Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying (Neitzel and Welzer, 2011)

Soldaten (2011) analyzes transcripts of secretly recorded conversations among German POWs during the Second World War.

I learned of the book from online reviews.


By way of an update regarding topics discussed in this post, a March 1, 2013 New York Times article describes recent research regarding the extent of the Holocaust during the Second World War.

The article notes that the number of ghettos, slave labor sites, concentration camps, and killing factories set up by the Nazis throughout Europe was higher than previously accumulated documentation indicated. The article also brings to mind the argument advanced by Zygmunt Bauman (1989) that genocide warrants systematic study by social scientists.

A March 3, 2013 Toronto Star article about a Canadian Second World War veteran serves to contextualize topics discussed in Soldaten (2011).

A July 20, 2013 article in The Economist cites recent research that brings into question the commonly held view that humans are inherently warlike.

An August 21, 2013 Atlantic article describes the early development of concentration camps in Germany in the 1930s.

A sept. 2, 2014 New York Times article is entitled: “Book Portrays Eichmann as Evil, but Not Banal.”

Many lenses lend themselves to the study of violence. Among them is the economic lens, as in Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence, and the Poverty of Nations (2008).

Here’s a quote (p. 148) from the latter study: “Whether it’s the mafia-like Mungiki in Kenya, opium-growing Taliban forces in Afghanistan, Columbia’s cocaine-trafficing FARC guerrillas, or the diamond-smuggling RUF in Sierra Leone, many of the world’s religious and political revolutionary groups have day jobs as economic gangsters.”

An Oct. 9, 2014 New York Review of Books article is entitled: “Heidegger in Black.”

The article notes: “Heidegger was one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era. He was also a convinced Nazi.”

A Dec. 16, 2014 Foreign Policy article is entitled: “Europe’s New Problem With Anti-Semitism: Anti-Semitism isn’t just a problem for Europe’s Jews. It’s a problem for Europe.”

A Jan. 2, 2015 Oxford University Press blog post is entitled: “Misunderstanding World War II.”

Germany, Hitler, and World War II: Essays in Modern German and World History (1995) is a useful resource.

An April 6, 2015 New Yorker article is entitled: “The System: Two new histories show how the Nazi concentration camps worked.”

An April 22, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Oskar Groening, former Auschwitz guard, describes camp in chilling detail at trial.”

Also of interest: Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century (2010).

A Jan. 15, 2016 New York Times article is entitled: “Why Cartels Are Killing Mexico’s Mayors.”

[End of updates]


When we discuss the world history of warfare, it’s useful to approach the topic from a perspective that encompasses a wide range of frames of reference, including ones based upon social science research, as the authors of Soldaten have demonstrated in their study of archival audiotapes from the Second World War.

Recordings of German POW conversations

Soldaten is based upon a research project by Sönke Neitzel, a historian, and Harald Welzer, a sociologist and social psychologist. Welzer is also author of The climate wars: Why people will be killed in the twenty-first century (2012). The latter study discusses current and likely future warfare arising from climate change.

With regard to predictions about future warfare, a valuable overview about the social science of predictions can be found in The Signal and the noise: Why so many predictions fail – but some don’t (2012), a study by the statistician and writer Nate Silver. This topic is related, in turn, to the demographics of urban violence, which I would suggest can be viewed as a manifestation of the world history of warfare. Further discussion about contemporary urban violence can be found at the end of this blog post.

Wider frames of reference for the topics under discussion include the role of instrumental reason and post-modernity in the creation of conditions in which organized violence tends to flourish. An interdisciplinary framework is helpful in the study of such conditions.

As Welzer notes in his prologue (p. ix) to Soldaten, both co-authors “had worked intensively on the Third Reich, yet viewed the dialogues among the POWS from very different perspectives.”

“Only by combining our disciplines, social psychology and history,” Welzer adds, “would we be able to do justice to the material as a source for reconstructing a particular reality and arrive at a revised perspective on soldiers’ behavior.”

