Rape, Murder and Genocide: Nazi War Crimes as Described by German Soldiers
Part 5: Wehrmacht Soldiers Knew about the Holocaust
How much did the Wehrmacht soldiers know about the Holocaust? Noticeably more than they were later willing to admit. To this day, the Wehrmacht's participation in the Holocaust remains disputed. The exhibition "War of Extermination. The Crimes of the Wehrmacht," which the Hamburg Institute for Social Research took to several German cities between 1995 and 1999, consistently triggered angry protests. Some critics claimed that the entire undertaking was a sham because a few images had not been displayed in the correct chronological order.
The Holocaust is generally mentioned peripherally in the conversations between German soldiers that have now been viewed in their entirety for the first time. It is only mentioned on about 300 pages of the transcripts, which, given the monstrosity of the events, seems to be a very small number.
One explanation could be that not many soldiers knew about what was happening behind the front. Another, much more likely interpretation would be that the systematic extermination of the Jews did not play a significant role in the conversations between cellmates because it had little news value.
When conversations do turn to the extermination process, the emphasis tends to be on questions of practical implementation. There are hardly any passages in which the listeners are surprised by what they are hearing. Almost no one indicates that the stories being told are somehow unbelievable or that he is hearing them for the first time. "It can be concluded that the extermination of the Jews is common knowledge among the soldiers, and to a far greater extent than recent studies on the subject would lead one to expect," write Neitzel and Welzer.
Details of the Holocaust
The transcripts contain comprehensive details about the exterminations, including the mass shootings, the killings with carbon monoxide in specially prepared trucks, and the later disinterment and incineration of the bodies as part of "Operation 1005," with which the SS sought to eliminate the traces of the Holocaust starting in 1943.
Hardly any soldier says that he was directly involved, but many talk about what they saw or heard. The accounts are often astonishingly detailed and, in any case, much more precise than the information German investigators could later glean from witness testimony. In April 1945, Major General Walter Bruns describes what happened during a typical "Jew operation" he witnessed.
Bruns: "The trenches were 24 meters long and about 3 meters wide. They had to lie down like sardines in a can, with their heads toward the middle. At the top, there were six marksmen with submachine guns who then shot them in the back of the neck. It was already full when I arrived, so the ones who were still alive had to lie on top, and then they got shot. They had to lie there in neat layers so that it wouldn't take up too much space. Before this happened, they had to turn in their valuables at another station. The edge of the forest was here, and in here there were the three trenches on that Sunday, and here there was a line that stretched for one-and-a-half kilometers, and it was moving very slowly. They were standing in line to be killed. When they got closer, they could see what was going on inside. Roughly at this spot, they had to hand over their jewelry and their suitcases. A little farther along, they had to take off their clothes, all except their shirts and underpants. It was just women and little children, like two-year-olds."
Of the around 6 million victims of the Holocaust, no more than half died in the death camps. About 3 million people died in the ghettoes or were killed by hand, often by a shot to the back of the neck, which made it necessary to create special firing squads. In principle, soldiers in the Wehrmacht were exempt from performing these tasks, which were handled by special SS units and police battalions.
No Attempt to Keep It Secret
Many of the reports revolve around the unreasonable demands imposed on the marksmen, the monotony of the work, in which the firing squads had to be relieved every few hours "because of overexertion," and the special challenges of this type of piecework. The shooting of small children was seen as problematic, not for ethical reasons but because they wouldn't stand as still as the adults did.
Many Wehrmacht soldiers became witnesses to the Holocaust because they happened to be present or were invited to take part in a mass shooting. In one cell conversation, army General Edwin Graf von Rothkirch und Trach talks about his time in the Polish town of Kutno:
"I knew an SS leader pretty well, and we talked about this and that, and one day he said: 'Listen, if you ever want to film one of these shootings? I mean, it doesn't really matter. These people are always shot in the morning. If you're interested, we still have a few left over, and we could also shoot them in the afternoon if you like."
It takes some sense of routine to be able to make such an offer. The fact that the people involved did not try to keep their activities a secret demonstrates how much the perpetrators took for granted the "mass shootings of Jews," as one of the POWs in Trent Park called it. In fact, something resembling execution tourism developed in the conquered territories. In addition to soldiers who were stationed nearby, local residents also came to witness the killings, sometimes even bringing along their children.
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