Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying

Roger Moorhouse recommends a study of the secretly recorded conversations of Second World War Axis PoWs

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Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse
Author: Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Price (RRP): £25

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The Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu advised, “know your enemy,” and it was in this spirit that the British and Americans began a programme of eavesdropping on German and Italian prisoners of war during the Second World War.

Only a fraction of the five million or so Axis prisoners taken by the western Allies were deemed ‘interesting’ enough to be sent to one of the eavesdropping camps. There, they were interviewed formally, of course, but it was their private conversations that were of most interest to their captors. Recorded and transcribed for posterity, the discussions were duly consigned to the archives.

Welzer and Neitzel are the first to give concerted scholarly attention to those transcripts and in so doing have shed a stark light on the attitudes and prejudices of Hitler’s soldiers – the ‘Soldaten’ of the title. What emerges is fascinating. Much of what the men do, like soldiers the world over, is swap anecdotes comparing their experiences. But, in doing so, they often reveal the astonishingly broad spectrum of their feelings towards Hitler, the Nazi regime and the wider war. There is a degree of posturing, of course, but given that they did not seem to know they were being listened to, we can safely assume this was the true voice of Hitler’s Wehrmacht.

The real historical significance of the accounts lies primarily in the soldiers’ attitudes to the Holocaust and other atrocities committed in Germany’s name. It is notable, for instance, that few of the listeners react with surprise to the horrors that are being reported: all, it appears, knew that large numbers of Jews and others were being routinely slaughtered on the eastern front. Some, meanwhile, tell with brutal frankness of actions in which they were directly involved: the killing of children, the rape and murder of female civilians. With this book, it would appear, the myth of the ‘unsullied Wehrmacht’ has been finally put to rest.

Surprisingly, however, the soldiers rarely speak in ideological terms. There were a few Nazis among them, certainly, but theirs was largely a brutalised world of military expediency in which ideology played a very secondary role. One of Nazism’s most paradoxical achievements seems to have been the de-politicisation of the army.

The book features a commentary explaining related historical and sociological issues, which just about manages not to overwhelm its core material, and ends with a fascinating counterpoint contrasting the ‘Soldaten’ with modern soldiers. In all, this is an exemplary piece of history, rigorous in its conception, thought-provoking and clear-eyed in its conclusions. It should be essential reading for those with an interest in Nazi Germany.

To return to Sun Tzu, one might ask what was learnt about Hitler’s soldiers from the exercise. Definitive answers are frustratingly elusive, but one rather uncomfortable conclusion is that, for all their brutality, the ‘Soldaten’ were more like soldiers the world over than we have traditionally thought.

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Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War (Bodley Head, 2010)