Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

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Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by K. A. Pital » 2011-05-09 02:45am

http://www.spiegel.de/international/ger ... 85,00.html

A new book by German historians who found transcripts of secret recordings of German POW chatter. Some quotes:
Müller: "When I was in Kharkov (in present-day Ukraine ), everything was destroyed except the center of the city. A wonderful city, a wonderful memory. All the people there spoke a little German, which they had learned in school. And in Taganrog (in Russia ) there were wonderful cinemas and wonderful beach cafés. I went everywhere in a truck. And all you saw were women doing compulsory labor."

Fausst: "Oh, my God!"

Müller: "They were building roads, drop-dead gorgeous girls. So we drove by, pulled them into the truck, screwed them and them threw them out again. Boy, they sure cursed at us."
Reimbold: "In the first officers' prison camp where I was being kept here, there was a really stupid guy from Frankfurt , a young lieutenant, a young upstart. There were eight of us sitting around a table and talking about Russia . And he said: 'Oh, we caught this female spy who had been running around in the neighborhood. First we hit her in the tits with a stick and then we beat her rear end with a bare bayonet. Then we fucked her, and then we threw her outside and shot at her. When she was lying there on her back, we threw grenades at her. Every time one of them landed near her body, she screamed.' And just think, there were eight German officers sitting at that table with me, and they all broke out laughing. I couldn't stand it anymore, so I got up and said: Gentlemen, this is too much."
In German:
http://wissen.spiegel.de/wissen/image/s ... humb=false

Excellent reading for those with stronger nerves, I should get myself a copy of the original.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by PeZook » 2011-05-09 04:10am

They...uh...laughed?

Interesting that officers openly engaged in that sort of behavior. Typically soldiers try to hide their excesses from officers, since the officer corps is supposed to be somewhat above the rank and file and enforcing regulations (with varying success rates, yeah).
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Fingolfin_Noldor » 2011-05-09 12:03pm

PeZook wrote:They...uh...laughed?

Interesting that officers openly engaged in that sort of behavior. Typically soldiers try to hide their excesses from officers, since the officer corps is supposed to be somewhat above the rank and file and enforcing regulations (with varying success rates, yeah).
If orders had to be issued to conserve bullets with regard to overzealous shooting of prisoners, what did you expect?
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Thanas » 2011-05-09 01:25pm

I have read excerpts of the book. It remains to be seen how much of that is one-upmanship and boasting, and how much has a factual basis. For me, most of the stories however looked plausible enough at first sight, although a few seemed implausible (for example, the Paris cafe one).

But yeah, warfare in general seems to be utterly barbaric and bring out the worst in human beings, especially when they believe themselves to be superior and in service of a good cause. As a complimentary book to this I would recommend D-Day by Anthony Beevor, which does a good job of chronicling war crimes in Normandy, just to destroy the image of the "clean" campaigns conducted by the two sides over there.

But yeah, in recent time there definitely seems to be a slew of books chronicling what an utterly barbaric war it was. First the studies on the Russian war crimes and the french occupations, then the ones about Normandy and now this....makes me wonder if finally it seems to sink into people that WWII is not something that should be celebrated or honored.


EDIT: Upon further observation I am kinda wondering how much of that is connected more to "war in general" or to the Nazi ideology. For example, pilots shooting up everything certainly seems to be a universal one (allied pilots strafed people in the streets as well). I wish the book would go a bit more into questions of relative scale rather than focus on one thing only.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by K. A. Pital » 2011-05-09 01:28pm

The massive disparity in civilian casualties between Axis and Allies, however, will always give a reason to celebrate.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Thanas » 2011-05-09 01:41pm

Stas Bush wrote:The massive disparity in civilian casualties between Axis and Allies, however, will always give a reason to celebrate.
Don't get me wrong, I think that stopping Hitler and the genocidal maniacs is definitely a noble cause. However, I do not think the itself is something worth celebrating, especially not considering the aftermath, considering that for Eastern Europe it was followed by decades of repression (nevermind the behavior of people in the occupied territories). It was a damned dirty war.

