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. Netizel would later find another collection of transcriptions, twice as extensive, in the National Archive in Washington. 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 honourable behaviour 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 reconstucting the frameworks and situations behind these conversations, they have created a powerful narrative of wartime experience.
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.