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The truth of history: Wehrmacht, just as SS, slaughtered and raped on a mass scale

The book "Soldiers" ("Soldaten") published in Germany is a documentary investigation devoted to Wehrmacht military personnel. A unique feature of the book is that it is based on revelations of German soldiers they shared with each other in camps for prisoners of war, not suspecting that the allies were tapping and recording their conversations. In a word, the book included the whole truth, all those facts what the Hitlerites avoided to write about in their letters from the front and to mention in their memoirs.

 As Spiegel magazine noted, "Soldiers" have once and for all buried the myth about unblemished Wehrmacht ("We executed the order. It was SS that burned - we were at war".) Hence the subtitle: "How they fought, killed and died" ("Protokollen vom Kaempfen, Toeten und Sterben"). It turned out that senseless murders, tortures, rapes, humiliation were not the prerogative of Zonder command, but were ordinary for the German army. Wehrmacht prisoners of war thought of the crimes they committed as of something self-evident, many of them even flaunted their "feats of arms", and nobody showed genuine repentance and suffered from guilty conscience.

 As it often happens, the book has appeared thanks to a sensational finding: a German historian Soenke Neitzel, working in British and American archives on the research, devoted to the Fight for the Atlantic, in 2001 came across the shorthand wiretaps record, in which a captive German submarine officer talked about his military humdrum with unusual frankness. More than 150 thousand pages of similar shorthand reports were found in the course of further research, which Neitzel processed together with a sociopsychologist Harald Welzer.

 About a million of Wehrmacht and SS servicemen became British and American prisoners during the war. About 13 thousand of them were put under special supervision in specially equipped places: at first in the Trent Park camp to the north of London and the Latimer House in Buckinghamshire, and beginning from summer 1942 also on the territory of the USA in Fort Hunt, the State of Virginia. The cells were full of hidden listening devices, and there were spies among the prisoners of war who if necessary targeted the conversation in the necessary direction. In that way allies tried to learn some military secrets.

 If the British tapped officers and senior military personnel, in the USA they paid particular attention to rank and file soldiers. Half of the prisoners of war in Fort Hunt were enlisted men, with no more than a third of non-commissioned officers, and about one sixth of them were officers. The British made 17,500 files, and almost all of them have more than 20 pages. The Americans made several thousand files. Shorthand reports contain undisguised testimonies of representatives of all branches of troops. The majority of the prisoners of war were captured in North Africa and on the Western front, but many of them had served in the east, on the territory of the USSR where the war had absolutely different character.

 If during the war the allies were interested in military secrets, modern researchers and readers will most likely be interested to see the war from within, through the eyes of an ordinary German soldier. Spiegel notes, that the research carried out by Neitzel and Welzer gives a very deplorable answer the one of the main questions: how quickly a normal person may turn into a slaughtering machine, and that answer is - extremely quickly. An opportunity to get away with undisguised violence is an exciting experiment, and man is much more vulnerable to the temptation, than it may seem. For many German soldiers the “adaptation period” took just a few days.

The book refers to a shorthand report of a conversation between a Luftwaffe pilot and an intelligence agent. The pilot says that on the second day of the Polish campaign he had to bomb a railway station. He missed: 8 bombs out of 16 hit a residential neighborhood. "I was not happy about it. But by the third day it was all the same to me, and I even felt some pleasure on the fourth. We had an entertainment: to go hunting for lonely enemy soldiers before breakfast and to kill them with a pair of shots", - recollected the pilot. As he said, they also hunted for the civilians: in a chain they came over a column of refugees, shooting from all types of weapon: "Horses fly to bits and pieces. I was sorry for them. Not for people. And I hated to see horses dying till the last day".

As the researchers note, dialogues between the prisoners of war were not heart-to-heart conversations. Nobody spoke about existential issues: live, death, fear. It was some kind of small talk, with banter and boasting. The word "to kill" was not actually used, they used “to knock down”, "to waste”, "to shoot up". Since most men are interested in weapons and equipment, conversations often shifted to discussion of arms, planes, tanks, small arms, calibers, and how all it works in a fight, what are the advantages and disadvantages. Victims were perceived indirectly, just like a target: a ship, a train, a bicyclist, a woman with a child.

