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).