The Limits Of Obedience: The Lessons Of Ludwig Beck, Claus Von Stauffenberg, and Government Officials In Authoritarian Times

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

While we were in Berlin last year 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.

One of the conspirators, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was well aware of how their actions would be categorized under current German law. The man who planted a bomb and attempted to assassinate and overthrow Hitler noted:

“I know that he who will act will go down in German history as a traitor; but he who can and does not, will be a traitor to his own conscience.” 

He was correct by the law of the times. All of 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.”

Beck also wrote something that is all to important to any military officer, intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as diplomats in such times as we live today:

“Final decisions about the nation’s existence are at stake here; history will incriminate these leaders with bloodguilt if they do not act in accordance with their specialist political knowledge and conscience. Their soldierly obedience reaches its limit when their knowledge, their conscience, and their responsibility forbid carrying out an order.” 

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 Foreign Policy, History, laws and legislation, leadership, Military, national security, nazi germany, News and current events, Political Commentary

3 responses to “The Limits Of Obedience: The Lessons Of Ludwig Beck, Claus Von Stauffenberg, and Government Officials In Authoritarian Times

  1. David Head

    Dear Steve,
    I fight being a patriot with every bone in my body. I can’t see the difference between being a patriot and being a nationalist and ultimately a racist. I’m not proud of being English or a Yorkshireman. I’m sure you’ll agree that there is good and bad in every land.
    Even occasions like sporting events I don’t cheer the Brits. I hate all this flag waving. My favourite tennis player is Romanian and my favourite athlete is German etc etc. I’ve seen my friends and their hate-filled faces for the opposition during international matches. Even during Wimbledon and the sedate tennis crowd cheering when the non-Brits play a bad shot.
    I think it’s probably in our DNA to be tribal but I refuse to be and I’m not.
    I’ve never found anybody who agrees with me but that’s ok.
    I don’t understand treason or agree that it should exist. I see things in black and white and there is either right or wrong and what side a person chooses to be on shouldn’t be decided on nationality.
    God Bless

    • Steven

      Well, I not going to break your string, brother. I don’t believe any human has the perspicacity to absolutely know Right from Wrong. So I would say that your “Nationalism” is an arrogation of State to Self; you have the makings of a fantastic dictator, if you could just manage to **say** the right (wrong) things.

      I think maybe you have patriotism and hate confused. Patriotism is not hate, it is love. A love of the ideal of one’s country. Hate may try to clothe itself in patriotism, as it often tries to clothe itself in a Faith, but a naked emperor is still naked.

      When I see a wealthy, privileged, American, black, football player showing contempt—or “disrespect” if you prefer—for the American flag, it upsets me. This is my patriotism showing itself. That I vociferously defend this wealthy, privileged, American, black, football player’s right to do so is also my patriotism showing itself. The two aspects are in tension. I should think the Founders would be happy. They disliked a status quo.

      I want my adopted country to live up to its ideals, enshrined in the documents which its Founders agonised and argued and, ultimately, compomised, over. Only those they would not give way from remained, even if in giving them voice they made themselves hypocrites.

      So I want to know that those young, wealthy, privileged, American, black, football players are right; they **are** disadvantaged, despite being both wealthy and privileged, and it **is** because they are American blacks. And yet I know, as an absolute fact, that American blacks have fought and died for that flag—their blood is now and forever an indelible and sacred wash of crimson upon that field of white; indistinguishable from mine, from that of any other man or woman who bled or died for everything this nation **should** be. No hatred or fire, no knee or knife, no book or speech or obscene hug can alter that. I have seen it.

      I have brought my wounded soldiers home to that flag, a small, indistinguishable square in the distance, raised contrary to the ROE and to policy; contrary to the objections of the little indigenous forces Colonel in charge of the so-called base; raised by a Spook in a cheap suit wearing a cheap watch, because **his boys** were coming in. I can’t tell you what that feels like. But I am weeping now, if that tells you anything.

      I am a patriot. I am not ashamed of that. I do not believe that makes me “better” than anyone else. But I do believe it helps me keep my country’s interests in mind when my own interests conflict. The Founders would like a true Patriot to insist that the Nation is entitled to precious few of those conflicts, they thought of it as “the common weal”. So I hardly think being a patriot equates to all the evils you and the Padre keep ascribing to it.


  2. Steven

    Hey Padre,

    A non-sequitur.

    I would like everyone to remember that Anastasia Ocasio-Cortez does NOT come from a “safe” seat; if it was so “SAFE” one could say “anything”, the No. 3 Democrat in the Party would not have had his ass stomped in a Primary by a truly grassroots campaign. And it’s too bad Trumpet got away with all his vile abuses of the Constitution to date, but he did, and it is the Democratic Party’s fault (oh yes it is), so let it go. Impeach him for High Crimes on the violation of our Nation’s security for a cheap personal political goal—even worse than Nixon—and get him for that. You fix it on one thing, you start fresh, you pin the GOP to the board on an issue they’ve always claimed to own.

    And get him. Get him because he’s dirty. Because HE is the traitor. That’s all. Stay on target. Shut everyone else up. I don’t care about their phony baloney jobs. I don’t actually like that some of them have served so long they have been in the House longer than I’ve been alive. But if they are ever going to prove that experience matters, now is the hour. He’s a traitor to the Constitution, and the Constitution is the country. You swore it. I bled for it. You fucking owe me. Get it done. Even if you have to throw nice Mr. Pompeo in jail—along with nice Mr. Barr. Do it. You have the power. You’ve spent three years kissing ass. Now stand up.

    It made no sense to wade ashore amid a hail of enemy small arms fire, chest deep in water torn by shellfire, in danger of drowning in the heavy swells, bumping into the bodies of your buddies for a piece of ground no one wanted and we were never going to keep. But your Fathers and Grandfathers did just that across the width and breadth of this world. They didn’t **want** to. They **choose** to. Now it’s your turn.

    To borrow from ERM, “if I have offended any of you, I’m not the least bit sorry.”


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