Rezension über:

Sönke Neitzel / Harald Welzer: Soldaten. Protokolle vom Kämpfen, Töten und Sterben, 3. Auflage, Frankfurt a.M.: S. Fischer 2011, 521 S., ISBN 978-3-10-089434-2, EUR 22,95
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Sönke Neitzel / Harald Welzer / Christian Gudehus: "Der Führer war wieder viel zu human, viel zu gefühlvoll". Der Zweite Weltkrieg aus der Sicht deutscher und italienischer Soldaten, Frankfurt/Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag 2011, 464 S., ISBN 978-3-596-18872-7, EUR 12,99
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Rezension von:
MacGregor Knox
London School of Economics
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MacGregor Knox: Reading the Wehrmacht's mind? (Rezension), in: sehepunkte 12 (2012), Nr. 3 [15.03.2012], URL:

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Reading the Wehrmacht's mind?

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The reputation of Great Britain's Second World War intelligence services deservedly grows with each passing year. Yet until the last decade, the activities of the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CSDIC) were largely unknown. That has changed, thanks largely to the distinguished military historian Sönke Neitzel, whose Abgehört. Deutsche Generäle in britischer Kriegsgefangenschaft 1942-1945 (2005), translated as Tapping Hitler's Generals (2007), first exploited in depth the CSDIC's 50,000-odd pages, declassified in 1996, of surreptitiously transcribed private conversations among German prisoners of war.

The monograph Soldaten and the essay volume "Der Führer war wieder viel zu human, viel zu gefühlvoll" are the latest results of that research, which grew into a large foundation-funded collaborative research project involving both historians and sociologists. The first step was to re-transcribe the materials into machine-readable form; the second to code each significant transcript passage by date, speaker, and one or more topical codes, within a database designed for swift retrieval of material relevant to a variety of research interests. These two volumes represent interpretation - the final stage of the inquiry.

Each is notably successful, if in different ways.

"Der Führer war wieder viel zu human" takes its title from the August 1943 complaint of a Luftwaffe non-commissioned officer about Hitler's ostensible lack of killer instinct and failure to bomb London flat; if the Führer only knew! The first essays introduce the research project, the sociological theory behind it, and the methods and objectives of the massive Anglo-American "human intelligence" machinery developed to elicit and exploit information from Axis prisoners. Later chapters offer a variety of interpretive perspectives on the German and Italian CSDIC transcripts, on similar material from United States sources, and on issues ranging from the peculiarities of the Waffen-SS to generational responses to National Socialism and Anglo-American efforts to understand the Japanese enemy. Perhaps the most striking essay is one of two by Felix Römer, whose long chapter on "people's community" in the Wehrmacht (55-94) rests on the massive U.S. Army collection of transcripts, interview records, questionnaires, and prisoner autobiographies. Römer demonstrates the extent to which National Socialism and the German armed forces succeeded, even in 1943-45, years of relentless defeat in which most German soldiers fell captive, in generating martial enthusiasm and fighting power across all classes and regions of what had been a conspicuously fractious and divided society. Extensive 1944 samplings of prisoner sentiment consistently showed majority support for Hitler, small minorities of skeptics or opponents, and extremely high levels of pride and confidence in German unit morale and in the superlative qualities of German officers, NCOs, and troops (61-68). More problematic is the suggestion of Alexander Hoerkens (299-314) that only a tiny minority of prisoners - five percent in the small sample of discussions of ideology found in the CSDIC records - were "convinced National Socialists". Yet Hoerkens also registers (306-308) the same widespread approbation of Hitler found in the American materials. War crimes and their justifications perhaps interested CSDIC more than ideology, and figure prominently in the British transcripts; Katharina Straub's analysis of remarks by and about the Waffen-SS (315-347) is thus on firm ground. Army and Waffen-SS speakers concurred: the SS executed more prisoners of war, partisans, and civilians proportionately than any other branch of the armed forces, and took savage pride in so doing (332-335). Yet at least in these transcripts even Waffen-SS prisoners talked infrequently about race (319) - which is scarcely evidence that National Socialist ideology was irrelevant to their actions.

Soldaten centers on the transcripts themselves, which the authors quote extensively in chapters covering topics that range from "sex" (rape and prostitution) to the technology of war, the mass starvation or murder of prisoners, the annihilation of the Jews, and the thrill of hunting, bombing, and sinking enemies. Further sections focus on belief in victory and in Hitler, ideology, military values, the Waffen-SS, and Wehrmacht views of Germany's allies and enemies. The transcript quotations are always vivid, and include such gems as the unconsciously ironic May 1945 lament of Generalleutnant Maximilian Siry that Germany had lost because "we are not cruel [hart] enough, not barbaric enough" (144).

