I was only following orders?

When we see in the news that another former Nazi is on trial for “war crimes”, (like he was a former guard in a concentration camp or whatever), very often we hear their defense that they “were only following orders”. We as a society say, “That’s not good enough”.

My question is, why isn’t that good enough?

I was never in the military service, but are you free to pick and choose what orders you will obey? I thought that if your commanding officer tells you to do something, you do it, period.

If your commanding officer says go over by that tree and kill the enemy; you aren’t free to say, “Gee, I think this is wrong. I don’t think I’ll be doing that today”. I would imagine you would be in a heap of trouble if you said that.

So if “I was only following orders” is not a defense, what procedure should they have followed 60 years ago to avoid trouble?

No, the ‘Good Nazi’ Defense is never admissible nor acceptable. Each person is responsible for the legality and morality of his own actions.

Soldiers are required by law to refuse an unethical or illegal order. While ethical may be a bit of a gray area, all soldiers are taught about proper rules of engagement, who it is permissable to kill and under what circumstances, and so on. As a current example, consider the prison abuse scandal, where many involved say they were following orders to abuse prisoners. That does not excuse their crime and so they are being court-martialed. (Neither, of course, does it excuse the people who gave the orders in the first place.)

You are duty bound to follow any LEGAL order. If an Army convoy were driving through the German countryside today, and the Captain told his company to dismount and attack a small village, destroy it, and kill everyone in it, the soldiers under his command are duty bound to REFUSE that order. That is an extreme example, and the close you get to “the line” between legal and illegal, the harder it gets to make that call.

Legal can mean in violation of the Law of War, the Geneva Convention, and other treaties. Captains do not declare wars, and no such action is authorized (unless attacked) without the go-ahead from the National Security Council.

IAN in the military, but I believe the idea is that a soldier is only required to follow legal orders. For example, a commander can tell a soldier to go shoot the enemy in combat, since killing the enemy is legal. However, the commander cannot tell a soldier to rape a local villager, for example. Such a command is illegal. The soldier should refuse the order and report it to his/her higher ups and if the soldier follows through with it, he would probably be prosecuted for it.

Zev Steinhardt

Even if he would have been shot/killed if he hadn’t?

I always thought that “Following orders” was the same sort of defense as Duress

So, with regard to what the German soldiers could have done 60 years ago to avoid getting into trouble (both at the time and in the aftermath) you would need to find out if there was a similar law on the German statute.

No, the fact that the world kicked Germany’s ass means that they get to decide what’s ethical and what’s not. Victor’s justice, and all that.

Duress isn’t a valid defense for murder.

Hind sight is always 20/20. I was thinking along the lines of cloudclever, that there may have been the fear of court martial, or prison, or execution for refusal.

Or maybe they were so convinced they would be victorious in the end, and they would never have to answer to anyone.

What I meant was, in answer to the OP, you would need to know if there was such a law on the German statute so that a German soldier could have avoided getting into trouble both at the time and in the aftermath.

No, according to the Military Penal Law resisting an order was never allowed, but if the order was illegal the punishment for resisting it was reduced. Not obeying an order “in presence of the enemy” carried a death sentence. This was converted to not less than three years in prison.

According to the same law only the superior was held responsible for illegal orders, unless the soldier exceeded the order or knew that the order was intended to break the law. Then he could be held responsible as a “participant” in certain cases.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the extermination camps were not strictly speaking a military operation. The Nazis were a political organization and most of the SS was a paramilitary organization. So the people running Auschwitz couldn’t claim after the fact that they were subject to military orders.

Something else that might be of interest is the Milgram experiment.

This famous psychological experiment determined that (at least under the conditions of the experiment) many people would follow orders that conflicted with their conscience.