German soldiers lose their alibi
Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying: The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWS
By Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer Translated by Jefferson Chase Scribe, 448pp, $35
WHEN the then West German chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial in December 1970, domestic opinion was sharply divided. In an eloquent symbol of contrition, Brandt was seeking forgiveness for crimes committed by Hitler’s Nazi regime. About half of Brandt’s electorate thought this was an appropriate gesture. But the other half thought he was wrong.
The conventional post-war wisdom was that the horrific crimes of the Nazi era, committed on the battlefield and in the concentration camps, could be laid at the feet of Hitler and his henchmen, especially the Gestapo, the SD (Sicherheitsdienst) and Waffen-SS.
The Allies dispensed justice at Nuremberg and in other tribunals. But the victors’ justice served merely to reinforce what was essentially a myth: that the German people overall were not accountable for the crimes of the Third Reich. This was a fantasy and the Allies knew it. But it was convenient, particularly as the Cold War posed new challenges.
With the Nuremberg trials concluded, the US and its allies welcomed democratic West Germany back into the fold. The Nazis had been found guilty, not the German people. By 1949 the Soviet threat was all that mattered.
Now historian Sonke Neitzel and psychologist Harald Welzer have compiled an unassailable chronicle of war crimes committed by the German military, recorded in the unguarded testimony of the perpetrators. Soldaten is irrefutable evidence of the complicity of the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine in widespread crimes against humanity from 1939 to 1945.
Neitzel, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, was researching the Battle of the Atlantic in London in the autumn of 2001 when he stumbled across some 800 pages of protocols of recorded conversations of German naval personnel. Masses of other transcripts began to surface and he realised the treasury of original knowledge that he had discovered.
‘‘ Over the course of the war, the British intelligence service had systematically subjected thousands of German and hundreds of Italian PoWs to covert surveillance, recording passages from conversations they found particularly interesting on wax records and making protocols of them,’’ he writes. ‘‘ The protocols had survived the war in their entirety and had been declassified in 1996.’’
Declassified but ignored. To Neitzel’s further surprise, there were even more extensive protocols stored safely by the Americans in the National Archives in Washington, DC. He and his collaborator Welzer, who teaches social psychology at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland, worked painstakingly through thousands of protocols to compile this book, which is subtitled On Fighting, Killing and Dying.
The incontrovertible evidence of this book explodes for a mass audience the myth of