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.
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.
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.
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.