Thursday, 3 January 2013

Book Review - Soldaten by Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer

Soldaten : on fighting, killing and dying : the secret World War II transcripts of German POWs by Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, translated from the German by Jefferson Chase

New York; Alfred A. Knopf, 2012     ISBN 9780307958129

This is a fascinating book with an odd premise. One of the authors, in the course of research, stumbled across the little-known fact that during World War II both the British and Americans bugged their POW camps, and transcribed tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of pages of conversations between the inmates. This was done during the War for intelligence purposes, and after the conflict the transcripts were filed away in archives. This resource is a treasure trove for historians and has, and no doubt will continue, to spawn scholarly monographs such as this one.

What Neitzel and Welzer have done with the material is to explore whether there was a particularly National Socialist way of making war, or whether the German Army was the same as the other fighting forces of the time.

Something that the authors don't address until the final part of the book, but which seemed obvious to me from the opening chapter was the problem of who is supplying the evidence. The inmates of the camps were by no means a simple cross-section of German Troops - Naval and Air forces were disproportionally strongly represented for much of the War, as the Allies were taking more of them than ground troops prisoner. Of course all of the subjects were taken on the Western, Italian or Middle-Eastern fronts, and while some of them had experience of war in the USSR and Eastern Front, it was by no means representative of the whole of the German combat forces.

There are of course other problems with the provision of evidence of this sort as well - the Allies didn't record every conversation, only the ones that they were interested in keeping, and of course the prisoners may have been telling less than the truth one way or the other, either to put off their captors, or to boast to their fellow inmates.

This doesn't make any of the transcripts any less fascinating for the insights they do provide us. And a lot of those insights are fairly gruesome. It seems many troops were aware of the Final Solution, and many of them had been involved in, or had witnessed mass shootings of Jews. While each soldier is more or less comfortable with what they saw or did, none of them really question the fact that it's taking place. The horrendous actions against partisans also cause little conflict amongst the POW, with troops sometimes expressing happiness over the actions they undertook. In fact what comes out from many of the transcripts is that many troops thought they pretty much had a licence to commit whatever crimes took their fancy.

Many of the troops were also cavalier with any prisoners they took, with some stories here from Normandy of Germans killing GI prisoners because they were Black, or "looked Jewish".

These stories stand out amongst the others in the book that refer to decorations, equipment, superior officers, and the other more mundane aspects of life in a military world.

What surprised me more, after reading the work, was that the authors conclusion is that there was nothing particularly Nazi in the way these soldiers, sailors and airmen fought. While it is fairly clear from the transcripts in the book that there were not many active Nazis in the forces, certainly the stories they told, that they acquiesced to or took part in do actually indicate that the German Armed Forces in World War II were engaged in a different sort of war than the other combatants. We haven't heard stories of Allied troops engaging in mass atrocities against a particular ethnic group (even the Russians didn't kill all the Tatars), we don't hear of other armies murdering POW as a matter of course, and certainly in the US and British armies many troops would have rebelled if they'd been asked to do so. Obviously there were circumstances where these other armies committed atrocities, and got away with it, but in the German Army these were committed as a matter of course, under superior orders.

I find the last chapter disturbing as well - "War as work", which describes in detail the footage provided by Wikileaks showing an ISAF gunship identifying a group of civilians as combatants and killing them. The authors use this to show how easy it is to make a mistake on the battlefield when working in the frame of reference of a firefight. I had the feeling (and this could just be me) that the authors were trying to equate many of the crimes described by the POW earlier in the book to this phenomenon. I think the transcripts they quote show in the vast majority of cases that there is no similarity between many things discussed by the POW and this incident.

With all my reservations, I found this still to be a book well-worth reading, with a lot to say about how the war was fought, what German Soldiers thought, and the lengths the Allies went to in gathering information.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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