I learned in High School history class that during the Nuremberg Trials, many of those used a Superior Orders defense to try and get leniency. I also learned that it didn’t work, and I’m okay with that. Nazi officers and soldiers did horrific things that went beyond simple acts of war and just saying “I was just following orders” was gravely insufficient for the acts committed.
All that said, I do wonder how Nazis dealt with an officer or even a soldier who would refuse to participate in something. Did this happen often? I have trouble thinking that Hitler held conscientious objectors in high regard but don’t specifically know how they were handled.
Also, how were Nazis who did object and did were alive when the war ended treated by the conquering Allies?
Germany: circa 23,000 (of circa 30,000 death sentences)
(USSR: 157,000 death sentences; number of executions not stated)
The German figure is sourced in the article, the others apparently not.
The German figure of 23 k executions refers to executed death sentences, i.e. apparently does not include the unknown number of summary executions of deserters by military police in the last months of the war.
Conscientous objection carried a minimum one year sentence in peacetime, and the death penalty in wartime.
I wish I could remember the documentary that where I heard this, but apparently there were cases where officers refused orders to commit atrocities and nothing happened to them. This was due to the order givers wanting to keep things hushed up. This fact was used by prosecutors at Nuremburg to dispell the defense argument about being afraid of the consequences of not following orders.
I sort of remember that from somewhere too, as i remember though it was more substitution of orders. ie “I wont shoot all these prisoners but return them up the line…”
It may have been a drama documentary on Nuremberg (radio 4 BBC) I think Goering used it as part of his defence, his efforts to get Airforce POW’s into his own Luftwaffe police hands rather than the general POW population.
I know a Major[ret] Luftwaffe that refused to join the party, and was pretty stroppy but survived being transferred to a unit on the Eastern Front. They couldn’t ‘disapear’ him because his family was important. Reasonably nice guy too. I don’t think he really directly disobeyed a lot of commands, per se - but his refusal to toe the line and join the Nazi party was apparently a pretty big nono for officers.
This is a complex issue and I’m not sure it has been thoroughly examined.
There is, for instance, the legend of German corporal Josef Schulz who allegedly refused to take part in the execution of Yugoslav partisans and who was in turn shot himself for his insubordination. This legend has been debunked.
The Germans would, in the first place, have looked for volunteers to be members of an execution squad. If a soldier had been ordered to take part and refused, he would have been quietly transfered to a different unit and probably not even disciplined.
Soldiers who were higher up in the food chain (i. e. officers) sometimes requested another assignment. Sometimes, the details of these cases are controversial to this day. There were officers who foresaw that they would be asked to do horrible things and requested another assignment which was denied. They then decided they had to do what they considered their duty and were consequently implicated in crimes. One such case was German politician Hans Filbinger whose past came to light decades after WW II.
Seeing as Nazi party membership in Germany never rose much about 10-15% or so (8.5 mill members in 1945) of the total population, and up until the war (and sometime into it AFAIK) it was illegal for any member of the Wehrmacht (Heer, Marine or Luftwaffe) to be member of any political party, I find it somewhat hard to believe that there would be such pressure on a regular officer to join the Party. Indeed, from the memoirs I’ve read, most officers and enlisted men were very apolitical, especially those who joined the ranks before the war.
As for the OP: I seriously doubt many soldiers or officers who’d refuse to partake in massacres or executons would face much in the way of punishment - generally, as noted by others above, one would strive for volunteers, offering extra rations of alchohol for instance, or simply getting a break from day to day duties to participate. Also, most soldiers/officers executed would have been so towards the end of the war, when things were getting very desperate and Fahneflucht (Desertion) would have been both a massive concern as well as a massive problem for the rapidly dwindling manpower of German units. At this stage I seriously doubt any Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS units had any time to spare partaking in any sort of organized massacres behind the front lines, they were to busy fighting for their lives. (With know exceptions of course, even as late as the summer of 1944 Waffen-SS units carried out massacres in France, and I’m guessing lots of local ones on the retreat in Russia, but I cannot imagine the Germans could organize anything like the progroms of 42/43 in 44 onwards.)
There were conscious efforts put in to keeping military activities and “political” activities separate. The SS had its Einsatzgruppen that were supposed to handle the killing of Commissars, partisans, hostages, and Jews. Both the SS and Army leaders had been told to keep regular troops away from areas where the Einsatzgruppen were “working”.
In the early parts of Barbarossa, regular army units were used for civilian executions. The army objected to this strongly and made a deal with the devil that exempted them from these activities while they turned a blind eye to it. It was during this early part of the Soviet invasion that officers and men that objected to atrocities were not punished.
There was an overlap of reasons why the SS sought control over the murders and the Army handed it over.
Moral reasons: There were people in the military who had moral objections and didn’t want to have the military directly involved.
Empire building: The SS wanted control over the killings because it gave the SS a major mission and increased the importance of the organization. If the military was given responsibility for political killings as well as military fighting, people in the regime might begin asking if the SS was needed.
Secrecy: The SS was able to maintain greater secrecy over the killings than soldiers had. There was a desire to minimize public awareness of the killing program. Public knowledge of it could cause protests from German civilians, propaganda attacks by the allies, and increased resistance from the planned victims.
Enlisted US military here. One of the things they tell is us that we are only required to follow lawful orders handed down to us from our superiors. Any unlawful orders, we have a duty not to follow.
The firs thing we were told to do in this situation is to ask for clarification. So we’re not refusing to follow orders, we’re just not sure we heard right. If the order seems dubious, we’re suggested to ask for it in writing, or something similar that will leave a papertrail, so as to give the higher-up some second thoughts on how much he wants to be attached to it.
That said, they did admit that there could conceivably be a situation where we wouldn’t be able to refuse an unlawful order and still be able to walk away free men (or at all, in theory). In that case, we are to remember our oath to uphold the Constitution, our sense of honor, integrity, doing the right thing, etc. and balance that against the life we already volunteered to give up for all of the above.
Kind of a shitty situation if it were ever to come up, which thus far it hasn’t in my case, nor do I realistically expect it to, or else I probably wouldn’t have reenlisted.