 Naturally, there was no sympathy to victims. Moreover, many of the German soldiers, whose conversations were tapped by the allies, did not do distinction between military and civil targets. In principle, that was not surprising. At the first stage of war such division was still observed at least on paper, and after the attack on the Soviet Union it disappeared even from documents. But, according to Neitzel and Welzer it would be incorrect to say that Wehrmacht completely refused to meet moral criteria. War does not cancel moral standards; it changes the scope of their application. When a soldier acts in the frameworks that are recognized as necessary, he considers his actions to be legitimate even if they involve extreme cruelty.

 According to that principle of "the postponed morals", it was for example, inadmissible for Wehrmacht servicement to shoot at enemy pilots going down on parachutes, but the conversation was short with a crew of a knocked-out tank. Partisans were shot on the spot, since it was a popular belief in the troops that the one who shot their companions from behind does not deserve any better. Wehrmacht still thought it was cruel to murder women and children but that did not prevent the soldiers from committing those atrocities. From a conversation of a radio operator Eberhard Kerle and an SS infantryman Franz Knipe:

 Kerle: "At the Caucasus when partisans killed one of ours, the lieutenant did not even have to make an order: we pull out our guns, and to hell with everybody we see - women, children- all".

Knipe: "Once partisans attacked our convoy with the wounded and killed them all. In half an hour they were seized. It was near Novgorod. We threw them in a big pit, stood along the edges and finished them off from guns and submachine guns from different directions".

Kerle: "You should not have shot them, they should have died slowly".

 The authors of the book "Soldiers" note, that determination of the scope of application of one’s moral principles does not depends so much on individual beliefs, but on discipline, in other words, on whether military authorities treat these or those actions as crimes or not. In case of aggression against the USSR Wehrmacht military command definitely decided that acts of violence involving Soviet civil population will not be procecuted and punished, which certainly, resulted in escalation of violence from both sides on the Eastern front. It is noted that the western allies in comparison with Wehrmacht and the Red Army acted with more humanity, even though they also did not take prisoners of war during the first stage of the military operation in Normandy.

 The lion's share in the conversations of Wehrmacht prisoners of war was devoted to "talking about broads". In this regard Soenke Neitzel and Harald Welzer note that for the overwhelming majority of German soldiers the war was the first possibility to go abroad and see the world. By the time when Hitler came to power only 4 percent of the population of Germany had foreign passports. For many Germans the war became a kind of an exotic tour where isolation from home, wife and children was closely combined with a feeling of absolute sexual freedom. Many prisoners of war thought about their adventures with a sign of regret.

 Muller, "What wonderful cinemas and waterfront cafes-restaurants are there in Taganrog! I visited so many places going by car. And only women around who were driven together for forced hard labor".

Faust, "Ah you, damn!"

Muller, "They paved the streets. Absolutely stunning girls. Passing by on a truck we snatched them, pulled them in the back of the truck, screw them and threw them out. Men, if you could hear, how they swore!"

 However, as it can be seen from the shorthand reports, stories about mass rapes were met with condemnation, though it was not very strong. There were certain limits, which captive Wehrmacht soldiers tried not to cross even in most confidential talks with their companions. Stories about sexual tortures and humiliations, the victims of which were women spies caught on the occupied Soviet territories, were told at second hand: "In the previous officer camp where I did time, there was one stupid guy from Frankfurt, a young insolent lieutenant. So he said that they..." And there followed a description that made you shudder. "And just imagine, there were eight German officers sitting at the table, and some of them smiled listening to the history", - the story-teller concluded.

It seems that Wehrmacht soldiers knew more about the Holocaust than it is generally thought. On the whole the talks about extermination of the Jews do not make a huge part of the total volume of shorthand reports - about 300 pages. One of possible explanations to it may be that few service men knew about efforts on results-oriented decision of the "Jewish problem". However, as Spiegel notes, another, more plausible explanation is that destruction of the Jews was quite an ordinary practice and was not taken as something worth discussing. If they talked about the Holocaust, they mostly talked about technical aspects related to destruction of great numbers of people.

 None of the people taking part in the conversation was amazed by what they heard and nobody doubted the veracity of such stories. "Destruction of the Jews, as it is possible to conclude with all persuasiveness, was an integral part of the world outlook of Wehrmacht soldiers, and to a much greater extent, than it was assumed before", - conclude the researchers. Of course, there were people in Wehrmacht who objected to what was happening. On the other hand, as the authors of the "Soldiers" note, one should not forget that the army was a mould of the German society of that time which silently accepted establishment of the Nazi dictatorship, racial laws, reprisals and concentration camps. It would be illogical to expect that Wehrmacht could be better than the rest of Germany.

 

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Publication date : 26 April 2011 12:44

Source: The world and we

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