The Fuhrer Principle of International Law: Individual Responsibility and Collective Punishment

60 Pages Posted: 14 Jul 2003

See all articles by Larry Catá Backer

Larry Catá Backer

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law


I offer here an extended Nietzschean joke: the necessity of error in the constitution of individual authority and communal power. Communities - the nation-state, religious communities, terrorist organizations - are arranged through a cultivation of error: mistaking causes for effects, assuming a false causality, creating an imagined causality, and assuming a free will. These errors of causation, these miscausations, have been offered as a means through which leaders or leader classes - the judge, the priest, the king, the president, the charismatic leader of violent sub-national communities - maintain authority. In contrast, the community itself, those who are led, dominated, controlled, manipulated, are considered only in the passive. They are the victims, the weak-willed, the powerless, the sheep, the herd. They obey because they must. But authority is not power, and reality is more subtle and layered than what appears on the surface of relationships. Just as the priest, the leader uses miscausation to create the illusion of power and so protect and expand individual authority, so the community uses miscausation to assert communal power - over the priest, the president, the judge, the leader - through the illusion of weakness. The strong leader does not usurp power from the communal weak; the herd, for its own preservation as a herd, demands the appearance of overlordship of the leader. The cult of the leader, of the individual solely responsible for her acts, and of communities consisting of passive amalgams free from responsibility, serve as the foundation for modern human rights and humanitarian law. But the cult of the leader itself constitutes a titanic act of miscausation in four parts: (1) that communities are protected not because they are weak, but because they are strong, to protect the community against blame for action committed in its name by its leaders; (2) that the leader is dependent on the community; the leader acts in conformity to the wishes of the people; (3) that the leader then serves as proxy for the community; the doctrine of personal responsibility for communal acts protects a community by sacrificing its leaders for acts of communal wrongs; and (4) that the community, the sheep, are in actuality the Shepherd in a world arranged to minimize the costs of inter-community conflicts for power. For modern political and legal theory, this misunderstanding unveils the perversity of the logic of grounding modern international humanitarian law in the personal responsibility of individuals for their acts. I will offer an example - the way international humanitarian law, used to condemn punitive house demolitions in Israel, serves to subsidize the maintenance of the cultural production of hatred which constitutes communal permission to engage in individual acts of violence against not Israelis, but Jews. Communities ought to bear responsibility, ought to pay, for the socio-cultural subsidy of hatred. To that end, I suggest a tax on culturally cultivated hatred assessed against a community that subsidizes hatred leading to acts of individual violence.

Keywords: international law, jurisprudence, law and humanities, Geneva conventions, house demolitions, collective punishment

JEL Classification: K19, K33, K42

Suggested Citation

Backer, Larry Catá, The Fuhrer Principle of International Law: Individual Responsibility and Collective Punishment. Available at SSRN: or

Larry Catá Backer (Contact Author)

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law ( email )

Lewis Katz Building
University Park, PA 16802
United States

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