The Evidence That Proves Ordinary German Soldiers Knew Exactly What Was Going on; SOLDADTA EN: ON FIGHTING, KILLING AND DYING

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Byline: ANDREW ROBERTS

The Second World War Tapes of German POWs by Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer trans Jefferson Chase (Simon & Schuster, [pounds sterling]25) HOW much did ordinary German soldiers actually know about the atrocities that were committed against civilians behind the front lines in the Second WorldW War, W especially, of course, the Holocaust? After 1945, A Wehrmacht veterans W undertook a successful public relations exercise, differentiating their soldier-to-soldier form of warfare from the SS and Gestapo's war against civilians.

More recently, however, historians have overturned the assumption that they were mere innocents abroad, unaware of what had been going on. Now a new book has been published that destroys such alibis as utterly baseless, and concludes that "Soldiers traded rumours so furiously that we must assume that nearly all of them knew that massive amounts of Jews were being murdered". What is more, the evidence for this comes from the soldiers' own mouths.

After German prisoners of war were captured, thousands of them were systematically subjected to covert surveillance by British Intelligence, which recorded and then transcribed passages from the more important conversations.

Declassified in 1996, hundreds of thousands of pages of transcripts gathered dust in various British and US archives until they were discovered by the German historian Sonke Neitzel, who enlisted the help of social psychologist Prof Harald Welzer to make sense of them. What they contain is revelatory.

"They seized three-year-old children by the hair, held them up and shot them with a pistol and then threw them in," recalled Lt-Gen Heinrich Kittel in 1944 of events in Russia three years earlier. "I saw that for myself. One could watch it. The SD [the security service of the SS] had roped the area off and the people were standing watching from about 300 metres off. The Latvian and German soldiers were just standing there, looking on. …