Rape, Murder and Genocide: Nazi War Crimes as Described by German Soldiers

By Jan Fleischhauer

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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1. Lie We Don't!
cyberrifles 04/08/2011
What a shocker. We all know the Japanese, Russians, and the U.S. never did anything!
2.
jeffreydahn@yahoo.com 04/08/2011
I would venture to guess that from time immemorial, given the opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversations of soldiers, the results would be the same as those reported here. As a combat veteran, I can vouch for witnessing many like conversations in my military career. In many cases, these acts are the only common bond between people of vastly different backgrounds, so become a convenient topic of conversation. No military unit can ever be considered to be truly "Lily White". It is the nature of their occupation. For the same reason, they should not be totally demonized. Remember, history is written by the winners, and generally it is only the losing side that is accused of war crimes. I have heard Allied veterans of WWII discuss shooting prisoners out of hand, or going on rampages through German villages, no different than the events reported here.
3. very good to know ...
medusi 04/09/2011
...that this is the moral high ground of the Germans if they -full of self righteousness- criticize the actions of the Israeli Army. Nothing compares to the Germans, indeed.
4. .
trondesson 04/09/2011
So what's a war crime? If you kill others according to the rules, it's legal? It's okay if people get slaughtered as long as the (unwritten) laws of warfare are obeyed? The German soldiers are in no way unique in this regard. It always happened, and it will always happen, wherever and by whomever a war is fought. And it will only cease when war itself is outlawed.
5. Problems
stevej8 04/09/2011
There are some problems with this article.Firstly it relies on uncorroborated alleged transcripts of Allied eavesdropping operations,which without corroboration cannot be taken as necessarily verbatim or true.Whilst the war was replete with atrocities of one sort or another on all sides,the Nazis second to none,it takes more than this sort of material to establish the truth of specific events of this sort,especially when we know falsification of atrocity claims (by which I am not referring to the Holocaust as a whole) did take place on the part of the Allies also,eg Katyn.Certain of the alleged incidents referred to here struck me as improbable and sensationalized,eg the claim of " a raid over England in which the goal was to "shoot at everything, just nothing military." "We mowed down women and children in baby carriages," the officer reports with satisfaction." Raids over England were dangerous and expensive to mount,and always targeted at something specific and of some military value,as then understood.Apart from which,pilots in fast moving aircraft are unlikely to be able to actually make out "women and children in baby carriages" on the ground,let alone target them effectively.The odd pilot may have strafed civilians,it happened on all sides,but it is stretching credibility without real evidence to claim that this was the purpose of the raid (when and where?) by presumably a squadron at least,who generally had other more serious military duties.And the British never seem to have claimed it independently. Also the alleged incident of "sadistic sexual violence" sounds similarly embellished-how many hand grenades can a wounded person survive? One is surely the limit.And so on. Clearly there were many terrible incidents that were real,but to accept these claims at face value and then generalize from them as per the headings may make "good" copy,but does not make good history.As for the motive of possible falsification,whether in whole or part,possible propaganda use at some point is certainly credible-even with regard to the postwar trials the evidence is clear that some degree of similar techniques was employed,as though the truth were not bad enough,see for example US journalist Freda Utley's "The High Cost Of Vengeance" for accounts of it corroborated by no less than US Judges. Of course the original tapes could prove the case,if they exist,and stand up to scrutiny.But mere alleged transcripts of suspect hearsay are not proof,and this is an important point-even when one is dealing with the Nazis.You will have to do better,in the interest of truth.
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