The psychology of war crimes in Nazi Germany is something that has been studied, philosophized over, and even apologized for in the decades since Second World War. Today, new primary source evidence has surface that allows us to study Nazi soldiers in World War Two in order to determine what the psychological drivers for these crimes really were. To what extent did Social Dominator (SD) or Right Wing Authoritarian (RWA) attitudes play into these crimes? What are the other significant contributing factors or explanations? Why did war crimes occur and why did the German soldier allow them to happen? If RWA and SD are not the main causes that motivated the Nazis to commit war crimes than what are the alternative explanations?
Soldaten by Sonke Neitzel and Harald Welzer draws upon thousands of pages of primary source material produced by MI-19 British intelligence and American Intelligence protocols in which the prison cells of captured Nazi soldiers were bugged with listening devices. The transcripts record the conversations that the soldiers had on killing, on war, and on war crimes with surprising results.
The recorded accounts give startling depictions of how Jewish men, women, and children were lined up and shot in mass graves. The soldiers show RWA tendencies in that, “…killing could be considered ‘good’ because it benefited the welfare of the racial community. The National Socialist ethics of murder normatively encompassed individual scruples and individual suffering when faced with the task of doing the killing” (Soldaten 122).
Nazi propaganda also lent itself to Social Domination tendencies that led to the holocaust as the German soldiers held, “…beliefs about the negative traits and enormous influence of the Jews are so securely anchored that Jewish treachery can serve as an explanation for practically anything” (Soldaten 131). Beliefs that Jewish high finance was an enemy of the Aryan race enabled the Nazis to commit horrendous crimes such as mass murder in order for them to, in their minds, become the dominant group in Germany. The fact that there was upward mobility in the Nazi regime as opposed to during the Weimar Republic helped add to this mentality.
The holocaust was not the primary task or focus of the Germany military. The job of extermination was given to the SS, reserve police battalions, and others. However, the military often provided logistical support and other assistance for “Jewish actions” even though the numbers of German soldiers actively participating in the killings were relatively few. While the German soldier was primarily concerned with fighting on the front lines, they were widely aware of the holocaust. Rumors spread throughout the ranks and many had witnessed the killings first hand.
The manner in which the soldiers justify the killings is worth examining. RWA and SD certainly played a part but these motivations appear rarely in the intelligence protocols. More often, we see that the German soldier rationalized mass murder as being the new normal. They were fighting a war, their mental frame of references had switched to a war time mentality and they saw the killings are being part of that war. Some soldiers were clearly aware that the mass executions deviated even from war time norms, the sheer excess of the killings was enough to make them afraid that the Jews would one day have their revenge on the Germans.
Interestingly, the opposition to the holocaust that the German soldiers voice has nothing to do with moral or humanitarian grounds. Rather, they felt that the mass killings could make the military look bad on the world stage and that it would be bad for public relations. One soldier complains that “Jewish actions” detracts logistical support away from the front lines. Another complains that the Jewish women and children are being machine gunned too close to the Nazi’s water supply. Another expresses that the Nazis should have waited to commit the mass killings after they had secured a decisive victory. Sympathy for the murdered Jews is virtually non-existent. “Despite the expressions of horror he occasionally uses, [Lieutenant General Heinrich] Kittel’s objections to the executions is practical and technical” (Soldaten 103).
Dr. Dave Grossman lays out the thesis in his book On Killing that human beings have a natural aversion to killing. This is a evolutionary biological function as killing your own species is bad for humankind. This can also be seen in Thomas Hobbes’ law of nature, that killing your fellow man is against some intrinsic unwritten law. However, what we see in actions such as the holocaust and the Rwandan genocide seems to contradict this thesis. In these genocides we see that new social norms are created, mass murder becomes socially acceptable, and worse yet, the participants can draw social legitimacy from the killings as they are done in the name of supporting their own ethnic group. “In situations where killing is regarded as both an every day practice and social duty, charitable behavior towards Jews, Russian POW’s, and other groups deemed inferior represented a violation of the norm” (Soldaten 94).
Grossman also makes the case that war crimes have an opposite of anticipated reaction in the group they are directed against. While the war crimes may be intended to terrify the enemy, it also motivates the enemy to fight that much harder now that they know what is in store for them if they lose or surrender. The intelligence protocols appear to confirm this claim as the British protocols recorded Nazi soldiers talking about the savagery of the Russians on the Eastern front and how they would pretend to surrender before opening fire and would also mutilate German prisoners. This emboldened the Nazis to become even more ruthless when fighting against the Russians.
All of this says something about warfare in general, “that once the floodgates of violence are open, anything can provide and impetus and justification for soldiers to start shooting” (Soldaten 89).
What we find is that beyond some sort of ideological driver for mass murder, that the soldier simply became a cog in a machine that saw genocide as a policy. The individual soldier did not normally participate but could easily turn a blind eye when being anti-Jewish was considered normal and acceptable. People died in war and even behavior that deviated significantly from the norms of previous wars became acceptable as the floodgates had been opened.
The protocols show that the Nazis by and large were not the SD and RWA leaning personalities commonly depicted who felt they were fighting a war for racial purity and the need to dominate those around them. There are few more clean cut examples of an ethnic extermination based on the tenets of an ideology, national socialism in this case. While it would be expected to find that the British and American intelligence protocols would be loaded with dialog between Nazi true believers who saw themselves as fighting for Aryan civilization and fighting because they saw themselves as racially superior to those they dominated, this was not the case. There were ideological warriors within the ranks of the Wermacht but these were actually in the minority.
