The reason given by Adolf Eichmann for arranging the transportation of Jews, and others, to the concentration camps--death camps-- like Auschwitz.

This inspired, if that is the word, Hannah Arendt to coin the phrase, banality of evil.

In the brave new world ushered in by the Nazis, evil is done not in any personal, clean way, if such is ever possible, with unquestioned responsibility; now it is carried out in a bureaucratic manner--nameless functionaries following meaningless orders, just more cogs in a machine of evil.

Evil grown so pervasive, so ordinary, no one notices it anymore.

The Nuremberg Trials of German war criminals after World war II determined that this is no defense, and that some orders are illegal and must not be followed.

This is not much help when the whole machinery of state is geared in this direction--when there are few apparent distinctions to assist in making such a decision.

There is a strong argument against the officers of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS at the post-World War II Nuremburg Trials in which those who issued orders that led to the killing of about 12 million civilians. The main argument for defense, as themusic mentions in hir writeup and the node title subtly gives away, was "I was only following orders."

For those like Adolf Eichmann or Josef Mengele, that response is hardly viable. The Nuremburg trials convicted many officers, generals and SS-Obergruppenf├╝hrers who used orders as an excuse for their conduct in the war. These men issued orders and carried out their own inhumane actions without prompting from a higher echelon.

However, I believe one should draw a line of distinction between those who had the power to issue orders and those who had to carry them out. There were generals who did their best to counteract orders from above that were against principles of humanity; General der Flieger Alexander Andrae comes to mind. Generals and high ranking SS officers had the ability to resist or water down orders (even if just some) that were immoral. However, enlisted boys usually did not.

Place yourself in the boots of a citizen in Germany, 1940. You had no choice in the National Socialist party coming to power, you had no choice to be born in Germany and because of restrictions, you cannot escape to a neutral country such as Switzerland. You are required to join the Wehrmacht as every male of your age group is. Your conscience tells you that the Nazi party's discrimination of various groups is wrong, but you are going to be in the Werhmacht, far away from the atrocities of the death camps. You figure you are probably bound for battlefields of France or Russia or perhaps the Battle of Britain. You think you will not face any dilemma with Jews or gypsies or whomever. Until one day you are given a notice, you were conscripted into the Waffen-SS, along with another 200,000 Wehrmacht guys, to be sent as guards to a concentration camp. You are to be supervising the inmates' work on aircraft. You are under strict orders by the kommandant to shoot any prisoner who tries to escape, and conversely the kommandant is under strict orders to the same effect by Heinrich Himmler. Now you are an unwilling guard at a concentration camp who could risk punishment if you fail to "execute" your duties in shooting an escaping prisoner. That punishment could mean reassignment to a penal unit in Dachau and perhaps a death sentence, even.

Your conscience tells you that you shouldn't be working these facilities for the Third Reich - it's immoral! You can't shoot an unarmed civilian, that goes against your principles. But these men with guns and authority tell you to do so, and if you oppose orders of an officer, you risk death even yourself!

This was not the case with all of the guards in concentration camps, but it was the situation for many. Yes, there were ruthless killers among them that thrived on the opportunity provided them by the government. Everybody is not the storybook hero who can stand up to a whole governmental system and a whole military, as a young recruit, on moral grounds. Now, are these boys war criminals or are they too a sort of victim of the Nazi system?

It is very easy to cast those such as Heinrich Himmler and Josef Mengele as war criminals that deserve to be hung, but can you say the same for those that truly were just following orders and those who had no say in the matter? Can you convict those who follows orders for the sake of their own life? Roman Catholic Church doctrine says that to the extent that one's free will is limited, one's responsibility for those actions is just as limited.

This model of limited responsibility with limited will can apply to any situation with military orders and even beyond the scope of the military. I've used the example of the defense used at the Nuremberg war tribunal after World War II because this defense is mostly known through those trials and their defendants. This example also presents a good model for a government or military forcing its citizens or members to perform immoral acts.

My point in this is that all those involved in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany were not war criminals, benign or otherwise, but were simply boys forced into cooperation with the Nazi war machine. Therefore, do not automatically issue a mental guilty conviction to a person whose defense is "I was only following orders". Consider their situation and the extent of their free will, first.

