The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)
Nuremberg, war crimes, crimes against humanity

The Trial of German Major War Criminals

Two Hundred and Twelfth Day: Tuesday, 27th August, 1946
(Part 11 of 11)

[DR. LATERNSER continues]

[Page 183]

A democratic politician may say they could have resigned. That is a practical possibility for a parliamentary minister in a democratic country - a German officer could not resign. He was bound by his military oath which was a supreme obligation to the veteran officer, even more than to anyone else. The German general could only ask for the approval of his resignation. Whether this request was successful or not was outside his influence. Moreover, during the war, Hitler prohibited any such request, and placed resignation on the same footing as desertion. A collective request for resignation, not feasible anyway in practice, would have amounted to mutiny, and would merely have served to bring compliant elements into the leadership, but would never have had enough influence on Hitler to cause him to change his policy, his orders, or his methods. The attempts at resignation which were actually made by some field-marshals, and in particular also by the Commander-in-Chief of the Army in November, 1939, were flatly rejected. The subsequent dismissal was the result of Hitler's decision. The resignation of the field commanders would, nevertheless, have been an obvious duty, and would have had to be effected at all costs, if these leaders had been faced with tasks in which, according to their conception, the honour of the German nation had been at stake. But it was just these tasks, among which I count the mass exterminations and the atrocities in the concentration camps, which were outside the sphere of the generals, and were even carefully kept secret from them.

Now, would open disobedience have been more readily possible, and would it have involved greater chances of success? The American Chief Prosecutor in his report to the President of the United States expresses himself as follows on this point:

"If a soldier drafted into the Army is detailed to an execution squad, he cannot be held responsible for the legality of the sentence he carries out. But the case may be different with a man who by virtue of his rank or the elasticity of the orders given him could act as he saw fit."
This view was not shared by the generals. On the contrary, a simple soldier's disobedience is easily offset in its effect by punishment, but the disobedience of a high military leader is liable to shatter the structure of the Army, and even of the State itself.

If there is anything in the world that is indivisible, it is military obedience.

No one has defined the meaning and the character of a soldier's duty of obedience more correctly than the British Field-Marshal, Lord Montgomery. In a speech which he made at Portsmouth on 2nd July, 1946, he declared that as the servant of the nation the Army is above politics, and so it must remain. Its devotion is given to the State, and it does not behove the soldier to change his devotion on account of his political views. It must be made clear that the Army is not an

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assembly of individuals, but a fighting arm moulded by discipline and controlled by the leader. The essence of democracy is freedom, the essence of the Army is discipline. It does not matter how intelligent the soldier is - the Army would let the nation down if it were not accustomed to obey orders instantaneously. The difficult problem of achieving strict obedience to orders can only be mastered in a democratic age by the inculcation of three principles
1. The nation is something that is worth while;

2. The Army is the necessary arm of the nation;

3. It is the duty of the soldier unquestioningly to obey all orders which the Army, that means the nation, gives him.

And the German generals, according to the opinion expressed by the prosecution, should not only have asked questions when they obeyed the supreme commander and the nation, but they should even have rebelled openly!

Whoever wishes to render a just decision on this question should himself once have been an army commander during a war, at the front, and in particularly serious circumstances, because there is a great difference between the commander at a heavily contested front line, who carries the responsibility for the life and death of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and an officer at the front line who has no responsibility, or who is engaged only in a quiet sector. If the military leaders, nevertheless, unceasingly defended their soldiery conceptions, and acted in accordance with them to the limit of their possibilities, this attitude ultimately produced no other effect than their complete elimination towards the end of the war. This is proved by a short survey of the fate of the military leaders:

Out of seventeen field-marshals who were serving in the Army, ten were relieved of their functions in the course of the war.

Three lost their lives in connection with the events of the 20th July, 1944.

Two were killed in action, one was taken prisoner, and only one single general remained in service until the end of the war without being subjected to any disciplinary action.

Of thirty-six generals (Generalobersten), twenty-six were removed from their posts; among these three were executed in connection with the events of the 20th July, 1944, and two were dishonourably discharged.

Seven were killed in action and only three remained in service until the end of the war without being subjected to disciplinary action.

Those who were subjected to disciplinary action were highly qualified officers who had given a good account of themselves in combat.

Let me recapitulate:

1. Military disobedience is and remains a violation of duty, in time of war a crime punishable with the death penalty.

2. There is no duty to disobey for any soldier in the world as long as States with a sovereignty of their own still exist.

