Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying: The Secret Second World War Tapes of German POWs Sohnke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, translated by Jefferson Chase

Simon and Schuster, pp.437, £25, ISBN: 9781849839488

Say ‘Colditz’, and the name immediately triggers an image of prisoners of war digging tunnels, building gliders and in general plotting outrageously to cross the barbed wire into freedom. You could shout ‘Trent Park’ from the rooftops and, until now, no one would have known what you were referring to. But this book should give the name as lively a notoriety as the brooding Saxon fortress.

Trent Park in Middlesex was where Britain housed the cream of captured German officers. They were brought together, not to prevent their escape, but to encourage their conversation. Scattered throughout their cells and huts was a network of concealed microphones designed to record whatever they had to say about the war, the Nazis and Hitler himself. The bugged talk eventually covered 50,000 pages, providing vital information about morale and military thinking.

Today the value of that eavesdropping is, if anything, even greater. Unlike the Germans who were asked after the war about their participation in the Nazi nightmare, these witnesses did not know whether they had won or lost. Consequently the bugs offer a snapshot of the unvarnished thoughts and motivation of soldiers who felt themselves to be still engaged in a war they fought with a ferocity that killed 50 million people.

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Inevitably, the first priority is to find out what they knew of the Holocaust. Research in the 1990s turned up compelling documentary evidence of the Wehrmacht’s complicity in the killings, but here we have the voices of the military themselves. In one appalling passage, a general describes a single incident in 1941 when he watched the near-naked victims being forced to lie down in three pits as long as cricket pitches, feet to the walls, heads in the centre, ‘like sardines in a tin’, where they were shot with machine guns, while a line of men, women and children, more than a mile long, shuffled forward to be stripped of clothes and jewellery, eventually to drop down on to the still-warm corpses and be killed themselves.

Although the details shock the general, the ‘queuing up for death’ as he puts it, the coarse remarks of the executioners about the half-naked women they were about to shoot, even the efficiency of the whole operation, he does not condemn the killing itself. For him, as for most of the others recorded here — some actively participated, while one or two were outraged — the extermination of Jews was something distasteful that had to be done, but preferably out of sight or after the war.

Attempting to understand what produced this state of mind, the authors point out that the Wehrmacht were also responsible for the death of about three million Soviet prisoners of war, about half the total captured, who were in their direct charge. Convincingly but, it must be said, ponderously, Soldaten demonstrates how impossible it was for these officers to separate Nazi values of racial superiority from the party’s success in restoring economic prosperity and national pride. Each element reinforced the others. While few soldiers were active party members, still fewer grasped the toxic morality of National Socialism. Even in the last months of the war, no one blamed the ‘real’ Hitler, the one who had made the country strong. Defeat and devastation were the fault of his advisers, or at worst his own fading powers. ‘The Führer in 1940-1 was not the man he was in the 1934-5,’ declared Field Marshal Erhard Milch. ‘He must have been made ill. I’m convinced of that, though of course too much responsibility is enough to make you ill on its own.’

Nevertheless, ideology concerned the officers less than the business of war, its frustrations and satisfactions, and the various opportunities it offered for having sex, winning medals and trying out new technology. They rated the effectiveness of their enemies — Russians, British and Americans in that order — and argued the merits of their own elite forces like the SS and paratroopers, judging their ‘willingness to sacrifice themselves’ to be either ‘senseless’ or ‘illustrious’.

In all this they were not unlike most soldiers — but with one major difference. However much they might distance themselves from Nazi politics, as invaders and aggressors they had at some level bought into Hitler’s dream. In their brutality towards foreign civilians, in their fanatical resistance on the battlefield, even when defeat loomed after the Normandy landings, and in their anguished self-justification for being made prisoner, they showed how impossible it was to break their pact with the devil. But significantly, none of those recorded here expressed any desire to escape from Trent Park.

Despite a heavy-handed zeal for academic abstraction that constantly risks swamping the fascinating material they have uncovered, the two authors, an historian and a sociologist, deserve praise for producing this important book.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated