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Just Giving Orders

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Hitler: [Through a translator] I didn't actually kill anybody, I just gave the orders.
Jack: "The Reverse-Nuremberg Defense". I like it, I like it a lot.

When you play the Blame Game, you either win... or you die!

The Reverse-Nuremberg Defense (as opposed to the Nuremberg Defense) is when a person within a position of authority commits a horrible deed by proxy (arson, murder, jaywalking, etc.) and places total responsibility on the person the authority figure ordered to commit this.

When something bad needs to be done for one's own agenda, it is best to keep one's own hands clean and thus you select someone to do the dirty work. When they are caught in the act, it is only inevitable that it traces back to you. While being an assassin is definitely not a legal profession in most parts of the world, hiring an assassin is just as frowned upon. When the hitman squeals and outs you in front of the fuzz, you'll start to file through every excuse in the book. "I didn't do it." "Someone with the same name as me hired him." "Mama Didn't Raise No Criminal." Eventually you'll run out of cue cards and you will go with the final gambit: "So I hired him. I still wasn't the one that shot that kid. The Smoking Gun was not in my hand. I did nothing wrong."

Often the result of an Uriah Gambit failing. If the attempt works and the person behind the order walks free, this will lead to Found the Killer, Lost the Murderer.

Contrast Just Following Orders. Related to Gaslighting and Victim-Blaming.


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    Anime And Manga 
  • Ayakashi Triangle: The Gogyosen want the ayakashi medium killed purely over a personal grudge. They know that wouldn't justify having exorcist ninja do it, but still think it's fine to corrupt and mind control ayakashi into doing the job for them. This starts as a False Flag Operation, but they use the same excuse after their plan is discovered.
    Matoi: So it's not because she's a threat, but a grudge?
    Gogyosen member: Which is why she must be dealt with by ayakashi. So we humans need not dirty our hands.
  • In Full Metal Panic!, Leonard Testarossa believes himself morally superior to Sousuke simply because Leonard never directly killed anyone: he "only" gave orders which resulted in the death or endangerment of people. He honestly believes that his conscience is clean simply because he wasn't the one who actually pulled the trigger.
  • Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin: After Operation British kills half of Earth's population (but completely misses the Earth Federation's leadership), Gihren mentions plans to save face by blaming the commanding officer. Of course, even Gihren knows this will only fly if Zeon wins, and they'll all be war criminals otherwise. His father Degwin is justifiably disgusted that he only cares about the publicity.
  • In the Rebuild of Evangelion 3.0, Misato holds Shinji fully responsible for accidentally causing Third Impact and by extension, the death of a large chunk of humanity, refusing to accept that she had sent him on the mission where he did this.

    Comic Books 
  • In one Marsupilami story, the villainous Mrs. Oldskin's henchman tells her that he didn't do anything to hurt the heroes (after locking them in a slowly-flooding room in a Mayincatec pyramid), he just closed the door when they went inside. She whistles admiringly at the ease with which he clears his conscience.

    Films — Animation 
  • The Lion King (1994): After Simba gets his Heroic Second Wind and has the Big Bad cornered, Scar tries to weasel out of his comeuppance by placing all blame for the coup on Mufasa and subsequent overrun of the Pridelands on the hyenas. "It was the hyenas; they're the enemy." While Simba does spare him (and not because said excuse mattered in the slightest), Scar's words invite a hell of a Backstab Backfire when Simba pushes him off a cliff, leaving him surrounded by hyenas.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The conclusion of the 1980 film Borderline is landowner Richards being convicted of trafficking in unlawful migrants. His boss, Henry Lydell, however, dodges justice by being acquitted of all charges, despite masterminding the trafficking ring.
  • John Wick: Chapter 2: John Wick is coerced by Santino D'Antonio to assassinate his sister Gianna so he can take over her seat at the High Table. Unsurprisingly, Wick himself subsequently becomes a target not only for Gianna's people but Santino's as well, who actually has the gall to claim to be doing it in his sister's honor.

  • A sinner dies and is brought before God to be judged. He’s about to be condemned to Hell but argues that none of this was his fault because the Devil made him do it. The Devil is brought in and says he didn’t make the sinner do anything; he just told him to do those sins.

