The limits of personal responsibility: Auschwitz and Hiroshima

Although subordinates in the military are expected to obey orders, they remain beneath the law. Obeying orders is a personal responsibility, which entails deciding whether they’re lawful or not. Unlawful orders should be challenged or disobeyed. Many Nazis were executed for crimes against humanity1 and their ‘obeying orders’ defence was dismissed. The application of the concept ‘crimes against humanity’ to the deeds of Rudolf Hoss and Paul Tibbetts suggests morally equivalence. Equating an SS officer with a US air force pilot does seems unconscionable but the concept has an unforgiving direction of travel.

Rudolf Hoss was the commandant of Auschwitz, a by-word for man’s inhumanity to man. The industrialised slaughter of about three million men, women and children is of stomach-churning awfulness. After the war Hoss was captured, tried and finally executed on the 16th April 1947. He was found guilty of ‘Nazi crimes against the Polish people’. Hoss estimated about 1.4 million Polish people were slaughtered.2 As commandant Hoss had no plausible defence. He’s the paradigm of the guilty Nazi.

Paul Tibbetts captained Enola Gay which dropped the first atomic bomb. Tibbetts was involved with the Manhattan Project in a top secret posting. He fully understood and celebrated the effects of bombing Hiroshima.3 On the 6th August 1945 about 70,000 died immediately with about the same number dying subsequently. Tibbetts was lauded, decorated and invited to the White House before ending his career as a brigadier-general.

Discussion. The moral equivalence of their actions is located in their knowledge of the ghastly outcomes. Both knew exactly what they were doing and did it. Hoss created an institutional murdering machine. In Auschwitz, the Nazis murdered twenty times more people than died at Hiroshima. Hoss was entirely culpable. He literally saw his victims arrive and the consequences of his actions on a daily basis. Hoss’s actions are those of a murderer: he was there.

Tibbetts had no personal interaction with his victims. Tibbetts dropped his bomb whilst flying at 9470 metres (about 600 metres higher than Everest). The bomb itself exploded 580 metres above Hiroshima. Tibbetts didn’t see the fear, the blinding flare of light, the disintegration of homes and people. He didn’t smell the consequences of incineration: it was a dispassionate job done by a technocrat-pilot. After it successfully exploded he returned to base to a rapturous reception as a hero.4 Tibbetts wasn’t there in the sense that Hoss was, but does that relieve him of guilt?

In about four years the killing machine of Auschwitz perfected a hideous skill culminating in the destruction of the Hungarian Jewish population in 1944. Tibbetts accomplished his slaughter in a single action. The moral equivalence is being a knowing and willing agent of mass murder. Auschwitz exterminated Nazi designated Untermensch (sub-humans) and the ‘A’ bomb slaughtered Japanese civilians in Hiroshima. Tibbetts intended to obliterate Hiroshima and its civilian population, and did. The civilian population of Hiroshima was sacrificed, as it were, as a visual aid. Hiroshima demonstrated to the Japanese high command they could be obliterated. Japan was literally defenceless against the ‘A’ bomb.

Hoss was a senior SS officer ideologically committed to genocide. He embraced Nazi philosophy whereas Tibbetts destroyed Hiroshima for the supposed greater good of America. Hiroshima destroyed the fanatical Japanese population’s will to inflict enormous, futile, losses on an invading American army.5 Tibbetts’ motive wasn’t genocide but the execution of a military strategy, which he deemed lawful. No-one suggests that genocide as committed in Auschwitz was other than unlawful. However slaughtering Hiroshima’s population as a means to an end is also unlawful, rendering the subsequent American explanation as self-serving and specious.

Slaughtering civilians is a crime against humanity. The repulsive Hoss and Tibbetts were both guilty but only one was charged. Chillingly, this means Truman and Hitler shared a moral universe. Identifying an American pilot as a mass murderer alongside SS brutes isn’t sophistry. It’s a critique which reveals the deeply uncomfortable implications of the concept ‘crime against humanity’.


For the purpose of this Statute, “crime against humanity” means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack: (a) Murder; (b) Extermination; p3 There are eleven categories listed but these two are the most pertinent to our discussion.

2 The total death total of Auschwitz was about three million

3 Enola Gay was his mothers name. I’m ignoring ‘Victor’s justice’ this is a discussion of individual responsibility simply using two historic cases to illustrate a point.

4 Tibbetts was inordinately proud of his role in the bombing of Hiroshima

5 The battle of Okinawa gave the Americans a vivid insight into what could well happen if they invaded the Japanese mainland. See


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