The Nuremberg Trials, Heraclitus, and Morality

They say history tends to repeat itself. In a sense this is probably true, people do tend to identify similarities of events in the now with events experienced in the past. But, on the other hand, human knowledge is based only on experience – never on what we will learn in the future. So how could it ever be differently? History repeats itself, at least to a great degree, simply because people have nothing but historic experience to base their assessment on when figuring out what is going on in the now.

But in another sense history does repeat itself. We are but human, and in this sense human action is forever repeated. Also, a society based on the kind of hierarchy that we are currently experiencing, which is really the same as the kind of hierarchy we’ve experienced at least since the stone age, must repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

Some things should however not be the same. As Heraclitus identified already a century before the birth of Socrates, everything is “in flux”:

Everything flows and nothing is left unchanged

This basic knowledge, that nothing is constant except change, is easily applied on the theory of morality behind the well-known Nuremberg Trials after World War II. At least, applying what Heraclitus taught more than 2,500 years ago on the Nuremberg Trials makes an interesting point: public morality has fundamentally changed in the last 50-60 years.

The Nuremberg Trials, for those of you who are not familiar with them, were held after the end of World War II. The trials were officially a way of finding justice through trying those who were suspected of horrific war-crimes. Of course, the true purpose of the trials was really nothing but a way for the victorious “Allies” to legitimize the punishment (in many times death) of German war-criminals.

The interesting things with these trials, however, is how personal responsibility was defined, and what importance the courts gave obviously difficult circumstances. This tells us a lot of what morality was thought to be around this time, i.e. the general understanding of morality.

For instance, security guards of the concentration camps during World War II would be held guilty of their actions – even if the very actions were carried out on direct orders from their superiors. All individuals were simply assumed to have a rather big amount of moral courage. If a superior officer ordered you to do something that you found utterly immoral, you should have refused.

The first of the so-called Nuremberg Principles states exactly this, that the individual is fully responsible for his or her actions:

Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment.

The interesting thing here is that this should, of course, always be the case. But it also shows obvious double standards at the time: the ones retroactively claiming war criminals should have refused to carry out immoral deeds are presumably the same people who demanded obedience of inferiors during the war. What is the standard approach at one time obviously isn’t the standard approach at another.

But this contradiction set aside, what if the Nuremberg Trials were held today? The public morality has changed in such a way with the welfare state that it would probably be acceptable to have carried out horrible deeds if they were ordered by someone of higher rank. As we can see everywhere in contemporary society, claiming non-responsibility due to “someone else” having ordered/asked you to do it is more than common. It is not only a commonly claimed reason for doing bad things, it is also very often considered an acceptable excuse. This was likely not the case in the 1940s.

This change does of course mean that the conflict that existed between first demanding obedience and then demanding moral courage has been wiped out. But it also means that the real morality of people, which has nothing to do with the morality of courts established to deal with actions already made, has changed. Heraclitus would have anticipated and accepted a change, but he would not have anticipated (or accepted?) what kind of change or how quickly it came about. After all, one does not easily change the morality of a whole world in half a century.

It is likely that modern-day Nuremberg Trials would not, at least not to the same extent as the real Nuremberg Trials, find the war criminals guilty. Instead, responsibility would be pushed up to the highest level – whoever actually gave the order resulting in the deed would be held responsible.

In a way this is partly justified, since whoever gave the order is responsible. But that responsibility ends with actually giving the order while assuming it will be carried out – ordering your inferiors to kill in war-time means the exact same thing as making someone carry out a murder on your behalf.

But it does however not mean the one(s) to actually carry out the murder cannot be held responsible. Responsibility, indeed a complex concept, must fall on all those involved to the extent they knowingly acted to do harm. Simply “following orders” is no real excuse to do harm, there is no “licence to kill” and from the perspective of the individual there never can be such a licence. There is also no licence to order someone to do the killing.

Even if we, as a society, haven’t degenerated as far as to not finding anyone at all except for Adolf Hitler himself guilty were the Nuremberg Trials repeated, we are surely heading that way. And this is not a pleasant thought.