The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

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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
complaint 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

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

                                                  [Page 184]

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

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

                                                  [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

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

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

                                                  [Page 186]

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

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

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

                                                  [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

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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