What motivates violence, sacrifice, and atrocity among members of the military and other armed units in times of war and occupation? Christopher Browning asks this question for the members of Order Police Battalion 101 in Ordinary Men (link), and Thomas Kühne asks similar questions in The Rise and Fall of Comradeship: Hitler’s Soldiers, Male Bonding and Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century. Kühne notes the parallels and contrasts between the two books in these terms:
Unaffected by military sociology, the Holocaust historian Christopher Browning, in his 1992 book on the German Police Battalion 101, nevertheless illuminated how group pressure, a basic feature of comradeship, enabled the perpetration of the Holocaust. While not explicitly addressed in Browning’s book, comradeship again does not appear as the epitome of altruistic solidarity but as the engine of evil per se, deeply ingrained in the machinery of Nazi terror. Widely praised in Germany just as in America and other parts of the world, the book’s argument thus yet raised concerns among readers who still appreciated comradeship as a core virtue of soldiers. An officer of the German Bundeswehr, for instance, warned about generalizing Browning’s findings. The social psychology of Himmler’s murder troops had nothing to do with the military virtue of comradeship, he clarified. Instead, he said, Himmler’s men had “completely perverted this concept of dedicated commitment between soldiers.” (4)
Kühne’s research depends on a very engaging combination of relevant sociological theory and careful analysis of letters and interviews of soldiers and veterans. He regards “comradeship” as both myth and sociological reality — myth, in that its themes of heroic masculinity were romanticizations of the realities of a soldier’s life, and reality, in that some core values of “comradeship” served both to motivate and to constrain the conduct of individual soldiers in the Wehrmacht. The value system of comradeship implied a strong degree of compliance with the group:
The benefits of comradeship were reserved for those who surrendered their Selves, their individual desires and their agency, to the group of comrades. The myth of comradeship leveled the ground for a conformist ethics that honored only what served group cohesion and denounced the concept of individual responsibility. (11)
And Kühne emphasizes the moral ambiguity of the concept of comradeship:
Once widely accepted as the epitome of altruistic solidarity and cooperation, of moral goodness, of humaneness per se, the concept came, by the end of the twentieth century, to be seen as a euphemism for criminal complicity and cover-ups – for collectively committed, clandestine evil. (12)
The hard question here is the question of motivation: to what extent did the meanings and values of “comradeship”, solidarity with one’s comrades, lead to both courage and atrocity? And to what extent was the value system of comradeship a coercive social order for soldiers in the Wehrmacht, creating a powerful set of pressures to conform even when the actions of the unit were atrocious?
Here is a passage that captures much of the psychology and mental state/identity that Kühne identifies with “comradeship” from the Wehrmacht.
A few weeks before the Third Reich collapsed, Kurt Kreisler, a thirty-three-year-old NCO fighting in the East against the Red Army, seemed to be in the best of moods. Most of his comrades had been killed in action, but there was something that made up for mass death all around him, he wrote in a letter to his parents in Baden. Social life trumped physical death. Only recently the shrunken battalion — merely 150 soldiers — had successfully defeated a Soviet detachment of 1,000 men. The mood of his outfit “couldn’t be better,” he wrote. Although assembled only shortly before, they got along splendidly. Immediately becoming “the best of friends” with men one had never known before induced a feeling of great community that became stronger the more devastating the nation’s future looked. Kreissler’s conclusion in February 1945 was: “We want to stick together, we want to fight together, or we want to get wounded together — that’s what we are longing for.” (107)
(Kühne notes a few pages later (114) that Kreisler was not typical or ordinary at all; he had been a salaried Hitler Youth leader, and had volunteered for the army at the advanced age of 28.)
Kühne links the thoughts expressed in Kreisler’s letter to the work of Edward Shils and Morris Janowitz in their sociological explanation of small-group cohesion in combat units. They quote CH Cooley’s earlier ideas about small group identities: the theory that intimate face-to-face associations of primary groups enable “a certain fusion of individualities in a common whole so that one’s very self … is the common life and purpose of the group … a ‘we’ that is built on ‘sympathy,’ ‘mutual identification’ and ‘intimacy.’”. But, as Kühne notes, this theory paradoxically cleanses the typical Wehrmacht soldier of a Nazi or racist identity; it is loyalty to the small group rather than devotion to Nazi ideology that motivated the typical soldier, they imply. The Shils-Janowitz interpretation was challenged by Omer Bartov, who attributed soldierly solidarity to other factors: “the racist demonization of the enemy in the East; the harsh discipline; and ‘de-modernization of the front’ — the animal-like material conditions of the soldiers — which brutalized and barbarized them…. In Bartov’s view, the Wehrmacht was by no means an apolitical, ‘normal’ army but exactly the opposite: deeply Nazified, a crucial engine of the Nazis’ genocidal project” (109).
Kühne prefers an approach that includes both the psychological processes of “primary group solidarity” and the macro-institutional processes of military discipline, patriotic symbols, and virulent anti-semitism to explain the “fighting spirit” of Wehrmacht soldiers even after all hope of victory had vanished. And he suggests that the concept of “comradeship” encompassed both levels: “Comradeship as understood by many Germans in the interwar and Nazi period aligned and reconciled primary group bonding and secondary symbols of national unity” (111).
The Wehrmacht united 17 million German men of different, though mostly younger, ages; of urban and rural backgrounds, and of all social classes; of all political and ideological camps, from Nazis to conservatives, liberals, Social Democrats, and even communists; of all religious and non-religious creeds (including some Jews, who managed to hide in the Wehrmacht); and of course of enormously different personalities; men who had embraced the Hitler Youth or other sections of the German youth movement, and those who would have preferred to pursue their own careers and enjoy their private lives as husbands and fathers. To whom did comradeship matter, and in what ways? (113)
Kühne emphasizes the sociological observation that “communities” often depend on a clear definition of “others” to whom they are antagonistic — the role played by anti-Semitism and anti-Slav ideology within the Nazi ideological system.
