The Lives of Others

‘Soldaten: Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs’ by Soenke Neitzel & Harald Welzer

How much did World War II German soldiers know about the Holocaust? Publicly, many of them denied knowledge. But a long-lost cache of secret recordings that the British intelligence service made of German prisoners of war show that, in private, they chatted openly and casually about mass-murdering Jews, demonstrating what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” Read some of the most chilling conversations, collected in Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying: The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, who rediscovered and analyzed the transcripts.

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It was a typical November day in England. I was hastening to the British national archives to immerse myself in old documents. I was aware of the existence of reports about interrogations of German POWs, but I had never heard anything about reports based on covert surveillance, and I wanted to follow up the lead.

Over the course of the war, the British intelligence service had systematically subjected thousands of German and hundreds of Italian POWs to covert surveillance, recording passages from conversations they found particularly interesting on wax records and making protocols of them. The protocols had survived the war in their entirety and had been declassified in 1996. But in the years that followed, no one had recognized their value as historical source material. Undiscovered, they were left hibernating on the archive shelves.

Later, I discovered a similar collection of material—some 100,000 pages’ worth, twice as extensive as the British files—in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. It was clear that there was no way I could process this seemingly infinite quantity of material on my own.

—Sönke Neitzel

I was speechless when Sönke Neitzel called me and told me about the source material he had found. We were able to digitalize all of the British documents and most of the American material and sort through it with the help of content-recognition software. Now, after three years of work, in which we learned a lot that was new and in which we were forced to question a number of truisms our sources failed to bear out, it is time to present the first results of our research.

—Harald Welzer

The soldiers’ conversations make it clear that practically all German soldiers knew or suspected that Jews were being murdered en masse.

Lieutenant General Heinrich Kittel recounted these events to a fellow prisoner of war, Felbert, on Dec. 28, 1944. In 1941, he was a colonel in a reserve unit of the Army Group North in Daugavpils, Latvia, where some 14,000 Jews were shot to death between July and November. His own role in the executions has never been historically established. He himself spoke from the perspective of an outraged observer, but as a high-ranking officer he would have had considerable opportunities to intervene in the course of events. Unlike ordinary soldiers, Kittel did not have to remain in the role of the passive spectator. He could have done something:

Felbert: Have you also known places from which the Jews have been removed?

Kittel: Yes.

Felbert: Was that carried out quite systematically?

Kittel: Yes.

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Felbert: Women and children—everybody?

Kittel: Everybody. Horrible!

Felbert: What did they do to the children?

Kittel (very excited): They seized three-year old children by the hair, held them up and shot them with a pistol and then threw them in. I saw that for myself. One could watch it; the SD [Sicherheitsdienst, the Security Service of the SS] had roped the area off and the people were standing watching from about 300 m. off. The Latvians and the German soldiers were just standing there, looking on.

Major General Walter Bruns’s description contains a number of astonishing details, including the length of the line of people waiting to be put to death and the enormous number of individuals this entailed:

Bruns: When I arrived those pits were so full that the living had to lie down on top of the dead; then they were shot and, in order to save room, they had to lie down neatly in layers. Before this, however, they were stripped of everything at one of the stations—here at the edge of the wood were the three pits they used that Sunday and here they stood in a queue 1½ km long which approached step by step—a queuing up for death. As they drew nearer they saw what was going on. About here they had to hand over their jewelry and suitcases. All good stuff was put into the suitcases and the remainder thrown on a heap. This was to serve as clothing for our suffering population—and then, a little further on they had to undress and, 500 m in front of the wood, strip completely; they were only permitted to keep on a chemise or knickers. They were all women and small two-year-old children. Then all those cynical remarks! If only I had seen those tommy-gunners, who were relieved every hour because of over-exertion, carry out their task with distaste, but no, nasty remarks like: “Here comes a Jewish beauty!” I can still see it all in my memory: A pretty woman in a flame-colored chemise. Talk about keeping the race pure: at Riga they first slept with them and then shot them to prevent them from talking.

Two navy men who were part of a U-boat crew, 23-year-old mechanic Helmut Hartelt and 21-year-old sailor Horst Minnieur, witnessed a scene in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius:

Minnieur: We were actually there when a pretty girl was shot.

Hartelt: What a pity.

Minnieur: They were all shot ruthlessly! She knew that she was going to be shot. We were going past on motorcycles and saw a procession; suddenly she called to us and we stopped and asked where they were going. She said they were going to be shot. At first we thought she was making some sort of a joke. She more or less told us the way to where they were going. We rode there and—it was quite true—they were shot.

