“If I hadn’t followed orders, I would have been shot myself” the culprits say, and their defense attorneys call it “acting under superior orders” when someone is indicted for crimes committed during World War II. A handy excuse, this alleged moral dilemma. Except that it is a myth.
It was only during an internship with the Central Office for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes that I learnt that no cases are known in which German soldiers or members of the SS were executed for disobeying blatantly illegal orders, like orders for mass shootings of civilians. The worst consequences were the absence of further promotions or being ordered to a different posting, sometimes to a desk job in Germany, which wasn’t very exciting but still better than a winter in Stalingrad.
Unexpectedly, I stumbled across an example a few days ago when I wandered around the southern Italian port city of Trani. In the Square of the Republic, enjoying the shade of the palm trees and listening to the nearby water fountain, there is this memorial:
Rows of names chiseled into a slab of concrete usually remind us of historical catastrophes, and when I read the date of 18 September 1943, I could already imagine what it was about. Two weeks prior, Italy, which had until then fought alongside Nazi Germany, had agreed an armistice with the Allies. All of a sudden, Germans and Italians were no longer partners. The Wehrmacht was now an occupying army and behaved accordingly, offering its typical range of war crimes.
Thus I expected a memorial tablet for another massacre, but stumbled when I got to the passage “… and the noble gesture of the German commander Friedrich Kurtz”. That didn’t fit. Something else must have happened here.
Indeed: a few days before 18 September 1943 five German soldiers had been killed in an ambush close to Trani. The Germans assumed that Italian partisans were the perpetrators and, in line with Wehrmacht custom at that time, First Lieutenant Kurtz received the order to shoot 50 male citizens of the small town as a reprisal. The hostages had already been gathered, the firing squad was ready, when the mayor, the archbishop and the wives of some of the hostages asked to speak with Kurtz.
The German commander permitted them to plead their case and decided in the afternoon that the German forces would leave the town without shooting any of the hostages. The 54 men gathered in the town square survived thanks to this refusal to obey orders. At that time, the Allied forces had already landed on mainland Italy and British troops were just about to take Trani. Kurtz’ decision may have been influenced by this.
An obvious refusal to carry out an order, during wartime, close to the frontline. What happened to First Lieutenant Kurtz? He remained an officer, although he received no further promotion. The same fate befell the (few) German soldiers who refused to obey orders relating to atrocities against the civilian population elsewhere. There is no trace of duress or severe negative consequences.
One month later, on 18 October 1943, the Italian king came to Trani and awarded medals of valor to the mayor and the bishop. But in the decades that followed, the talk of the town again and again returned to the “good German”, whose identity nobody knew and who had never came forth himself. Only in 2003 did a systematic research begin and the lay historians finally identified Friedrich Kurtz. He didn’t notice anything of that or of the inauguration of the memorial in 2005. He had already died in 1993.