The Limit of Soldierly Obedience: Ludwig Beck and a Lesson for Officials in Authoritarian States

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

While we were in Berlin I visited the German Resistance Memorial Center. The museum is located in what was the headquarters of the German Army in World War One, the Weimar Republic, and during the Nazi Era. On July 20th 1944, German Army officers attempted to kill Adolf Hitler, overthrow the Nazi regime, and end the war. Sadly, they failed in their attempt and most of those involved were tried and executed for what their criminal government considered treason.

Of course by the law of their times their act was treasonous, but morally it was all that men and women committed to the rule of law and human rights could do. The officers involved had all sworn a personal oath of obedience to Adolf Hitler as the Führer and Reichskanzler of Germany in 1934. At the time most of the men who swore that oath did not anticipate what would come. Many of the older officers had served in the Imperial Army and sworn an oath to the Kaiser and their dynasties of the lands where they entered service. That changed in 1918 when the Weimar Republic came into existence and military officers as well as civil servants swore an oath to the constitution rather than a person.

A year after Hitler came to power as Reichskanzler, President Hindenburg died. Hitler, seized the opportunity used the occasion to swear the military, as well as the civil service to a new oath. This oath was not to the Constitution, or to Office of thePresidency or Chancellor, but to him personally as the Führer and Reichskanzler.

Most officers and civil servants, even those uncomfortable with Hitler’s policies obeyed their oaths and simply stayed in their lanes and did their jobs, even when they had incontrovertible evidence of Nazi atrocities.

Yet there were others who for a number of reasons, in some cases noble, and in others pragmatic, or even base, decided to break the oath they had sworn to Hitler in 1934. Among these men was General Ludwig Beck. Beck noted:

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.”

With the rise of legally elected authoritarian rulers in Europe and the Americas should concern men and women who have sworn to uphold the constitutions of their countries. These leaders campaigning against democratic institutions, and upon gaining power purge those institutions of opponents and use them to solidify their own power. The veneer of democracy is maintained while the soul of it is crushed. Too often those charged with guarding it are willing participants in its death, soldiers, civil servants, judges, and legislators.

That is what Beck understood. He resigned his office as Chief of Staff of the German Army in 1938 over Hitler’s plan to invade Czechoslovakia, became a member of the anti-Hitler resistance and died in the failed attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20th 1944. He was a career Army officer and a conservative, but he realized that there are limits to obedience in the face of evil.

I fear that there are many men and women in nations whose democratic institutions are being subordinated to authoritarian rulers who will not rise to the occasion and allow those institutions and eventually their nations to perish. Sadly, that also includes those in the United States.

I will leave you with that thought for the evening.

Until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+


Filed under ethics, History, Military, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

2 responses to “The Limit of Soldierly Obedience: Ludwig Beck and a Lesson for Officials in Authoritarian States

  1. Doug Lundy

    Steve, why do you refuse to acknowledge the authoritarian actions of the Obama administration? There are several examples that come to mind, but the one I read about today was Operation Chokepoint. This Obama era program attempted to use federal regulators to cutoff bank funding to businesses such as payday lenders. Outside observers such C. Boyden Gray are crediting the Trump White House and Don McGahan for ending this program. Sounds alot like the authoritarian stance Governor Cuomo is taking against the NRA in New York. The Democrats have no problem with acting like bullies or Antifa when it serves their purposes.

    • padresteve


      I first read about Choke Point in 2014 in the Washington Post. I was uncomfortable with parts of it because they could be used to target political enemies. But despite the rash of recent articles in the Washington Examiner and other RW sites this is really a smokescreen because most of the industries or businesses targeted were those that would under the first 1900 years of Christianity would have been condemned as practicing usury.

      To then throw this up when I am talking about an American President who supports murderous regimes and could easily ignite a disastrous war is disingenuous on your part and to compare this with the manifold number of policies and actions being undertaken by a President who has with a compliant majority in Congress to suppress dissent, quash the First Amendment, disenfranchise voters, imprison children in cages on the border, support and offer encouragement to Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists, while trampling the rule of law at home and abroad.

      My God what have we come to?

      The previous four administrations before Trump have set the stage for more and more authoritarian structures in our government and over that time more often than not the GOP had congressional majorities as well as a conservative Supreme Court.

      I could go on with historical and legal comparisons from American history regarding the NRA and the Scalia reinvention of the 2nd Amendment and how the NRA is spearheading efforts to overthrow State laws which have gun restrictions. In fact the efforts by the NRA and the administration are very much like the actions of Taylor, Pierce, and Buchanan Administrations and the pro-slavery Congressional majorities and the Southern dominated Supreme Court in the 1850s to overthrow Free State protections for free Blacks. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and Dred Scott attacked States Rights, just as are the NRA, its legal arms and the Trump Administration. That my friend is tyranny.

      Here I stand. I can do no other.

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