But now a disturbing - and at times horrifyingly graphic - new book has laid to rest the myth that only the likes of the SS and Gestapo were responsible for war crimes and acts of rape, murder and genocide.
And the German people have been forced into reassessing their past.
Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying: The Secret Second World War Tapes of German POWs, which is published in English for the first time next week, contains shocking transcripts of ordinary soldiers, sailors and airmen condemning themselves from their own mouths.
We are printing some of them here to highlight how widespread the bloodlust was among German troops.
British intelligence hid microphones among POWs at Trent Park detention centre in North London, captured every boast, offhand remark and sick joke about the killing of children and new mothers, women being raped and the mass extermination of Jews.
The transcripts from tape recordings of 13,000 inmates over four years, form the most unique and bleak look inside the mind of war-time German forces ever published. Before the book by historians Soenke Neitzel and Harald Welzer came out in Germany, people there assumed that their fathers and grandfathers did not have blood on their hands.
And while Germany still remembers the mass rapes when the Russians later invaded their homeland, it is clear they, too, were guilty of the same terrible crime.
When the German POWs began to talk about their own atrocities in Russia - where 27 million Soviet citizens were butchered - counsellors were called in to give support to the translators.
In the recordings one junior German officer boasted in October 1944 about what he and his men did to a woman they thought was a Russian spy...
"We beat her on the t**s with a stick, clobbered her on the a*** with a pistol, then all eight of us f***** her, then we threw her outside and shot at her. And as she lay there, we threw grenades at her. Every time one of them landed near her body, she screamed."
From the tapes British intelligence learned how difficult the SS killing squads in Russia found it to shoot children. At first they believed this could have been a moral dilemma. Then one day they listened into a conversation which revealed the real problem... the children would not stay still.
Intelligence officers who devised what became informally known at Trent Park as Operation Eavesdrop, soon began to realise the material they gathered was of limited military value but gave them a deep understanding of the psyche of the enemy. And the transcripts also reveal the holocaust of the Jews was widely known about among Germany's 20 million servicemen. In one recording, POW Major General Walter Bruns is heard recalling a "typical Jewish action" he witnessed in Russia...
BRUNS: "The trenches were 24 metres long and roughly three metres wide. They had to lie like sardines in a tin, heads towards the middle. Above, six machine gunners delivered the neck-shots.
"When I arrived, the trenches were pretty full already and the living had to lie on top before they got the neck-shot. They were all arranged beautifully so not too much space was wasted. They had already been robbed before they got here. On this Sunday I saw a half-kilometre-long queue shuffling forward step by step, the line-up for death. As they got nearer, they saw what awaited them. Around about here they had to give up their suitcases and their sacks of valuables. A little further on, they had to strip, and they could only keep on a shirt or a slip. They were mostly women and children, not much older than two."
Other times, ordinary German soldiers boasted of contacting men they knew in SS units to ask when executions at this or that village were scheduled. Then they would take picnics and booze, and go along to watch for a grand day out.
Again, the following transcripts make disturbing, often harrowing reading...
JANUARY 3, 1941 FOCKE-WULF FIGHTER PILOT BUDDE AND CORPORAL BARTELS ARE OVERHEARD LAUGHING AND JOKING ABOUT THEIR FAVOURITE WARTIME ESCAPADES BEFORE THE FORMER WAS SHOT DOWN IN THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN AND THE LATTER WAS CAPTURED AS BRITISH TROOPS FELL BACK TOWARDS DUNKIRK IN 1940.
BUDDE: "I flew two spoiling attacks. In other words, we shelled buildings."
BARTELS: "But not destructive attacks with a specific target, like we did?"
BUDDE: "Naah, just spoiling attacks. We encountered some of the nicest targets, like mansions built on a mountainside. When you flew up 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 in the market square, crowds of people, speeches given. We really sprayed them! That was fun!"
JULY 14, 1942 The microphones, hidden in the wooden joists of the prisoners' huts, pick up the words of an unnamed Luftwaffe Oberleutnant, captured on July 17, 1940, after baling out over Kent.
PILOT: "It became a need in me to drop bombs. It tingles me, gives me a fine feeling. Just as beautiful, in fact, as shooting at someone."
SOLM: "We knew there were kiddies on board before the tinfish were fired. We bagged a kiddie ship! Six thousand tons. We heard on the radio what was on board. No one survived."
JANUARY 4, 1944 Radioman Eberhard Kehrle and infantryman Franz Kneipp are chatting.
KEHRLE: "In Russia, when one us went down, we didn't need a lieutenant giving the orders, telling us what to do. Pistols out, women and children, everything you saw... cleansed."
KNEIPP: "With us, one time, a partisan band had overrun a convoy of our wounded. They offed everyone. Half-an-hour later they were caught near Novgorod. They were brought into a sandpit and then, from all sides, we let rip with machine guns and pistols."
KEHRLE: "That was too good for them. They deserved to die slowly, not to be killed by shooting!"
AUGUST 14, 1944 A man named Zotloet-erer tells his friend Weber about action in France.
ZOTLOETERER: "I shot a Frenchman from behind as he was riding his bike."
WEBER: "Close up?"
WEBER: "Did he want to take you prisoner?"
ZOTLOETERER: "Naah, I wanted his bike!"
JANUARY 5, 1945 Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Hans Hartigs is from a fighter squadron shot down by a spitfire. He reveals his favourite targets...
HARTIGS: "I used to shoot at everything. We liked to go for women pushing prams, often with children at their sides. It was a kind of sport really."
FEBRUARY 2, 1945 Sergeant Mueller is talking to his friend Fausst.
MEULLER: "When I was in Taganrog, I remember there were wonderful cinemas and beautiful beach cafes. You saw nothing but women."
FAUSST: "Oh, you b*****d!"
MUELLER: "They were working to repair things, these drop-dead gorgeous girls. We simply drove by them, tore them into the car, lay them down, s****ed them and then chucked them out when we had finished. Man, did they curse us!"