So to summarize: Were the Allies morally superior? Yes. Was it worth stopping Hitler? Of course. Is the way he was stopped worth celebrating? No. Celebrating the victory I have no problem with, celebrating the war itself I do.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Thanas » 2011-05-09 01:45pm

EDIT: However, before this gets off track: Everbody should definitely read the full article. Very much worth reading.

Especially the conclusion:
Part 6: A Terrifying Social Experiment

War is the most comprehensive social experiment people are capable of engaging in, when the circumstances to which they must conform change. It doesn't even take an order or the special command structure of an army for people to be able to shoot at anything that moves. All it takes is for the benchmarks of what is considered appropriate and correct to change.

Not everything can be blamed on the circumstances. Even under conditions of extreme violence, there are always individuals who defy the prevailing morality of the group. In most cases, and for good reason, it is outsiders who display the kind of behavior one would expect from people with a normal upbringing.

In one of the best-documented cases of a war crime, the massacre in the Vietnamese village of My Lai by American GIs in March 1968, it was a helicopter pilot who kept his fellow soldiers from committing even more murders. It was only when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson threatened to have his men shoot at their fellow GIs that they stopped their killing spree.

The proportion of people in the Wehrmacht with a nature proclivity for violence or sadism was presumably about 5 percent, just as it is in all social groups. According to researchers, this is the percentage of the population whose sociopathic tendencies are kept in check during peacetime by the threat of punishment. From 1939 onwards, at the latest, the composition of the Wehrmacht reflected the average male population, that is, ordinary Germany.

Not Perceived as Barbaric

It is altogether astonishing, and depressing, to realize how quickly the Nazis' concept of racial superiority could replace the ideas and norms of the democratic prewar period. Only six years passed between the 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws, which deprived all Jews of their rights of citizenship, and the subsequent deportation and extermination.

The fact that the systematic persecution of a group that made up less than 1 percent of the German population was possible without any recognizable resistance is not evidence of the sudden immorality of mainstream society. On the contrary, this exclusion was only possible because the majority of the population did not perceive it as an act of barbarism. The persecuted group had long been perceived as no longer being a part of German society, so that their oppression was no longer seen as an issue that affected the morality of the national community, as Neitzel and Welzer argue in their book.

"From 1941 onward, the same people who had reacted with skepticism to the Nazi takeover in 1933 watched the deportation trains departing from the Grunewald train station (in Berlin)," the authors write. "Quite a few of them had already bought 'Aryanized' (ed's note: seized from Jews) kitchen fittings, living room furniture and artworks. Some ran businesses or lived in buildings that had been taken away from their Jewish owners. And they felt that this was completely normal."

Changing Morality

Of course, what appears to us today as a colossal shift in social norms also applied to the Wehrmacht and its way of conducting the war. At any rate, there is much more evidence to support the assumption that most German soldiers felt they were fighting for a just cause than there is for the opposing assumption that they secretly questioned their actions.

Even some members of the firing squads at the mass graves must have perceived their work there as the fulfillment of a "sacred obligation," as it was dubbed in the emotionally charged language of the Nazis. The same sentiments were behind Heinrich Himmler's famous words that the SS, which he commanded, could be proud, despite all criticism, of having "remained decent." What seems like the height of cynicism to postwar generations is in fact an expression of the conviction of serving a higher morality. In this case, it was one that saw itself scientifically legitimized in its murderous biological determinism.

