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How Ordinary Germans Did It

Ekkehard Klausa
Udo Klausa, July 1939

Another example of new, hitherto untapped sources shedding additional light on old issues—the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of ordinary German soldiers and their relationship to National Socialism—is Neitzel and Welzer’s Soldaten, a study of secretly recorded conversations of German POWs in British and American captivity that were not declassified until 1996. To understand the German soldiers of World War II, they argue, “we have to see the war, their war, through their eyes.” This in turn requires the recovery of the “frames of reference” by which German soldiers oriented themselves and made sense of their world.

Two such frames of reference were pivotal, they argue. The first was the Third Reich and its “National-Socialist morality,” predicated upon fundamental racial inequality and the primacy of the German Volk community over other groups as well as individual Germans. The second was the war, during which 17 million Germans served in, and identified with, the armed forces and held the widely shared military values of bravery, toughness, obedience, and willingness to sacrifice. Against these two major influences, they argue, other factors such as previous political views and individual predisposition were marginal in shaping behavior.

The authors also note that our contemporary historical understanding of the Nazi era, which places the Holocaust at the center, was not the perspective through which most Germans—both soldiers and civilians—experienced World War II. (Indeed, they might have added that viewing the Third Reich and World War II primarily through the prism of the Holocaust did not prevail within the historical profession and wider society until the 1980s.) But the conclusions the authors draw from these surreptitiously recorded conversations concerning soldiers’ awareness of, attitudes toward, and participation in war crimes and the murder of the Jews are the strong point of the book.

Many crimes committed by German soldiers, Nietzel and Welzer argue, were “typical less of crimes committed by the Wehrmacht specifically than of war crimes in general.” These included the killing of prisoners, the targeting of noncombatants, and rape. Many POWs told of such acts in order to “entertain” their fellow prisoners and all too often they ended their stories of violence with the boast that “it was great fun.” More specific to the Wehrmacht than granted by the authors, I would argue, was its obsession with resistance by partisans and the “spiral of violence” of anti-partisan war, in which the razing of entire villages and mass murder of civilian populations both became “routine” and were felt by the soldiers to be fully justified.

The authors do note the degree to which German soldiers were “offended” and provoked to unfettered violence by the “dishonest fighting style” (surprise attacks from behind), atrocities, stubborn resistance, and female soldiers of the Red Army. But given the authors’ constant use of the notion of specifically Third Reich “frames of reference,” more could have been said about the underlying assumption of entitlement to bloodless conquest revealed in these conversations. In German eyes, enemy armies and populations stubbornly defending their homeland against the consequences of a horrific foreign conquest were viewed as intolerable. In classic “blame the victim” style, German soldiers felt that their enemies fully deserved the terrible misfortunes they had brought upon themselves by daring to resist.

A very small percentage of the POW conversations—0.2 percent—touched upon the Holocaust, but those that did “reveal that many soldiers were astonishingly well aware of the specific details of the extermination of European Jews.” Many storytellers wallowed in graphic detail, while their listeners responded by exhibiting the curiosity, voyeurism, and group spectatorship (as well as lack of surprise, objection, or disbelief) that were typical of those hearing accounts of the massacres. Antipathy toward Jews was pervasive. Some POWs criticized the horrific methods that were being described but not the policy of genocide itself.

The main concern expressed was not legal or moral but rather a broadly shared awareness of the vengeance Germany would bring upon itself if the war were lost. Among the plethora of Nazi crimes, only the mass death of Soviet POWs from starvation and neglect seemed to elicit at least some “outrage.” Ultimately, the authors conclude, what distinguished the Nazi campaigns in which the Wehrmacht participated from “the standard general practice of World War II” was the elimination of Jews and the Soviet POWs and commissars. “Here, racist ideology made itself manifest.”

The authors note that the POW transcripts “contain just about everything under the sun,” and that a “patchwork” of “contradictory fragments” was far more common than the coherent Nazi worldview expressed by a small minority of “ideological warriors.” Thus the authors often speak of “tendencies” rather than hard and fast generalizations. They describe the heterogeneous and often contradictory POW conversations with appropriate caution, and they reach some useful conclusions concerning Wehrmacht attitudes toward, and participation in, specific Nazi crimes that went way beyond the kinds of atrocities committed by many armies in many wars. But the authors strangely end their book by turning away from this historical specificity to increasingly broad and vacuous generalizations of the kind they had previously avoided. In arguing that “soldiers tended to behave alike” because of the military institution and wartime situation in which they found themselves, they increasingly gloss over the specific situations and ideological pressures that German soldiers encountered on the eastern front.

Arguing, for example, that “it is high time to stop overestimating the effects of ideology,” which “does not explain why soldiers…commit war crimes,” they employ a very narrow notion of ideology. It is for them confined to the self-avowed, coherent Nazi worldview espoused by “ideological warriors” and not the broader “frames of reference” of the Third Reich, such as fundamental racial inequality, that they emphasized at the beginning of the book. (To these I would add a wide consensus on entitlement to empire, as exemplified by Mary Fulbrook’s Udo Klausa.)

