Already a best-seller in Germany, and due out here shortly, On Fighting, Killing and Dying: The Secret Second World War Tapes of German POWs, by Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer, is based on documents uncovered by Neitzel in 2001 at the National Archives in Kew - covert recordings of conversations at POW camps in Trent Park, Hertfordshire, and Latimer House and Wilton Park in Buckinghamshire:
In these apparently private conversations the soldiers talked freely and openly about their hopes and fears, their concerns and their day-to-day lives. With a banality and ease which to the modern reader can appear shocking, they also talked about the horrors of war -- about rape, death and killing. Sonke Neitzel shared the material with renowned and bestselling psychologist Harald Wezler and they set about trying to make sense of the vast piles of documents, the hours of transcripts.
There are some extracts in today's Sunday Times (£). For instance:
This conversation, recorded at Latimer House, was between a 23-year-old mechanic, Helmut Hartelt, and a 21-year-old sailor, Horst Minnieur, who witnessed the execution of Jews in Lithuania while serving with the Reich Labour Service.
Minnieur: They had to strip to their shirts and the women to their vests and knickers and then they were shot by the Gestapo. All Jews there were executed.
Hartelt: In their shirts?
Minnieur: Yes… Believe me, if you had seen it, it would have made you shudder. We watched one of these executions once… We were actually there when a pretty girl was shot.
Hartelt: What a pity…
Minnieur: We were going past on motor cycles 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, so we rode there and — it was quite true — they were shot…
Hartelt: Surely the one who shot her shot wide.
Minnieur: Nobody can do anything about it… They clipped on a magazine, fired to the right and left and that was that! It didn’t matter if they were still alive or not; when they were hit they fell over backwards into a pit. Then the next group came up with ashes and chloride of lime and scattered it over those who were lying down there; then they lined up and so it went on.
Hartelt: [Why] did they have to cover them?
Minnieur: Because the bodies would rot; they tipped chloride of lime over them so that there should be no smell and all that.
Hartelt: What about the people who were in there who were not properly dead yet?
Minnieur: That was bad luck for them; they died down there!…
Hartelt: (Laughs) Did she say anything beforehand? Had you met her before?
Minnieur: Yes, we met her the day before… she cleaned our barracks.
Hartelt: I bet she let you sleep with her too?
Minnieur: Yes, but you had to take care not to be found out. It was really a scandal, the way [the soldiers] slept with Jewish women.
Hartelt: What did she say, that she — ?…
Minnieur: We chatted together and she said she came from down there, from Landsberg an der 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.
Minnieur points out that German soldiers had to be careful not to get caught committing a “racial crime”. Jewish women were often shot after sex so that they could not inform on soldiers.
Pohl: On the second day of the Polish war I had to drop bombs on a station at Posen. Eight of the 16 bombs fell on the town, among the houses. At first I didn’t like it, but by the third day I did not care a hoot, and on the fourth day I was enjoying it. It was our before-breakfast amusement to chase single soldiers over the fields with machine-gun fire and to leave them lying there with a few bullets in the back.
Which perhaps says more about the process of brutalisation than endless tired theorising about "the banality of evil". Some people - perhaps most people, but certainly not all people - will accustom themselves in the right situation to the most despicable barbarity.
Here's a firsthand description of mass killings by SS Oberscharfuhrer Fritz Swoboda, a prisoner held in Fort Hunt, Virginia, from the National Archives in Washington DC:
The executions were like an assembly line. You got a 12 marks bonus, 120 kroner per day for the shooting commandos. We didn’t do anything else. Groups of twelve men led in six men and then shot them. I didn’t do anything else for maybe 14 days. We got double rations because it puts a lot of strain on your nerves . . . We shot women, too. Women were better than men. We saw a lot of men, Jews, too, who started crying in their final moment. If there were weaklings there, two Czech nationals came and held them up in the middle . . . The man earned his double rations and 12 mark bonus, killing 50 women in half a day […] At first you said, great, better than doing normal duty, but after a couple days you would have preferred normal duty. It took a toll on your nerves. Then you just gritted your teeth and at some point you didn’t care. There were some of us who got weak in the knees when shooting women, and we had selected experienced frontline soldiers. But orders were orders.