Has any military personnel servicing a democratic state been prosecuted according to the fourth Nuremberg principle (superior order)?

  • Democratic is of course a gray scale so give that condition the benefit of a doubt when it is questionable (e.g.m South Africa during apartheid was reasonably democratic (I think) if you where white but not black, and examples from that period would be relevant).

  • The prosecution doesn't have to had taken place in some international court for war criminals, regular national courts, military courts etc are also interesting.

  • The conviction doesn't have to explicitly refer to the fourth Nuremberg principle but should be based on the same "thinking" - just following an order or a law doesn't excuse actions that violates basic human rights.

I am especially interested in cases where non-fighting personnel is involved. E.g., some bureaucrat administrating forced relocation of the civilian population or similar.

I could guess that potential candidates are the Vietnam war, Israel, South Africa during apartheid/the reconciliation process, some of France's adventures in Africa after colonialism etc.

  • 4
    With "fourth Nuremberg principle" you mean the fact, that violating (international) law cannot be excused by saying that it was an order?
    – PMF
    Jul 30, 2022 at 19:22
  • 2
    Why are you Asking that here, rather than through your search engines of choice, please? Jul 30, 2022 at 22:11
  • Just btw it is untrue that black people could not vote in the old SA. They where given there own countries to govern. These countries where never acknowledge by the UN as sovereign nations but the concept was not to refuse them voting rights but rather to give every tribe it's own piece to govern as they see fit. That was the ideal, but then Verwoerd got shot and the national party that took over radicalized the concept and it became what we know it as.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jul 31, 2022 at 18:41
  • @PMF Yes. And I don't think it is limited to international law. At least it shouldn't be.
    – d-b
    Jul 31, 2022 at 22:04
  • @NeilMeyer Interesting, thank you. When you mention it I think I have heard about these internal countries (similar to tribal areas in North America?).
    – d-b
    Jul 31, 2022 at 22:05

2 Answers 2


William Calley

Convicted of 22 counts of premeditated murder during the My Lai massacre, during his defence he testified:

Well, I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job on that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women, and children. They were all classified the same, and that was the classification that we dealt with, just as enemy soldiers...I felt then and I still do that I acted as I was directed, and I carried out the orders that I was given, and I do not feel wrong in doing so, sir.

It didn't work.

  • 10
    Did his defense fail because "just following orders" was not considered a valid defense for killing civilians, or did it fail because the court determined that Calley had not in fact been ordered to kill civilians?
    – Solveit
    Jul 31, 2022 at 3:11
  • 5
    @SolveIt his defense failed because the military tribunal voted to convict. They weren’t required nor did they give reasons.
    – Dale M
    Jul 31, 2022 at 9:17

John Demjanjuk

He was convicted of assistance to murder in 28060 (!) cases. He was only assistant in the concentration camp of Sobibor and as such only recipient of orders. The court however ruled that being part of a "mass murder machine" is enough to be held responsible.

Formally, the sentence never came to force though, because the appeal court did not decide before the accused passed away, aged 91. Note that these crimes where convicted before the Nuremburg trial.

  • 5
    But wasnt he serving (the very much non democratic) nazi government? Jul 30, 2022 at 23:19
  • That's a fair point, but he was convicted by a democratic state.
    – PMF
    Jul 31, 2022 at 6:11
  • 1
    Why aren't all members of the US military convicted on that basis though? Jul 31, 2022 at 22:55
  • @JosephP. Because hopefully, the members of the US military don't commit war crimes. Even if they do, the US generally (as far as I know) has never charged its own soldiers. And the USA still does not accept the international criminal court, just so its soldiers cannot be convicted.
    – PMF
    Aug 1, 2022 at 6:50
  • 1
    @JosephP. Yes, I think it's exactly like that. German courts should however be independent of politics, so they could convict somebody, even if that hurt politics. Has it ever happened, given that there are thousands of American soldiers in Germany? I don't know. Would probably be a good own question.
    – PMF
    Aug 2, 2022 at 5:49

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .