People committed a lot of crimes in World War II. Some were huge, earth-shattering, and we are still living with the consequences. Atrocity. Murder. Mass murder. Others were…smaller.
Consider, if you will, the “crime” of eavesdropping.
There may indeed have been an era when gentlemen didn’t “read each others’ mail,” but if so, those days were long gone by 1944. The Allies spent a great deal of time and money reading Axis mail, successfully cracking both the German Enigma machine and the Japanese Purple Code, and, as Sönke Neitzel’s book Tapping Hitler’s Generals: Transcripts of Secret Conversations, 1942–45 shows us, secretly bugging the conversations of German officers in English captivity.
It was an operation that was both well-organized and remarkably effective. The British outfitted a mansion at Trent Park, their prison for captured German staff officers, with an immense battery of bugged rooms and ingeniously hidden microphones, state of the art gramophone recording machines manned by bilingual personnel (largely German and Austrian exiles), and even “stool pigeons” (cooperative prisoners, for the most part), whose task was to get and keep the conversation flowing along appropriate lines. From time to time, the German officers seemed to suspect they were being bugged, but it never stopped them from talking. The transcripts of their conversations—always illuminating and often shocking—form the heart of Neitzel’s book.
A few points emerge immediately. By this time in the war—with all the indicators well into the red zone for the Germans—any trace of caste solidarity within the officer corps had vanished. The prisoners quickly formed two factions: an “unreconstructed” group of pro-Nazis around General Ludwig Crüwell and a smaller but vocal group of dissidents around his fellow General of Panzer Troops, Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma. Indeed, they had been the first two captured officers brought to Trent Park, they spent their first night in captivity together arguing long into the night, and their bitter disagreements highlight the fault lines within the German command by 1942. Even at this relatively late date, Crüwell still thought Germany was going to win the war, that Hitler’s achievements would last “for centuries,” and that the “Jewish poison” was behind Germany’s misfortunes. Thoma, by contrast, thought that the war was irrevocably lost, that the Führer belonged in a “padded cell,” and that the “gang of rogues” manning his regime ought to be worked to death by hard labor after the war. As more and more officers arrived at Trent Park, General of Parachute Troops Bernhard Ramcke or Luftwaffe General Gerhard Bassenge, for example, they gravitated to one or the other faction. Ramcke joined Crüwell; Bassenge was a Thoma man. The groups battled not only in word, but in deed, with the shared radio being the main battleground. When the Thoma group tuned in to Allied broadcasting, for example, Crüwell would actually march into the room, commandeer the radio, and switch to a German channel in mid-program! Things never turned violent, although they occasionally came close.
In between these two extreme positions, there was a more mundane discourse, as men too far from their homes and loved ones—and cursed with too much time on their hands—understandably pondered their own careers and future. There was a great deal of talk about lost pensions, lost property, and lost status: “We used to be colonels and generals,” one of them lamented in late 1944, “after the war we shall be boot-blacks and porters.” I’ve read the book in the original German, and we might translate that last line into American English as “shoe-shine boys and bellhops.” Even worse, of course, a great many of them feared being tried as war criminals. [continued next page]
It will be that final point that attracts researchers to this volume. There has been much written of late about the criminality of the Wehrmacht. While the point is no longer disputed within the scholarly community, Neitzel has assembled a group of documents that establish this fact beyond any doubt. Alongside familiar battles like Smolensk, Gazala, and Kerch, the Wehrmacht’s “battle honors” will forever include less well known names like Zhitomir, Lvov, and Pinsk. Here the army distinguished itself not by Blitzkrieg or Kesselschlacht, but by the grisly murder of helpless civilians en masse, more often than not in front of pre-dug graves prepared by the victims themselves. Not every officer at Trent Park took part in these horrors. Most of them had served either in North Africa or the West, fighting a kind of war very different from the apocalyptic struggle against “Asiatic Bolshevism” in the East. Still, enough of them did, and enough of them spoke of their crimes openly, to render pointless any further debate on the Wehrmacht’s culpability. In fact, we find officers already laying out strategies for their own legal defense. Some were blaming the SS for the atrocities; others were experimenting with phrases that would become all too familiar at Nuremberg. “We must uphold the principle,” General Ferdinand Heim told his comrades in March 1945, “of only having carried out orders.”
A question for the readership: Listening in on “private conversations.” Fair play?
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