What crime would it have been in any Roman, or body of Romans, even without any commission from Rome, to have slain Alarick, or Attila, or Brennus, when they invaded the Roman territories? And what more right had Caesar than they? In truth, his crime was infinitely greater than theirs, as he added the sins of ingratitude, treachery, and parricide, to that of usurpation. The Goths and Gauls did indeed violate the laws of nations, in molesting and invading a country that owed them neither subjection nor homage. But Caesar violated the laws of nature, and of his country, by enslaving those whom he was entrusted and bound to defend.
—Thomas Gordon. Cato’s Letters No. 55, The Lawfulness of killing Julius Caesar considered, and defended, Saturday, December 2, 1721.
The assassination of a tyrant is a moral imperative; to blindly follow a tyrant, or yield to his intimidation, is the dishonorable course. After World War II, German officers sought to excuse their failure to overthrow Hitler on the grounds that they had been made to swear an oath of loyalty to him. But such an oath signifies nothing. Wherever the written law has been overthrown and the constitution trampled, loyalty to the law must be transferred to loyalty to conscience. It follows that Hitler ought to have been assassinated. The fact that he was not is attributable to a failing in the culture of the German people at the time, who were taught from birth to have a higher regard for authority than for morality—this has now changed.
We read historians saying Rommel was a good man. This they say is because he loved his men, treated the enemy with respect, and refused Hitler’s orders to execute allied commandos and Jews. Yet how can it be honorable to fight an unjust war in service of a tyrant? As Thomas Gordon explained:
A man cannot act honourably in a bad cause. That he thinks it a good cause, is not a good excuse; for folly and mistake is not honour: Nor is it a better excuse, that he is engaged in it, and has pledged his faith to support it, and act for it; for this is to engage his honour against honour, and to list his faith in a war against truth. To say that he is ashamed to desert it, is to say that he is ashamed to do an honest thing; and that he prefers false shame to true honour. (Cato’s Letters No. 57, Of false honour, public and private, Saturday, December 16, 1721.)
We must therefore conclude that Rommel and other ‘brave’ Wehrmacht soldiers, like the brave soldiers of Caesar’s Ninth Legion, were not honorable but disgraceful—because no one is honorable who does dishonorable things. The Germans who ought to be venerated today are those who opposed Nazism root and branch, people like Sophie and Hans Scholl, Christoph Probst, and other members of the White Rose resistance movement, and those officers such as Rudolf Christoph Freiherr von Gersdorff, who were prepared to sacrifice themselves to assassinate Hitler. The sentiments expressed by von Gersdorff’s cousin, who committed suicide when the bomb plot against Hitler failed, reflect true honor:
The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in a few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify in good conscience what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if just ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. None of us can bewail his own death; those who consented to join our circle put on the robe of Nessus. A human being’s moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions. (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Eric Metaxas, 2010.)