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Secret transcripts

April 21, 2011

Newly discovered transcripts of secretly recorded conversations of German World War II prisoners of war provide an insight into how the logic of armed conflict turns men into killers.

German WWII soldiers
For soldiers in a war zone killing is part of everyday lifeImage: DPA

When German historian Sönke Neitzel ran across a bundle of documents in Britain's National Archives in 2001, he could hardly believe his eyes: He had found transcripts of conversations between German soldiers secretly recorded while they were being held as prisoners of war during World War II. These were private conversations between soldiers who didn't know that a third party was listening to and transcribing their every word.

Their British and American captors had hoped these conversations would provide them with militarily useful information. But they learned little about weapons depots or secret weapons. Most of what the transcripts reveal is what everyday life is like for the foot soldiers in a war, as they fight, kill, and die.

"I've developed the need to throw bombs," reads one passage. "It sends tingles up your spine, it's an awesome feeling. It's just as good as shooting someone."

Sönke Neitel and psychoanalyst Harald Welzer found the 150,000 pages of surveillance transcripts so fascinating, they decided to collaborate on a book, called "Soldaten - Protokolle vom Kämpfen, Töten und Sterben" ("Soldiers Protocols of Fighting, Killing and Dying").

"We were very conscious of avoiding being judgmental," Neitel said. "We didn't want to just show what terrible things the soldiers had done."

Instead, the two authors wanted to understand the thoughts of these soldiers, and how they could be driven to commit such terrible acts.

German troops march past Polish prisoners of war during World War II
"On the first day, it seemed terrible to me. But I said to myself: 'Damn it, an order is an order.' On the second and third days I thought, it doesn't matter anyway. On the fourth day, I started to enjoy it"Image: AP

Killing for the fun of it

But the two academics could not help but be moved by some of the accounts they read in the transcripts. In some passages, they read how soldiers discussed with each other about how they enjoyed the killing, or how many women they had raped. Rarely do any of the soldiers listening to such accounts express any objections or criticize such boasting. "In a way, they were rather normal conversations between two co-workers," Welzer said. The only difference was, that their work happened to be war.

When Neitel told Welzer about the transcripts, it soon became clear to him just how unique and valuable these documents were. While historians can often study wartime memoirs or soldiers' letters home to loved ones, according to Welzer, these are of limited value.

"When someone writes a letter home to mom they certainly don't discuss how many women they have raped," Welzer said.

These transcripts, though, amount to something of a sensation for the academic world.

"We don't even have comparable material from contemporary wars like Afghanistan," Welzer said, "because for one thing, such conversations probably aren't being recorded and for another thing, even if they were, we wouldn't be given access to them."

Neitel and Welzer's book examines issues regarding the mentality of soldiers involved in daily combat and how they view war. One of the things that surprised the authors was the fact that the attitudes of the soldiers didn't seem to be affected much by their differences in age, background, or military rank.

Forging war is a skill

The two authors are convinced that the candid conversations of these German World War II soldiers also provide insight into the minds of troops involved in all other conflicts. The disturbing insight they discovered is that the very logic of war turns them into brutal human beings, as the following passage demonstrates:

Bundeswehr soldiers in front of a tank in Afghanistan
Snipers in WWII and in Afghanistan are doing the same job, the authors sayImage: AP

"On the first day, it seemed terrible to me. But I said to myself: 'Damn it, an order is an order.' On the second and third days I thought, it doesn't matter anyway. On the fourth day, I started to enjoy it."

"Fighting a war is like a skilled trade," Sönke Neitzel said. "And the better soldiers are at these skills, the better their chances are of survival, and of success, and they define themselves by this success."

As Neitzel sees it, in this respect not much changes from one war to the next.

"At the end of the day, a Wehrmacht sniper in World War II and a Bundeswehr sniper in Afghanistan are doing the same job. The weapon and the uniform are different today, but the job is the same, it's to shoot to kill, it's exactly the same thing."

Neitzel is convinced that in such situations, ideology doesn't enter a soldier's head – a Wehrmacht soldier didn't ponder the ideology of the Nazis and a Bundeswehr soldiers probably doesn't spare a thought for the German constitution.

Every war makes murderers out of men

According to Neitel and Welzer, there were without a doubt some committed Nazis among German soldiers during World War II, whose convictions told them that killing Jews was the right thing to do. But these, they say, were in the minority.

They also argue that the acts of violence committed under the Nazi regime were no more violent than those committed anywhere else. They believe that an ideology, such as Nazism is not the biggest factor that leads to atrocities. Instead, they say, it is a military values system that turns men into murderers.

Harald Welzer, the psychoanalyst, regards public outcry about war crimes as ultimately futile, because the logic of war tends to breed crimes.

"In every modern day war exactly the same things happen as what these Wehrmacht soldiers discussed," he said. "The only way you could change this would be to do away with war entirely and replace it with another way for countries to resolve their differences, without having to resort to killing."

Author: Nadine Wojcik / pfd
Editor: Andreas Illmer