Ger­man sol­diers lose their al­ibi

Sol­daten: On Fight­ing, Killing and Dy­ing: The Se­cret WWII Tran­scripts of Ger­man POWS

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Loosley

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

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