Conversations entail ruptures and sidebar narratives

With regard to the conversations highlighted in the book, the authors note (p. 4) that:

“The stories we will be examining in this book deviate from what we expect. They are not intended to be well-rounded, consistent, or logical. They are told to create excitement, elicit interest, or provide space and opportunity for the interlocutor [a person taking part in a dialogue or conversation] to add commentary or stories of his own.

“In this respect, as is true for all everyday conversations, the soldiers’ stories tend to jump around in interesting ways. They are full of ruptures and sidebar narratives, and they aim to establish consensus and agreement. People do not converse solely in order to exchange information but to create a relationship with one another, establishing commonalities and assuring themselves that they are experiencing one and the same world. The soldier’s world is that of war.”

Wehrmacht: the German armed forces, 1921-1945

A blurb notes that the book provides “insight into the mentality and behavior of the Wehrmacht [the German armed forces, especially the army, from 1921-1945; German, = defensive force; Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition].”

Another blurb notes that the book has destroyed the myth that the Nazi-era German armed forces were not involved in war crimes.

The publisher’s blurb describes how Sönke Neitzel visited the British national archives in 2001, prompted by his curiosity “over a transcript of a secretly recorded conversation he had come across in his research on the German U-boat wars.”

“He had heard,” the blurb continues, “of the existence of recorded interrogations of German POWs, but never about covert recordings taken within the confines of the holding cells, barracks, and camps that housed the prisoners. What Neitzel discovered … were reams of untouched, recently declassified transcripts totalling nearly eight hundred pages. Later, Neitzel would find another trove of protocols twice as extensive at the National Archives in Washington, D. C.”

Behaviour during wartime

Although the recorded conversations did not provide much information of value to the Allied war effort, the matters discussed in them would supply a unique “window into the mentality of soldiers in the Wehrmacht, the Luftwaffe, the German navy, and the military in general, almost all of whom had insisted on their own honorable behavior during the war. It is a myth these transcripts unequivocally debunk.”

The authors reconstruct the frameworks and situations behind these recorded conversations, and the context in which they were spoken. Their analysis gives rise to a narrative of wartime experience.

The details of what the soldiers did “are not filtered the way they might be in letters to family, or girlfriends and wives, or during interrogations by the enemy. In SOLDATEN, Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer offer an unmitigated window into the mind-set of the German fighting man, potentially changing our view of World War II.”

The combined efforts of a historian and social psychologist provide a unique approach to analysis of the archival data.

War as work that soldiers do

Historiography is defined by the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition (2004) as a noun denoting (1) the writing of history, (2) the study of history-writing, (3) written history.

In reading about topics related to historiography, a person encounters expressions such as War is politics by other means, and Politics is war by other means.

Other formulations that come to mind include: Gentrification is war by other means, and War is gentrification by other means. Or: Bullying is war by other means, and War is bullying by other means.

War is also frequently spoken of figuratively or metaphorically, as in War on Nature; War on Drugs; War on Poverty; War on Terror; and war of words.

By themselves, with regard to the study of history, such figures of speech don’t have much meaning.

Verifiable evidence is a necessary condition for meaningful formulations related to warfare

In order for a given formulation related to warfare to have meaning — from the perspective, at least, of historiography — certain conditions must be met. These include the availability of verifiable evidence, and a suitable frame of reference by which to analyze it.

In Soldaten (2011), the authors have focused upon a formulation that can broadly be stated as: War is work by other means. In the context of the analysis by Sönke Neitzel, a historian, and Harald Welzer, a social psychologist,  the concept of war as a job serves as an interpretive paradigm.

The authors note, in this context, that interpretive paradigms are especially central to how soldiers in World War II experienced their day to day lives: “Paradigms equip frames of reference with prefabricated  interpretations from different social contexts that are imported into the experience of war. This is especially significant for the notion of ‘war as a job,’ which in turn is extremely important for soldiers’ interpretations of what they do” (p. 18).

