To My Brothers and Sisters in the Law: Remember Professional Ethics in the Face of Tyranny

Some of my readers may be lawyers; certainly some colleagues, friends or members of their families are, so please pass this on if you would like. Many people involved in current immoral and unethical polices such as the forced separation of migrant children are also lawyers.

This is a brief chapter from On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017). Note that the Kindle edition of this essential book is only $3.99. It is the best and most conscientious $3.99 you can spend right now.

5. Remember Professional Ethics (emphases added)

When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important. It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labor.

Before the Second World War, a man named Hans Frank was Hitler’s personal lawyer. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Frank became the governor-general of occupied Poland, a German colony where millions of Jews and other Polish citizens were murdered. He once boasted that there were not enough trees to make the paper for posters that would be needed to announce all of the executions. Frank claimed that law was meant to serve the race, and so what seemed good for the race was therefore the law. With arguments like this, German lawyers could convince themselves that laws and rules were there to serve their projects of conquest and destruction, rather than to hinder them.

The man Hitler chose to oversee the annexation of Austria, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, was a lawyer who later ran the occupation of the Netherlands. Lawyers were vastly overrepresented among the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen, the special task forces who carried out the mass murder of Jews, Gypsies, Polish elites, communists, the handicapped, and others. German (and other) physicians took part in ghastly medical experiments in the concentration camps. Businessmen from I.G. Farben and other German firms exploited the labor of concentration camp inmates, Jews in ghettos, and prisoners of war. Civil servants, from ministers down to secretaries, oversaw and recorded it all.

If lawyers had followed the norm of no execution without trial, if doctors had accepted the rule of no surgery without consent, if businessmen had endorsed the prohibition of slavery, if bureaucrats had refused to handle paperwork involving murder, then the Nazi regime would have been much harder pressed to carry out the atrocities by which we remember it.

Professions can create forms of ethical conversation that are impossible between a lonely individual and a distant government. If members of professions think of themselves as groups with common interests, with norms and rules that oblige them at all times, then they can gain confidence and indeed a certain kind of power. Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional. Then there is no such thing as “just following orders.” If members of the professions confuse their specific ethics with the emotions of the moment, however, they can find themselves saying and doing things that they might previously have thought unimaginable.