This is, as it were, the disturbing insight one reaches after reading the transcripts about killing and dying: The morality that shapes the actions of people is not rooted in the people themselves, but in the structures that surround them. If they change, everything is basically possible -- even absolute evil.
Chilling, especially in its implications.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by PeZook » 2011-05-09 02:38pm

Thanas wrote: Chilling, especially in its implications.
Yes. The scariest thing is that the Nazis were not inhuman monsters from beyond the nine vectors of known space, but normal people.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Stravo » 2011-05-09 03:30pm

This is an interesting take on things and I know for example that here in the US the war is extremely sanitized especially in the retelling (greatest generation, the last "good" war, etc) yet when we start to see hints of the reality of it, especially nasty brutish things done on the American side people are shocked. A simple example is in Saving Private Ryan, does everyone remember the horrified reactions people had of the opening moments of the movie when they stormed the beaches. Filmgoers were stunned in many instances to see just how fucking nasty it was for those soldiers - why? Check out The Longest Day to watch soldiers casually running on the beach and lack of blood and gore as a counterpoint. That is the WWII many Americans grew up with.

I remember listening to people in the audience gasp when an American soldier is depicted casually killing a surrendering German soldier and then joke about it afterwards. Spielberg I believe in one of his press releases mentions how many soldiers he interviewed were quite frank about how they did things like this in a war zone. He wanted to make sure he caught that in the movie.

People I see mock that movie now but when it came out it was a huge revelation for many people and so many WWII movies afterwards try to capture its style especially the nitty gritty and the shaky cam direction. That's just one example of how small cracks have appeared in the generally sanctified War. My sad thought as a history major is we are losing many primary sources in the form of actual witnesses to this war that perhaps the sanitized war we grew up with will become history and not the reality that it was.

As an additional observation from Thanas' post regarding the sociopathic nature of the society and how a minority can be treated we also need to look at the nature of the minority as well. When the article mentions how shocking it is that a minority can be treated so callously in an extremely short amount of time you should also take into account how a minority treats itself in regards to society around it. Jews for example have always been an easy target I believe because of the nature of the Jewish religion and attitude of holding itself apart from others. It makes it easy to identify and then ostracize them as compared to a more integrated minority or ethnic group. In other words, its easy to hate and expel certain groups from a society based in cultural interactions.

If the Nazis tried what they did with another group like say Catholics perhaps it would not have been so easy. Look at the groups they picked out - those already facing discrimination and hatred - Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals.

It's like the class bully always picking on the scrawny nerdy kid. Easy target.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Thanas » 2011-05-09 03:37pm

Stravo wrote:This is an interesting take on things and I know for example that here in the US the war is extremely sanitized especially in the retelling (greatest generation, the last "good" war, etc) yet when we start to see hints of the reality of it, especially nasty brutish things done on the American side people are shocked. A simple example is in Saving Private Ryan, does everyone remember the horrified reactions people had of the opening moments of the movie when they stormed the beaches. Filmgoers were stunned in many instances to see just how fucking nasty it was for those soldiers - why? Check out The Longest Day to watch soldiers casually running on the beach and lack of blood and gore as a counterpoint. That is the WWII many Americans grew up with.
Not just americans. For example, throughout my reading prior to university I had little exposure to the American side of things outside of movies etc. Thus, while I already knew the Germans did horrendous things, I did believe that the allied side of things mainly fought clean (with a few bad apples like bomber command and some individuals). Beevor's book came as a complete shock in that regard and forced me to really reevaluate my viewpoint about the war itself. And like you said, what was especially shocking was how the witnesses Beevor cited were completely callous and blatant about things like walking prisoners through minefields or killing surrendered enemies, rape etc.


It makes me wonder if we will hear the same reseearch about other wars in a few years or several decades after they are concluded. Makes you take a really long and hard look on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Because I do not believe the people fighting these wars are fundamentally better than those of the allied side in WWII.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Serafina » 2011-05-09 03:50pm

