Sunday, 31 March 2013

Sönke Neitzel, Harald Weitzer, "Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying" (2012)

Neitzel and Weitzer have written a fascinating analysis of two significant bodies of long-overlooked edited transcripts of conversations between German prisoners-of-war secretly recorded in the UK and US during the Second World War. The authors conduct a qualitative content analysis of the discussions, arriving at fascinating insights into how German soldiers, airman, and sailors understood their role in the war. Topics assessed range through obvious concerns such as the soldiers' sense-making regarding fighting and killing (as indicated in the book title), but also addresses their perspectives on less-often or indirectly explored issues such as soldiers' perspective on sexual violence, anti-semitism and racially-motivated violence, and the degree of soldiers' support for the Nazi regime.

The book offers a clear and important discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of content analysis, as well of these records. Any discussion of the records cannot be engaged in without the disclaimer that they are transcriptions of select portions of conversations, sometimes between German soldiers who did not know they were being recorded and sometimes between a German soldier and a British or American 'plant' who was seeking information. On the other hand, as the authors point out, the records does provide very unique perspectives from the point of view of 'regular' German soldiers recorded in informal conversations during the war; before the outcome of the war was obvious, and outside of the fear that any dissent or criticism might result in punishment from the regime.

The book offers intriguing insights that challenges some increasingly popular - although contentious - understandings of German society, such as advanced in Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners.

More later...

Sir Stephen King-Hall, "Diary of a U-Boat Commander" (1918)

This is a short book dating from the end of the First World War. While an entertaining read, the work is deceptive. It is written in the voice of a German naval officer, as a diary of his reflections. As a social elite, he expects - but at first must only aspire - to command his own Unterseeboot. With experience and attrition in the submarine officer-classes, his desire is eventually successful.

The 'diary' balances between gritty descriptions of life at/under the sea, and provides a convincing narrative of tense battles, fear of attack, and cramped, tense boredom between actions while at sea. While on land, the sailor pines for a distant, but teasingly interested female who is attached to an older, corpulent army officer.

It is the end of the story where the tension begins to fall apart - when it is revealed that the love interest is a Polish spy working for the British, and killed by the Germans for her activities. The 'diary' format begins to become suspect when the officer describes how his life radically changes upon the suspicions that he was complicit in her activities.

Certainly, as can be seen on sites such as Amazon, there are still some who believe that this book is actually a diary written by a German officer. It was, however, written by a British naval officer in 1918. In this respect, the book provides an intriguing view into a British man's view of German society, relationships between the officer class and others within the German navy, and the challenges war faced all men and women with. Of course, these views are all offered based on speculation, by an outsider, and placed within a narrative that is as much about the frustration of love as it is about life as a submariner during wartime.

You can read the entire work for free via the Internet Archive.