One Nazi POW named Volker (Soldaten 232) rants to his cellmate about how the Jews offer up human sacrifices in their synagogues as well as raping and torturing their Christian victims. Volker goes on to explain how he relished in crushing synagogues and murdering Jews. “We shot them mercilessly. There certainly will have been some innocent ones amongst them, but there were some guilty ones too. It doesn’t matter how much good you do, if you’ve got Jewish blood, that’s enough” (Soldaten 233). Volker is a true believer who bought every propaganda line fed to him by the Nazi regime and more than likely made up a few on his own volition to justify his crimes. He is an ideological warrior who expresses a desire to exterminate the Jews and a lust for the violence needed to make this into a reality. Volker is also a true believer, defined as someone who, “may suspend their individual judgment and follow the leader in blind obedience” (Gupta 111). Indeed, Volker is simply reciting Hitler Youth propaganda in the above passage.
Frame of Reference: War
While ideological Nazis like Volker did exist, they were in the minority. Far more often what is found in the intelligence protocols is that the German soldiers experienced a profound psychological shift from a peace time frame of reference to a war time frame of reference. A contemporary example of this dynamic can be found in modern America, a nation that is both at peace and at war at the same time. In December of 2012, Adam Lanza raided Sandy Hook elementary school and murdered twenty children. In response to this President Obama held a press conference where he spoke of, “overwhelming grief” and said of the children, “they had their entire lives ahead of them…” (President Obama Makes a Statement on the Shooting in Newtown, Connecticut). While wiping away tears, President Obama remarked that, “…these children are our children.” However, there has been no such press event for the children killed in Pakistan by the Predator drone strikes which the President has authorized since he took office. A review done by Columbia Law School finds that at a minimum dozens upon dozens of civilians have been murdered by the drone program, including children. It is estimated that drone strikes murder 36 civilians for every terrorist killed (Miles). We have yet to see Obama hold a press conference for these children, proclaim them to be our children, or make a political call to action to reform counter-terrorism strategy and policy. This demonstrates how powerful a wartime frame of reference is. While a school shooting in America is considered a tragedy, a bombing in Pakistan or Yemen is rationalized into being considered as business as usual.
War opens new venues in which behavior that would normally be seen as completely unacceptable simply becomes common place and, “Actions that would be considered deviant and in need of explanation and justification in the normal circumstances of everyday civilian life become normal, conformist forms of behavior” (Soldaten 19). In these circumstances, war fighting is an occupation, the soldier fights and sees himself as a worker like those on an assembly line. The soldier is placed into a wartime frame of reference and collateral damage, or even murder can be rationalized away by saying that such things happen in war or romanticized as the burden that the soldier must carry for the good of society.
As Neitzel states, “The success with which German society was militarized was less about getting all German men to support the war than about producing a framework within which they shared or at least did not question military value systems” (Soldaten 35).
In the context of mass murder, the role of the group and peer pressure cannot be underestimated. When speaking of soldiers in battle, it is the practical matters of war which force soldiers to work together and act as one. In order to accomplish their mission, the individual must become a part of the group, “forfeiting autonomy in the process. He also receives something in return: security, dependability, support, and recognition” (Soldaten 22) and “the ideology of the collective offers comfort through belonging to a group” (Gupta 32). By working and living together as a group, soldiers become more like each other and less like the civilians in their home town and their own families. The shared experiences of soldiering and of war place the soldier in a new and different social context. “In the Third Reich, unlike in Wilhelmine Germany, officers and everyday soldiers were supposed to meld into a single fighting community” (Soldaten 40).
Where the line is between the ideological warrior and the soldier responding to peer pressure of other group dynamics is difficult if not impossible to discern. The intelligence protocols begin to give us a better idea though. From the transcripts is does seem clear that many soldiers placed themselves outside of the events as unconcerned observers rather than participants.
While the Third Reich’s propagandists glorified the German people and the war, there is also the counterweight, “the other side of the often-benevolent ‘us’ is the malevolent ‘them’” (Gupta 15). This group antagonism is stoked by cultural norms, in the myth making of films and books but also by “conscious and unconscious policies of governments, political elites, and cultural icons” (Gupta 15) which sets people down the road to collective madness, a madness in which even mass murder can be justified when the humanity of “them” is denied.
Again, the line between ideology and group dynamics is almost impossible to pin down. Also, one must consider group or collective ideology that was projected and interpreted and grafted into individual ideology. Whatever the case, it is clear that many German soldiers acquiesced to if not submitted themselves to Nazi ideology. If they didn’t swallow it in whole, they certainly felt themselves to be detached observers and did not fight against it. Group dynamics cannot be fully explained unless we understand the dual identities which people carry within them, the group and the individual identity. However, it seems unlikely that group pressures overrode the individual decision making process but rather informed it and acted as an additional input into those decisions. As one scholar puts it, in war you have “…a case of individual action in collective states of emergency” (Soldaten 32).
In more ways that one, Nazi Germany was primed for the formation of collective identities with an already strong civil society and a population that was disenfranchised in the wake of defeat in World War I and the collapse of the Weimar Republic. The need for the collective had become very strong.
We thought this story would be interesting for you, for full access to premium original stories written by our all veteran journalists subscribe here .