Just a quick note: Catholics are hardly a minority in Germany, christian denominations are about 50:50 (well, very roughly) split between catholics and protestants.
The proportion of people in the Wehrmacht with a nature proclivity for violence or sadism was presumably about 5 percent, just as it is in all social groups. According to researchers, this is the percentage of the population whose sociopathic tendencies are kept in check during peacetime by the threat of punishment. From 1939 onwards, at the latest, the composition of the Wehrmacht reflected the average male population, that is, ordinary Germany.
So basically, sociopaths in Nazi Germany were not held in check and encouraged/put in positions of power.
It might be shocking that such a small percentage of the population can exert such an amount of influence, but that is hardly extraordinary if you think about it. Humans generally strive for acceptable behavior, and in this case sociopathic behavior became acceptable.
This also occurs on a much smaller scale in other militaries. You just need one small unit that is lead by a sociopath sergeant who starts an atrocity. Unless the other soldiers are trained and have orders to to stop him (or have an especially strong moral code), they are prone to following their leaders actions. That's why we have atrocities in modern wars as well, just on a smaller scale.
More isolated or independent units are more prone to it, because they lack the reinforcement against it that is usually present at higher levels of command or unit strength. Nazi Germany mostly lacked those levels, especially in some more notorious units. Same principles, the difference is in scale.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Thanas » 2011-05-09 03:58pm

I doubt it was all sociopaths who committed the atrocities. That looks to me a lot like an easy copout.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Serafina » 2011-05-09 04:07pm

Thanas wrote:I doubt it was all sociopaths who committed the atrocities. That looks to me a lot like an easy copout.
I was arguing that sociopaths were a driving/motivating factor, not that they were entirely responsible for all atrocities.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Thanas » 2011-05-09 04:10pm

Maybe....but I still think it leaves out the answer why nobody decided to stop them out of sheer human decency. Some did, but the vast majority stayed silent. So IMO that theory leaves a lot to be desired and seems to be (forgive me, not trying to be harsh here) a bit too simplistic an explanation for the complex swirl that is nazi Germany.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by PeZook » 2011-05-09 04:28pm

The Milgram Experiment suggests you can make anyone into a killer. Anyone. Same goes for Stanford Prison Experiment.

These two are often cited, but that's because they reveal a lot about human nature.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Serafina » 2011-05-09 05:07pm

Thanas wrote:Maybe....but I still think it leaves out the answer why nobody decided to stop them out of sheer human decency. Some did, but the vast majority stayed silent. So IMO that theory leaves a lot to be desired and seems to be (forgive me, not trying to be harsh here) a bit too simplistic an explanation for the complex swirl that is nazi Germany.
As i said, sociopaths in leading positions and a general sociopathic, inhumane policy.
Furthermore, human decency towards jews, gypsies, homosexuals, eastern europeans etc. was getting dangerous relatively quickly. Such intervention is already rare due to personal risk factors. Being in a military unit makes it more difficult because you are in a fixed hierarchy, where such intervention is more difficult, especially if your CO is doing it. Being subject to an ideology that discourages such actions adds another layer of difficulty.
The people who did not help weren't bastards. They were decent human beings who were heavily discouraged from intervening.

There are really lot's of factors at work here.
I already mentioned personal risk factors: Intervening for someone else mostly carries a risk for yourself. That risk could be a natural hazard (such as fire), it could be the person assaulting the other person, but it can also be social pressure. At a simple level, standing up for the kid that gets bullied at school can lower your rank in the pecking order. In Nazi Germany, lot's of social pressure against helping was applied.
Then you have the bystander-effect. Basically, when there are several people present who could help your personal incentive to help is lowered. If no one is helping, you are likely to follow the herd and do nothing as well. Lot's of people can break out of that, but that takes awareness of the situation, knowledge about what you can actually do and lot's of initiative. So if the other soldiers in your squad are not doing anything, and if your superiors are not doing anything - then you likely won't do anything either.
Then you have the simple fact that you are not supposed to question your officers orders. Whether that's your sergeant shooting civilians or someone higher up ordering you to do it, a solder is drilled to obey, and so he is likely to do it.
Then there is desensitization. War is already showing your lot's of ugly things, so you'll be less sensitive when more ugly things happen. Atrocities against civilians might be more horrible than shooting enemy soldiers, but when you are accustomed to the latter the former is not that far removed.
All of the above is lowering the individual persons perception of his responsibility and his moral inhibitions.

