The Secret Second World War Tapes of German POWS

Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying: The Secret Second World War Tapes of German POWS

Sönke Neitzel & Harald Welzer
Yale University Press   468pp   £25

Eleven years ago Sönke Neitzel, a German historian based at Glasgow University, stumbled on the sort of documentary treasure trove that other historians spend their lives dreaming about. On a rainy autumn day, during a routine research visit to the National Archives in Kew, Neitzel came across the transcript of a covertly taped conversation between captured German officers in a British PoW camp. Like Oliver Twist he asked for more and it soon became clear that his original find was just the tip of a gigantic iceberg.

Late in the Second World War, the British had systematically bugged private discussions between captive German soldiers of all ranks. (The Americans soon followed suit and recorded the conversations of their PoWs, too.) The resulting mountain of material has already yielded one fascinating book, Tapping Hitler’s Generals (2007), in which Neitzel used taped discussions, including heated arguments, between German generals held in Trent Park camp, following the capitulation of the Afrika Korps in Tunisia in 1943 and  after the 1944 Normandy campaign.

These unguarded conversations proved a rich haul to the British Intelligence ‘buggers’ monitoring them. They showed, for example, the deep disillusionment among the higher ranks of the Wehrmacht with their Führer and his disastrous mismanagement of the war. They also revealed the army’s bitter and cynical hostility to the growing power of Himmler’s SS.

Now, in Soldaten, his second selection of extracts from the taped transcripts, Neitzel has printed more reflections from the generals, but also extended his trawl to the Wehrmacht’s lower ranks: commissioned officers, NCOs and ordinary private soldiers. Like Tapping Hitler’s Generals this is an equally fascinating snapshot of the psychology of Hitler’s soldaten. In their chats, which they naively imagined to be private, the men who had occupied Europe unbutton and tell us, often in salty terms, their true opinions and experiences.

The great value of Neitzel’s work is that these conversations are not the results of interviews in which German soldiers told their captors what they wanted to hear. Nor (as, for example, in evidence given at the Nuremberg tribunal)  are they statements consciously presented for public consumption. Rather, these are akin to informal messroom chatter (without the distorting addition of alcohol), by turns boastful, remorseful, rueful, but above all candid. With no idea that they were being overheard, still less that their comments would ever be published, the soldaten let down their guards. In a nutshell, the picture that emerges is, in Kipling’s phrase about armies, that of ‘a brutal and licentious soldiery’, as cruel as they were casual in inflicting horrific violence on combatants and civilians alike.

One result of their frankness is that it will never again be possible to argue, as many have, that in contrast to the despised SS, the Wehrmacht fought a ‘clean’ war, not dirtying their hands with atrocities. (One recounts with pride wearing chamois gloves in order to knock down a ‘dirty Polish swine’.) With astounding insouciance, often punctuated with laughter, they recount crimes they have either witnessed without protest or carried out, ranging from the mass gassing of Jews and gang rapes to individual killings: a Dane shot dead over a trivial quarrel on a tram; a Frenchman gunned down because the killer needed his bicycle. One or two voices feebly protest that such crimes are not the actions of ‘honourable soldiers’ but they are a distinct minority. 

Astonishingly, until we recall how deeply Nazi totalitarianism had warped German minds, the most common complaint voiced about war crimes here is that there were not enough of them. Seeing German defeat approaching (although some still put their faith in the Führer or secret weapons supposedly about to come on stream), many voices lament that Germany would have won if only they had been ten times as ruthless as they were. ‘We were too soft’ is an all too common refrain.

This book is genuinely ground-breaking in letting Hitler’s soldiers speak out in their own unvarnished voices. It is not a pretty sound. Neitzel’s work on these transcripts is an important, contribution to the great debate on who knew what about the Third Reich’s agenda, both hidden and open. It is such a significant work that it is much to be regretted that Neitzel, instead of writing it alone as he did with his first volume, called in as co-author the social psychologist Harald Welzer. I feared the worst when I read that Welzer, rather than a historian, was a professor of something called ‘transformation design’ and he does not disappoint. His jargon-laden commentary, telling us what we ought to think about the transcripts rather than letting the soldaten speak for themselves and forever fitting their remarks into a Procrustean bed of psycho/social-babble, is a continually irritating and unnecessary background noise and diminishes the impact of this powerful book. Neitzel should have had the confidence to let his witnesses condemn themselves out of their own mouths.

Nigel Jones is the author of Tower: An Epic History of the Tower of London (Hutchinson, 2011)

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