Just following orders

The words”Just following orders” together with “Arbeit macht frei” are probably the worst words ever to be used in history.

“Just following orders” was used as justification by those who committed the most evil crimes against humanity. And alas they are still used nowadays for the same purpose.

But why did regular and ordinary citizens do the things they did. I don’t buy the whole “Just following orders” argument there must be more to it. I think it gave them a chance to have power over another human being. It made them feel important in their otherwise mundane and boring lives.

Let’s take a look at a few of these ‘Ordinary Citizens’


Anthony Sawoniuk

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As a boy, Anthony Sawoniuk earned money running errands for Jews on the Sabbath.

In 1941, his home town of Domaczewo (then part of Poland, now in Belarus) was captured by the Nazis. He volunteered to join the auxiliary police. His unit guarded the local Jewish ghetto.

On 20 September 1942, nearly 3,000 Jews were rounded up and murdered. Sawoniuk led search-and-kill police squads that hunted down those who tried to escape.

Police squads like this were set up across Poland, Ukraine, Latvia and Lithuania. They were trained to fight against partisans and also murder Jews.

In 1944 Sawoniuk fled westwards when the Red Army advanced towards Domaczewo and in July 1944 joined the German armed forces, serving in the 30th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS.He deserted from the SS in November 1944 and changed sides, using his Polish birth certificate to join the 10th Hussar Regiment of the Polish II Corps.

After the war Sawoniuk settled in England in 1946, posing as a Polish patriotIn 1951 he wrote a letter to his half-brother, Nikolai. The KGB, who already suspected him of being a war criminal, intercepted the letter and noted that he was now living in the UK. It was not until the 1980s that the KGB started sharing such information with the UK. However, even then, due to a misspelling of his name, it took until 1993 for authorities to realise that Sawoniuk, then working for British Rail, was one of the people on the KGB list and was duly arrested.


Sawoniuk had by that time become a British citizen.He was tried at the Old Bailey in London in 1999 on two specimen charges of murder with regard to the murder of Jews in his German-occupied hometown during World War II. The jury found him guilty of one charge by unanimous decision and of the other by a ten to one majority. A further two charges of murder were withdrawn by the prosecution due to procedural errors with evidence. However, both of the murders of which Sawoniuk was convicted were individual elements of two group murders: in the first Sawoniuk, according to eyewitnesses, shot 15 Jews; in the second he shot three Jews.

He was given two life sentences and trial judge Mr Justice Potts recommended that Sawoniuk should spend the rest of his life in prison.

He was the first and the only person in United Kingdom to be convicted under the War Crimes Act 1991. From a legal perspective this case is interesting as it was also the first time that a British jury had travelled overseas to view the scene of a crime.

In 2000 the House of Lords refused him permission to appeal.

Sawoniuk died in Norwich Prison of natural causes aged 84.

Hermine Braunsteiner

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Austrian-born Hermine Braunsteiner could not afford to fulfil her ambition to become a nurse, so worked as a maid instead. After the Nazis annexed Austria she started working in an aircraft factory in Berlin, and then took a better-paid job as a guard at Ravensbrück, a women’s concentration camp.

She was later transferred to Majdanek in Poland, a concentration camp which also served as an extermination site. She was involved in selecting women and children to be sent to the camp’s gas chambers and became infamous for her brutality towards prisoners.

By the end of the war there were 3,500 female guards employed in various concentration camps.


In January 1944, Hermine was ordered back to Ravensbrück as Majdanek began evacuations due to the approaching front line. She was promoted to supervising wardress at the Genthin subcamp of Ravensbrück, located outside Berlin. Witnesses say that she abused many of the prisoners with a horsewhip she carried, killing at least two women with it. A French physician, who was interned at Genthin recalled the sadism of Hermine while she ruled the camp: “I watched her administer twenty-five lashes with a riding crop to a young Russian girl suspected of having tried sabotage. Her back was full of lashes, but I was not allowed to treat her immediately”.

On May 7, 1945, Hermine Braunsteiner fled the camp ahead of the Soviet Red Army. She then returned to Vienna,but soon left, complaining that there was not enough food there.

The Austrian police arrested her and turned her over to the British military occupation authorities; she remained incarcerated from May 6, 1946, until April 18, 1947. A court in Graz, Austria, convicted her of torture, maltreatment of prisoners and crimes against humanity and against human dignity at Ravensbrück (not Majdanek), then sentenced her to serve three years, beginning April 7, 1948; she was released early in April 1950. An Austrian civil court subsequently granted her amnesty from further prosecution there. She worked at low-level jobs in hotels and restaurants until emigrating

Russell Ryan, an American, met her on his vacation in Austria. They married in October 1958, after they had emigrated to Nova Scotia, Canada. She entered the United States in April 1959, becoming a United States citizen on January 19, 1963. They lived in Maspeth, Queens, where she was known as a fastidious housewife with a friendly manner, married to a construction worker.

Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal picked up on her trail by chance on a visit to Tel Aviv.


He was at a restaurant there when he received a call from his friend that he could not make it to their luncheon. The maitre d’ announced the “phone call for Mr. Wiesenthal” and this led to his recognition by the other patrons—who stood up to applaud him. When he returned to his table there were several Majdanek survivors waiting and they told him about her and what she had done. On this he followed her trail to Vienna to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then, via Toronto, to Queens. In 1964 Wiesenthal alerted the New York Times that Braunsteiner might have married a man named Ryan and might live in the Maspeth area of the Borough of Queens in New York. They assigned Joseph Lelyveld, then a young reporter, to find “Mrs. Ryan.” They first lived at 54-44 82nd Street in western Elmhurst and moved to 52-11 72nd Street in Maspeth. He found her at the second doorbell he rang and later wrote that she greeted him at her front doorstep and said: “My God, I knew this would happen. You’ve come.”

Braunsteiner Ryan stated that she had been at Majdanek only a year, eight months of that time in the camp infirmary. “My wife, sir, wouldn’t hurt a fly” said Ryan. “There’s no more decent person on this earth. She told me this was a duty she had to perform. It was a conscriptive service.”On August 22, 1968, United States authorities sought to revoke her citizenship, because she had failed to disclose her convictions for war crimes; she was de-naturalized in 1971 after entering into a consent judgment to avoid deportation.

A prosecutor in Düsseldorf began investigating her wartime behavior, and in 1973 the German government requested her extradition, accusing her of joint responsibility in the death of 200,000 people.

The United States court denied procedural claims that her denaturalization had been invalid (U.S. citizens could not be extradited to Germany), and that the charges alleged political offenses committed by a non-German outside West Germany. Later it rejected claims of lack of probable cause and double jeopardy.During the next year she sat with her husband in United States district court in Queens, hearing survivors’ testimony against the former SS guard. They described whippings and fatal beatings. Rachel Berger, alone among the witnesses, testified she would celebrate retribution against the former vice-commandant of the women’s camp at Majdanek.

The judge certified her extradition to the Secretary of State on May 1, 1973, and on August 7, 1973, Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan became the first Nazi war criminal extradited from the United States to Germany.


She was remanded in Düsseldorf in 1973, until her husband posted bail. The German court rejected Mrs. Ryan’s arguments that it lacked jurisdiction, because she was not a German national but Austrian, and that the offenses alleged had occurred outside Germany. It ruled she had been a German citizen at the time and more importantly had been a German government official acting in the name of the German Reich.

She stood trial in West Germany with 15 other former SS men and women from Majdanek. One of the witnesses against Hermine testified that she “seized children by their hair and threw them on trucks heading to the gas chambers.” Others spoke of vicious beatings. One witness told of Hermine and the steel-studded jackboots with which she dealt blows to inmates.

The third Majdanek trial was held in Düsseldorf. Beginning on November 26, 1975, and lasting 474 sessions, it was West Germany’s longest and most expensive trial ever. The defendants included Ryan, former SS guard Hermann Hackmann and camp doctor Heinrich Schmidt. The court found insufficient evidence on six counts of the indictment and convicted her on three: murder of 80 people, abetting the murder of 102 children, and collaborating in the murder of 1000. On June 30, 1981, the court imposed a life sentence, a more severe punishment than those meted out to her co-defendants.

Complications of diabetes, including a leg amputation, led to her release from Mülheimer women’s prison in 1996. Hermine Braunsteiner Ryan died on April 19, 1999, aged 79, in Bochum, Germany.

After the publicity surrounding Ryan’s extradition, the United States government established (1979) a U.S. DOJ Office of Special Investigations to seek out war criminals to denaturalize or deport. It took jurisdiction previously held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Maurice Papon

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After attending one of France’s most prestigious schools, Maurice Papon joined the civil service and rose rapidly through its ranks.

When the Nazis occupied France in 1940, he kept his job and served in the collaborationist Vichy government. He was responsible for Jewish policy in the Bordeaux region, and signed documents which led to the deportation of almost 1,600 Jews to a transit camp outside Paris. Most of them were later deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.

Across Nazi occupied Europe there were thousands of “desk murderers” who assisted the logistics and administration of mass slaughter from remote offices.

Some members of the resistance  questioned his activities, but Papon escaped being judged by the Comité départemental de libération (CDL) of Bordeaux for his role during Vichy. He was protected by Gaston Cusin. He presented a certificate attesting that he had taken part in the Resistance, although its authenticity was later rejected.

Papon was named prefect of Corsica in January 1947 by Léon Blum’s government, and in October 1949 prefect of Constantine in Algeria by Radical Henri Queuille’s government (with SFIO member Jules Moch at the Interior). He went to Morocco in 1954 as general secretary of the protectorate, where he helped repress the Moroccan nationalists. He returned to Constantine in 1956 during the Algerian War (1954–62).