Okay, we are lacking one crucial factor now. We have plenty of reasons why people won't stop atrocities, but no reason why they are committed in the first place.
There are basically two possibilities here: individual actions and orders by superiors.
The latter doesn't require much explanation. Atrocities were often ordered during WW II and other wars. Plenty of the officers ordering them were probably sociopaths, others might have followed orders of their own, an ideology or even (for them) practical reasons.
The former is more complicated. Basically, one individual soldier out of a group will start committing an atrocity, such as rape, killing civilians or pillaging. Others will follow suit because they have learned to act as a unit. Note that this can be both quite systematic (such as locking a village in a church and burning it) and heated, spontaneous actions (such as just suddenly shooting the villagers).
I claim that such actions are often initiated by people with sociopathic behavior. Studies like the Milgram-experiment have shown that people in positions of power over others are willing to commit atrocities if given an incentive. Group dynamics, like in military units, can provide sufficient incentive for severe atrocities. For sociopaths, no active incentive is needed, so they will often start such actions. In other cases, severe stress might temporarily mimic sociopathic behavior - stress is known to reduce empathy, and sociopaths basically lack empathy. People who are not sociopaths can act like them if under severe stress.



Okay, basic summary:
- People in groups feel less responsible for their actions and have inhibitions against intervening for others. This is amplified in military unit and even more by Nazi ideology.
- Some atrocities were ordered by superior officers and those orders were just followed
- Others were started by sociopaths. Others joined in and did not stop it due to the lowered responsibility and unwillingness to intervene.
- My basic claim is that a normal person will not start an atrocity unless ordered to or under very severe stress. However, a normal person will help committing an atrocity once one is started and will not intervene if one is observed due to, again, lowered responsibility etc.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Thanas » 2011-05-09 05:34pm

I still think this is going about it the wrong way. You got no evidence the atrocities were committed mainly by sociopaths. You also got no evidence the majority of commanders were sociopaths - and in fact, this is extremely unlikely. You also forget the results of the Milgram experiments etc.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by K. A. Pital » 2011-05-10 12:21am

If the Wehrmacht was so widely implicated in atrocities as it seems, the 5% of sociopaths could not account for all of what happened. Even more so when we consider the SS. The SS were commanded to commit atrocities, but many things among what they did weren't directly ordered by the command.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by K. A. Pital » 2011-05-10 03:26am

Thanas wrote:
Stas Bush wrote:The massive disparity in civilian casualties between Axis and Allies, however, will always give a reason to celebrate.
Don't get me wrong, I think that stopping Hitler and the genocidal maniacs is definitely a noble cause. However, I do not think the itself is something worth celebrating, especially not considering the aftermath, considering that for Eastern Europe it was followed by decades of repression (nevermind the behavior of people in the occupied territories). It was a damned dirty war.

So to summarize: Were the Allies morally superior? Yes. Was it worth stopping Hitler? Of course. Is the way he was stopped worth celebrating? No. Celebrating the victory I have no problem with, celebrating the war itself I do.
Yeah, but I haven't seen people celebrating the war itself. In Russia it's not as widespread as in America. People can celebrate the victory, but the war itself - the human cost of that alone - makes it crazy to celebrate or speak about the war in a celebratory tone.

Problem with America is too few casualties. If they died in dozens of millions, they wouldn't make movies celebrating war, as opposed to celebrating victory, that is, the end to war.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by PeZook » 2011-05-10 03:31am

I'm not sure ; Poland suffered a lot of casualties, too, but we do have plenty of heroic WWII fiction. Like that in my sig, though the four tankmen had their dark moments, too.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by K. A. Pital » 2011-05-10 03:46am

PeZook wrote:I'm not sure ; Poland suffered a lot of casualties, too, but we do have plenty of heroic WWII fiction. Like that in my sig, though the four tankmen had their dark moments, too.
All Eastern European heroic fiction about the war usually had people dying, until the movie culminates with victory (or, in some cases, like "Brest Fortress" or "Come and See", everyone dies). Eastern European heroic fiction doesn't celebrate the war, I think, because it always underscores that soldiers are doing something not natural for them (especially how it is often contrasted with peaceful pre-war life, etc.).