3. Under Hitler's dictatorship, open disobedience would only have led to the destruction of the subordinate, but never to a repeal of the given orders.

4. No class has made, through its highest representatives, such great sacrifices for its conceptions as opposed to Hitler's methods as the circle of officers who are indicted before this Tribunal.

In view of the impossibility and the ineffectiveness of any passive resistance, there would have remained only the method of violence, rebellion and coup d'etat. Whoever contemplated this method had to be aware of the fact that it would have to involve the removal of Hitler and of the leading men of the Party by putting them to death. There was, therefore, at the beginning of each coup d'etat the inexorable compulsion to eliminate Hitler and the leading men of the Party.

To the soldier, this meant murder, and disloyalty to his oath. Even if it is demanded that the generals, for reasons of higher world morals, ought to have sacrificed their personal and military honour how could they have been justified

[Page 185]

in taking such action against the will of the nation, and where could this action have been effected with good chances of success and for the benefit of the people? After the incorporation of the Protectorate, Hitler was at the crest of his successes and was considered by a great many Germans as the greatest of all Germans. Churchill said of him, on the 4th October, 1938, that:
"Our leadership must have at least a fraction of the spirit of that German corporal who, when everything around him had fallen in ruins, when Germany seemed to have sunk into chaos for all time, did not hesitate to march against the formidable phalanx of victorious nations."
Is this not proof enough that the wrath of the German nation would have annihilated the generals who would have laid hands on Hitler? Were the generals to remove Hitler at a time when a peaceful settlement with Poland was still a practical possibility, when it was impossible for the German people to foresee that the war would actually come, and what consequences it would have - as they are today openly visible to all our eyes?

Then war came, and brought with it another and very decisive obligation to the military leaders. Any rebellion in war would have amounted to a catastrophe for the Reich. Even so, as long as there were victories, no rebellion would have had any chance of success. But when it became clear after Stalingrad that the fight was now to be continued for the very existence of the German people, the military leaders had even less the moral right to bring about a collapse of the front lines and the whole country by a coup d'etat In those days, large sections of the German people still believed in Hitler. Would the military leaders not have been made responsible for everything that the German nation is feeling so heavily today as a consequence of the capitulation? Can one really consider a coup d'etat, disloyalty to the given oath and murder as a legal obligation of the soldier in the midst of a war for the very life and death of the nation? As Field-Marshal von Rundstedt said on the witness stand:

"Nothing would have been changed for the German people, but my name would have gone down in history as that of the greatest traitor."
How very much any such attempt was condemned to failure is proved by the unsuccessful attempt on Hitler's life on 20th July, 1944. Even the preparation of this attempt over a number of years and the participation of men from all walks of life were not able to secure its success. How, therefore, could the 129 indicted officers have successfully carried out a coup d'etat?

Certainly, if they had been the closed organization as which the prosecution would so very much like to regard them, they might perhaps also have contemplated a commonly planned violent revolt; but since they were not a closed organization, since they were not politicians, but only soldiers, they could do nothing on their part to bring about a change of conditions. They could only obey to the last, in spite of the fact that they knew how desperate the military situation was! The German military leaders found themselves hemmed in between their rights as men and their duties as soldiers.

As citizens of the State, they might have claimed for themselves the right to refuse service to a Fuehrer and a system which, the longer the war lasted, proved to be more and more harmful. They might thus have evaded their personal responsibility, they might have - as the Prosecutor puts it - "saved their skins." Perhaps they would not now be before this Tribunal. But by taking such a decision, they would, at the same time, have let down their soldiers, who trusted them and for whom they felt responsible. Therefore, there remained for them, as soldiers, only the duty to fight. This "duty" might in a greater sense of the word also have consisted in overthrowing the system. In war, however, this would practically have amounted to nothing less than bringing about defeat.

But that would have been something that no soldier could take upon himself. A military leader cannot, for years, demand of his soldiers to give their lives and then abandon his post himself and go down in history as a traitor to his nation.

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Thus, there remained for the German military leaders only the duty to fight the enemy to the last. Confronted with the tragic decision between personal rights and soldierly duties, they decided in favour of their duties, and thus acted in the spirit of soldierly morale.