Reference for conscription information: (Insignia section)

pylon makes some interesting points about the excuses used by war criminals following the Second World War. Following the Nuremburg Trials, it became clear that the excuse, "I was only following orders" was an area that needed both clarification and elimination.

As a consequence, both the United States and the United Kingdom enshrined in Service Law the "Nuremburg Principle" which states that although Service personnel have an obligation to obey lawful orders from their superiors, they have both a right and a duty to disobey illegal orders.

The United States Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) 809.ART.90 (20) states that the Serviceman is to obey the "lawful command of his superior officer." 891.ART.91 (2) states that personnel are to obey "the lawful order of a warrant officer" (subject to rank). In both cases - and in others - the emphasis is on lawful orders only. In other words, US military personnel are not required to follow orders that contravene the Laws and Constitution of the United States.

UK Service Law is far more complicated than American Law. The three Services are bound by different acts, including the Air Force (Constitution) Act 1919, the Air Force Act 1955, the Naval Discipline Act 1955, the Army Act 1955, the Military Code 1883 and the Armed Forces Act 1993. They are also bound by separate Queen's Regulations (QRs), with some articles being joint (applicable to the Royal Navy, Royal Marines, Army and Royal Air Force equally). Under British Law, Servicemen are directed to "observe and obey all orders of Her Majesty," (see the node on the RAF Oath of Allegiance) as well as those of their senior officers. This is modified by the fact that under QRs personnel are specifically forbidden to commit any war crimes under any circumstances. The Queen's Commission specifically requires officers to "Observe and follow such Orders and Instructions as from time to time you shall receive from Us, or any superior Officer, according to the Rules and Discipline of War..." This is a clear indication that Officers are not to follow, ergo not to give, orders that contravene the "Rules and Discipline of War," i.e. the Geneva Conventions.

UCMJ has not been invoked often since its implementation. The first major UCMJ-related incident following Nuremburg was during inquiries and subsequent courts-martial following the My Lai Massacre of 16 March, 1968. This incident probably rates as the worst in US post-War military history. A platoon from 11th Brigade, led by First Lieutenant William Calley, herded 327 old men, women and children - even babies - from the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai into a ditch and shot them all dead. Calley's court-martial found him guilty of premeditated murder, and sentenced him to life imprisonment (President Nixon, for unclear reasons, immediately commuted his sentence to three years of house arrest).

The various other courts-martial considered the troops' defence - that they were "only following orders" - in the light of UCMJ. Colin Powell, who was involved in the inquiry, writes in his autobiography that many of the officers and even senior NCOs - the "backbone of the armed forces" - were in many cases just filling dead men's shoes, given their rank purely because there was a requirement for someone to fill the position. Thus the argument, "I was only following orders" became difficult to prove - no-one was really sure who was competent enough to give orders, nor of the mental state (considering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)) of those who followed them. Since PTSD is a mental condition, it renders people unable to assume full responsibility for their own actions.

UCMJ was invoked again during the inquiry into the Iran-Contra Affair, in 1987. Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii told Lt Col Oliver North, the man who carried much of the responsibility for the Affair, that he was breaking his US Oath of Allegiance when he "blindly" followed the orders of President Ronald Reagan. In fact, referring to what Col North should have obeyed:

"The uniform code makes it abundantly clear that it must be the Lawful Orders of a superior officer. In fact it says, 'Members of the military have an obligation to disobey unlawful orders.' This principle was considered so important that we, the government of the United States, proposed that it be internationally applied in the Nuremberg Trials."

UCMJ is yet again being invoked now by some opponents of the recent conflict in Iraq, who claim that the conflict contravened the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions and International Law. Similar arguments with respect to UK Service Law and Queen's Regulations are also being made.

The Nuremburg Trials proved beyond any doubt that if the excuse of "I was only obeying orders" could have a consequence as horrifying as the Holocaust it was imperative that International Law must prevent such an excuse being used and accepted ever again. Most nations signatory to the United Nations Charter also enshrine the Nuremburg Principle in their respective national law. It has doubtless prevented people since the War from following illegal orders. Despite the Nuremburg Trials being primarily a dissection of the most horrific phase in recent history, and a trial for those held responsible, they became a massive influence military law throughout much of the developed world following the War, and as long as the Nuremburg Principle is upheld it is hoped that aberrations like the My Lai Massacre remain little more than that - aberrations, isolated yet terrible events.

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