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.
About the Author
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.
Praise for Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying…
“These extraordinary bugged conversations reveal through the eyes of German soldiers with stark clarity and candor the often brutal reality of the Second World War, providing remarkable insight into the mentality and behavior of the Wehrmacht.” —Sir Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler: A Biography
“The myth that Nazi –era German armed forces [were] not involved in war crimes persisted for decades after the war. Now two German researchers have destroyed it once and for all. . . .The material [they] have uncovered in British and American archives is nothing short of sensational. . . .[Soldaten] has the potential to change our view of the war.” —Der Spiegel (Germany)
“This should be required reading for all those who believe that wars could be done cleanly.” —Martin Meier, Neues Deutschland
“A significant contribution on the mental history of the Wehrmacht . . . The authors have written an incredibly readable book.” —Die Zeit
“An equally fascinating and shocking book about the everyday madness of the Nazi war of extermination, which once again confirms Hannah Arendt’s thesis about the ‘banality of evil’ . . . A scholarly sensation.” —Goethe Institut