Comradeship was a set of concentric circles, pulling men into face-to-face communities and into “secondary,” anonymous and imagined groups such as the entire army, the mystic community of fallen soldiers, and the Volksgemeinschaft. The military discourse on social relations and social cohesion in interwar Germany had supported this idea of comradeship. (134)
Comradeship in combat is one thing; but Kühne links the social motivations of comradeship to atrocity and genocide as well.
Without the Wehrmacht’s support, the Einsatzgruppen — the SS and the police — often in conjunction with local collaborators, could not have killed more than a million Jews. Wehrmacht headquarters registered the Jews of a conquered region or city, forced them to wear visible identification, and concentrated them in ghettos. Wehrmacht units rounded them up and herded them to the execution sites, which the soldiers then shielded from public view, or they took bizarre pleasure in watching the spectacle. Individual soldiers or entire units joined in when the shootings started…. Some Wehrmacht soldiers took pleasure in murdering civilians, or at least they carried out the tasked they had volunteered for as cynically and cold-bloodedly as SS men, police officers, and local collaborators did. (142)
But Kühne suggests that Nazi ideology never achieved the total domination it sought of the inner lives of the millions of soldiers under arms:
Despite all indoctrination efforts by the regime, this ideological, political, and cultural diversity [across individual soldiers] still survived in Third Reich society, and subsequently also in the Wehrmacht, which reflected society. (142)
Nonetheless, he suggests that Nazi ideology held by officers was a decisive factor in determining whether a given Wehrmacht unit engaged in murder of Jews:
When it came to taking action against Jews or other civilians, it was often the ideological disposition of the commanding officers and the choices they made that decided whether or not a Wehrmacht unit collaborated in mass murder. (143)
Two opposing value systems directed the Wehrmacht soldiers’ choices: on the one hand, the universal virtues of human compassion and pity for the weak, enjoining mercy for the unarmed civilian and a defeated enemy; on the other hand, the harsh racist ideology that denounced the idea of universality and demanded, as Himmler put it, an “ethics” that complies “solely with the needs of our people. Good is what is useful for the people, evil is what damages our people.” (143)
He notes that some soldiers and officers acted on the basis of compassion. For example:
When the commanders of three parallel companies of Infantry Regiment 691 … were ordered by their superiors to kill the Jews in their respective districts, only one of them, Reserve Lieutenant Sibille, a forty-seven-year-old teacher, refused to carry out the order, explaining that he “could not expect decent German soldiers to soil their hands with such things” as the killing campaigns of the Einsatzgruppen. Asked by his superior when he would finally become “hard,” Sibille answered: “in such cases” — when it was to murder Jewish civilians including women and children — “never.” (142-143)
So far comradeship was joined with military success. But the Barbarosa campaign soon turned into a disaster for the German armies. How did comradeship survive during the collapse of the Wehrmacht?
In the last two years of the war, comradeship did not vanish but it was altered. Solidarity, humanity, and tenderness in the face of mass death gave way to a new, Nazified idea of collective identity. there may still have been a few efforts by soldiers to preserve humanity in the midst of the violence but this kind of comradeship was increasingly overshadowed by a new type of bond, one that was driven by cynicism rather than care and tenderness…. Comradeship denoted inclusion, belonging, solidarity, and togetherness, but its reality depended on its opposite, the Other, the foe — exclusion. The Other could be the overwhelming enemy soldier or the denigrated enemy civilian. (170-171)
Earlier posts have considered some of the themes that have been prominent within empirical psychology of morality. How do Kühne’s findings relate to those themes? As noted above, there are suggestive parallels between Kühne’s research and that of Christopher Browning in Ordinary Men. But there are a number of important convergences with the literature in moral psychology as well. Here are a few:
- identity was important to soldiers’ motivations — identity as a man, as a Protestant, as a German, as a patriot
- pre-war identities and value systems (political, religious, ethical) persisted in the private moral universes of many millions of Wehrmacht soldiers
- the moral emotions stimulated by intense experiences within small groups created unusually strong motivations of solidarity, loyalty, affection, and sacrifice for fellow soldiers within the group
- worldview (ideology) was an important factor in creating a willingness to kill the innocent
- preserving a preferred self-conception was an important part of the space of judgment and action or inaction for many soldiers
- for most soldiers, there was at least a degree of conflict between their human impulses of pity, compassion, and reluctance to harm the innocent, on the one hand, and the brutalized actions demanded by their Wehrmacht roles
- Nazi ideology and dehumanization of Jews, Slavs, and other non-Aryan peoples played an important role in the willingness of some soldiers to commit mass murder
These observations can be tied back to the primary areas of research in moral psychology identified in Ellemers et al review of the field of moral psychology (link): moral reasoning; moral judgments; moral behavior; moral emotions; and moral self-views.
Finally, Kühne’s research complements the work of Kristen Monroe in “Cracking the Code of Genocide: The Moral Psychology of Rescuers, Bystanders, and Nazis during the Holocaust” (link) in its detailed use of first-person documents created by Wehrmacht soldiers and veterans. These letters, diaries, and other personal writings give important insight into the mentalities of the diverse men who served in Hitler’s armies — from the former Hitler Youth leader Kurt Kreisler to the refusenik Reserve Lieutenant Sibille — and who served in Hitler’s genocidal wars. It is worth considering whether Monroe’s theory of the mentalities of genocider, bystander, and rescuer finds support in Kühne’s account.