Tag Archives: law

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,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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

“Silence in the Face of Evil is Evil Itself” A Critique of Politeness and Civility When Confronting Injustice and Evil

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the words “silence in the face of evil is evil itself.”

This is a very difficult article to write because truthfully I believe that civility and mutual respect should be an ideal that we as Americans should not retreat from, as John F. Kennedy noted:

“So let us begin a new remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

I have written about that a number of times, the last being on November 22nd 2016 shortly after President Trump’s election and on the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. However, since that time I have seen the President lead a descent into depravity that I fully comprehended then, though I hoped for a different outcome.

The fact is that the President has in his words, deeds, and tweets destroyed any hope of our political divide being healed, or of Americans of different viewpoints being able to reconcile their differences anytime in the foreseeable future. He stokes the hatred and division almost on an hourly basis, and of course his opponents having become wise to him are rolling up their sleeves and fighting back.

Too me that is an unfortunate situation that might become a tragedy for the United States and the world, as Abraham Lincoln noted “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” To GOP Congressman Steve King of Iowa the sight and sound of Trump’s opponents is like “Harpers Ferry” and what comes next will be “Fort Sumter.” Since King proudly displays the Confederate Battle Flag in his office I know exactly what side of this fight that he is on.

The fact is that he and many like him want bloodshed, they want Civil War, they want to remake the Union in a way that Jefferson Davis and his band of traitors failed to do. As a historian of the period with a book awaiting publication the fact is that in the end it comes down to the fact that King, many of the President’s supporters and quite probably the President himself are all White Supremacists. They want a full and complete return to White Man’s Rule and the subservience of all non-white races and non-Christian religions to it. They are the Know Nothings of the North and Slave Power Secessionists of the South rolled into one package of ignorance, incivility, and hatred.

I write often about comparisons of the attitudes and actions administration and its supporters to Nazi Germany, but truth be told there is a lot of dirty laundry in our own history that sheds light on Trump and his supporters.

The fact is that for nearly three decades the vast majority of Northerners were too polite to criticize the egregious actions of the Know Nothings in their midst or the Southern Slave Power Block that dominated the presidency, Congress, and the Supreme Court for the three decades prior to the War of the Rebellion, also known as the American Civil War, or the War Between the States. Honestly, I think that the term ascribed to it by many Union Veterans in the Grand Army of the Republic after the war, the “War of the Rebellion” is the best.

Those opposed to the Know Nothings and Slave Power Block were condemned as being rude, impolite, and worse. Some were physical assaulted. In 1856 Senator Charles Sumner was attacked by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina on the floor of the Senate for his speech against the Kansas Nebraska Act. Sumner was beaten until he was unconscious and Brooks’ heavy cane which he used to conduct the attack broke. Brooks continued to beat Sumner aided by Representative Lawrence Keitt also of South Carolina who brandishing a pistol threatened Senators coming to his aid. Sumner has proclaimed no threats of violence but only spoken the truth about the Act and those that supported it. So much for civility and now.

The scurrilous and overtly violent threats against minorities and civil rights advocates by conservatives, especially White Christian conservatives have continued unabated since from the ante-Bellum South and the Know Nothing North, through the War of the Rebellion, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, to the modern day. Whole political campaigns including that of George H.W. Bush run by Lee Atwater turned on the demonization of African Americans. The same is true regarding the Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, and again even more so from the time that Candidate Donald Trump descended to the lobby of Trump Tower in 2015 until now. The President proclaims that White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis are “very fine people.”

The President and many of his followers including administration officials like Stephen Miller set the tone while Presidential spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies and denies the President’s words and vilifies anyone that dares to question her. So when she is asked to leave a restaurant, or when Miller or DHS Secretary Nielsen are shamed when trying to enter Mexican restaurants it makes makes my heart bleed. People who have no compassion, no sense of empathy and behave as sociopaths and then act the victim when the tables are turned only deserve scorn.

