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Instructor Resources

Case Studies


On or about October 6th or 7th, 1941, occupied Belarus, a Wehrmacht Infantry Battalion Commander gave his three company commanders a single illegal order: “kill all the Jews in your areas of operation.” First company commander complied immediately. Second company commander considered it, and then he rejected the order. The third company commander directed the company’s first sergeant to go kill the Jews while he went back to his office. A single illegal order—three different responses. That’s what makes this such a unique case study.


[MGySgt Amber Starr Hecht]:

It’s very important in the military to constantly be groomed in the laws of armed conflict, and when they’re put in a position of authority, leaders make an impact. Their decisions have consequences and also have second and third order effects. It’s a culture—it’s a way of thinking. It’s keeping us morally and ethically sound.

[MSgt Benjamin S. Causey]:

A lot of training is bullet point. Everyone knows the regulations and the laws specifically, word for word. But, topics regarding leadership and ethics are never very clear cut. They’re very seldom in reality black and white. There’s also education that gives them the opportunity for students to look at a scenario that may on the surface seem black and white. It might seem cut and dry, but once you start digging in, you find that the situation is a little less black and white and also the responses to the situation are kind of complex.

[COL (Ret.) Jody M. Prescott]:

It is very useful to be using a case study rooted in the Holocaust because we have a historical record well researched, well documented, that allows us to be fairly certain about the historical accuracy and it makes it easier to take a small piece of that—to take a fractal—of that genocidal experience, and to look at it under the microscope and to move the students to talk about these issues of ethics and leadership amongst themselves.

[MSgt Benjamin S. Causey]:

The museum provides a website that has a very specific case study document that gives you not only a historical case that even your students can read from, but it also gives the instructor pointers on questions they can ask with the kind of target answers that the instructor might expect to receive. The material provides lots of context about WWII, about the Holocaust, about the German military. One of the great things about the case study is how scalable it is. You can make this a week long lesson or it can be done in an afternoon.

[MGySgt Amber Starr Hecht]:

What I tell instructors is, you want to really engage your students. Get them open, get them talking, but don’t give them the answers. You want them to do the research--you want them to read. The way they learn is through the struggle sometimes and you want to put them in the process of learning.

[COL (Ret.) Jody M. Prescott]:

Because, that’s where you’re going to start getting the students thinking about what kinds of things could they do as leaders to be able to make a difference. With a real, historically accurate case study, it’s possible to identify—if not with the officers—with the situations that they faced and how they resolved them.


The Museum has developed a variety of educational approaches for examining a historical case study in which three company commanders responded differently to the same illegal order to shoot the Jewish population in their areas of operations.

The two approaches below, A Wehrmacht Battalion and its Orders, Fall 1941 and Ordinary Soldiers: A Study in Ethics, Law, and Leadership, examine the case study through the lenses of leadership and decision making on the Eastern Front and related issues for the military today.

The case study provides an important empirical example of how officers making command decisions during armed conflict will define their duty in different ways. Their decisions reflect a variety of different factors including command climate, situational factors, individual experiences, leadership style, moral and ethical compasses, and social and cultural values.

A Wehrmacht Battalion and its Orders, Fall 1941

Contains: Case study, historical resources, classroom handouts

Topics covered: Leadership, ethical decision-making, professional military values, pressures and motivations affecting command decision-making

This approach is designed to focus on leadership philosophy and how that philosophy is put into action. The historical case study reveals the dynamic relationship between command climate, obedience to orders, discipline, and the protection of civilians in armed conflict. It is well-suited for discussions of leadership and ethical decision-making. This model has been used on-site at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with officers-in-training, non-commissioned officers, and other active duty officers.

Ordinary Soldiers: A Study in Ethics, Law, and Leadership

Contains: Case study, three lesson options, primary sources (including Wehrmacht orders and trial documents)

Topics covered: Command responsibility, LOAC, professional military values, pressures and motivations affecting command decision-making

Ordinary Soldiers is a more technical examination of the case study that pairs well with instruction on the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It has three teaching options.

Option A enables participants to practice the Army Regulation 15–6 format for conducting investigations. This approach allows participants to put themselves in the position of investigating officers tasked not just with explaining what happened but also with why it happened and how it might be prevented in the future.

The study questions in Option B consider Rules of Engagement and the Law of Armed Conflict, and they lend themselves to small-group work. These questions are designed to allow participants to approach ethical and legal aspects of the case study from specific perspectives, thereby providing a platform for discussions on leadership.

Option C’s peer-to-peer format provides the opportunity for participants to engage in high levels of simultaneous communication simulating the challenges of leadership and conflict in a cyber environment.

Ordinary Soldiers is a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Center for Holocaust Studies at West Point joint publication.