Secret Second World War Transcripts

Based on the covertly recorded conversations of soldiers after the Second World War, Sonke Neitzel examines the psychology of Nazism and questions the harsh realities of soldiering.

Prisoners of war en route to a POW camp, July 1942. (Photographer: Friedrich Gerhrmann)

The Second World War had lasted for nearly four years when the 24-year old Luftwaffe Sergeant Heinz Arno Vorberger told Alfred Cramer his opinion about Hitler.

The two soldiers were sitting in an American POW-Camp and talking about the bombing of London, which they felt had been cancelled far too early. The Fuhrer was – compared to Herman Goering, who might have done the destruction of London more thoroughly – even “too human”.

How can Hitler be judged as “too human” after his war of annihilation, and a devastating genocide? The suggestion sounds ridiculous, but only from today’s point of view. Vorberger and Cramer spoke in August 1943. They didn’t know what we know, not about the outcome of the war, nor about the end of the Third Reich. The German defeat still lay in the future, as did the allied occupation of Germany, the re-education and the democratization. They didn’t know what we know and our incomprehension is a result of that anachronism.

If we want to understand Wehrmacht soldiers in the Second World War, their perception of the fighting, killing and dying, we must suspend our knowledge on the course of history. We must try to see the world through their eyes. Then we see that war creates its own rules, its own frame of reference and that this differs massively from our civilian frame of reference. 

Reading the transcripts of the conversations of German POW’s in British and American captivity, what strikes us first is the endless chatter about killing and destruction of all kinds.  Interestingly there is no story of violent atrocities, no matter how outlandish, that caused any reaction of disbelief. There is almost nobody, who said: “You are just bragging, this story can’t be true. Germans don’t do things like that”. Violence and brutality was an everyday experience for Wehrmacht soldiers and it was their world; just as normal as it would be for brick-layers to build a house.  And like most people in peace time, they didn’t question that world. They just wanted to do their jobs. Bus drivers from Berlin wanted to be good tank drivers, workers from Dortmund wanted to be good infantrymen and fishermen from Hamburg wanted to be good U-boat sailors.

They talked and thought only about the division they belonged to, their unit, their duty, the next battle, or their weapons. Almost nobody asked what it meant to be fighting in the Don steppe, far away from Germany. They didn’t ask want it meant if Germans were killing thousands and thousands of civilians. Although the knowledge of all the war crimes was widespread, nobody really cared about the morality of the Wehrmacht’s war. The soldiers were hidden in the frame of reference of war to which brutality and mass violence belonged. A shocking result, but are today’s soldiers really that different?

Sonke Neitzel is co-author of Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying: The Secret Second World War Transcripts of German POWs, published by Simon & Schuster 2012