The transcripts suggest otherwise, in detail and at length. German soldiers and airmen killed gleefully (the untranslatable "hat Mordsspaß gemacht" recurs) and indiscriminately from the outset of the war; the barbarization on the eastern battlefields prominent in the literature may have been largely redundant (84-88; 101-115). Many of the speakers witnessed or participated in massacres of Jews or other civilians. Yet most misgivings recorded in the transcripts were either erotic (machine-gunning attractive women was wasteful) utilitarian-ecological ("corpse-water" threatened troop health) or procedural and strategic. The Jews were widely perceived as an "objective problem" (167). And the chosen solution of mass murder was thus "not a mistake, but [was] undiplomatic", "a tactless move" and likely to provoke revenge (162-166, 219; 149, 172-174, 145, 291-292, 161).

What then might account for the enormity of German deeds, and the nonchalance of so many perpetrators and witnesses documented in the transcripts? Neitzel and Welzer dismiss the force of ideas. Most speakers are allegedly "scarcely interested in ideology, politics, the order of the [external] world and the like; they fight not from conviction, but because they are soldiers and fighting is their job" (14-15, 17). The authors mount a three-pronged attack to re-establish the consoling post-1945 distinction between "soldiers" and "Nazis" that has collapsed in recent decades under the impact of historical research. They categorize only the most indisputable professions of racist faith as "ideology". Welzer's American sociological theories from the 1960s and 1970s then impose upon the transcripts a rigid framework that largely ignores background attitudes and motivations. Thus armed, the authors generalize extensively about soldiers, violence, and war - while associating their analysis with the transcript evidence. And that circular logic in turn makes the German Wehrmacht seem almost normal by comparison with other armies at other times; the final chapter of Soldaten is entitled "How National Socialist was the Wehrmacht's war?" And the authors' answer is - not very: "These soldiers were no 'Weltanschauung-warriors'; most of them were in reality wholly unpolitical" (393).

The CSDIC transcripts, their American counterparts, and Heinrich Himmler's indefatigable Sicherheitsdienst opinion research teams all agree: Hitler was far more popular than the National Socialist party. Yet fervent belief in this most charismatic figure in German history was not - as the authors apparently believe - somehow external to Nazi "ideology". It was rather its central tenet. The multitudes who despised the party and its chieftains, stood in awe of Hitler, and followed him grimly into national catastrophe, were saturated with ideological conviction.

The notions that Neitzel and Welzer categorize as "soldierly values" (299-360; 418-20) allegedly distinct from National Socialist belief are equally hard to prize away from the movement's core. The authors note in passing that the German army from 1870-71 onward took a remarkably expansive view of its right to execute irregulars and civilian hostages, that a "radicalization of military conduct" had occurred in previous generations, and that the Wehrmacht saw "violence unconstrained by any legal restrictions" as a universally appropriate tool (67-68, 195). But Neitzel and Welzer seem unaware of the extent to which this long-standing, deep-rooted military-organizational culture was both socially pervasive and unique among advanced nations in its ruthless contempt for the "sentimentality and pathetic emotion-mongering [weichlicher Gefühlsschwärmerei]" of international humanitarian law. [1]

Armed forces organizational culture was fundamentally congruent from the outset with National Socialism. [2] The movement owed its birth in 1919-20 to the army: the Bavarian Reichswehr division's staff intelligence section recognized lance-corporal Hitler's unique talents, provided him with all necessary ideological and agitational training, and launched him into German politics. Virtually all important Nazi leaders served in the 1914-18 army, its post-war Freikorps units, or in both. And they had imbibed the army's peculiar attitudes toward violence, its anti-Semitic hatreds [3], and its techniques. The frenetic self-radicalizing aggressiveness of the NSDAP's cadres was simply the army's mission tactics system [Auftragstaktik] applied to politics and genocide.

Reevaluation of the authors' categories might thus suggest that the vast majority both of CSDIC speakers and of Wehrmacht personnel were sufficiently "Nazi" to be so described, and that their beliefs were relevant to their actions between 1939 and 1945. Letters home from the front do suggest so. [4] And if the transcripts are short on professions of racist faith, perhaps the speakers saw little point in rehearsing widely accepted truths; Neitzel and Welzer invoke precisely that argument (300) to explain the relative absence from the recorded discussions of the fundamental German secondary virtues of the World War era: obedience [Gehorsam]; valor [Tapferkeit]; contempt for weakness, and cruelty toward oneself and others [Härte]; and devotion to duty [Pflichterfüllung]. Finally, the authors concede in passing the "frequent mention" in the transcripts of sentiments such as the alleged "Jew-infestation" [Verjudung] of the Western allies, the purported work-shyness of the Jewish people, and the ostensibly subhuman essence of Japanese ally ("yellow apes") and Russian race-enemy (296-98). If such notions are not evidence of the "ideology" that the authors otherwise struggle to find, then their project's categories and coding procedures need reevaluation.

