Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying by Sönke Neitzel

Like many others, I was expecting something wholly different from the description offered of this text. It seems there were a few main points the authors decided to concentrate on and then used various bits of the evidence at their disposal to support and reinforce their ideas. What I, and many others it seems, expected was a candid look at the thoughts, opinions, and ideas of German soldiers: what they thought of their enemies, of the war, their commanding officers, orders they were forced to carry out, etc. Yet that hardly features in the sound bites the authors chose to concentrate on. Instead, it appears the authors believe the Wehrmacht has already been proven to have been an instrument of genocide and their interests are showcasing how the Wehrmacht was also a rather banal military instrument in the hands of the Third Reich. Specifically, that the attitudes of the soldiers within the Wehrmacht were created by their experiences in the First World War and the environment that they grew up in (Weimar Germany and the beginning of the Third Reich), which regularly featured violence and death on the streets and in the news.

Thus, there is a rather pointless concentration on the mundane experiences of soldiers, highlighting that the Wehrmacht was in many ways similar to the German Army in the First World War, the armies they faced in the Second World War, and even the armies and soldiers of the Vietnam era and today's veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars. For some this is perhaps a worthwhile read, and in some ways it is a step in contextualizing the fact that some actions of the Wehrmacht can be and have been replicated throughout the past half-century in conflicts like Vietnam and the recent wars the United States (and many other countries) has participated in. Soldiers do take liberties with the power they've been given and the forces that they represent and are supported by. But, then again, the US featured a rather large and outspoken anti-war movement and many turned on US soldiers and what they stood for (during the Vietnam era). The same cannot be said for the Nazi Germany era. Thus, in some ways, this book misses the forest for the trees. Concentrating on just the soldiers and the Wehrmacht is useful and helpful in understanding their thoughts and interactions (with the enemy and each other), but it wholly omits the numerous organizations soldiers also had to interact with that were not represented by the Wehrmacht. Personally, however, I am more interested in understanding how much German soldiers knew of what was going on outside the confines of the 'front line', their views and attitudes toward the future Hitler was building with their services to the Third Reich, and whether any exhibited some type of opposition and remorse for what they, or the Wehrmacht in general, had done. Those issues, unfortunately, are hardly covered or contextualized in any meaningful way.

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