Just Following Orders?

The truth is that people who pull triggers are ultimately responsible, whether they’re following orders or not. An army of people making individual moral choices may be inefficient, but an army of people ignoring their morality is horrifyingJoel Stein

This is a cropped photo of Germany’s Einsatzgruppen (death squad) murdering Jewish civilians in Ivanhorod, Ukraine in 1942.

In World War II German soldiers committed atrocities during the Holocaust and at the Nuremburg trial, their defense was that they were just “following orders.” Rudolf Hess the commandant at Auschwitz, used the same defense saying: “Don’t you see, we SS men were not supposed to think about these things; it never even occurred to us. . . . We were all so trained to obey orders without even thinking that the thought of disobeying an order would simply never have occurred to anybody, and somebody else would have done just as well if I hadn’t. . . . I really never gave much thought to whether it was wrong. It just seemed a necessity.”

Hess and others followed orders to murder men, women and children. How could he decide that what they were doing was a necessity? Thankfully, the judges at Nuremberg rejected the “following orders” defense. They said that when an individual follows an order that is illegal under international law, he is responsible for that choice, except under certain circumstances. The two circumstances they mentioned was if the individual could prove that he was ignorant of the fact that the order was illegal, he would not be responsible.

However, the judges maintained that it would have been impossible for members of Einsatzgruppen not to know that murdering civilians was both illegal and immoral.  Another exception was if a person obeyed an illegal order to avoid physical harm, torture, or death. The court would not find such a person guilty, however, it is noted by Historian Doris Bergen that, Germans were not forced to be killers. Those who refused to participate were given other assignments or transferred. To this day no one has found an example of a German who was executed for refusing to take part in the killing of Jews or other civilians.

So, there were officers who gave much thought to what they were asked to do and refused to participate in crimes against humanity. Hess and the other Nazis could have refused as well. They didn’t because they wanted to commit atrocities against those whom they believed were subhuman.

Thousands of years ago in Egypt, there were two Hebrew mid-wives, Shiphrah and Puah. They received these orders from Pharaoh, “When you do the duties of a midwife for the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstools, if it is a son, then you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, then she shall live.” Did these women blindly follow the Egyptian king’s orders to murder the Hebrew baby boys? No. They didn’t because they feared God. So, instead of doing what he commanded them to do, they saved the male infants.

When Pharaoh found out, he called them to him and demanded, “Why have you done this thing, and saved the male children alive?”

Their reply was, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are lively and give birth before the midwives come to them.” Clearly, Pharaoh bought their excuse because nothing happened to them. Undoubtedly, God saved their lives.

In response to their courage and faith, God dealt well with the two women and provided households for them because they feared (revered) Him. The Hebrew people multiplied and grew very mighty.  

Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son who is born you shall cast into the river, and every daughter you shall save alive.”

These women couldn’t bring themselves to kill helpless babies because they had the fear of God in them. Their conscience was not seared like that of the German officers who seemed to have no problem killing infants and children. Some of these men had families–children of their own. Pharaoh himself had children yet he had no problem murdering Jewish children.

There is no excuse or defense for mass murder. A person has to consider his or her actions and if what they are asked to do conflicts with their conscience or sense of what is morally right or wrong. It is not enough to say that you were simply following orders (doing what you were told to do).

Source: Facing History

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