Sunday, 11 August 2013

People whose job is to kill people

I read a really interesting but uncomfortable book recently called Soldaten, by Sonke Neitzel and Harald Weizer. It's based on some recently rediscovered transcripts of bugged conservations between German P.O.W.s in World War II. It's very interesting to hear how they talked among themselves. These aren't (mostly) S.S., but soldiers in the ordinary army. The book was written jointly by a German historian of that period and a social psychologist with some background in writing about soldiers' experiences and the idea of war as work -- presumably the occasional interesting parallels with other wars, particularly Vietnam, come from him. The first very uncomfortable thing about the transcripts is the sense of all the conversations that haven't been recorded -- how do current British soldiers talk among themselves? What would recordings of the conversations between WWII Allied P.O.W.s have sounded like? Would they have talked so casually and incidentally about terrible things they had done? Is that just intrinsic to war? When I was a kid and first heard the term "war crimes" I was very confused because war is about killing people and that's the biggest crime there is. I don't want to be part of a society that brutalises young people by making them do awful things for the continuation of that society, but I can't see any other society to be part of. It's enough to make you want to join a gnostic death cult, like in the Avignon Quintet.

But then of course if all war is brutal then at least World War II is one of the easiest to defend our fighting. How much did the German soldiers know what was happening to the Jews? It seems that they knew a lot. (Although arguably there are different kinds of knowing -- I've always sort of known that politicians are mostly on the take and that the government spies on us systematically, but that doesn't mean I wasn't shocked and disappointed to find out that what I knew was true.) The grimly fascinating thing is how many were utterly sure that something was wrong. They talk of being ashamed to be German, ashamed to wear the uniform, when they talk about the atrocities they have seen, in particular the treatment of the Jews. But they still can't quite put their finger on what is wrong. They say that it's been very badly managed, they say they should have got the war out of the way first, they say it's a scandal how it's been handled, and they don't seem to be able to get that what's wrong is the wholesale victimisation and killing of a group of people. The idea that it is necessary to "do something" about the Jews is so deeply engrained that they can't get past it. Quite a high-ranking man talks about how terrible it was in Latvia to come across endless batches of Jews being lined up naked, twenty at a time, on the edge of a pit and shot so that they fell down onto the corpses below. His outrage sounds genuine and visceral, the first quoted extract ends: "I went away and said 'I'm going to do something about this'". But he continues his story:
I got into my car and went to this Security Service man and said: "Once and for all, I forbid these executions outside, where people can look on. If you shoot people in the wood or somewhere no-one can see, that's your own affair. But I absolutely forbid another day's shooting there. We draw our drinking water from deep springs; we're getting nothing but corpse water there."
This combination of terrible shame and outrage and the inability to identify its real cause is striking and very frightening. The holocaust was done to people like me by people like me. Would I have been able to see what was really wrong? And if I did would I have done something about it? Part of me says of course, it's obvious, and it's so clearly vitally important. But then again, most people didn't. The people who could see it and dared to try to do things about it were very exceptional people. Am I an exceptional person? I think I'm mostly average. Anyway, a very interesting book, if depressing, and presumably at least reading it might make me more alert to the demonisation of groups in modern society.


  1. A book that had a similar effect on me was Bernhard Schlink's 'The Reader' - it's a long time since I've read it, but I recall it posed the question 'What would you have done?' in a very challenging way. As you say, we all like to think that we would have behaved differently, but perhaps we should just be thankful that we haven't found ourselves put to the test. Kate Atkinson's latest book is also very good on wartime experiences on both sides, though I think she romanticises the British to some extent.

  2. I love Kate Atkinson! I haven't read her latest yet though, I'm waiting for the paperback. I remember enjoying The Reader when I read it, though it also disconcerted me because the main character is thoroughly ashamed -- of her illiteracy. I suppose it's making a point about how massive important events can get subsumed in our own personal stories. I like Germany's attitude to the past, though, it seems like they've faced up to their World War II history in a way which Italy has never managed.