Der Spiegel has a lengthy article based upon a new book by historians Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welzer called Soldaten (no English version yet, unfortunately). It's based on the transcripts of secret recordings made of the conversations of German POWs captured by British and American forces in the Second World War. They would have talked about many things, but the article focuses on the war crimes which the soldiers, sailors and airmen discuss quite candidly among themselves, as perhaps they never did again in their lives. It's quite horrifying reading. But as far as the German army is concerned, the details of the war crimes committed in the East and elsewhere, while shocking, aren't all that new. It's more unusual to see evidence of the war crimes carried out by the men of the Luftwaffe. I've extracted those particular transcripts from the article.
This conversation was recorded on 6 March 1943. Budde, a pilot, talks about operations over Britain:
Budde: "I flew two spoiling attacks. In other words, we shelled buildings."
Bartels: "But not destructive attacks with a specific target, like what we did?"
Budde: "No, just spoiling attacks. We encountered some of the nicest targets, like mansions on a mountain. When you flew at them from below and fired into them, you could see the windows rattling and then the roof going up in the air. There was the time we hit Ashford. There was an event on the market square, crowds of people, speeches being given. We really sprayed them! That was fun!"
Bäumer and Greim, also pilots, perhaps also on the same date?
Bäumer: "We had a 2-centimeter gun installed on the front (of the aircraft). Then we flew down low over the streets, and when we saw cars coming from the other direction, we put on our headlights so that they would think another car was approaching them. Then we shot them with the gun. We had a lot of successes that way. It was great, and it was a lot of fun. We attacked trains and other stuff the same way."
Greim: "We once flew a low-altitude attack near Eastbourne. When we got there we saw a big castle where there was apparently a ball or something like that being held. In any case, there were lots of women in nice clothes and a band. We flew past the first time, but then we attacked and really stuck it to them. Now that, my dear friend, was a lot of fun."
Pohl, another pilot, on 30 April 1940. This time the target is Poland:
Pohl: "I had to drop bombs onto a train station in Posen (Poznan) on the second day of the war in Poland. Eight of the 16 bombs fell in the city, right in the middle of houses. I didn't like it. On the third day I didn't care, and on the fourth day I took pleasure in it. We enjoyed heading out before breakfast, chasing individual soldiers through the fields with machine guns and then leaving them there with a few bullets in their backs."
Meyer: "But it was always against soldiers?"
Pohl: "People too. We attacked convoys in the streets. I was sitting in the 'chain' (a formation of three aircraft). The plane would wiggle a little and we would bank sharply to the left, and then we'd fire away with every MG (machine gun) we had. The things you could do. Sometimes we saw horses flying around."
Meyer: "That's disgusting, with the horses…come on!"
Pohl: "I felt sorry for the horses, not at all for the people. But I felt sorry for the horses right up until the end."
These conversations remind me of British press reports during the Blitz, of German aircraft flying low and strafing towns. I was a bit sceptical of these; they seem more plausible now.
But they also remind me of accounts by German civilians of being strafed by low-lying Allied aircraft, for example during the Dresden raids of February 1945. In an appendix to his book Dresden, Frederick Taylor fairly convincingly argues that these are mistaken (possibly misinterpretations of a dogfight between USAAF and Luftwaffe fighters over the city).
But Allied fighter-bombers did range over much of Germany at a low level during the last months of the war, shooting up anything that moved. Is it likely that British and American (and Canadian and Australian and...) pilots were immune to the same psychological impulses which led their German counterparts to take pleasure in shooting civilians to pieces? Or do we believe that the corruption of moral values and strictures by the Nazi regime was responsible for the criminality of their armed forces? (And maybe it's not either/or, and maybe there's a continuum of barbarism. Or just a continuity.)