51A Vane Attempt

"Don't Need a Weatherman To Tell Which Way the Wind Blows" 

A Series of Innocuous Blogs for Vainglorious Edification.


Late 1400s, the period when the first international criminal tribunal tried and convicted an individual for "violating the laws of God and man."  Harvard Law Library
Absolute Obedience
February 9 , 2009
In the year 1474, after being tried and convicted by the first international criminal tribunal, Governor Peter von Hagenbach was executed in Austria.  The tribunal, established by the Archduke of Austria was overseen by 29 Judges representing different states in the Holy Roman Empire.  The Governor, empowered to enforce security in Austria’s upper Rhine territories, was accused of  violation of the “Laws of Man and God” including murder, rape and perjury.   His defense was that he, along with other soldiers were simply following orders.  Hagenbach asked his accusers, "Is it not known that soldiers owe absolute obedience to their superiors?"  

And so the Archduke laid the groundwork for the modern day Nuremberg Trials, the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the International Criminal Court.  The “following orders,” defense has been used by Nazi war criminals, Lt. Cali of Mai Lai infamy, and despot totalitarians for the last five hundred years.  In nearly all war crimes cases  it has failed.  But its failure has not limited its use in more subtle ways even in the present day.  By claiming that “following orders” somehow excuses gross lapses in the moral judgment, the accused seek refuge in numbers.  Like a teenager experimenting with drugs, some believe that claiming “everybody was doing it,” somehow relieves individual responsibility.  The corporate executive views corruption as “accepted business practice.”  Doctors aiding in torture claim to be “caring for patients.”  A lynch mob frantically agrees that “he’s guilty as sin.”

The most disturbing trend in the “following orders” defense is its attempt to spread guilt across multiple parties.  In Salem, Massachusetts it was the entire community that perpetrated the witch hunt.  Where a single person would have had to confront moral and ethical conflict, communal hysteria replaced individual responsibility.  By spreading the guilt around, no one person need face the corrective action of individual guilt or the law.  In essence, the guilty attempt to hide in numbers.  In doing so they allow the power of mob rule to replace the rule of law. 

In 1944 Raul Wallenberg confronted SS Commander General August Schmidthuber with the following message: “I will make sure that you will be charged and hanged as a war criminal if you follow Adolf Eichmann’s order and direct the massacre of 100,000 Jews in the Budapest Central Ghetto.”  Remarkably it worked.  And it is an example of the power of moral behavior confronting immoral behavior.  While the circumstances questioning military authority are more complex than civilian actions alone, the Nuremberg, Mai Lai and Yugoslav verdicts confirm that the highest order of moral responsibility rests in the individual.  We will not, and should not let the actions of a few be diluted across the good will of a community.  If we do so, the disease is spread rather than confronted.  With disease there is usually compromise or a tumor which starts the decrepitude.  The identity and actions of these tumors is what must be dealt with.  In weeding out the rotten apples, the barrel remains healthy.

As we move toward a more holistic approach to life on this Earth, it is imperative to hold the community to the highest order of responsibility.  That does not mean avoiding responsibility for individual actions.  Just as in the past we have not allowed perpetrators of war crimes to hide behind military chains of command - we must not dilute immorality in community.  Actions are decided upon and taken by individuals.  It is up to the community those individuals represent to hold them accountable for their actions.  In any government ultimate power rests in the people, but the abuse of that power rises from the action of individuals.  Holding those individuals responsible for what they do is a part of the healthy, maintenance of the whole.