The problem stems, I think, from the authors sharply separating out the murder of the Soviet POWs and genocide of the Jews as the “only cases in which the violence can be seen as National Socialist,” and treating all other atrocities as not distinct or new except in their quantitative “dimension.” This blurs a vital distinction—both ideological and situational—between “conventional wars” on the one hand and, on the other, race wars of imperial conquest and subjugation of presumed inferior peoples. In the former kind of conflict atrocities are predictable but occasional and limited, usually resulting from the temporary heat of battle and breakdown of discipline. In the latter, atrocity is systemic and on a large scale.

The full significance of the Nazi war of annihilation in the East as seen through the secret conversations of captured German soldiers is perhaps not fully revealed in the source material. This is because in the British and American POW camps, both naval and air force personnel and army personnel of the North African campaign were overrepresented, and soldiers with prolonged experience on the Russian and Balkan fronts were underrepresented. This imbalance is compounded by the authors’ increasing departure from specific historical situations and the immediate background to events.

One example is the authors’ simplistic comparison of the German soldiers’ participation in the Nazi war of destruction with the behavior of American soldiers in Iraq. After describing the killing by American helicopter gunships of Iraqi civilians who had been mistakenly identified as an enemy threat in the confusion of a single operation, the authors argue that this “analogy…can be extended by definition all the way to the level of genocide” since “the murder of Jews was also defined as an act of self-defense.”

This comparison ignores a crucial difference. In the example of the American helicopter crews in Iraq, operational guidelines to prevent the killing of noncombatants in the heat and confusion of action were not followed, and the killing then escalated as the Americans compounded their initial error by a self-confirming but false interpretation of subsequent events. In the case of the most horrendous Wehrmacht crimes, guidelines were followed, discipline held, and millions died precisely because the system did not break down, and the killing continued systematically for months and years, not minutes.

The Wehrmacht doctrines of collective reprisal and anti-partisan warfare not only contributed to an enormously greater loss of civilian life but they also cannot be separated from Wehrmacht participation in the Final Solution in the way the authors assume. In Serbia, the Wehrmacht shot practically the entire adult male population of Jews and “Gypsies” in “reprisal” for casualties inflicted by Yugoslav partisans. And in the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht fought its anti-partisan campaigns under the guideline “Where the partisan is, is the Jew, and where the Jew is, is the partisan”—with predictable murderous consequences. Given the difference in scale, structure, and duration between the American war crime in Iraq as described by the authors and the pervasive and repeated “anti-partisan” and “reprisal” massacres by the Wehrmacht and their disproportionate impact on Jews and “Gypsies,” the authors’ comparison seems more specious than insightful.

By separating out the murder of the Soviet POWs and genocide of the Jews as the “only cases in which the violence can be seen as National Socialist,” Neitzel and Welzer do not sufficiently appreciate the combined effect of several factors: National Socialist ideology; a pan-European right-wing consensus (both fascist and traditional conservative) on rabid anticommunism and on the identification of Jews as Bolsheviks, and vice versa; a German military tradition contemptuous of any restraint and phobic about partisans; and German cultural assumptions about German superiority and entitlement to empire over Eastern European populations. This combination created a lethal situation that was not historically new but whose considerable novelty lay in the application to twentieth-century Europe of practices of racial imperialism hitherto reserved for non-European populations and territories.

Ironically, because the authors slight specific historical setting, they miss the opportunity to point out its power in shaping behavior in another important case. Using the recorded conversations of Italian POWs, the authors correctly note how different Italian soldiers were from their German counterparts. But the temporal setting is lacking. After 1940, Italian soldiers wisely exhibited an ever-growing disinclination to fight and die (or to become complicit in the Final Solution) as a despised ally on behalf of a German war in which the alternative outcomes were Italian defeat or Italian subordination. But if one looks at the brutal behavior of Italian soldiers when fighting their own wars of racial imperialism in Libya and Ethiopia in the 1930s, the myth of Italian innocence is quickly dispelled, although the scale of civilian deaths was obviously much lower. In short, in analyzing the tendency to commit atrocities, the similarity of race war and imperial conquest must be taken into account as well as the differences in institutional culture between the German and Italian armies.

In conclusion the authors argue that while the Holocaust is the “historically unique crime” that dominates our understanding of World War II today, it “did not define the character of World War II.” The majority of the 50 million lives lost were “not as a result of the Holocaust.” Thus the phenomenon of war itself (and not specific German policies and behavior) should be the center of our attention. They scold social scientists, historians, and, yes, “modernity,” for some presumed naive illusion about the “nonviolent nature” of human beings, and argue that it is “inappropriate” for us “to show outrage or surprise that people are killed and maimed when there is war. If there is war, that’s the way it is.” Basically, the final implication seems to be that we should stop fretting about how and why Wehrmacht soldiers felt and behaved the way they did in World War II, because people are violent, war is hell, and “soldiers kill because it’s their job.” A disappointing and vacuous ending to a book that began with so much promise.

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