A tale of two memories

I have recently ended up discussing criminal justice with a few German people. The matter under discussion was individual responsibility: in the scenario, there was a killer who killed somebody just because he was asked (and he was paid) for it. Who should bear the ultimate responsibility for the killing? Or, given that both the killer and the instigator were to be held responsible for it, who should be considered “more responsible” than the other?

I was arguing that the instigator bears more responsibility, since the actual killer is often a marginalized person, enjoying only limited room for manoeuvre. If he was given more and fairer opportunities, he would probably not do that. To the contrary, the Germans were arguing that no matter who the killer is or what his problems are, he is to be held as ultimately responsible for the act of killing, since he could say «no» to it.

I was surprised by their serious and stubborn attitude in making this argument. Only later I realized that our divergent views largely depended on our different national cultures. For me, the obvious model of this scenario was the mafia one, with the big boss giving orders from the background and sending some young little guy to the foreground. For the Germans, the obvious model was the Nazi one: no matter what your boss asks you to do, you can choose whether to comply with his orders or not. «I was ordered to do that» can be no excuse, everybody is ultimately responsible for what he/she does or does not.