In the Nuremberg war crimes trials following World War II, the Allies took the high-minded position that “just following orders” was no defense to “crimes against humanity” committed during wartime. It is and has always been much easier to argue for defying military orders in the abstract, however, than in real combat situations. Conveniently, the victors in a war can take such a position, even knowing in their hearts, as most honest soldiers do, that they themselves might not be able to muster the courage and conviction to tell a commanding officer, “No!”
Henri Salmide, a former German soldier in World War II who died in France this week, would have been an appropriate judge for the trials, for he would not have been plagued by any such conflict or hypocrisy. For Salmide, back when he was called by his birth name of Heinz Stahlschmidt, was a rare and remarkable man who did defy an order he knew was wrong, and saved a city with his courageous, dangerous, and principled actions.
In 1944, Salmide was a German officer in the 159th Infantry Division of the German army occupying the French city of Bordeaux, the largest seaport on the west coast. It was August 19, and Allied Forces were spreading out from the beaches at Normandy and taking control of the war. An order came from Berlin calling on the Division to destroy the entire seven miles of port infrastructure before abandoning the city. The port’s destruction was scheduled to occur within a week.
“It fell to me,” Salmide recounted in an interview, because, as head of the bomb disposal unity, he had expertise with explosives. “I couldn’t do it. I knew the war was lost. What was the point of this, I asked myself. People would die and suffer, and the war would still be lost by Germany.”
On August 22, he filled a bunker at the docks with detonators, plungers, timers and other hardware needed for the planned demolition. But instead of using them to destroy Bordeaux, Salmide blew them up with dynamite, in a terrifying explosion. “It was all I could do,” he said later.
French historians estimate he saved 3,500 lives by refusing to carry out his orders. About fifty Nazi soldiers died in the blast instead. “I could not accept that the port of Bordeaux be wantonly destroyed when the war was clearly lost,” he explained in an interview. “I acted according to my Christian conscience.”
Salmide deserted, and was hunted by both the Gestapo and the French authorities. He hid with the French Resistance for the remainder of the war. Then Salmide adopted a French name, married a local woman, became citizen of France, and raised his family in the very city his conscience had rescued. The Germans regarded him as a traitor, and even the French were reluctant to give him the recognition he deserved, according to his wife.
“No one wanted to admit that he had done it,” Mrs. Salmide told the New York Times. “If he had been French, it would have been easier for him.” It was not until 2000 that the French government finally awarded him the French Legion of Honor,* and the Bordeaux City Hall said this week that it wants to erect a memorial to Salmide.
His best and most lasting memorial, however, would be for his story to be known around the world, and taught in every school, of every nation. For when any of us finds ourselves being required to act under authority to accomplish unjust and cruel ends, and we wonder if it is fair for us to be accountable for our actions when, in reality, we seem to have no choice, we should recall Henri Salmide. His moment of courage should remind us that we are always accountable, and we always have a choice, provided we also have the ethics and courage to take it.
* UPDATE (9/3/2013) Apparently the Legion of Honor was awarded to Salmide for his work as a civil servant, and made no mention of his World War II heroics at all. And that is absurd.
Facts: New York Times