World War II, early 1940s. The Nazi war machine is at war with the United States, England, Russia and other nations. On the other side of the world, the second Axis power, the Japanese, are at odds with American gunships and fighters sweeping the Pacific Ocean. A time of political turmoil, but more importantly, of unacceptable amounts of lives lost that didn’t deserve to be lost. Nazi soldiers, in addition to risking their lives in urban and rural warfare against enemy troops, were often charged with the task of executing defenseless civilians and other innocent people caught in the middle of world-wide political conflict.
Joseph Schultz was a good, upstanding Nazi soldier fighting on the Eastern Front. On the 20th of July, 1941, he’s caught relaxing with his fellow soldiers when the commanding general of the unit summons them to participate in what at first appears to be a routine mission. However, when they see fourteen defenseless captives pressed against a haystack, blindfolded, they know what they’re doing isn’t routine. They line up a good ten to fifteen meters away from the captives, and as seven of the soldiers take aim at them, a rifle is dropped on the ground. Joseph Schultz had lied down his rifle and combat helmet, ignoring a military order from his commander as he walked to the other side of the equation taking his place next to the captives on the haystack. The captive closest to him grips his hand, and a few minutes later, amidst confusion from Schultz’ brothers in arms, the commanding officer orders the soldiers to shoot. The fourteen civilian captives are dead, in addition to the single Nazi soldier who put his morals, values, and opinions well above the call of duty.
What do we see here besides a human being too humane to take orders of assassination? We see the concepts of social psychology being completely opposed by the mindset of one human being with courage large enough, and values great enough to put his own life on the line for.
Schultz’ story is inspiring for two reasons. For one, it is the story of a caring human being who could not bear the guilt that would come from killing innocent civilians in cold blood. This was different from killing armed infantry and taking out armed tanks – those were people well equipped to deal with the war they were risking their lives in. But these civilians were bystanders in a worldwide sea witnessing the greatest storm the world had to offer – World War II. They had no fault, they had no reason to die. Their death would yield a controversy in political talks, perhaps the facilitation of the conquest of the next opposing nation. Schultz may or may not have thought about this when he put his life on the line, and most likely, he wasn’t thinking about it. Schultz, as is evident in the film, was an upstanding soldier that attacked fortified positions with ease, that was part of an elite group of soldiers worthy of an official photographed group portrait. He had no reason to doubt the morality of the political party, of the military superiors he served for. He did have reason to doubt the morality of killing a defenseless human being. That’s what stopped Schultz from going along with what he was being told to do, from going along with what his close-knit military brothers were doing.