Rape, Murder and Genocide Nazi War Crimes as Described by German Soldiers
Part 2: Allies Hoped to Discover Military Secrets
By the spring of 1945, about a million members of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS had been captured by British or American forces. Most were placed into normal POW camps after being captured. But between September 1939 and October 1945, more than 13,000 German prisoners were transferred for closer "observation" to special facilities that the Allies had initially established in England, at the Trent Park manor north of London and at Latimer House in Buckinghamshire, and at Fort Hunt in the US state of Virginia starting in the summer of 1942.
The purpose of the special camps was to extract military secrets from the soldiers. The Allies hoped to win information that would give them a strategic advantage. In addition to the cells being bugged with hidden microphones, a number of informers were planted among the prisoners whose assignment was to guide the conversations in the desired direction.
It can be assumed that most of the prisoners were not aware that they were being spied on, and even if they were, they quickly abandoned all caution in their conversations with fellow soldiers. The human need to converse is noticeably stronger than the fear that the enemy could be listening in.
Thousands of Transcripts
The archives contain an impressive volume of material obtained in this manner. The British prepared 17,500 transcripts, ranging from half a page to more than 20 pages each. The Americans have also preserved thousands of verbatim transcripts of the secretly recorded conversations in German, most of which included an English translation.
The decision to transfer POWs to Trent Park or Fort Hunt was made by Allied intelligence officers who selected suitable candidates in a multistage interrogation process. While the British focused their attention on higher-ranking officers and thus the Wehrmacht elite, the Americans were more likely to listen in on the conversations of regular combat troops. About half of the inmates at Fort Hunt were ordinary soldiers, especially from the army, a third were non-commissioned officers and only a sixth were higher-ranking officers.
The sheer diversity of the voices describing their own experiences provides an almost comprehensive view of the war from the soldier's perspective. The bugged prisoners included soldiers from almost every part of the military, from combat swimmers in a naval unit to a general. The material also covers an astonishingly wide range of operational areas. Almost all of the prisoners who ended up in the special camps were captured on the Western Front or in Africa, but because most soldiers fought on various fronts during the course of the war, there are also many accounts of the war in the East, which differed markedly from the Western Front.
Scientists and academics have always been interested in the question of how quickly perfectly normal people can turn into killing machines. The material Neitzel and Welzer uncovered for their book suggests that the answer is simple: very quickly indeed.
'I Felt Sorry for the Horses'
It makes sense that war brutalizes people. Anyone who is exposed to extreme violence over an extended period of time eventually loses his inhibitions and becomes a perpetrator of violence himself. This is the view held by academics that study violence from a socio-psychological point of view. It's a view that is supported by the autobiographical literature, where men appear to go from stroking their children's hair one moment to being cold-blooded killers the next.
But anyone who reads the wiretapping transcripts that Neitzel and Welzer have analyzed is forced to conclude that it doesn't take much to convince men in uniform to kill others. In many cases, it appeared to take just a few days before the soldiers lost their inhibitions about taking lives. In fact, more than a few even openly admitted to enjoying the act of killing.
The use of violence is an appealing experience, and it is one that comes much more easily to people than we have become accustomed to believing after 65 years of peace in Europe. Sometimes all it takes is a weapon or an airplane, as the following conversation between a German pilot and a reconnaissance soldier on April 30, 1940 reveals:
Pohl: "I had to drop bombs onto a train station in Posen ( Poznan ) on the second day of the war in Poland . Eight of the 16 bombs fell in the city, right in the middle of houses. I didn't like it. On the third day I didn't care, and on the fourth day I took pleasure in it. We enjoyed heading out before breakfast, chasing individual soldiers through the fields with machine guns and then leaving them there with a few bullets in their backs."
Meyer: "But it was always against soldiers?"
Pohl: "People too. We attacked convoys in the streets. I was sitting in the 'chain' (a formation of three aircraft). The plane would wiggle a little and we would bank sharply to the left, and then we'd fire away with every MG (machine gun) we had. The things you could do. Sometimes we saw horses flying around."
Meyer: "That's disgusting, with the horses come on!"
Pohl: "I felt sorry for the horses, not at all for the people. But I felt sorry for the horses right up until the end."