Hitler's Level of Accountability

I have been wondering about the status of someone like Hitler who did not actually kill the 6 million with his own hands, but ordered it done by his emissaries. Does murder by his agents put him into the category of a mass murderer for all those they killed? Or does that just make him evil? Since the ones who perpetrated the murders all had free will, perhaps only they are actually considered "murderers" while their Fuhrer is technically exonerated from those acts? Just wondering.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

You are asking a dual question: What is the culpability of one who hires or orders one to do a sin, in this case, murder? Secondly, if the director of the act is culpable, does that release his messengers from their responsibility of murder and all the blame goes to him?

In the Talmud, the opinion of Shamai is that if one sends an agent to murder someone, the agent is considered the murderer and not the one who sent him. The majority opinion, however, disagrees with Shamai and holds that the dispatcher is a murderer. (Kiddushin 43a)

Maimonides, when codifying this law, writes: "...One who hires a killer to murder another, or sent his slave to do so... is a spiller of blood and the sin of murder is on his hands; he deserves the punishment of 'death by Heaven' but he does not receive the death penalty by a court of Jewish law..." (Laws of Murder 2:2)

We see clearly that according to Jewish law one who hires or orders another to murder is considered a murderer himself. This is one of a number of examples where, due to the lack of a clear action, one is considered a murderer in the "heavenly court" although a penalty in a Beis Din or Jewish court could not be meted out; it is left to the "heavenly court" to exact justice. We similarly find that King Saul was considered a murderer for sending his army to kill the inhabitants of Nov, the city of the priests, (see 2-Samuel 21:1, with Rashi, and verses 1-10).

The question still remains as to the responsibility of the messenger who actually perpetrated the murder; does the culpability of the dispatcher release him from blame?

The Maharal (16th century Prague) says that when Esav was coming to kill Jacob, not only he but all his 400 warriors were liable for the death penalty. Although the 400 were coming by force of their king and commander, Esav. Murder, being one of the three cardinal sins, obligates one to forfeit his own life rather than murder another. The fact that Esav would kill them if they did not carry out his command is therefore not an excuse which would release his men from blame (Gur Aryeh, Genesis 32:8).

All this, and other sources out of the scope of this column, show clearly that Hitler was not only evil, but a mass murderer, personally responsible for the murders of every one of the 6 million Jews as well as many millions of gentiles. His henchmen who carried out his evil will remain fully responsible as well; the "Fuehrer's" command does not exonerate them from full personal culpability.

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