Sönke Neitzel (ed.), Tapping Hitler’s Generals: Transcripts of Secret Conversations, 1942-45, Frontline Books, Barnsley, 2007. Appendix. Notes. Index. Cloth, 416pp.
Reviewed by G.H. Bennett, Plymouth University
Over the past ten years, the wartime efforts of Allied intelligence to gather information on the German officer corps have yielded a steady stream of new information and publications. Richard Overy (Interrogations), David C. Isby (The German Army at D-Day) and others have mined post-war interrogations of senior Nazis, and the post-war debriefs of senior German Officers, to produce volumes that offer fresh insights into the thinking of particular figures, and the collective mind-set of the men who served the Third Reich. Reviewers have not been slow to point out that the validity of the information derived from such sources is open to question. Written in the circumstances of captivity, with war crimes trials pending, and usually without access to private papers and official records, the testimonies relied heavily on the memory of individuals frequently fearful that their own words might be used against them and their colleagues.
Professor Neitzel’s volume is far less problematic in this respect. It utilises secretly recorded transcripts of conversations between senior German officers at Trent Park in North London, and Latimer House in Buckinghamshire, from 1942 to 1945. The rooms of these large country houses were fitted with hidden microphones that allowed the British to eavesdrop and to record the conversations of their captives. The German officers whose conversations were recorded felt free to talk and seemingly had only passing concerns that the British might try to listen-in on what they discussed.
This is not to say that the volume offers an unproblematic string of revelations from the private thoughts and conversations of the German officer corps. Professor Neitzel spends a good deal of time at the start of the book carefully identifying the circumstances in which the conversations were recorded. Officers captured in North Africa in 1942-43 naturally had a very different perspective on the war than those captured in Normandy in 1944. Shifts in the strategic balance between Germany and the Allies, and the attempted assassination of Hitler on 20 July 1944, provided particular talking points for officer prisoners of war. The conversations also reflected the fact that most of the officers belonged to the Wehrmacht rather than the other services. Thus one finds little on the development of the war at sea. Most importantly of all, rivalries and tensions were being played out within Trent Park and Latimer House with the conversations being shaped as a result. The imminence of defeat and the possibility of mass trials of the German officer corps in 1945 also influenced the mindset and interactions between the Colonels and Generals held by the British. The exchanges reproduced in Professor Neitzel’s volumes have to be read against this background. They provide an unvarnished and remarkable insight into the world of the officer prisoner of war in British captivity from 1942 to 1945. What though, is the wider value of this volume?
The most striking testimony to emerge from the bugged conversations concerns the atrocities committed in the East. The Wehrmacht’s knowledge of the race war on the Eastern front, from the murder of Jews to the mistreatment of prisoners of war, is laid bare in exchange after exchange. The majority of the officers recorded by the British were not members of the Nazi party, but the willingness of many to acquiesce in the face of mass murder of civilians and prisoners of war is striking. Hushed conversations between men wondering about Allied justice at the end of the war touch upon atrocity after atrocity from the mass shootings of the Jews of Berdichev in 1941 through to Friedrich Jeckeln’s murderous reign in the Ostland. Likewise, the conversations lay bare the apparent inability to protest of those officers who did disagree with the murderous excesses of policy in the East. The importance of verbal orders and ‘the will of the Fuehrer’ in framing the horrors of the war in the East are evidenced in a number of exchanges.
Within the exchanges can be glimpsed the concerns of men trapped in a system from which there could be no escape other than captivity and the defeat of Germany. The Hitler bomb plot in July 1944 drew considerable discussion from within the ranks of the officers incarcerated in Trent Park. General der Panzertruppen Heinrich Eberbach knew Stauffenberg and Olbricht and had had a number of conversations with men like Rommel on the edge of the plot. Recorded conversations by General der Infantrie Dietrich von Choltitz (Wehrmacht Commander of Greater Paris in 1944) provide detailed information on the execution of Stauffenberg’s plan and its rapid failure. Most importantly of all, the exchanges in the aftermath of 20 July show that while the officer corps largely dismissed Hitler, as ‘quite mad’ there was no unanimity as to what to do and how to do it.
In conclusion, there is much to be praised in Professor Neitzel’s volume. The standard of production in very high and the book is attractively set out. The notes are detailed and significant, and mini-biographies are provided for each of the officers whose voice is heard. The evidence is set carefully into a series of contexts that allow the reader to interpret the detail, the tone and the assumptions underlying the exchanges. What emerges across the pages of bugged conversation is a detailed insight into the inner world of the German officer corps struggling to deal with the Nazis and their policies. Some were complicit in those policies – all were aware. Those who opposed the policies found it hard to protest or to find the cohesion to resist in the manner of Stauffenberg. Even the brutal treatment handed out to the officers involved in the July plot, and the imminence of defeat in late 1944, was not enough to galvanise the officer corps into action. This is a good book and an important one aimed at a mature academic, rather than populist, audience. For those interested in the German officer corps, the war in the East and the Third Reich it is required reading.
Citation: G.H. Bennett, ‘Review of Sönke Neitzel (ed.) Tapping Hitler’s Generals: Transcripts of Secret Conversations, 1942-45’, The Second World War Military Operations Research Group, 19 February 2013