An Average Man

Fedor von Bock was tall, slim and stood ramrod straight. He was a cultured, educated man who spoke four languages.  He believed the highest honor for a soldier is to die in service to his country.

How did such a thoroughly decent man become an enabler of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime? By being an average man.

When Hitler became Chancellor, Bock was one of the most senior Army officers. Bock disdained Hitler as the German equivalent of white trash, but Bock followed the German Army tradition of avoiding politics and focusing on military activities. Unfortunately, that meant that Bock and the other enablers ignored the moral implications of Hitler’s actions.

When Hitler changed the military oath so that soldiers swore allegiance to him personally rather than to Germany, Bock and the other senior officers failed to protest.  As senior officers, they were able to prevent their subordinates from protesting. The lack of protest enabled Hitler to issue increasingly outrageous orders.

The “commissar order” instructed the military to kill all known or suspected Russian communists.  Other orders instructed the German Army to assist in the murder of Jews and other undesirables and condoned starving Russian prisoners of war or murdering them because the German Army lacked the facilities to care for them.

Bock’s subordinate, who was also his nephew, Henning von Tresckow, urged Bock to protest against these orders on the grounds that they violated military law and were immoral.  Bock protested up the Army chain of command rather than directly to Hitler. He dropped his protests when he was told there was nothing the Army could do about the orders.

Bock also instructed his troops to move Russian prisoners of war to the rear beyond the army group’s military zone to an area controlled by the SS and Einsatzgruppe. In effect, Bock limited his soldiers’ involvement in the mistreatment and murder of the POW’s while handing them off to their murderers.

Tresckow later became a key conspirator in the July 20th plot to kill Hitler. In fact, Bock was related to, commanded, or served with virtually every officer who was a conspirator. Yet he was never seriously suspected of being a conspirator. 

How could Bock continue to support Hitler and the Nazi regime knowing what they were doing to Germany and the world? There are several plausible reasons.

First, Bock profited from the regime. Hitler showered the German officer corps with medals, promotions and money when a campaign ended well. Bock was promoted to field marshal after the 1940 French campaign.  Second, Bock and the other enablers knew that the German Army was implicated in the war crimes that occurred on the Eastern Front.  Losing the war could mean criminal prosecutions.

A current example of this phenomenon is Venezuela. Many political pundits expect the Venezuelan military to turn on Nicolas Maduro’s regime. The junior officers have already made several attempts to assassinate Maduro, but the senior officers are sticking by Maduro because they have benefited from the regime and are implicated in its brutalities.

Third and I believe most importantly, Bock didn’t want to stand out from the crowd. People who protested against Hitler came to sticky ends. Graf von Stauffenberg, who carried the bomb to the July 20th meeting, was shot by firing squad. Tresckow died, probably by suicide, hours before the Gestapo arrived to arrest him.

People who object or support unpopular views are ridiculed at best, physically harmed at worst. The average person can rationalize that it’s not worth our job, our health, or our family’s security to rock the boat. Bock wasn’t an evil man, but he wasn’t willing to risk protesting too loudly. He was an average man.

To read Bock’s account of his World War II exploits see, GeneralFeldMarschall Fedor von Bock, the War Diary 1939 – 1945, (edited by Klaus Gerbet, 1996 translation by David Johnston).  

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