The harsh logic of occupying other people's countries

A Palestinian boy arrested by Israeli soldiers.

Soldaten, On Fighting, Killing & Dying: The Secret WWII Transcripts of German POWs
By Sonke Neitzel & Harald Welzer
Scribe Publications, 2012
448pp, $22.99

Our Harsh Logic, Israeli Soldiers Testimonies from the Occupies Territories, 2000-2010
Compiled by Breaking the Silence
Scribe Publications, 2012
400pp, $22.99

There is unmitigated evil in both these books ― cruelty, violence, criminal’s countries. The fact that the awful truth comes out of the mouths of the perpetrators makes it all the more shocking.

During world War II, the Allies bugged the private quarters of German prisoners of war to obtain intelligence. The records were buried deep in official archives until discovered by historian Sonke Neitzel in 2001.

At least 100,000 pages of transcripts are analysed by Neitzel and social psychologist Harald Wetzer in a new book. From the very start it is shocking. If ever there was a myth that during WWII Nazi crimes were the preserve of the SS, not the Wehrmacht, it does not withstand one page of reading here.

In one casual conversation after another the POWs talk freely of rape, murdering civilians, participating in mass killings of Jews, the deliberate mass starvation of Red Army prisoners, looting and more.

The authors situate all these conversations in a psychological/sociological analysis of the conceptual “frames of reference” that these men inhabited: army discipline, the social bonding of a fighting unit and the warped reality created by Nazi propaganda, among others.

Other frames of reference were the different experiences of air force pilots killing at a distance, U-boat crew who did not even see the people they killed, and front line soldiers who experienced death and killing at first hand.

Neitzel and Wetzer’s approach is academically valid, but it is depoliticising and oddly dehumanising. When your hands shake with rage while reading about the senseless killing of civilians or the methodical sexual exploitation ― followed by murder ― of Jewish women, theoretical sociology just does not cut the mustard.

The criminal role of Stalin’s inanely sectarian policies and the cowardice of the Social Democrats in delivering the German working class into the hands of Hitler is also outside Neitzel and Wetzer’s “frame of reference”.

Once ensconced in power, Nazi social regimentation of the politically abandoned workers created the mentality required for the mass slaughter of WWII.

Did the perpetrators see themselves as evil? No, they were just doing what they were trained to do. Shooting civilians? Well, once they are dead they are “partisans”.

As for Jews, it is clear that Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda had a big effect. Racism was like the air the soldiers breathed. Even when Jewish women were coerced into sex in the forlorn hope of saving their lives, the soldiers were afraid of being accused of sexual “racial crime”, not of rape!

Is it different with the interviews collected by Breaking the Silence, the Israeli organisation dedicated to getting the truth out about the Israeli Defence Force’s brutal occupation of the Palestinian Territories? In part, yes, but unfortunately, not enough.

Unlike Soldaten, Our Harsh Logic, made up of transcripts of IDF front line soldiers, contains no stories of rape and sexual exploitation. Also, there are some accounts of soldiers arguing against offensive orders. For such small mercies we should be grateful, but it is insufficient.

When I received the book, I started opening it at random and discovered to my horror comparable crimes to those in Soldaten, and a similar mindset. I inserted bookmarks at particularly awful accounts, but soon the whole book was filled with bits of torn paper.

In Soldaten a German soldier recounts when a Pole accidentally bumped into him on the street and immediately the soldier bashed him to the ground. An IDF soldier similarly recalls: “We’d go out on patrol, here’s an example, some kid would just look at us like this, and we didn’t like the look of it ― so he’d immediately get hit.”

On and on it goes for page after distressing page: kidnapping or killing “suspects”, killing people who happen to be sitting, unarmed on a rooftop (defined as a “lookout”), throwing stun grenades to keep people from sleeping as a psychological tactic and entering homes and smashing families’ belongings just for the hell of it.

The official Israeli line on arresting a suspect is to say “Waqf [stop] or I’ll shoot”, followed by shooting in the air. The reality as told here is: “If he doesn’t stop and put his hands up in the second when you yell waqf, then you shoot to kill.”

A soldier says: “We’d beat up Arabs all the time, nothing special. Just to pass the time.”

“I hated them,” says another soldier. “I was such a racist there, as well, I was so angry at them for their filth, their misery, the whole fucking situation.”

Stories of administering checkpoints show the arbitrary bureaucracy of judging who has the right to cross the apartheid lines that Israel has imposed, and who does not.

Such is the “banality of evil”, as Hannah Arendt said in describing Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, whose approach to the Holocaust was that of a good bureaucrat.

The lesson of Nazi Germany, reflected in Soldaten, is that fascism must never again be allowed to flourish. The message of Israeli oppression of Palestine is that injustice, wherever it is perpetrated must be contested.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.