The Long View: Hitler’s willing executioners


Hitler’s willing executioners

That is the title of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s 1996 book where he argued that the Holocaust could only have taken place if a lot more people were involved in it, and not just the SS and the Gestapo of the Third Reich. Goldhagen painfully detailed how the murders required the participation of the German army and police, or other Europeans collaborating with the Nazis.

Reviewing the book, Peter Pulzer seized on the defense later given by soldiers and policemen: They simply obeyed orders. There is a German word for this blind obedience, he said—Kadavergehorsam,” literally, “obedience unto death.” This excuse is now known as the “Nuremberg Defense” because it was invoked during the trial of the Nazi leadership after World War II.

Today, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Article 33) states that obeying orders does not diminish responsibility for crimes unless the person was legally obligated to obey, or if the person didn’t know the order was unlawful, or “was not manifestly unlawful” but in any case, genocide and crimes against humanity must always be considered manifestly unlawful.

This reveals the soldier’s dilemma: Obey, or be court-martialed. But how to make the determination of an illegal in a hurry? Obey, unless it is quite obviously illegal. When in doubt, demand an order in writing.

The Holocaust Denier David Irving has spent years flamboyantly challenging historians to produce written evidence that Hitler ordered the extermination of the Jews. The paper trail, he claims, extended only to Hitler’s henchmen, Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering. (Anyone wanting to know more would do well to watch two films: HBO’s “Conspiracy” about the Wannsee Conference, and the recently-released “Denial,” about Irving’s libel suit against historian Deborah Lipstadt.) Historians counter by pointing out it was in the nature of the dictatorship for Hitler to order verbally what he would not put down on paper; the actions of a government under his total control speak for themselves as to Hitler’s culpability and intent.

Back to Pulzer, his review found Goldhagen’s repeated assertion (that the policies of Hitler were very popular) problematic.

A similar debate pops up from time to time about the Marcos dictatorship. If, for example, the dictator rigged the plebiscites he repeatedly called to validate his rule, then their results suggest neither popularity nor anything other than the suppression of actual public opinion. Given the fact that referendums, news and opinions were all tightly-controlled by a regime that thrived on fear, how could anyone tell popularity apart from propaganda?

In a sense, poring over public opinion survey results on  the national leadership and war on drugs brings up a similar dilemma. The war and its supreme leader are popular; yet the people feel anxiety and fear; then what kind of popularity can there be, built on such foundations?

All these raise the combined question of what happens when a leader, through informal orders, turns the entire state apparatus against a section of the population, relying on the obedience of subordinates to implement the leader’s desire for mass slaughter.

Two recent events reveal two ways to handle such orders. The first was the public confession the other day of Arthur Lascañas, who, against all self-interest (remember, he has admitted to committing perjury and murders that open him up for prosecution): Here, informal orders are fulfilled by people in authority. The second was the public reluctance of the Armed Forces to participate in the war on drugs unless it received explicit orders, and its decision to designate a battalion-strength unit to “support” PDEA in its antidrug operations.

Written orders make the one giving the order (the commander in chief) liable while they act as “insurance”  against liability for the military (the soldiers have to comply); absent that, they will, as they always have, limit their exposure to the methods of the police by supporting operations, but ensuring they hand over any suspects alive. What happens afterwards is the police’s problem and accountability.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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