  • In Mr Monk In Outer Space, a man kills an assassin just in time to stop him from killing Monk and Natalie (who were getting too close to the truth). When Natalie questions if he means to kill them himself, he says he's not a killer; he only hired one to kill his crooked boss.
  • In October Daye, one of the major laws is to never kill pureblood fae. Hence, following the letter of the law, the villains of Once Broken Faith have their hands clean while the servant whom they blackmailed to kill purebloods would be condemned to die although she takes them with her instead in a suicide leap. Toby appeals to a room full of pureblood nobles that the villains were counting on this when their servant would inevitably be caught.
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: In the prequel, Lord Lumpley weakly tries to disclaim responsibility for the deaths of the many women he impregnated by saying that all he did was tell his butler to make sure they stopped bothering him. This argument fails to save his life.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Doctor Who: In "Arachnids in the UK", Corrupt Corporate Executive Robertson pins the blame for his businesses' corner-cutting (which has led to a Giant Spider infestation) on his subordinates, denying responsibility himself.
  • Game of Thrones: Near the end of Robert's Rebellion, Tywin Lannister and his Westerlands army joined the rebels at the eleventh hour and sacked King's Landing in Robert's name. Tywin ordered Ser Gregor Clegane to kill the Targaryen children to eliminate competing claimants to the throne, but Gregor extrapolated this to mean he had license to kill Queen Elia Martell as well, though not before raping her. When Elia's brother Oberyn confronts him about this years later, Tywin "categorically" denies any involvement with her death and blames it squarely on Gregor. He actually made the opposite critique of his son Tyrion earlier.
    Tywin: When soldiers lack discipline, the fault lies with their commander!
  • Marvel Cinematic Universe:
    • Kilgrave from Jessica Jones (2015), being a Psychopathic Manchild with the power to make other people to obey his orders, repeatedly uses this excuse. Whenever Jessica calls him out on the trail of destruction he leaves behind (or anyone else capable of calling him out for that matter), he claims that he is not responsible for killing anybody because he has other people do the killing for him. Whenever someone points out that he compelled people to kill, he will try to gaslight them into thinking that it was somehow their fault. For example, Jessica confronts him that he made her kill Reva Conners, he claims that he only told her to "take care" of her, and that Jessica was the one who interpreted this as killing her.
    • After Black Mariah crosses the Moral Event Horizon and embraces her Godmother persona in Season 2 of Luke Cage (2016), she makes the claim that all of the murders she has ordered are not her problem because she did not pull the trigger (even Anansi).
  • Nuremberg:
    • Goering says he started the concentration camps, but otherwise knew nothing about what went on in there and that in his opinion even Hitler did not knew. Jackson points out that Hitler proveably discussed the extermination of the Jews with Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister. Goering, as Hitler's second-in-command, was above Ribbentrop, so him claiming ignorance is beyond farcical.
    • Speer has more success with this, freely admitting that he was happy with the slave labor that Sauckel provided on his orders, while simultaneously declaring that he sabotaged Hitler's scorched earth orders and sought to assassinate him. While this infuriates his former colleagues, the Judges let him off with 20 years and execute Sauckel.
  • In The Purge, Jane initially tries to rationalize that hiring someone to kill her boss isn't the same as personally killing him herself, but soon changes her mind after watching one of her subordinates murder a co-worker.

    Video Games 
  • In Megaman Battle Network 2, when confronted by Lan, the head of the Net Mafia Gospel claims to be innocent of all wrongdoing because he has done nothing but order his agents to cause chaos around the Net. When Lan asks him if he has ever spoken to the victims of his crimes, the leader says that he can't be bothered to do that, since people are just actors masking their true personalities, and his computers are much more honest. Then again, as it turns out, he's a deeply messed up kid.
  • In Silent Hill 3, Claudia shifts the blame for Harry's murder toward the Missionary monster. Heather doesn't really care.
    Claudia: He's the one who killed your father. I merely gave the order.
  • After Screwball is arrested in Spider-Man (PS4) after subjecting Spider-Man to the "Screwball Challenge" (involving hired thugs to attack him, engineering a fake kidnapping and wiring actual live bombs), she claims that they have nothing on her and that she herself did not commit any crime and that it was "her fans" (the thugs she hired) despite having broadcasted the whole thing online. One of the cops that arrest her thinks she has a point.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice For All, Phoenix's assistant Maya gets kidnapped close to the beginning of the final case as ransom to get you to defend a famous film star, Matt Engarde, in a murder trial. Phoenix happens to have a magical lie detector and when he asks Engarde if he did it, he responds that he never killed anyone. It later turns out that Engarde actually hired an assassin, and he reveals his dim-witted laid-back personality was all a façade by reintroducing himself. ("How do you do, mister lawyer? I'm Matt Engarde.") While the magical lie detector normally catches prevarication like this, it does so by detecting guilt, and Engarde is a sociopath who genuinely believes hiring an assassin means his hands are clean.
  • This proves to make the Big Bad of The Great Ace Attorney difficult to take down. Like Matt and unlike many other Chessmasters in the series, they never directly killed anyone, preferring to order or blackmail others into taking care of loose ends.

    Web Animation 

    Western Animation 
  • Disenchantment: When a pair of angry Dankmirian hillbillies are about to cook King Zog for being the king of Dreamland, who started a war over making Dankmire pay for a canal built on the hillbilly land, Zog tries to defend himself by saying "I was just giving orders!"

    Real Life 
  • Rather ironically, the Reverse Nuremberg Defense had one partially successful use during the actual Nuremberg Trials. Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments during the latter part of World War II, managed to shift blame for his commission of foreign slave labor by pinning it on his subordinate Fritz Sauckel. The judges were savvy enough to see through this and still gave Speer a twenty-year sentence, but were more lenient with Speer because of his public atonement (he probably wasn't repentant, but he knew exactly what to say to keep the noose from his neck by correctly predicting the political pragmatism of the Cold War that was just starting), while Sauckel got the death penalty (not to say Sauckel was blameless, the forced labor program was only partially Speer's responsibility amidst a very wide economic portfolio and as the man directly in charge Sauckel was absolutely responsible for the slave labor).
  • Some past and present societies treat executioners as a lower class and draw them from minority populations. Examples include the burakumin from feudal Japan and Christians in modern Pakistan.
  • Legally, this is almost never the case. If you order a subordinate to commit a crime, then you're equally liable for it. Otherwise (for instance) every mob boss would go free by simply claiming he didn't make his goons kill that guy. This applies to murder for hire too naturally (even if you didn't pull the trigger, if the person who did it was hired by you, you're guilty). Naturally, few ethical codes will disagree. Military law calls this "command responsibility" (as noted by Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones above) though exceptions exist. The closest most codes of law and systems of ethics come to this trope is when a subordinate either grossly misunderstands a superior’s orders or grossly exceeds the requirements of the task, and not always then.


Video Example(s):


Adolf Hitler

In "The Secret Lives of Atheists", Adolf Hitler manages to save himself from being killed by his associates in the World Domination Atheist Network for letting his atrocities be traced back to him (since the narrative is meant to be what an ultra-conservative Christian family think atheists are like), he manages to save face by making the claim that even if he was an atheist, he technically did not kill all of those people and that he just gave the orders.

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Main / JustGivingOrders

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