Their anti-immigrant and often blatantly racist tropes of the President, his administration, and his supporters on the Fox Propaganda Network, the Right Wing media, the Putrid Princes of the Captive Conservative Church, and his assorted sordid supporters should be condemned and opposed around the clock. If they are not then any of us who remain silent knowing the evil of these policies is as guilty as anyone that turned their backs on the Jews in Nazi Germany. The higher the office the greater the guilt and culpability.

That being said if had the chance to see any one of them in a public setting I would not resort to public shaming. I do not own a restaurant or business so I could not ask them to leave. However, that being said if any of them the President himself presented themselves to me at my chapel or any civilian church that I might be celebrating the Eucharist I would deny them communion which from a Christian point of view is “a fate worse than a fate worse than death.”

Bonhoeffer wrote:

“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.”

As for me I must tell the truth and protest against the violence and the arbitrary pride of power exhibited by the Trump administration and its supporters. I could not live with myself if I didn’t do so. Some might think this political and in some sense it is, but it is entirely based on my understanding of the Christian faith and the very premise of the founders of this country, that phrase in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them being life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

If need be I would die for that faith and that proposition and I will not be silent in the face of evil.

So until tomorrow,

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Do You wish to Resign? Oaths, Star Trek & Kim Davis

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

We are returning home from Germany and the Oktoberfest today, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, as they say in Appalachia we should be home tonight. This post too was written and scheduled for publication before the trip. I do promise to write some articles about the trip to Munich, as well as our trips to Salzburg and Nuremberg over the next week or so.

But that being said, I was watching an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation before I we left for our trip to Germany on Thursday night, and there was a remarkable scene that occurred between Captain Jean Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) and Lieutenant Worf (Michael Dorn).

I think that the scene is especially pertinent in light of the controversy regarding the recalcitrant county clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, Mrs. Kim Davis and her defiance of her oath of office in regard to issuing marriage licensees to Gay couples. In the episode, Worf avenges the murder of his mate by killing the man who killed her, a man who had also used his position to falsely accuse Worf’s father as and by Klingon law, Worf as traitors.

After Worf kills the man and returns to the Enterprise he claims that he has simply acted according to Klingon tradition. The response does not satisfy Picard who dresses Worf down. Picard notes that while Worf’s actions may be in accord with Klingon tradition that they are not in compliance with the oath that Worf, like all Starfleet officers swore to uphold:

“The High Council would seem to agree; they consider the matter closed. I don’t. Mr. Worf, the Enterprise crew currently includes representatives from thirteen planets. They each have their individual beliefs and values and I respect them all. But they have all chosen to serve Starfleet. If anyone cannot perform his or her duty, because of the demands of their society, they should resign. – Do you wish to resign?”

That is something that I think matters. In a country like the United States, composed of so many people of different races, cultures, ethnic groups, and religions there are bound to be times that the beliefs of certain people come in conflict with the oaths that they swear to the Constitution. In fact I would dare say that at any given time almost any American can find themselves disagreeing with the Constitution, the law and the government. That is something that our founders in their wisdom understood. Sadly, many Americans cannot understand that simple truth and assume that their personal beliefs, religious or otherwise trump the Constitution and any oaths that they have solemnly sworn, often in the name of God.

The fact is that without a respect for one another, and without understanding that we can all have our own beliefs, yet still agree to take oaths to uphold the law and defend the rights of people that we may not agree, that there is no freedom, only anarchy.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Shades of Gray

“ASSUMED? Brother, I’ve seen all kinds of dishonesty in my day, but this little display takes the cake. Y’all come in here with your hearts bleedin’ all over the floor about slum kids and injustice; you listen to some fairy tales; suddenly you start gettin’ through to some of these old ladies… well, you’re not getting through to me, I’ve had enough! WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU GUYS? You all know he’s guilty. He’s got to burn! You’re letting him slip through our fingers.” Juror Number (Lee J Cobb) Three Twelve Angry Men

I have had a very busy and stressful few days and I am finishing this article before boarding a flight home to the United States from Europe.  In that time I have come to appreciate our system of justice especially that found in our civil and criminal courts.  I have also come to believe over the course of years that no matter what court system, civilian, federal, state local or military that sometimes there are situations where injustice occurs within the system because people are people. No matter how hard we try to make the system perfect and just there are times when it doesn’t fully work.  Innocent people are jailed and guilty people go free. It happens at every type of court of justice simply because imperfect people with all of their attendant life experience, prejudices and emotions must determine the guilt or innocence of people beyond a reasonable doubt.