Papon was known to have tortured insurgent prisoners (1954–62) as prefect of the Constantinois department during the Algerian War. He was named chief of the Paris police in 1958. On October 17, 1961 he ordered the severe repression of a peaceful pro-National Liberation Front (FLN) demonstration against a curfew which he had imposed. What became known as the Paris massacre of 1961 left between one hundred and three hundred dead at the hands of the police, with many more wounded.That same year, Papon was personally awarded the Legion of Honour by French President Charles de Gaulle, whose government was struggling to retain Algeria as a French colony.

Papon was in charge of the Paris police during the February 1962 massacre at the Charonne metro station, which took place during a peaceful anti-Organisation armée secrète (OAS) demonstration organized by the Communist Party (PCF).

He was forced to resign in 1967 after the suspicious disappearance of the Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka, leader of the Tricontinental Conference. He was supported by de Gaulle in being named as director of Sud Aviation company, which created the first Concorde plane. After May 1968, Papon was elected as a representative (député) in the French legislature, and served several terms. From 1978-81, he served as the appointed Minister of the Budget under prime minister Raymond Barre and president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

On May 6, 1981 details about his past under Vichy emerged, when Le Canard enchaîné published documents signed by Papon that showed his responsibility in the deportation of 1690 Bordeaux Jews to Drancy internment camp from 1942 to 1944. After a long investigation and protracted legal wranglings, Papon was eventually tried; in 1998 he was convicted of crimes against humanity. He was subsequently released from prison in 2002 on the grounds of ill health.

In February 2007, Papon had heart surgery for congestive heart failure. While it was initially thought to be successful, he died a few days later on February 17 at the age of 96.

Irmgard Huber

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At the beginning of the war, Irmgard Huber was head nurse at the psychiatric hospital in her hometown in Germany.

In 1940 the hospital became a T4 killing centre. T4 was the codename given to the Nazi operation in which around 70,000 German and Austrian adults with mental or physical disabilities were murdered. At least 14,000 people were killed at her hospital. Huber was responsible for the drugs which were used in the lethal injections. She also had a role in falsifying death certificates which were sent to families of the victims.


Doctors, nurses and administrators worked in six killing centres across Germany and Austria. They were the testing ground for the death camps in Eastern Europe.

At the close of World War II, when American forces occupied the small German town of Hadamar, they heard rumors about the murder of the mentally ill patients at a local psychiatric hospital. Allied prisoners of war held in the area reported having seen black smoke coming from the facility’s chimney.


They learned that Hadamar was one of six major “euthanasia” facilities in Nazi Germany that killed thousands of Germans deemed to have incurable illness; most had physical and mental disabilities. Hitler determined that he did not want to use state funds to maintain them in wartime and that they should have “mercy deaths”. Death certificates were falsified.

After Germany’s unification in 1990, new records were found that enabled historians to establish that a total of 200,000 Germans were killed nationally in this programme. At Hadamar, nearly 15,000 mentally or physically disabled people: children first and then adults, were killed, first the patients of the facility, then others bussed in from such institutions as nursing homes, old age homes, and state childcare institutions.

The Americans wanted to prosecute the murders, but were limited by international law to crimes against their own military personnel, or military or civilians of allies. Hospital records revealed that 476 forced laborers from Poland and the Soviet Union—Allied countries—had also died at Hadamar. Their murders were within American jurisdiction.

Irmgard Huber, head nurse of the hospital, was among the staff members who were arrested by the Americans. Her claims that she never killed patients were corroborated by co-workers and witnesses. She was released.

Later, the court ruled that Huber had played a role in selecting patients for murder and in falsifying death certificates. She also controlled the supply of drugs used to lethally overdose patients, the preferred method of “euthanasia” from 1941 through 1945. Huber was rearrested, tried with six others and convicted. Leon Jaworski, prominent later in the United States during the Watergate hearings, was the chief prosecuting official. Huber was sentenced to 25 years in prison for serving as an accomplice to murder.

As the only female defendant, she received the lightest sentence at the trial. Chief administrator, Alfons Klein, and two male nurses, Heinrich Ruoff and Karl Willig, were sentenced to death. The chief physician, Adolf Wahlmann, received a life sentence (commuted because of his ill health). Two other members of the administrative staff received sentences of 20 to 35 years.

In 1946, after reconstruction of German courts under the occupation, Huber was among twenty-five members of the Hadamar staff, including Dr. Wahlmann, tried for murders of thousands of German citizens at Hadamar. Convicted as an accomplice to murder in at least 120 cases, Huber was sentenced to eight additional years in prison. Dr. Wahlmann was also convicted in the second trial, and sentenced to death. This was commuted to imprisonment because he was in ill health.

Irmgard Huber was released from prison in 1952.She lived in Hadamar until her death there in 1983


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