Sunday, November 4, 2012

Soldaten by Neitzel and Welzer

In March 1939 the British War Ministry began to set up special interrogation centers for POWs in case the country had to go back to war. For the first time, it was planned to bug POW’s cells and systematically eavesdrop on what they said. The idea wasn’t new. In 1918, an interrogation center with hidden microphones was ready to go operational, before being halted by the armistice that ended World War I. With the establishment of the Combined Services Detailed Interrogation Centre (CVSDIC) on September 26, 1939, the idea was revived. The Americans adopted the British system of interrogations and surveillance and the Allies soon established a network of secret cross-continental Interrogation centers.

Only a small percentage of the approximately one million German POWS captured by the British and Americans were brought to these special facilities From September 1939 to October 1945, 10,191 German POWs and 563 Italian ones were transferred through three surveillance camps, staying for various periods of time from three days to three years. 538 reports (protocols) were made covering conversations between 1,225 soldiers. A larger number of reports, including detailed biographical information by the British, survived of the conversations between 3,298 German POWS at Fort Hunt, Texas.

The social makeup of the POWS was different in British and American surveillance camps. The British mainly eavesdropped on high-ranking officers and navy and Luftwaffe men. Around one half of the POWs in Fort Hunt, on the other hand, were simple foot soldiers from the German army. A third were low ranking officers, and only around a sixth, staff officers. The material-protocols thus generated does not come from a representative crops section of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS. For example, there are no POWS who had fought exclusively on the Eastern Front. Members of combat units and in particular submarine and Luftwaffe crew members are overrepresented. Nonetheless, the soldiers subjected to surveillance covered a broad spectrum. Practically every type of military curriculum vita is represented from navy frogmen to administrative generals. The men in question fought on all the fronts of the war, articulated a variety of political views, and were members of the most diverse sorts of units. The protocols feature the voices of soldiers whom no other documentary evidence has survived.

Previous to the unveiling of these surveillance protocols in 2001 we had been forced to base our research on the Wehrmacht on very problematic sources: official investigations, letters from the field, eyewitness reports, and memoirs; all consciously composed and addressed to someone specific: a prosecutor, a wife at home, or an audience the authors wanted to win over. When POWs spoke among themselves in the camps, they did so without any such agenda. None of them ever imagined that the stories they told would become a “source,” to say nothing of being published. Moreover, with investigations, autobiographies, and interviews with historical witnesses, the people concerned know how a period of history has turned out, and that ex post facto knowledge obscures how they saw and remembered things at the time. In these sources, men were talking live, in real time, about the war and their attitudes towards it.


When talking technology, the Luftwaffe POWs were right in their element. They were fascinated by the boost pressure of engines, speeds, onboard weaponry, and all the other innovations in new models of airplanes. They did not see these innovations in any sort of broader context. All they were primarily interested in was the next model and the next fantastic aerial battle. They did not ponder questions such as why Germany was no longer capable of producing 2,500 horsepower engines or why the Allies were much quicker to introduce centimeter-wave radar. But that was only to be expected. Just as engineers in car factories don’t usually consider global warming when designing automotive parts, and technicians in power plants don’t ruminate about the dominance of a few large companies in the energy sector, aerial specialists did not relate their own equipment and expertise to a greater political, strategic, or moral context. Instrumental reason, fascinated by technology, is utterly indifferent to such contexts. This is part and parcel of the basic unsullied faith in technology and progress characteristic of the first half of the twentieth century. Utopian visions of what people could do technologically dominated people’s thoughts. So it hardly appeared unlikely to them that a “miracle weapon” would decide the outcome of World War II.

The belief in a miracle weapon was rampant in all three main branches of the military, which says a lot about the illusions maintained by navy and Luftwaffe officers. Despite possessing technical expertise and despite having witnessed Britain’s extraordinary military and economic capabilities, they never asked themselves how the decisive blow they imagined and hoped for could ever be achieved practically. It seems to have been unthinkable for such men that the war could be lost. For that reason, they believed in a utopian technology that would make everything turn out all right.

On this topic, as with the POWs belief in the Fuhrer, the wishes and emotions that soldiers had invested in the National Socialist project and the war were so powerful that they could no be overridden by any countervailing experiences. On the contrary, belief in a miracle weapon grew stronger the more illusory the prospect of Germany victory and a rosy future became. . . .

Without a doubt, it would have been possible for German soldiers to view their own experiences and the war in general more critically. They could have asked themselves: what did it say about the war effort when Germany had to postpone the ground invasion of England, when the Werhrmacht failed to end the Russian campaign as it promised in fall 1941, when the United States with its huge economic potential entered the fray, or when German troops retreated ever closer to the homeland? Anyone who read newspapers, listened to the radio, watched the weekly newsreels, or simply discussed the situation with comrades, friends, and family, could have realized where things were headed without overtaxing his brain. Yet like most other people in most other situations, German soldiers were strictly bound to the necessities of their immediate social environment.

As long as major historical events do not have direct personal consequences, they do not fundamentally change perceptions, interpretations, and decisions. Human beings think in in concrete, not in abstract, terms. What in retrospect may seem to be and increasingly obvious reality remains irrelevant for an individual acting in real time, as long as he himself is not directly caught up in the looming disaster. There are notable exceptions but most people only notice the coming flood when the first story of their house is already submerged. And even then, hopes persist that the water level will recede.

Germans lost hope in increments during World War II. If Germany was not able to achieve final victory, they told themselves, at least it could force an honorable peace settlement. Giving up every last bit of hope would have invalidated all the effort and emotions they had invested in the war in one fell swoop. People typically cling to hopes and instance of wishful thinking that, with the benefit of hindsight, appear completely irrational. And this characteristic is by no means restricted to “ordinary people.” The higher their status, the less people are able to acknowledge failure. General Ludwig Cruwell put it this way. In November 1942, shortly after word that the 6th Army was surrounded at Stalingrad, he retorted: “Are hundreds of thousands of men to be killed in this way again for nothing? That’s unthinkable.”

1 comment:

  1. People typically cling to hopes and instance of wishful thinking that, with the benefit of hindsight, appear completely irrational.This is by no means restricted to “ordinary people.” The higher their status, the less people are able to acknowledge failure.