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The moral equality of combatants
The moral equality of combatants

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The case of Hitler’s generals


Consider now the […] case of Erwin Rommel: […] one of Hitler’s generals, and it is hard to imagine that he could have escaped the moral infamy of the war he fought. Yet he was, so we are told by one biographer after another, an honorable man. ‘While many of his colleagues and peers in the German army surrendered their honor by collusion with the iniquities of Nazism, Rommel was never defiled.’ He concentrated, like the professional he was, on ‘the soldier’s task of fighting’. And when he fought, he maintained the rules of war. He fought a bad war well, not only militarily but also morally. ‘It was Rommel who burned the Commando Order issued by Hitler on 28 October 1942, which laid down that all enemy soldiers encountered behind the German line were to be killed at once …’ He was one of Hitler’s generals, but he did not shoot prisoners. Is such a man a comrade? Can one treat him with courtesy, can one shake his hand? These are the fine points of moral conduct; I do not know how they might be resolved […] But I am sure, nevertheless, that Rommel should be praised for burning the Commando Order, and everyone who writes about these matters seems equally sure, and that implies something very important about the nature of war.

It would be very odd to praise Rommel for not killing prisoners unless we simultaneously refused to blame him for Hitler’s aggressive wars. For otherwise he is simply a criminal, and all the fighting he does is murder or attempted murder, whether he aims at soldiers in battle or at prisoners or at civilians. The chief British prosecutor at Nuremberg put this argument into the language of international law when he said, ‘The killing of combatants is justifiable … only where the war itself is legal. But where the war is illegal … there is nothing to justify the killing and these murders are not to be distinguished from those of any other lawless robber bands.’ And then Rommel’s case would be exactly like that of a man who invades someone else’s home and kills only some of the inhabitants, sparing the children, say, or an aged grandmother: a murderer, no doubt, though not one without a drop of human kindness. But we don’t view Rommel that way: why not? The reason has to do with the distinction of jus ad bellum and jus in bello . We draw a line between the war itself, for which soldiers are not responsible, and the conduct of the war, for which they are responsible, at least within their own sphere of activity. Generals may well straddle the line, but that only suggests that we know pretty well where it should be drawn. We draw it by recognizing the nature of political obedience. Rommel was a servant, not a ruler, of the German state; he did not choose the wars he fought but, like Prince Andrey, served his ‘Tsar and country’. We still have misgivings in his case, and will continue to have them, for he was more than just unlucky in his ‘Tsar and country’. But by and large we don’t blame a soldier, even a general, who fights for his own government. He is not the member of a robber band, a willful wrongdoer, but a loyal and obedient subject and citizen, acting sometimes at great personal risk in a way he thinks is right. We allow him to say what an English soldier says in Shakespeare’s Henry V : ‘We know enough if we know we are the king’s men. Our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.’ Not that his obedience can never be criminal; for when he violates the rules of war, superior orders are no defence. The atrocities that he commits are his own; the war is not. It is conceived, both in international law and in ordinary moral judgment, as the king’s business – a matter of state policy, not of individual volition, except when the individual is the king.

It might, however, be thought a matter of individual volition whether particular men join the army and participate in the war. Catholic writers have long argued that they ought not to volunteer, ought not to serve at all, if they know the war to be unjust. But the knowledge required by Catholic doctrine is hard to come by; and in case of doubt, argues the best of the Schoolmen, Francisco de Vitoria, subjects must fight – the guilt falling, as in Henry V , on their leaders. Vitoria’s argument suggests how firmly political life is set, even in the pre-modern state, against the very idea of volition in time of war. ‘A prince is not able,’ he writes, ‘and ought not always to render reasons for the war to his subjects, and if the subjects cannot serve in the war except they are first satisfied of its justice, the state would fall into grave peril …’ Today, of course, most princes work hard to satisfy their subjects of the justice of their wars; they ‘render reasons’, though not always honest ones. It takes courage to doubt these reasons, or to doubt them in public; and so long as they are only doubted, most men will be persuaded (by arguments something like Vitoria’s) to fight. Their routine habits of law-abidingness, their fear, their patriotism, their moral investment in the state, all favor that course. Or, alternatively, they are so terribly young when the disciplinary system of the state catches them up and sends them into war that they can hardly be said to make a moral decision at all:

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State.

And then how can we blame them for (what we perceive to be) the wrongful character of their war?

Soldiers are not, however, entirely without volition. Their will is independent and effective only within a limited sphere, and for most of them that sphere is narrow. But except in extreme cases, it never completely disappears. And at those moments in the course of the fighting when they must choose, like Rommel, to kill prisoners or let them live, they are not mere victims or servants bound to obedience; they are responsible for what they do. We shall have to qualify that responsibility when we come to consider it in detail, for war is still hell, and hell is a tyranny where soldiers are subject to all sorts of duress. But the judgments we actually make of their conduct demonstrate, I think, that within that tyranny we have carved out a constitutional regime: even the pawns of war have rights and obligations.

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