In 2001, spurred by a nagging curiosity over a transcript of a secretly recorded conversation he had come across in his research on 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 covert recordings taken within the confines of the holding cells, bedrooms, 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.
Though initially recorded by British intelligence with the intention of gaining information that might be useful for the Allied war effort, the matters discussed in these conversations ultimately proved to be limited in that regard. But for Neitzel and his collaborator, renowned social psychologist Harald Welzer, they 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. It is a myth these transcripts unequivocally debunk.
Soldaten closely examines these conversations, and the casual, pitiless brutality omnipresent in them, from a historical and psychological perspective. What factors led to the degradation of the soldiers’ sense of awareness and morality? How much did their social environments affect their interpretation of the war and their actions during combat? By reconstructing the frameworks and situations behind these conversations, and the context in which they were spoken, a powerful, unflinching narrative of wartime experience emerges. The details of what these soldiers did, after all, are not filtered the way they might be in letters to family, or girlfriends and wives, or during interrogations by the enemy. In Soldaten, Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer offer an unmitigated window into the mind-set of the German fighting man, potentially changing our view of World War II.
Sönke Neitzel is currently Chair 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 transformation design at the University of Flensburg, teaches social psychology at the University of Sankt Gallen, and is head of the foundation Futurzwei.
From our Q&A with the authors:
Q: Soldaten has already been published in German. What was the reaction in Germany to your research and conclusions?
A: There was a very intense and broad discussion about our findings, simply because the book offers the first empirically based insight into the mindset of the German soldiers and perhaps of soldiers in general. The public reaction was very much concentrated on the brutality of the soldier’s stories. But our argument, that there is a general grammar of war and that from a psychological perspective, less had changed in wars since 1945 than we thought, was interestingly not so intensely discussed. People like to keep inconvenient truths at a historical distance: bad enough that the soldiers in WWII were really brutal. But today’s wars are surely more civilized…
Q: What were your reactions when you discovered that this trove of source material existed and started reading the reports for the first time?
A: Well, when I [Neitzel] visited the Public Record Office in London in November 2001, I expected to find a few pages of inconsequential chatter, but not a treasure trove of tens of thousands of pages of so far unknown bugging reports. I was electrified; I delved into their conversations and was sucked in by the internal world of war that unfolded before me. It was unbelievable to find a new source on the exceptionally well-documented WWII.
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