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War and Hatred of the Enemy

My father was drafted in the last year of World War 2. He was in basic training (really a combination of basic training and advanced infantry training) just after the war with Germany ended. His training then revolved around the still raging war with Japan.

My dad told me that they were taught to “hate the Jap.” This sounds horrible to modern ears but that’s because few of us have actually served in a shooting war and so we are horrified with the notion “that we should hate another human being.”

Australian and Dutch prisoners of war at Tarsa...

Australian and Dutch POWS held by the Japanesse

I recently finished the first two books of Rick Atkinson‘s trilogy on the American Army in Europe during WW2. I’ve found one common thread that supports my father’s contention that he was taught to hate the Jap.

The US Army prior to WW2 was remarkably small. There were a few regular Army Divisions supported by a larger number of National Guard Divisions that were quickly called up once the war started. These soldiers and the millions of draftees that followed were citizen soldiers, many of whom had wives and children and had led peaceable lives prior to the war. When they arrived at the front (at first in North Africa and then Sicily and Italy) they had little concept of actually “hating” the Germans or Italian Fascists. Their officers and often the men themselves quickly realized that the absence of hate could make them poor warriors in a kill or be killed war. This realization led to the demonization of the enemy and made it easier to kill them without remorse. What added to the resentment was simply being thousands of miles from home and loved ones. The enemy was seen as the cause of all personal misery and therefore, easier to hate

All of that to say by way of prelude there is an excellent 6 part article in the English translation of Der Speigel, a well-known German magazine. Here’s the header on the first article:

Nazi War Crimes as Described by German Soldiers

By Jan Fleischhauer

The myth that the Nazi-era German armed forces, the Wehrmacht, was not involved in war crimes persisted for decades after the war. Now two German researchers have destroyed it once and for all. Newly published conversations between German prisoners of war, secretly recorded by the Allies, reveal horrifying details of violence against civilians, rape and genocide.

The articles are interesting because they discuss the importance of new book just published. The uniqueness of the book is revealing in that it documents the private conversations of German POW’s held by the the US and UK. Apparently, allied intelligence separated out from the general population of POWS  certain POWS they thought might reveal something useful in private conversation. The Allies bugged their cells and recorded the private conversations between German soldiers. The results were incredibly revealing.

Not only did these ordinary German soldiers (mostly Wehrmacht, some Waffen-SS) rapidly become desensitized to killing enemy soldiers they also became desensitized to the killing of civilians with little to no reason other than to experience the “pleasure of killing.” It was “fun” as one Luftwaffe pilot put it.

From there it simply gets worse due to the racial theories of the Third Reich. If Wehrmacht soldiers were sometimes brutal to civilians they were nearly always brutal when it came to the Jews and Slavs. The indifference that is found in the recordings reveals a total desensitizing to human life as found in ordinary soldiers who have been trained to hate at worst or to be indifferent at best. The name of the book is Soldaten (Soldiers) by Sönke Neitzel. I do not think there is an English version as of yet.

Naked Soviet prisoners of war in Mauthausen co...

Naked Soviet POWS in a concentration camp.

We tend to attribute atrocity to the Nazi fanatics or to soldiers under a great deal of pressure who momentarily snap but recover. These articles and the book they discuss reveal something else entirely and I think it’s frightening.

My dad was sent to the occupying Army of Germany as an MP rather than Japan. He was still in training when the war with Japan ended. He told me the Army did this because they realized they had trained 18-year-olds to hate Japs. The Army realized that if they made these same men part of the occupation force of Japan the odds for atrocities against civilians were greater than sending them to garrison Germany.

It’s frightening to me to realize that Americans such as my dad (and me, I was in the Army briefly in 1971-72 and taught to distrust the Vietnamese) could have easily been turned into an indifferent or even hate-filled Wehrmacht. So is man’s inhumanity to man. Such is the sin nature and in the “right” circumstances frightening.

One of Haeberle's My Lai photos: "Most we...

My Lai 1968 US Army did this.

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