When Hitler’s Willing Executioners (Knopf) was published in 1996, many took exception to author Daniel Goldhagen’s portrayal of the extent to which ordinary Germans were complicit in the atrocities committed by the Third Reich. But a book recently translated into English adds more fuel to that fire. As its subtitle within a subtitle suggests, in Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying (The Secret World War II Transcripts of German POWs) (Knopf, 2012) Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer interpret the comments of Wehrmacht soldiers taped without their knowledge in Alllied prisoner of war camps.
The surveillance was conducted in hopes of obtaining intelligence useful to the conduct of the war. While not much of value to that end was unearthed, the authors’ latter-day examination of the tapes provide us with a wealth of information. They gleaned the perspectives of Wehrmacht soldiers’ on the progress of the war, its leadership, and, especially, the killing of noncombatants. An excerpt at the Daily Beast shows how little offense they took to the Third Reich’s policy of mass killings of Jews and the citizens of Poland and East Russia.
Let’s clarify that: the soldiers taped — many of them high-ranking — suffered few humanitarian qualms. Neitzel and Welzer write:
Within the Wehrmacht, there was a consciousness that certain acts were criminal, although that knowledge was not sufficient motivation for refusing to carry them out. There were a number of social and pragmatic reasons for continuing even when one realized standards boundaries were being transgressed.
But the soldiers objected to those policies on the grounds that they were handled inefficiently or that they would set Germany up for reprisals at the end of the war, including war-crime trials. In other words, the Wehrmacht did not wish to be blamed for the policies of the Third Reich and the SS. Here are two soldiers talking (emphasis added):
Aue: Perhaps we didn’t always do right in killing Jews in masses in the East.
Schneider: It was undoubtedly a mistake. Well, not so much a mistake as un-diplomatic.
Another soldier said:
They even filmed it and the films, of course, have got abroad; it always leaks out somehow. … Sometime the world will take revenge for that.
No telling what’s going to happen to us.
What is it that inured Wehrmacht soldiers inured to the suffering of noncombatants, especially Jews? Perhaps the “eliminationist anti-Semitism” that Goldhagen claims was central to the German psyche played a part. Almost all the soldiers simply assumed that, at the least, Jews should lose their rights and/or be deported. (One always wonders how a totalitarian regime forgets about the effect of brain drain on its future when it targets a society’s intelligentsia.) Other factors include the success of the Third Reich’s success in establishing a climate of submission and abject obeisance, and the military tradition that Germany instituted in the preceding century.
I would be remiss if I failed to address another cause, one that the authors no doubt felt was beyond the scope of their investigations: the harsh childrearing practices prevalent in Germany and Austria at the time. But that’s better explained by the dean of psychohistory, Lloyd deMause. By way of introduction, read his 2005 speech The Childhood Origins of the Holocaust.
Arguably, though, the sentiments — or lack thereof — expressed by Wehrmacht prisoners are as symptomatic of total war as any other cause. The authors conclude:
In our view, the decisive factor in the atrocities discussed in this book was a general realignment from a civilian to a wartime frame of reference. It is more significant than all issues of worldview, disposition, and ideology.
Meanwhile, imagine that the United States invaded the Japanese mainland and, after capturing Japanese civilians, instituted a policy of exterminating them in numbers comparable to what the Germans did to Jews. Would American soldiers have objected any more than Wehrmacht soldiers did to the Third Reich’s policies?
If you doubt that, read John Dower’s classic War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (Pantheon, 1986). If that had come to pass, the argument could be made that, while the Jews presented little threat to Germans, except for a few pockets of resistance once the Third Reich began persecuting them, the Japanese treated U.S. prisoners of war with brutality. In the end, of course, nothing excuses mass killings.