No man has to follow orders

Today is about Rumbula and what happened there. The eyewitnesses and the historians agree on what happened. In the Rumbula forest on Nov. 30 and Dec. 8, 1941, 1,700 executioners murdered more than 25,000 Jews.

Of those 1,700 killers, between 1,000 and 1,500 were residents of Latvia drawn from the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst, or the Nazis’ Security Service), precinct police, Rīga city police, battalion police being trained for military action in Russia, and some 100 Latvian ghetto guards. The execution was carried out in the most cruel and heartless way, under the direction of the Nazi Obergruppenfuehrer Friedrich Jeckeln.

The question of why human beings engage in such savagery is not only an anthropological question. If we mean to safeguard civilization and democracy, we have to examine the events and the participants, and we have to understand its relevance to us and to our times.

Recently in Rīga there has been discussion, especially in newspapers, of how to describe the participants in the Rumbula killings. Some people say that not all the Latvians were there voluntarily. Some say nothing done in those times under Nazi occupation was “voluntary.” Some say those were complicated times. Some say that we should not mention the Latvian participation, because it was not voluntary. Some say that we should forget about the Latvian participation.

It is uncanny that some people are adopting the Nuremburg defense used by the Nazis at their postwar trial. They too denied responsibility for their actions, saying they were “just following orders.”

How sad that anyone in today’s free and democratic Latvia would excuse this kind of crime by saying “it was a complicated time” or the executioners were not “volunteers.”

What we have learned from 20th century history is that no man has to follow orders. Each of us has a moral and ethical obligation to do what is right. We have the duty to recognize evil and immoral acts. We have the duty to refuse to take part in them. We are all volunteers on this earth.

And, how do we teach this morality, this internal ethical standard to our children? We teach them the lessons of the past. We do not pretend that evil never happens. We do not cover up the awful truth.

No, we print it in big letters and we make sure everyone reads it. We make sure everyone knows that this was an evil that no one of us must ever let happen again.

That is why we are here today. That is why a monument to the victims of Rumbula matters. That is why it matters what we write on that monument. It is the truth.

One thought on “No man has to follow orders

  1. During my brief search on the internet to find out more about what happened at Rumbula, which I visted during a recent trip to Latvia, I came across the above article which, at the time of writing is now quite old, needs to carry a health warning to alert any casual reader. This sort of soundbite article could have been lifted out of Pravda which even today regards all Latvians as fascists who oppress Russians in a country they still regard as their own. That the writer is the American Ambassador is sad and alarming because if his actions in other areas are based on such incomplete information and a lack of understanding of Latvian history and human nature were are in trouble. For a better understanding, I recommend the writings of Professor Ezergailis which can be found on the internet but require a little more time than the minute or so to read the above article. Yes there was local participation, yes they followed orders but don’t Americans? If not, what are they all doing in Iraq and the Iraqi prisons and Guantanamo Bay? Following orders is an explanation, not an excuse, it is important to understand why orders are followed. What went on in Europe in WW2 can not be adequately understood from the perspective of conditions that existed in the unoccupied safe and comfortable USA and the implied assertion that the Latvians, or the population of any occupied nation, were free to disobey Nazi orders as they pleased without serious consequences. A deeper understanding of what went on is required rather than just the ability to quote the body count and trot out the standard expressions of revulsion and simplistic solutions we clearly have not taken up as evidenced by Cambodia, Rwanda and numerous other conflicts where we can’t be bothered to get involved. If one is to judge a whole nation based on the actions of few and criticise those who wish examine and publish what went on based on detailed research, however uncomforable some may be, then nothing has been learnt.

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