WHO: Sönke Neitzel
and Harald Welzer
On Fighting, Killing, and Dying — The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs
WHEN: Published by Knopf September 27, 2012
WHERE: Author tour to New York and Toronto
In 2001, spurred by a nagging curiosity over the transcript of a secretly recorded conversation he came across while researching the German U-boat wars, historian Sönke Neitzel paid a visit to the British national archives. He had heard of the existence of recorded interrogations of German POWs, but never about conversations recorded covertly in the holding cells, barracks, and camps that housed the prisoners. What Neitzel discovered, to his amazement, were reams of untouched, recently declassified transcripts totaling nearly eight hundred pages. Later, Neitzel would find another trove of protocols twice as extensive at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
For Neitzel and his collaborator, social psychologist Harald Welzer, these transcripts would supply a unique and profoundly important window into the mentality of the soldiers in the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, the German navy, and the military in general, almost all of whom had insisted on their own honorable behavior during the war…
These transcripts unequivocally debunk that myth.
“Startling evidence that German soldiers in World War II were not just following orders.
“Neitzel and Welzer pore over transcripts from recordings of German prisoners of war secretly made in various holding facilities. Those prisoners passed the time by telling each other tales relating the ugly stuff of war: killing enemy soldiers and civilians alike, slaughtering Jews, raping women. One such story involves a Gestapo officer who propositioned a Russian woman, and on being rejected, shot her and had sex with the dead body.
“Did the event happen? We’re not sure; what matters is that the soldier who told the story and the one who heard it believed it was true. Other reports were closer to the documentable mark. Some prisoners vied to out-Nazi the Nazis, with one general saying that there would be no complaint about their actions if only they’d been successful in exterminating the Jews.
“The authors layer on commentary…but the point remains: These German soldiers were utterly normal, for all the atrocities they committed, men who killed simply ‘because it’s their job.’ Unique—essential to any understanding of German mentalités in the Hitler era.” —KIRKUS REVIEWS
Sönke Neitzel is professor of international history at the London School of Economics. He has previously taught modern history at the Universities of Glasgow, Saarbrücken, Bern, and Mainz.
Harald Welzer is a professor of transformational design at the University of Flensburg, teaches social psychology at the University of St. Gallen, and is head of the foundation FuturZwei.
Translated from the German by Jefferson Chase.
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