Those prejudices can be seen all the time. Some people because of race, gender, status in life or sexual preference do not receive the same measure of justice as others. Certain ethnic groups can receive different measures of justice based on where the trial is held while others may not even be prosecuted for crimes that elsewhere would land people in jail.  Prosecutors and media can demonize the accused before and during a trial process so badly that even if the accused is acquitted he or she may still bear the guilt the rest of their life in the eyes of his or her fellow citizens.

Sometimes our justice system works well and sometimes, at least in some of our views it doesn’t.  At the same time it is usually far better than the systems of most of the rest of the world.  For the most part our judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys and juries selected from our peers do a good job and try hard to find a good and just verdict.  At the same time our system is not perfect. As I mentioned sometimes the guilt go free while innocent people are convicted. Other times certain prejudices override the nature of a crime while even more common now are the mandatory sentencing guidelines that condemn people convicted of certain crimes, even when those crimes have little impact even on the alleged victims to consequences that last far beyond the actual sentence imposed. Of course those guidelines, regardless of the type of crime committed usually were legislated because someone got away with something and legislators decided that they would shackle courts with guidelines which took away from judges and juries any leeway to do differently.

This week I saw some very good men and women in our military justice system wrestle with the guilt of an officer and a friend.  I think that the judge and members of the jury took their job seriously and worked hard to do the best that they could with what was a very convoluted and complicated case, one that I think never should have gone to trial.  I think that with what they had as evidence they did their best and acted with integrity. I cannot question the integrity or honor of the military judge or the jury, but I do wonder about the case itself and the motivations of the young prosecutor who I think was out not to serve justice but to build a resume. However, my friend was found guilty but the prosecutor did not get nearly what he asked, and that was a good thing, and hopefully as he gets older, becomes more experienced in life and law he will be more judicious in how he handles such cases.  I do think that my friend stands a good chance of prevailing in the appellate process do the elements involved in the case and how the government put it together, but in the interregnum my friend will have a difficult time.  Thankfully he will not be alone. As a Christian, friend and Priest I cannot abandon someone simply because they have been found guilty of a crime.

Back when I was a young Army Officer I was a company commander and served as a personnel officer.  In both capacities I was involved in the military justice system. As a commander I actually had to make decisions about the guilt or innocence of soldiers or refer their cases to commanders or courts higher than my level of authority. As a personnel officer I was often involved in the administrative and investigative process.  In those days as a young officer I saw things in a very black and white manner, no shades of gray. The prosecutor in those days was was always my friend and defense attorneys were simply impediments to convictions.

I have grown up and in life have discovered that things are not nearly as clear cut as I would have like to have believed when I was young.  In fact now I am a big fan of defense attorneys because in many cases good defense attorneys are a last bastion against a society and criminal justice system that is ever more ready to presume guilt even before a case is adjudicated.  Sometimes even after an acquittal the public will never be persuaded that someone is innocent.

There are shades of gray that sometimes are not addressed in the system and sometimes do to well meaning legislation keep judges and juries from making decisions in those gray areas because elected officials have decided that there can be no gray areas.  I think that such laws sometimes do more harm than good to our justice system. But then what do I know?

Sometimes I hate being a historian. I know that in other countries where people are frustrated and use the law as a tool for vengeance, retribution and settling scores with people, parties and groups that they blame for their own woes, real or imagined.  So I do worry about the future of justice in our country when I see laws passed that bind judges, juries which seek not only to ensure that a person convicted of a crime repay his or her debt to society, but suffer for it the rest of they lives even after the actual punishment is served.

But then what do I know?

Peace

Padre Steve+

Padre Steve+

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