What other possibility would have remained open to them to keep themselves and their soldiers free of criminal acts? There was only one single possibility; to circumvent criminal orders, to evade them, or to transform them by additional orders in such a way that the result was in keeping with the soldier's sense of justice and decency. This they did to the limit of their possibilities in order to conduct the military war, which alone was their business, according to the rules of International Law and of humanity. If, besides this, the political and ideological war was carried on by methods which have today exposed the German people to the contempt of the world, the German generals, as a group, have had no part in this kind of war.

I have now reached the end of my observations. I believe I have proved:

1. That the 129 military leaders, whom the prosecution want to indict, were in no respect an "organization" or "group," and represented even less a united will for the execution of criminal acts. These men are not a gang of criminals.

2. That the invented collective term "General Staff and High Command," with which the prosecution designates these officers, represents in reality a purely arbitrary combination of holders of the most varied service posts from quite different periods, and from fundamentally different branches of the armed forces. Chosen without any real justification, and without legal necessity, it can only have the purpose of throwing deliberate slander on the institution of the General Staff, which has been taken as a model by so many nations. What a slogan, indeed, for the International Press: "The German General Staff, a criminal organization!"

I furthermore believe I have proved:

That the military leaders in Hitler's State did not even have the possibility to participate in a political plan, or a political conspiracy, with the object of waging a war of aggression, and even less, actively to assist in it. They constantly uttered warnings, and were finally themselves overrun by the political leadership.

I believe finally I have proved:

That after the outbreak of war the military leaders engaged in passive resistance against Hitler's methods, which disregarded the rules of warfare and of humanity. They thereby, in practice, prevented the commission of crimes against the rules of war and of humanity as far as it was possible, and maintained as soldiers the spirit of Christianity.

If individual officers among the indicted generals have committed crimes, they will know how to account for themselves. The group as a whole is not guilty of the crimes which were committed. On the contrary, this circle of officers was one of the strongholds of decent, humane, and Christian thought. Only an observer who witnessed from near by the enormously difficult situation in which every one of these men found himself can do justice to their attitude. All alone they had to settle the conflict of their conscience, and could not seek assistance in the distress and torment of their conscience by resorting to the deputies of a parliament, to the editors of a free Press, or to prominent influential men of public life - as was possible for the military leaders of the other side.

It was precisely these men who were persecuted with derision and hatred. They were openly, and still more in secret, branded as "reactionary generals," as "dust-covered knights of a medieval code of honour." Not the "great Hitler," but they, were made responsible by Party propaganda for every military setback, they were the traitors and saboteurs to whose sinister influence all misfortunes were due. Without them, Hitler would have won his war.

The abysmal hatred of the mass murderers from the circle around Himmler is persecuting them even in this courtroom, and endeavours by lies and distortions to drag them into their own disaster. The Prosecutor does not realize how much he

[Page 187]

contributes by his theory that Hitler was driven ever farther on by investigators and advisers, and that everything was ultimately the generals' fault, to revive the halo around Hitler, so that Hitler may one day appear, not as the political criminal and the mass murderer of millions of people, but as the tragic hero who was pushed into the abyss by the wretched figures who surrounded him. Does the Prosecutor really wish to challenge the judgment of history in such a way?

History has its own method of judgment. The summary kind of judgment demanded in this case is almost unique in the history of the world. There is practically only one parallel, and it is both a warning and a lesson. On 16th February, 1568, a verdict rendered by the Holy Office condemned all inhabitants of the Netherlands to die as heretics, with the exception of a few specially named cases. The Duke of Alba, who was devoted to his royal master in blind fanatical obedience, was appointed executor of this mass verdict. The judgment of history on this first great manifestation of the idea of collective guilt is well known.

History will write its own judgment on the military leaders with whom we are concerned here, and the German generals believe that they will be able to stand their ground before its verdict. Today, however, we are concerned with the verdict to be rendered by this International Military Tribunal. May the Tribunal not lose sight of the fact that the knowledge which it possesses today of the entire trend of past events - both as regards their external course and their background - was what these men did not have when they made the decisions for which they are to be held responsible today.

These men do not fear for their lives - but their anxiety is concerned with justice! May it please the Tribunal of Nuremberg to render a verdict which, as I said in my opening remarks, is uninfluenced by the passions of everyday life, far removed from blind hatred and vengeance and the petty instincts of retaliation, and which, standing out pure and unfalsified in the face of eternity and of a better future of the nations, is nothing but just!

THE PRESIDENT: The Tribunal will adjourn.

(The Tribunal adjourned until 1000 hours, 28th August, 1946.)

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