Hartelt: Did she say anything beforehand? Had you met her before?

Minnieur: Yes, we met her the day before; the next day we wondered why she didn’t come. Then we set off on the motorcycle.

Hartelt: Was she working there too?

Minnieur: Yes.

Hartelt: Making roads?

Minnieur: No, she cleaned our barracks. The week we were there we went into the barracks to sleep so that we didn’t … outside—

Hartelt: I bet she let you sleep with her too?

Minnieur: Yes, but you had to take care not to be found out. It’s nothing now; it was really a scandal, the way they slept with Jewish women.

Hartelt: What did she say, that she—?

Minnieur: Nothing at all. Well, we chatted together and she said she came from down there, from Landsberg on the Warthe, and was at Göttingen University.

Hartelt: And a girl like that let anyone sleep with her!

Minnieur: Yes. You couldn’t tell that she was a Jewess; she was quite a nice type, too. It was just her bad luck that she had to die with the others. 75,000 Jews were shot there.

But watching an execution paled in comparison to actually taking part in one. Luftwaffe Lieutenant Colonel von Müller-Rienzburg recalled:

Müller-Rienzburg: The SS issued an invitation to go and shoot Jews. All the troops went along with rifles and … shot them up. Each man could pick the one he wanted. Those were … of the SS, which will, of course, bring down bitter revenge.

Bassus: You mean to say it was sent out like an invitation to a hunt!

Müller-Rienzburg: Yes.

The story related by Luftwaffe First Lieutenant Fried, who accepted one of these invitations, calls forth unmistakable uneasiness in his interlocutor, Infantry First Lieutenant Bentz:

Bentz: What—you fired, too?

Fried: Yes, I did. Some of the people who were inside there said: “Here come the swine,” and swore and threw stones and things at them. There were women and children there, too!

The protocols do not just contain descriptions of mass executions, but of exterminations using car exhaust fumes. A POW named Rudolf Müller at Fort Hunt in the United States told the following story:

Müller: I was brought up in front of a military tribunal in Russia for refusing to obey orders. I was in charge of the motor pool, but the fellow who was supposed to be in charge had fallen, and I was the second highest ranked person in the garage. I was supposed to adapt a truck by installing rubber inserts. I didn’t know what for, so I did it. The truck was sent out and placed at the disposal of the local command. That was the end of the matter for us. When the driver returned, he was pale as a ghost. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he would never forget what we had experienced that day. He said, ‘They loaded civilians into the back. Then they stuck a tailpipe back into the truck and sealed up the back. Next to me in the front sat a SS man with a pistol on his lap who ordered me to drive.’ He was only 18. What was he supposed to do? He drove off. After a half an hour, they arrived at a pit. The back was full of bodies with some chlorine between them. He reversed and opened the hatch, and they tumbled out. Dead from the exhaust fumes. The next day, I received orders to deliver the truck to the local command. I said the truck wasn’t going anywhere. So I was brought up before a military tribunal for disobedience. They intentionally loaded in people and killed them with exhaust fumes.

In another dialogue, a low-ranking artillery officer and a foot soldier search for an explanation:

Hölscher: It’s very strange that they are always against us.

Von Bastian: Yes, it’s very, very strange.

Hölscher: As Adolf said, it’s possibly all due to the Jews.

Von Bastian: Both England and America are under the influence of the Jews.

The surveillance protocols contain exactly one account of an act of rescue, the truth of which cannot be determined:

Bock: In Berlin I saved Jewish girls, who were to be sent to the concentration camp. I also got a male Jew away, all by train.

Lauterjung: All by the special train?

Bock: No. I was with the Mitropa. At the back we had some of those steel cupboards where we kept our stock and I put the Jew and the Jewess in there! Afterwards I had the Jew under the carriage in a box. Of course he came out afterwards at Basle looking like a n***r. He is living in Switzerland and the girl is down in Switzerland too. I took her as far as Zurich and she went down to Chur.

Finally, we have Major General Johannes Bruhn’s assessment:

Bruhn: If you were to ask me: “Have we deserved victory or not?” I should say: “No, not after what we’ve done.” After the amount of human blood we’ve shed knowingly and as a result of our delusions and also partly instigated by the lust of blood and other qualities, I now realize we’ve deserved defeat; we’ve deserved our fate, even though I’m accusing myself as well.

Excerpted and adapted from Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying: The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs by Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, translated by Jefferson Chase. Copyright © 2012 by Soenke Neitzel and Harald Welzer. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. All rights reserved.