Monday, 11 April 2016

Book Review - Tapping Hitler's Generals by Sonke Neitzel

Tapping Hitler's Generals : transcripts of secret conversations, 1942-45 by Sonke Neitzel, translated by Geoffrey Brooks, Introduction by Ian Kershaw

St. Paul, Minnesota: MBI Publishing, 2007              ISBN 9781844157051

There has been so much written on World War Two that it would be reasonable to think that every aspect has been covered, and that there is not much new to say. In some ways this proposition is true, and yet all the time publications come out that, while they might not reveal new information, look at the War from a different perspective. This is such a publication.

During wartime prisoners are taken, and usually separated by rank. In the case of the Allies in World War Two, German officers of General Rank were taken and held in a facility at Trent Park, a large house on the outskirts of London. There the Generals were interrogated, and held captive before being moved, usually to the USA or Canada. Quite often their stay was short, a matter of weeks, although some were there for more than a year. Usually the officers arrived at Trent Park shortly after their capture, sometimes only a matter of days after being picked up from the battlefield.

The Allies were careful to interrogate officers as quickly as they could, before they had settled into PoW life and before they could perhaps get their minds in a place where they could evade the questioning effectively. The Allies also did something else, something else that the Germans did not expect - they bugged the gaol! A team of hundreds of men listened to all the conversations between the officers, and recorded onto vinyl any sections of these conversations that they thought would be of interest to the Allied cause.

These recordings have until recently been classified, and have in the last ten years provided useful and interesting primary material for historians to work with - one of the other books I've read recently by the same author, Soldaten, used this material to develop its thesis. Tapping Hitler's Generals consists of a long introduction, and excerpts from the conversations between the Generals, grouped into three themes, to do with politics and strategy, war crimes, and reactions to the 20 July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler.

The documents almost without fail are highly interesting. What the reader sees is a group of men who are grappling with their consciences for the most part, working through what has happened to them and trying to make sense of it, or to justify their actions. The Generals can be broadly put into two camps: those that were thoroughly anti-Nazi, and those who, while acknowledging excesses, still put their faith in Hitler, rather than the Party as a whole.

Much discussion between the officers in this book centres around whether and how the army should act in relation to the government, especially as the war moved into Germany in 1945. There is much balancing of honour and fidelity to their oath to the Fuhrer, with the obvious waste of life and property when the outcome of the War was certain. Where some, such as von Thoma, saw the continuation of the War as the biggest war crime, others thought that to surrender now would only lose face and that the Allies would destroy the country anyway. Records of discussions about earlier chances to depose the Nazis get some coverage here, with some officers self-aware enough to acknowledge that the officer-class of the Army is just as culpable as the Nazis in allowing the War to begin, and to continue.

The section that deals with the reaction to the 20 July plot is fascinating in showing the mindset that prevailed at the time amongst the officer corps. Many of them had in fact been sounded out by the plotters, and the fact that the plot remained a secret right up until the time it was carried out says something about the army's disillusionment with Hitler.

The initial reaction at Trent Park was the the bomb plot was a put-up job. The reasoning was two-fold: firstly, those that knew Stauffenberg thought there was no way that he could mess up the job of planting the bomb, and secondly they saw the bomb and subsequent propaganda as a ruse of Hitler to denigrate the army while showing himself as the agent of providence. The reluctance of officers to be actively involved in the plot, and to believe the worst after it had failed, was disastrous on two fronts, both in failing to ensure the plot would be successful, and in their conversations influencing the Allies to dismiss the plotters as a viable opposition.

The section on war crimes proves what has been proven elsewhere - that there was widespread, although not total, knowledge of the massacre of the Jews, and Poles and partisans and others, within the Army. Most of the discussions recorded here lay the blame on the SS and SD, although there is acknowledgement of the Army's culpability in some outrages, with some officers realising that their necks would be on the line for the actions of their troops. The general anti-semitism of the officers is on display, with even those denigrating the Holocaust expressing their dislike for the Jews and their wish to expel them from Germany. The murder of hostages was seen only as bad as a matter of degree, not as wrong in and of itself - it is interesting that the German Army saw taking hostages to guarantee an occupied community's good behaviour as consistent with the rules of war, which the Western Allies did not.

The overall picture of the officers held in Trent Park (and it should be remembered that this group was not necessarily an accurate cross-section of the officer corps of the German Armed Forces) is one of a group of highly structured technocrats, most of whom subscribed to similar notions of nationalism, militarism and honour. They were all at sea when it came to politics and their responsibilities to the people of Germany, and those they conquered. Their blinkered views were in part what enabled Hitler and the Nazis to do what they did.

As for the book itself, there are some minor quibbles: there are regular mis-spellings and missing letters which annoy the reader rather than damage the text, and there is only a name index, which is of little help in navigating the work. These are balanced by comprehensive notes, and useful biographies of the prisoners, which list their military careers, and - where the authors have access to them - assessments by their senior officers and by the British authorities. These assessments are an interesting insight into both the German and British character. I give the assessments of Generalmajor Fritz Kraus as an example - assessed by Rommel in 1943 as "straightforward, exemplary character. Postivie attitude to National Socialism. Proved himself greatly as senior artillery commander during the major offensives and retreats of summer and winter 1942 in Africa, such that he was promoted to Generalmajor after the capture of Tobruk. mentally and physically very vigorous and active." The British assessment is as follows - "A pleasant rather unintelligent man, anti-Nazi. His main occupations at Trent Park were chess, table-tennis and bridge. He was an inspired cello player in the string quartet." I think that says a lot.

This book is worth a look for those interested in the German Army.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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