hamburg Institute for Social Research took to several German cities between 1995 and 1999, consistently triggered angry protests. Some critics claimed that the entire undertaking was a sham because a few images had not been displayed in the correct chronological order.

The Holocaust is generally mentioned peripherally in the conversations between German soldiers that have now been viewed in their entirety for the first time. It is only mentioned on about 300 pages of the transcripts, which, given the monstrosity of the events, seems to be a very small number.

One explanation could be that not many soldiers knew about what was happening behind the front. Another, much more likely interpretation would be that the systematic extermination of the Jews did not play a significant role in the conversations between cellmates because it had little news value.

When conversations do turn to the extermination process, the emphasis tends to be on questions of practical implementation. There are hardly any passages in which the listeners are surprised by what they are hearing. Almost no one indicates that the stories being told are somehow unbelievable or that he is hearing them for the first time. "It can be concluded that the extermination of the Jews is common knowledge among the soldiers, and to a far greater extent than recent studies on the subject would lead one to expect," write Neitzel and Welzer.

Details of the Holocaust
The transcripts contain comprehensive details about the exterminations, including the mass shootings, the killings with carbon monoxide in specially prepared trucks, and the later disinterment and incineration of the bodies as part of "Operation 1005," with which the SS sought to eliminate the traces of the Holocaust starting in 1943.

Hardly any soldier says that he was directly involved, but many talk about what they saw or heard. The accounts are often astonishingly detailed and, in any case, much more precise than the information German investigators could later glean from witness testimony. In April 1945, Major General Walter Bruns describes what happened during a typical "Jew operation" he witnessed.

Of the around 6 million victims of the Holocaust, no more than half died in the death camps. About 3 million people died in the ghettoes or were killed by hand, often by a shot to the back of the neck, which made it necessary to create special firing squads. In principle, soldiers in the Wehrmacht were exempt from performing these tasks, which were handled by special SS units and police battalions.

No Attempt to Keep It Secret
Many of the reports revolve around the unreasonable demands imposed on the marksmen, the monotony of the work, in which the firing squads had to be relieved every few hours "because of overexertion," and the special challenges of this type of piecework. The shooting of small children was seen as problematic, not for ethical reasons but because they wouldn't stand as still as the adults did.

Many Wehrmacht soldiers became witnesses to the Holocaust because they happened to be present or were invited to take part in a mass shooting. In one cell conversation, army General Edwin Graf von Rothkirch und Trach talks about his time in the Polish town of Kutno:

It takes some sense of routine to be able to make such an offer. The fact that the people involved did not try to keep their activities a secret demonstrates how much the perpetrators took for granted the "mass shootings of Jews," as one of the POWs in Trent Park called it. In fact, something resembling execution tourism developed in the conquered territories. In addition to soldiers who were stationed nearby, local residents also came to witness the killings, sometimes even bringing along their children.

A Terrifying Social Experiment
War is the most comprehensive social experiment people are capable of engaging in, when the circumstances to which they must conform change. It doesn't even take an order or the special command structure of an army for people to be able to shoot at anything that moves. All it takes is for the benchmarks of what is considered appropriate and correct to change.

Not everything can be blamed on the circumstances. Even under conditions of extreme violence, there are always individuals who defy the prevailing morality of the group. In most cases, and for good reason, it is outsiders who display the kind of behavior one would expect from people with a normal upbringing.

In one of the best-documented cases of a war crime, the massacre in the Vietnamese village of My Lai by American GIs in March 1968, it was a helicopter pilot who kept his fellow soldiers from committing even more murders. It was only when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson threatened to have his men shoot at their fellow GIs that they stopped their killing spree.

The proportion of people in the Wehrmacht with a nature proclivity for violence or sadism was presumably about 5 percent, just as it is in all social groups. According to researchers, this is the percentage of the population whose sociopathic tendencies are kept in check during peacetime by the threat of punishment. From 1939 onwards, at the latest, the composition of the Wehrmacht reflected the average male population, that is, ordinary Germany.

Not Perceived as Barbaric
It is altogether astonishing, and depressing, to realize how quickly the Nazis' concept of racial superiority could replace the ideas and norms of the democratic prewar period. Only six years passed between the 1933 Nuremberg Race Laws, which deprived all Jews of their rights of citizenship, and the subsequent deportation and extermination.

The fact that the systematic persecution of a group that made up less than 1 percent of the German population was possible without any recognizable resistance is not evidence of the sudden immorality of mainstream society. On the contrary, this exclusion was only possible because the majority of the population did not perceive it as an act of barbarism. The persecuted group had long been perceived as no longer being a part of German society, so that their oppression was no longer seen as an issue that affected the morality of the national community, as Neitzel and Welzer argue in their book.

"From 1941 onward, the same people who had reacted with skepticism to the Nazi takeover in 1933 watched the deportation trains departing from the Grunewald train station (in Berlin)," the authors write. "Quite a few of them had already bought 'Aryanized' (ed's note: seized from Jews) kitchen fittings, living room furniture and artworks. Some ran businesses or lived in buildings that had been taken away from their Jewish owners. And they felt that this was completely normal."

Changing Morality
Of course, what appears to us today as a colossal shift in social norms also applied to the Wehrmacht and its way of conducting the war. At any rate, there is much more evidence to support the assumption that most German soldiers felt they were fighting for a just cause than there is for the opposing assumption that they secretly questioned their actions.

Even some members of the firing squads at the mass graves must have perceived their work there as the fulfillment of a "sacred obligation," as it was dubbed in the emotionally charged language of the Nazis. The same sentiments were behind Heinrich Himmler's famous words that the SS, which he commanded, could be proud, despite all criticism, of having "remained decent." What seems like the height of cynicism to postwar generations is in fact an expression of the conviction of serving a higher morality. In this case, it was one that saw itself scientifically legitimized in its murderous biological determinism.

This is, as it were, the disturbing insight one reaches after reading the transcripts about killing and dying: The morality that shapes the actions of people is not rooted in the people themselves, but in the structures that surround them. If they change, everything is basically possible -- even absolute evil.
Niccolo and Donkey

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