What Turns a Soldier Into a Mass Murderer?

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As Germany investigates an 87-year-old man for atrocities at Auschwitz, a new book suggests that not just the SS but ordinary German servicemen were complicit in war crimes.

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Photograph thought to show German forces with Jews from the city of Balti, hours before execution. (Wikimedia)

Germany has launched an investigation of Johann 'Hans' Breyer, an 87-year-old Philadelphia man. That he was an SS guard at the infamous Auschwitz, no one, least of all him, disputes. The issue is whether he should be considered an accessory to hundreds of thousands of murders. Given our increasing distance from the time of World War II, this could be the last investigation of its kind. And while that means trials of the living are winding down, it also means the historical investigations of the dead are gaining fresh perspective.

Just last week, for example, the first English edition of the gripping Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying--the Secret World War II Tapes of German POWs was published in the U.S. A collaboration between historian Sönke Neitzel and psychologist Harald Welzer, the book presents and analyzes a series of conversations among not the elite Nazi SS guards, but ordinary German soldiers, navy men, and airmen, captive in British camps.

Conventional myth on the crimes of World War II has held (a) that they were almost exclusively German, and (b) that they were almost exclusively perpetrated by the SS -- the Nazi Party paramilitary organization -- rather than by ordinary conscripts. Neither of these two points is true, though they were certainly convenient for a time, especially (in the case of the first) when the Allies required Soviet cooperation, and (in the case of the second) when the West German government desperately felt the need to forgive and forget in order to maintain a stable post-war society.

Widespread belief in the innocence of ordinary soldiers was shattered in 1995, though, with an exhibition in Germany on the war crimes of the Wehrmacht, the German army. Popular books and history programs detailing not just the gassing of Jews late in the war but the mass shootings in Eastern Europe, and the deliberate starvation of Soviet prisoners, have done the rest of the work.

Soldaten is not the best introduction to the atrocities of World War II (for that, try Yale historian Timothy Snyder's Bloodlandsa highly praised and profoundly disturbing overview). But the book does allow non-historians to read soldiers' own accounts of their actions, as spoken to other soldiers. There's much of interest here -- the soldiers' knowledge and attitude toward technology, their attitude toward Hitler, and their perception of the German chances of winning -- but their discussion of war crimes and genocide seems likely to draw the most attention.

"We sank a children's transport," admits one bomber, likely referring to an English passenger ship sunk in 1940, the authors note. "Talk about keeping the race pure," says another, speaking of Jewish women this time: "... at RIGA they first slept with them and then shot them to prevent them from talking." Or consider what was revealed of the brothels set up for soldiers with Western European, "racially suitable" women brought in by force: "Every woman had 14-15 men an hour. They changed the women every two days. We buried a lot of women there."

Some soldiers witnessed the executions of the Jews by the SS. Others seem to have participated. Some appear horrified, but not morally opposed. "I could kill fellows who had committed crimes, but women and children -- and tiny children! The children scream and everything," says a Lieutenant. In other cases, the cool analysis is more shocking than the boasts.

Aue: Perhaps we didn't always do right in killing Jews in masses in the East.

Schneider: It was undoubtedly a mistake. Well, not so much a mistake as un-diplomatic. We could have done that later.

Aue: After we had finally established ourselves.

Schneider: We should have put it off until later, because Jews are, and will always remain, influential people, especially in America.

Neitzel and Welzer have put together a rare, truly interdisciplinary work. They examine both the boasts of brutality and the squeamish or principled objections with a psychologist's lens as well as a historian's. Where are the soldiers revealing their true feelings? Where are they behaving as most humans do in group situations? Did being National Socialists make a discernible difference in the soldiers' outlooks or actions? And Neitzel and Welzer examine the soldiers' paradoxical moral frameworks at length: It was always dishonorable to shoot at an enemy airman who had ejected from his plane, but often acceptable to mow down civilians; understandable to execute prisoners of war, but horrifying to starve them to death.

The authors make it clear that acts counting as war crimes today were not the exception but the norm. They both magnify so-called "German guilt" by showing the appalling attitudes even of non-Nazi soldiers, and show how unsatisfactory German exceptionalism or our conception of a pure, alien evil is at explaining it: The disturbing truth is that, comparable to what researchers have seen in other wars, the soldiers didn't require a gradual hardening to violence to be able to engage in murder. Most humans, Neitzel and Welzer suggest, are capable of brutality: it's just a question of what the social setting they are put in encourages.

Soldaten accordingly concludes on a sobering note about the human condition. Though violence is not necessarily "bubbling, waiting to be released, just below the thin crust of civilization," say Neitzel and Welzer, "human beings have perennially chosen the option of violence when it seemed likely to promote their own survival." They have chosen it even when it was merely likely to promote their social standing.

Nothing in this perspective diminishes the crimes that Hans Breyer might be guilty of, though countless men guilty of similar or worse deeds have doubtless gone unconvicted, many even unprosecuted. Inconsistency isn't a reason to abandon attempts at justice. But it does suggest something about why we should be careful about treating Nazi hunts as a spectator's sport, even if Breyer's case is the last of its kind -- or especially if Breyer's case is the last of its kind.

Investigations and trials favor dualities. Their eventual goal, after all, is to categorize individuals as "guilty" or "not guilty." "Not guilty" places the individual on the side of society at large. "Guilty" labels him a deviant, bad for society (often reinforced by his removal from society through imprisonment or execution). It's especially easy to see the perpetrator as alien, as an agent of pure inhuman evil, in the case of crimes particularly repulsive to contemporary sensibilities. But Soldaten argues that German soldiers were not in fact different types of humans than we are. They weren't "bad for society" because they were insufficiently human, in other words; they became bad for humanity because of the society they were living in.

That doesn't absolve the soldiers of guilt. But it does mean that contemporary historians' debates about the context of World War II, so easily ridiculed for their insidery specificity, are not purely academic: Was Nazi radicalism about ideology or bureaucracy? Unemployment or geopolitical resentments? A unique hate or simply more efficient weapons? These are crucial questions for understanding how humans could have chosen to become the soldiers of Soldaten -- or Hans Breyer.

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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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