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


Part 6: A Terrifying Social Experiment

War is the most comprehensive social experiment people are capable of engaging in, when the circumstances to which they must conform change. It doesn't even take an order or the special command structure of an army for people to be able to shoot at anything that moves. All it takes is for the benchmarks of what is considered appropriate and correct to change.

Not everything can be blamed on the circumstances. Even under conditions of extreme violence, there are always individuals who defy the prevailing morality of the group. In most cases, and for good reason, it is outsiders who display the kind of behavior one would expect from people with a normal upbringing.

In one of the best-documented cases of a war crime, the massacre in the Vietnamese village of My Lai by American GIs in March 1968, it was a helicopter pilot who kept his fellow soldiers from committing even more murders. It was only when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson threatened to have his men shoot at their fellow GIs that they stopped their killing spree.

The proportion of people in the Wehrmacht with a nature proclivity for violence or sadism was presumably about 5 percent, just as it is in all social groups. According to researchers, this is the percentage of the population whose sociopathic tendencies are kept in check during peacetime by the threat of punishment. From 1939 onwards, at the latest, the composition of the Wehrmacht reflected the average male population, that is, ordinary Germany.

Not Perceived as Barbaric

It is altogether astonishing, and depressing, to realize how quickly the Nazis' concept of racial superiority could replace the ideas and norms of the democratic prewar period. Only six years passed between the 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws, which deprived all Jews of their rights of citizenship, and the subsequent deportation and extermination.

The fact that the systematic persecution of a group that made up less than 1 percent of the German population was possible without any recognizable resistance is not evidence of the sudden immorality of mainstream society. On the contrary, this exclusion was only possible because the majority of the population did not perceive it as an act of barbarism. The persecuted group had long been perceived as no longer being a part of German society, so that their oppression was no longer seen as an issue that affected the morality of the national community, as Neitzel and Welzer argue in their book.

"From 1941 onward, the same people who had reacted with skepticism to the Nazi takeover in 1933 watched the deportation trains departing from the Grunewald train station (in Berlin)," the authors write. "Quite a few of them had already bought 'Aryanized' (ed's note: seized from Jews) kitchen fittings, living room furniture and artworks. Some ran businesses or lived in buildings that had been taken away from their Jewish owners. And they felt that this was completely normal."

Changing Morality

Of course, what appears to us today as a colossal shift in social norms also applied to the Wehrmacht and its way of conducting the war. At any rate, there is much more evidence to support the assumption that most German soldiers felt they were fighting for a just cause than there is for the opposing assumption that they secretly questioned their actions.

Even some members of the firing squads at the mass graves must have perceived their work there as the fulfillment of a "sacred obligation," as it was dubbed in the emotionally charged language of the Nazis. The same sentiments were behind Heinrich Himmler's famous words that the SS, which he commanded, could be proud, despite all criticism, of having "remained decent." What seems like the height of cynicism to postwar generations is in fact an expression of the conviction of serving a higher morality. In this case, it was one that saw itself scientifically legitimized in its murderous biological determinism.

This is, as it were, the disturbing insight one reaches after reading the transcripts about killing and dying: The morality that shapes the actions of people is not rooted in the people themselves, but in the structures that surround them. If they change, everything is basically possible -- even absolute evil.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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cyberrifles 04/08/2011
1. Lie We Don't!
What a shocker. We all know the Japanese, Russians, and the U.S. never did anything!
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.
medusi 04/09/2011
3. very good to know ...
...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.
trondesson 04/09/2011
4. .
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.
stevej8 04/09/2011
5. Problems
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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