The evidence that backs up World War II stereotypes
- 25 April 2011
- From the section Europe
We all know the cliches of World War II - that the German military was ruthless and brutal, for example, and Italian soldiers gave up without a fight.
But sometimes cliches are true. New evidence published this month in Germany indicates that the stereotypes were not mere propaganda but accurate pictures of reality.
The evidence comes from recorded conversations between prisoners of war in bugged cells. The British had special camps near London for prisoners from Germany and Italy and the Americans had similar camps in Virginia and in San Francisco for Japanese prisoners.
All had been selected because they were thought to have useful information, and informers were inserted among them to prompt them to talk.
The transcripts of those conversations, buried in British and American archives, reveal the private voices of prisoners talking to each other. They show very different attitudes towards fighting - and dying.
One of the authors, Professor Sonke Neitzel, cites, for example, a captured Italian admiral who tells a fellow prisoner that "everyone was running away and I couldn't defend Sicily". Then he adds tellingly, "I had the idea of running away as well".
Professor Neitzel says no German officer would ever have said that.
He told the BBC that the attitude of the Italian soldiers revealed in the transcripts was that they thought their state was corrupt and that their leadership was corrupt, so their view was: "Why should we, small soldiers, risk our lives for this corruption?"
Accordingly, Professor Neitzel said, "they decided it might be better not to fight to the last shell. So they surrendered very soon".
Professor Neitzel's work is published as Soldaten - Soldiers - with the sub-title, Transcripts of Fighting, Killing and Dying.
He and his fellow author, Harald Welzer, examined more than 150,000 pages of transcripts of recordings made secretly by their British and American captors, and now stored in the British Public Records Office in Kew in London and in the National Archives of the United States.
Professor Neitzel says attitudes to the state and authority determined what a soldier did at the "point of surrender". Italians were most likely to surrender and the Japanese least. The German attitude, as revealed in the conversations, was: "I fought well but I lost so now I go into British captivity".
In contrast, the Japanese attitude was one of deep shame to have been captured, a shame which British and American intelligence exploited.
Professor Neitzel described the interrogators' technique: "They would say: 'If you don't tell me military secrets, I will tell your family you are here in this camp'. They would respond: 'I'll tell you everything, but don't tell my family'."
Professor Neitzel told the BBC he doesn't believe any nation had soldiers, who were "naturally" more brutal than any other. The Allies, he said, took no prisoners in the early days of the Normandy landings.
But the transcripts reveal a picture of brutality that is uncomfortable for Germans today.
This, Professor Neitzel thinks, may stem from the great certainty about the worth of their cause, that the German soldiers revealed in their private conversations.
"German society had a special attitude to military behaviour which was, 'Never be weak'. You have to obey orders, so German counter- insurgency depended on extreme violence at the beginning in the belief that this would save German blood in the long term. Only winning matters."
In the transcripts, ordinary German soldiers relate how they raped and then killed their female victims, for example.
They tell of the casual way in which they killed civilians, in one case simply shooting a man to get his bike.
The accounts express joy at the death of civilians. A pilot tells of a raid on Ashford in Kent in south-eastern England: "There was an event on the market square, crowds of people, speeches being given. We really sprayed them! That was fun!"
In another transcript a submariner boasts of how a ship carrying children had been sunk.
Another captured pilot told of a raid on Eastbourne on the coast of the South of England. He spotted a castle where a party was taking place: "We attacked and really stuck it to them. Now that, my dear friend, was a lot of fun."