One of the most well-known defenses of abhorrent behavior in the 20th century was the claim that one was simply “following orders.” It’s been used throughout history, but it’s more closely associated with the Nuremberg trials than anything else, and while some people may think that this helped the defendants get off with a lenient sentence, it actually hindered their defense.
Everyone on trial was allowed to choose their own lawyer and come up with their own defense strategy, but the defendants worked from a bag of similar tricks. Initially, the defendants claimed that the London Charter was a prime example of ex post facto law, or laws that were made after their crimes were committed. Other defendants argued that the trials were nothing more than the Allies carrying out a final, brutal assault on their enemies. However, the most well-used defense was the assertion “I was only following orders.”
Many defendants at Nuremberg claimed that, while they knew what Hitler was doing was unlawful, they followed through because they had no other choice. The Führerprinzip (leader principle) governed the Nazi regime, they said, and under that system, stepping out of line was a major no-no. Rather than let the defendants off with a slap on the wrist, the tribunal agreed that obedience was no excuse for genocide.