Frames of reference of the first and second order

The book presents a framework, for analysis of evidence, which entails four distinct orders of frames of reference.

(1) Frames of the first order are described as “the broad sociohistorical backdrop against which people of a given time operate. They are what sociologist Alfred Schütz called ‘the assumptive world,’ the things we pre-presume must be the case. They include categories of good and evil and true and false, what is edible and what is not, how much distance we should maintain when we speak to one another, and what is polite or rude” (pp. 9-10).

I found the reference to assumptive world of interest. I’m familiar with the concept as it was originally defined by Hadley Cantril. I was interested to learn that the authors attribute the term to Alfred Schütz. Whether Cantril or Schütz are speaking of the same thing and, and, if so, whether one or the other is the originator of the term, “the assumptive world,” is a topic that I will seek to explore in further reading.

(2) Frames of the second order “are more concrete in a historical, cultural, and often geographical sense. They comprise a sociohistorical space that, in most respects, can be clearly delimited – for instance, the length of a dictatorial regime or the duration of a historical entity like the Third Reich” (p. 10).

Frames of reference of the third and fourth order

(3) “Frames of reference of the third order are even more specific. They consist of a concrete constellation of socio-historical events within which people act. They include, for example, a war in which soldiers fight.

(4) “Frames of reference of the fourth order are the special characteristics, modes of perception, interpretative paradigms, and received responsibilities that an individual brings to a specific situation. This is the level of psychology, personal dispositions, and individual decision making.

“This book,” the authors note, “analyzes second- and third-order frames of reference since that is primarily what our source material allows us to best approach.”

Youth violence and the world history of warfare

Youth violence as outlined by way of example in a Feb. 13, 2013 Toronto Star article about “community guns,” has features reminiscent of features of the world history of warfare. At times it is approached as a particular challenge associated with urban planning; the latter conceptual framework also has merit with regard to efforts to gain a measure of understanding concerning such forms of violence.

The topic is also discussed in Detroit: An autopsy (2013). The latter study is available at the Toronto Public Library. A March 4, 2013 New York Times article, entitled A private boom amid Detroit’s public blight, is also of relevance.

A further overview is offered in a March 3, 2013 Toronto Star article by Richard Florida regarding the demographics of Toronto gun violence. The latter article refers to a Jan. 3, 2013 New York Times article about the demographics of gun violence in Chicago.

Richard Florida’s Toronto Star article (see link in previous paragraph) notes that “A detailed New York Times report on gun violence in Chicago showed the stark concentration of murder in the disadvantaged neighbourhoods of the city’s south and west sides, noting that: ‘Residents living near homicides in the last 12 years were much more likely to be black, earn less money and lack a college degree.'” As I understand from the article, researchers refer to such neighbourhoods, in cities across North America including Toronto, as sacrifice zones.

Additional updates

Image from Arsenal Lands west of Small Arms Building at Dixie Road and Lakeshore Road East. Jaan Pill photo

Image from Arsenal Lands west of Small Arms Building at Dixie Road and Lakeshore Road East. Jaan Pill photo

A May 7, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: ” ‘Forbidden Films’ Exhumes Nazi Poison From the Movie Vaults.”

The opening paragraphs read:

“The Third Reich was not only a totalitarian state but also a total multimedia regime. Seven decades after its fiery collapse, the embers remain — including some 1,200 feature films produced under Joseph Goebbels’s ministry of propaganda. Are they historical evidence, incitements to murder, fascist pornography, evergreen entertainments, toxic waste or passé kitsch? All of the above?

“Those questions are raised by ‘Forbidden Films: The Hidden Legacy of Nazi Film,’ a documentary essay by the German filmmaker Felix Moeller, opening May 13 at Film Forum for a weeklong, free-admission run.

