Judaism Today: “We Were Only Following Orders”

It is fascinating to speculate that in the final days of the Nuremberg Trials as the Nazi leaders angrily acknowledged their own defeat, the Third Reich posthumously dealt a blow that would seriously undermine the West for the rest of the twentieth century.

Intentions are not nearly as significant as consequences when the time comes to appraise an act or an idea. Particularly with the passage of time, good intentions can unexpectedly bring about dreadful consequences. When the Allies decided to try the surviving Nazi leaders directly after the end of WWII their admirable intention was to portray publicly the full hideousness of Nazism in the hope of forever ridding the world of its poison. In the process they also repeatedly broadcast the consistent theme of all the Nuremberg defendants until it was the only phrase people could recall from the mind-numbing testimony— “We were only following orders.” So odious did that phrase become, that even now, the West is still reeling from the unintended consequence.

Nuremberg effectively established, albeit unintentionally, the popular conviction that following orders is the road to unfathomable evil. It told us that true moral heroism lies in rejecting authority. When the American generation that was born during the period of the Nuremberg trial reached university age, it took the Nuremberg lesson to heart. “Question Authority” became the rallying cry of the nation’s youth eager to identify itself as more moral than its compliant elders, ignoring the fact that these elders were the ones who had actually fought the war that began and ended in Nuremberg.

In a hundred little ways the culture absorbed the Nuremberg lesson that obeying authority is Teutonic and Nazi-like. First came a rejection of the authority of parents. As the earliest symbol of authority, parents found their role gradually and subtly undermined. During the fifties and sixties, the erosion began as parents and children related as friendly equals. Teachers and educators were next. It was no longer appropriate for professors to grade students, rather the reverse was to take place. Finally, even the government was recognized as an illegitimate agent of authority. Police became “pigs” and soldiers became “baby killers.” Even Senators and Congressmen became warmongers to be bravely challenged. During his days in England, President Clinton played his role in the Nuremberg legacy, although with a dazzling display of self-serving inconsistency he now says that opposing government authority is wrong.

Nowhere, however, was the movement to resist all authority more vigorously pursued than in the area of religion. “Question Authority” led to the questioning of those religious rules that had governed mankind for thousands of years: celibacy before marriage, monogamy within marriage, the values of work and decency, all came under attack. Self-restraint, the crucial gift that Judeo-Christian thought presented to Western Civilization, was replaced with self-esteem. Rabbis, priests, and ministers found themselves automatically discredited unless they joined the rebellion against all authority as so many indeed did.

Those religious leaders who remained faithful to the hierarchical principles of Judeo-Christian thought became suspect as did all individuals who believed in an authority greater than themselves. It was as if the sorcerer’s apprentice was performed on a large scale. Having taken an idea, the sixties’ generation ran away with it beyond the boundaries of common sense, seemingly unable to stop as they damaged both themselves and society. Forgotten was the original source of their unholy credo—The Nuremberg Trials.

We can and must repair this damage to the fabric of our society. We must remind ourselves that loving everybody equally is another way of loving nobody. Insisting that all human ambitions, successes, and outcomes must be equal, welcomes tyranny. One of religion’s most practical functions is to order the world for us. Close relatives are more urgent charity recipients than exotic strangers. One’s own parents must be respected more than other people’s parents, even if these others appear more reasonable than one’s own. Certain acts are greater sins than others. Certain calls are more compelling and virtuous than others. A kind and loving authority that structures our lives, families, and communities and which provides a link to God Himself is not only desirable, but indispensable.


Daniel Lapin (born 1947) is an American Orthodox rabbi, author, public speaker, and heads the American Alliance of Jews and Christians. He was previously the founding rabbi of the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, California. and the former head of Toward Tradition, the Commonwealth Loan Company and the Cascadia Business Institute. Lapin currently hosts a daily television program with his wife Susan and provides spiritual advice to people through his website.

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