SOLDATEN by Sönke Neitzel


On Fighting, Killing, and Dying
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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.

Pub Date: Sept. 27th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-95812-9
Page count: 496pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2012


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