Welzer would presumably dismiss second thoughts as unnecessary, since his theoretical approach derives virtually all motivation from foreground situational factors. He attacks the CSDIC material through "frame analysis [Referenzrahmenanalyse]" - an adaptation of the 1970s analytical model of the revered but notoriously abstruse Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman. Welzer adds (40) a pinch of Stanley Milgram, whose famed mock-torture experiments, in exquisite harmony with the Zeitgeist of 1960s America, sought to demonstrate that we are all potential war criminals. [5] But Welzer seems unaware that the foremost proponent of Milgram's applicability to German crimes, Christopher Browning, eventually conceded that ideological hatred was as decisive as command authority or group solidarity. [6]

The mechanistic rigor of Referenzrahmenanalyse focused upon immediate contexts, and Welzer's obstinate faith that human beings are too purblind to understand the broader implications and meanings of their actions (172, 266-267, 391), instead lead him to insist that much violence is self-generating and devoid of a causal nexus ["autotelische Gewalt"] (88-94). Yet one of his exemplars, the "chronic readiness for violence, and occasionally even for killing, of entirely normal people" on German Autobahnen (91), does suggest a salient role for national cultural peculiarities.

In the final chapter of Soldaten, Welzer's desire to demonstrate that the indiscriminate violence of the German armed forces in the Second World War was "no more National Socialist than for instance the violence that British or American soldiers employed" (421) takes him even further afield. He devotes seven pages (395-402), complete with gun-camera stills and excerpts from the radio communications transcript, to the 2007 Baghdad incident in which U.S. Army helicopter gunships killed two journalists and six other civilians with 30mm cannon. Welzer is so infatuated with his academic vision of "war" as Platonic ideal of all-azimuths lawless murderousness that he is careless with the facts. The 2007 incident occurred within a hundred meters or less of a U.S. infantry unit that was taking sporadic fire from insurgents. The journalists wore no distinctive clothing or badges. And despite Welzer's condescending dismissal of the helicopter crew's perceptions (398-400), at least two of the group were visibly armed, one of them with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. The killing of the journalists and of nearby non-combatants was nevertheless a genuine case of mistaken identity. But the soldiers of the German Wehrmacht who murdered French, British, Soviet, Canadian, and American prisoners of war; executed hundreds of thousands of "partisans", suspects, hostages, and civilian bystanders; carried out, assisted in, or eagerly gawked at (159) the mass murder of millions of Jews; and casually practiced MG42 marksmanship upon the peasantry of most countries they occupied, were under no misapprehensions whatsoever about whom they were killing and why. As the CSDIC transcripts amply confirm.

Denial by intellectuals of the power of ideas is no monopoly of the sociological profession. And despite the tendentiousness of its theoretical structure and at least some of its argumentation, Soldaten is a gripping read and a major contribution to our understanding. Along with "Der Führer war wieder viel zu human", it tells us a very great deal about the mentality of Hitler's soldiery and the war they made. But - doubtless fortunately - its relevance to war in general is far more limited than one of its two authors believes.


[1] Quotation: Großer Generalstab: Kriegsbrauch im Landkriege, Berlin 1902, 3; in general: Isabel V. Hull: Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany, Ithaca/NY 2004, and Manfred Messerschmidt: Völkerrecht und "Kriegsnotwendigkeit" in der deutschen militärischen Tradition seit den Einigungskriegen, in: German Studies Review 6 (1983), Nr. 2, 237-269.

[2] Jürgen Förster: Geistige Kriegführung in Deutschland 1919 bis 1945, in: Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, 9/1: Die deutsche Kriegsgesellschaft 1939 bis 1945. Politisierung, Vernichtung, Überleben, edited by Jörg Echternkamp, Munich 2004, 469-640.

[3] Brian E. Crim: "Our Most Serious Enemy": The Specter of Judeo-Bolshevism in the German Military Community, 1914-1923, in: Central European History 44 (2011), Nr. 4, 624-641; Jürgen Förster: "Aber für die Juden wird auch noch eine Stunde schlagen, und dann wehe ihnen!" Reichswehr und Antisemitismus, in: Deutsche, Juden, Völkermord. Der Holocaust als Geschichte und Gegenwart, edited by Jürgen Matthäus / Klaus-Michael Mallmann, Darmstadt 2006, 21-37.

[4] Klaus Latzel: Deutsche Soldaten - nationalsozialistischer Krieg? Kriegserlebnis - Kriegserfahrung 1939-1945, Paderborn, 2000 - a work that offers fruitful comparison to 1914-18, but is unaccountably absent from the text, notes, and bibliography of Soldaten.

[5] Erving Goffman: Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of experience, London 1974; Stanley Milgram: Obedience to authority: An experimental view, New York 1974.

[6] Christopher Browning: Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, London 2001 (1992), 171-176; idem: Nazi Policy, Jewish Workers, German Killers, Cambridge 2000, 143-169.

MacGregor Knox