Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying

Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying

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by Soenke Neitzel, Harald Welzer, Jefferson Chase

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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


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.  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.)
From the Publisher
“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 

Library Journal
Neitzel (international history, London Sch. of Economics & Political Science) made a remarkable discovery in the British National Archives in 2001, and later at the U.S. National Archives: previously unnoticed transcripts, recently declassified, of covertly recorded conversations among German POWs. With Welzer (social psychology, Univ. of Sankt Gallen, Switzerland), Neitzel examines these conversations from a historical and psychological perspective and analyzes the sometimes casual and pitiless brutality present throughout. What were the states of mind of the prisoners? How did they see the course of the war, or of National Socialism, and what did they say when the talk turned to women, Jews, technology, or politics? VERDICT In some ways this book should be grouped with genocide studies, yet it is also a more general study of the individual attitudes of participants in wars and how the individuals reacted to killing and dying. A powerful and often wrenching approach to the World War II experience, this book is recommended for advanced World War II and military psychology collections. [See Prepub Alert, 4/15/12.]—EBB
Kirkus Reviews
A trove of transcripts of bugged recordings providing specific, startling evidence that German soldiers in World War II were not just following orders. Neitzel (Modern History/Univ. of Glasgow) and Welzer (Social Psychology/Univ. of Hanover) pore over two stores of documents from the British and American national archives, numbering some 150,000 pages in all, of 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. "The stories we will be examining in this book…were not intended to be well-rounded, consistent, or logical," the authors write. "They were told to create excitement, elicit interest, or provide space and opportunity for the interlocutor to add commentary or stories of his own." 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. For instance, the SS and the Wehrmacht had a fierce rivalry that continued behind the prison walls, with SS soldiers insisting that they were indispensable and Wehrmacht soldiers marveling at the grimly ridiculous losses they sustained. 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 that sometimes threatens to bury the soldiers' stories in a gray cloak of academese, 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--and essential to any understanding of German mentalités in the Hitler era.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.62(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.48(d)

Meet 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.

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Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying 2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not what I expected or was led to believe, deals in psychological issues and not exclusively WW II material few actual recorded conversations, lots of mumbo-jumbo analysis .....rjp
Anonymous More than 1 year ago