On the other hand, some American movies portray war as natural to people.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by PeZook » 2011-05-10 03:57am

Stas Bush wrote: On the other hand, some American movies portray war as natural to people.
Frankly, that has to be exceptionally rare ; I can't think of a title that does that off the top of my head.

The Longest Day was pretty sanitized and lightweight, but it also had developed characters who died abruptly. And of course the recent crop of US blockbusters and TV series adopted a moe gritty, serious and nasty way of showing war.
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Thanas » 2011-05-10 04:20am

I can easily forgive the longest Day, just because it was the first movie that tried to paint a very comprehensive picture and managed to do so.

As for celebrating war: In recent times, it looks a lot to me that with the rise of nationalism in the Eastern countries it has become more of a celebration of the martial superiority instead of a solemn remembrance. For example, I personally find the celebrations in Moscow each year completely distasteful, because people seem to care more about the weapon systems and the superiority of arms than of the cost of war. What is wrong with having a lowkey ceremony where the dead and not the weapons are at the focus?
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by K. A. Pital » 2011-05-10 05:01am

Thanas wrote:For example, I personally find the celebrations in Moscow each year completely distasteful, because people seem to care more about the weapon systems and the superiority of arms than of the cost of war. What is wrong with having a lowkey ceremony where the dead and not the weapons are at the focus?
Maybe the fact that there's too few veterans left alive to constitute any sort of "parade". Besides, tons of actions that commemorate the dead run at the same time, on television and elsewhere. I don't think the Victory Parade celebrates war; it celebrates victory in the war and, to a certain degree, it used to serve a deterrent function, especially during the earlier years, Cold War times etc. ("Look, we have many weapons, don't attack us again"). Right now it serves the same function, more or less - to show the Russian viewer that Russia has lots of weapons and it can protect itself.

Remembering those who died is a regular procession, in fact the whole Victory Day routine starts with highest government officials putting tons of flowers to memorials dedicated to dead civilians and dead soldiers. In the West, I presume, TV only shows the parade, for obvious reasons: "Look at the scary Russians!" Or not?
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Re: Memoirs of Nazi soldiers - "Soldaten"

Post by Thanas » 2011-05-10 05:10am

Stas Bush wrote:Maybe the fact that there's too few veterans left alive to constitute any sort of "parade".
Why have a parade anyway? What function is it served, especially considering it is used for propaganda purposes (and did they also not use it to unveil new weapons)?
Right now it serves the same function, more or less - to show the Russian viewer that Russia has lots of weapons and it can protect itself.

Remembering those who died is a regular procession, in fact the whole Victory Day routine starts with highest government officials putting tons of flowers to memorials dedicated to dead civilians and dead soldiers. In the West, I presume, TV only shows the parade, for obvious reasons: "Look at the scary Russians!" Or not?
I actually watched the entire parade on the international youtube channel of Russia News (RussiaDaily? Can't remember the exact name, but definitely official channel). It was literally five minutes of "commemorate the dead" and the rest (especially the coverage) was spent talking about
- the glorious history of the regiments marching in the parade
- gushing over the great marching order
- introducing the politicians currently running the show (cue gushing how great they were)
- gushing over the weapon systems, even going so far as to salivate over the production numbers they had of each.

Very little mention was made of the suffering. It was basically "Here are the armed forces, hear us roar".


In the west, the parade is hardly noticed except for a line and some footage in the news...usually together with some lines about the problems faced by the Russian military.
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A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat. Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient, to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is 'survival as what'? A country isn't a rock. It's not an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for. It's what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult! - Chief Judge Haywood
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