“Mr. Moeller, born 20 years after Germany’s defeat, is concerned about what he sees as youthful disinterest in the Nazi period and the concurrent rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe. He arrived at “Forbidden Films,” he said by telephone from Berlin, after making ‘Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss,’ a documentary about the family legacy of Nazi Germany’s most celebrated director, Veit Harlan. Harlan’s most notorious film, “Jew Süss” (1940) — a period melodrama in which a Jewish moneylender connives to take control of the duchy of Württemberg — is as incontrovertibly anti-Semitic as it was enormously popular.”

[End of excerpt]

An Aril 28, 2915 New Yorker article is entitled: “Is Heidegger Contaminated by Nazism?”

A Feb. 7, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “‘My family resisted the Nazis’: why director had to film Alone in Berlin.”

A March 6, 2016 CBC article is entitled: “René Girard’s theories still explain the violence all around us: French-born scholar spent his career trying to understand what what makes violence a chronic problem.”

Remembering the Holocaust (2009)

A study of relevance to the topics at hand is entitled: Remembering the Holocaust: A Debate (2009); a blurb reads:

“Remembering the Holocaust explains why the Holocaust has come to be considered the central event of the 20th century, and what this means. Presenting Jeffrey Alexander’s controversial essay that, in the words of Geoffrey Hartman, has already become a classic in the Holocaust literature, and following up with challenging and equally provocative responses to it, this book offers a sweeping historical reconstruction of the Jewish mass murder as it evolved in the popular imagination of Western peoples, as well as an examination of its consequences.

“[Jeffrey] Alexander’s inquiry points to a broad cultural transition that took place in Western societies after World War II: from confidence in moving past the most terrible of Nazi wartime atrocities to pessimism about the possibility for overcoming violence, ethnic conflict, and war. The Holocaust has become the central tragedy of modern times, an event which can no longer be overcome, but one that offers possibilities to extend its moral lessons beyond Jews to victims of other types of secular and religious strife. Following Alexander’s controversial thesis is a series of responses by distinguished scholars in the humanities and social sciences–Martin Jay, Bernhard Giesen, Michael Rothberg, Robert Manne, Nathan Glazer, and Elihu & Ruth Katz–considering the implications of the universal moral relevance of the Holocaust. A final response from Alexander in a postscript focusing on the repercussions of the Holocaust in Israel concludes this forthright and engaging discussion.

“Remembering the Holocaust is an all-too-rare debate on our conception of the Holocaust, how it has evolved over the years, and the profound effects it will have on the way we envision the future.”

[End of text]

An Aug. 15, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Joseph Goebbels’ 105-year-old secretary: ‘No one believes me now, but I knew nothing’: Brunhilde Pomsel worked at the heart of the Nazis’ propaganda machine. As a film about her life is released, she discusses her lack of remorse and the private side of her monstrous boss.”


1 reply
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Also of interest: Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany (2016).

    A blurb reads:

    ‘The most brilliant and fascinating book I have read in my entire life’ Dan Snow

    ‘A huge contribution… remarkable’ Antony Beevor, BBC RADIO 4

    ‘Extremely interesting … a serious piece of scholarship, very well researched’ Ian Kershaw

    The sensational German bestseller on the overwhelming role of drug-taking in the Third Reich, from Hitler to housewives.

    The Nazis presented themselves as warriors against moral degeneracy. Yet, as Norman Ohler’s gripping bestseller reveals, the entire Third Reich was permeated with drugs: cocaine, heroin, morphine and, most of all, methamphetamines, or crystal meth, used by everyone from factory workers to housewives, and crucial to troops’ resilience – even partly explaining German victory in 1940.

    The promiscuous use of drugs at the very highest levels also impaired and confused decision-making, with Hitler and his entourage taking refuge in potentially lethal cocktails of stimulants administered by the physician Dr Morell as the war turned against Germany. While drugs cannot on their own explain the events of the Second World War or its outcome, Ohler shows, they change our understanding of it. Blitzed forms a crucial missing piece of the story.

    [End of text]


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