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Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dyingby Soenke Neitzel
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"From 1940 to 1945, as German soldiers idled in POW camps, their captors surreptitiously recorded their conversations. Declassified in 1996, the massive transcripts reveal an uncensored, often disturbing picture of how the average Nazi soldier thought, acted, and justified himself to his comrades. According to Glasgow University professor of history Neitzel and German psychologist Welzer, the results contradict the belief that exposure to war brutalizes normal men. While the authors don't skirt the issue of individual Wehrmacht soldiers' knowledge of and participation in the Holocaust, they argue that most simply accepted that soldiering was a necessary job; they tried to do it properly to preserve their own self-respect and support their comrades. Ideological concepts like the threats of Jewry or Bolshevism 'played only an ancillary role.' Ordinary soldiers who committed mass murders of Jews, prisoners, or civilians didn't think, 'What terrible things I am doing,' but 'What a lousy job this is...!' Readers may prefer to skim because the text consists of lengthy analyses of snippets of chatter. While insightful, the authors provide more than most readers will want to know about frames of reference, ideological influences, value systems, and social environment. The chatter itself is often horrific. Agent: (Sept.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
A trove of previously unpublished, transcribed conversations among German POWs—secretly recorded by the Allies—reveals the extent of their brutality and changes our understanding of the mind-set of the German soldier during World War II.
On a visit to the British National Archive in 2001, Sonke Neitzel made a remarkable discovery: reams of meticulously transcribed conversations among German POWs that had been covertly recorded and recently declassified. Neitzel would later find another collection of transcriptions, twice as extensive, in the National Archive in Washington, D.C. These were discoveries that would provide a unique and profoundly important window into the true 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. Collaborating with renowned social psychologist Harald Welzer, Neitzel examines these conversations—and the casual, pitiless brutality omnipresent in them—from a historical and psychological perspective, and in reconstructing the frameworks and situations behind these conversations, they have created a powerful narrative of wartime experience.
About the Author
SONKE NEITZEL is a professor of Modern History at the University of Glasgow. He has previously taught modern history at the University of Mainz and has also held posts at the universities of Karlsruhe, Bern, and Saarbrucken. He is currently editor of the journal German History in the Twentieth Century.
HARALD WELZER is head of the Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research at the KWI Essen. He teaches social psychology at the universities of Hanover and Witten-Herdecke.
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