What are the conditions under which the legitimacy of a regime ends? My interest in this question is derived from its particular historical instance concerning Eichmann's case - a case which brought forth the question of whether the Third Reich was illegitimate and in turn - whether Eichmann was breaking some moral law when perceiving the Third Reich as a legitimate regime.

More particularly, Eichmann's case, when perceived through the prism of the question of the legitimacy of the Nazi regime, accentuates a seeming conflicting state: in order to be a good citizen Eichmann allegedly had to follow the Nazi regime, yet he later was judged for crimes against humanity. In his trial he threw responsibility for his deeds on the loyalty he had for the Nazi regime, hence implicitly he had assumed the legitimacy of the Nazi Regime. But putting him to trial rather captures the contrasting assumption. Thus the question of what makes a regime's legitimacy end arouses.

  • Does the legitimacy of a regime have to be an objective statement, or is it subjective to the perceptions of the observer? – Cort Ammon Nov 25 '15 at 0:40
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    What if the result of declaring "the legitimacy of a regime has to be objective" has the side effect of declaring all existing states illegitimate? Is its objectivity actually a fundamental property of sovereignty? I can think of several times where nations have refused to honor the sovereignty of a nation they are in conflict with, with history siding with the victor in every case. – Cort Ammon Nov 25 '15 at 1:37
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    People interested in this might be interested in the podcast Revolutions. The podcast is focused on the historical facts, but the question comes up in several cases about why at anyone time a particular government is legitimate. – James Kingsbery Nov 25 '15 at 18:32
  • Eichmann did not have a problem. I don't see that he perceived such a problem. – jjack Dec 12 '17 at 8:42
  • @jjack. Exactly : Eichmann had no such problem. He never repented of his actions. As far as he was concerned, he was carrying out the orders and requirements of a state with correct values. – Geoffrey Thomas Dec 14 '17 at 9:36

A possible and quite influential answer is given in this related question.

I will quote the important definition by Allen Buchanan from his essay Political Legitimacy and Democracy (Ethics 112, 4 (July 2002): 689–719):

...an entity has political legitimacy if and only if it is morally justified in wielding political power,... (p.689)

Thus, the answer would simply be that because the orders were not morally justifiable, the regime had no political legitimacy in wielding political power. Hence, he was not obliged to follow the orders, both in the political and moral sense.

This becomes even more obvious when we look at the definition of political authority:

I shall say that an entity has political authority if and only if, in addition to (1) possessing political legitimacy it (2) has the right to be obeyed by those who are within the scope of its rules; in other words, if those upon whom it attempts to impose rules have an obligation to that entity to obey it. To say that X has a right to be obeyed by P implies that if P does not comply with X’s rules P wrongs X. (p. 691)

What is particularly important here is that we can say that Eichmann argued on the lines of (2), i.e. he perceived the government to have the right to be obeyed and hence he had to comply with the rules. But he completely missed on questioning (1), which was exactly what he was accused of juridically.

Therefore, you could say that the court implicitly argued along the lines of the definitions Buchanan gave explicitly more than 55 years later (which is arguably the reason for Buchanan being so influential, it fits our intuitions).

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    Thanks so much for this insightful input. Was no aware of Allen Buchanan - it falls right into place! – Jordan S Mar 12 '18 at 21:20

The legitimacy of a regime has to be objective

You might be looking for "sovereignty" then.

  • What are the conditions under which the legitimacy of a regime ends?


  • What makes a regime legitimate?

    "Legitimate" means "conforming to the law or to rules".

    One way in which a regime can do that, if it's sovereign (i.e. if it has the power) is to pass its own laws.

    Sometimes countries agree to abide by an international law (a treaty, e.g. the Geneva convention or whatever). Sometimes governments don't agree to such a treaty because they don't want to be bound by them.

  • And, in light of Eichmann’s problem: was the Third Reich illegitimate? Was Eichmann breaking some kind of "higher law"?

    It became illegitimate (its laws were overturned and previously "legal" actions were outlawed retroactively when it was defeated militarily).

See also:


It's a complex problem as to what constitutes the legitimacy of sovereignty; a possible route into this are Hobbes analysis of the various powers of sovereignty, and Lockes notion of the social contract - there's also the Confucian/Daoist notion of the Mandate of Heaven.

Eichmann, according to Arendts report on the court proceedings, which by the way, she considered something of a show trial, called himself a Kantian; she said, that he didn't think.

Which neither absolves him, nor the regime; but posits the question - how can a man not think? Or another - what is it within a man, or without - that stops him from thinking? And more - what are the conditions that enables or disables this suffocation of spirit?

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    Thank you very much for this comment. Indeed, Hanna Arendts argued that Eichmann was part of some whole (the regime) and he himself did not think - he thus had no ability to criticize the killing-system he took part in. I think that this kind of argument however throws responsibility from the citizen to the regime (or society)... – Jordan S Nov 25 '15 at 1:36
  • What did she mean when she said "he doesn't think"? Probably just with respect to his own role and in what he took part? – jjack Dec 14 '17 at 19:38
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    @jjack: I'm not sure, it's been a long time since I read this book; I think one interpretation is that he claimed to be merely following orders in the chain of command; I think it came out of the Nuremberg trials that this could not be an excuse for war-crimes. It's the lack of his moral sense, in that he never stopped to think that what he was doing was wrong, that Arendt means by he couldn't think. He could certainly plan operations and that takes thinking but it's not this kind of thinking that she was concerned with. – Mozibur Ullah Dec 14 '17 at 20:55

I would add to Sigma's comprehensive answer one more case: in many 3rd world countries (including the one I grew up in), a person or group will become the leaders of the country because they lead the struggle against an oppressive system or a colonizer, etc.. Their legitimacy is not really written down in any laws or constitutions, but it is understood that they "deserve" the leadership of the country because of the sacrifices they made for their people's freedom.


There are in fact several possible answers to the general question you asked as to the legitimacy of regimes. Few of which are:

  1. ANARCHISM: No regime is legitimate
  2. MARXISM: A regime is legitimate to the extent that it prevents the exploitation of its citizens.
  3. CONTRACTUALISM: A regime that has the consent of its citizens is thereby legitimized.
  4. DEMOCRACY: A regime is legitimate to the extent that it succeeds of being a true agent of its governed

EDIT: Not familiar enough with Eichmann's problem to throw light onto the particular question as to when the legitimacy of the Nazi regime might have ended in the moral sense you imply of. Interesting question though.

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    I'd also add a Manate of Heaven to that list, as a particularly intriguing option. – Cort Ammon Nov 25 '15 at 1:33
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    @JordanS I think that might be a misunderstanding of the role of ming in Chinese philosophy. Best I can tell (and that is an area I work in) it looks nothing like Plato's totalitarianism. – virmaior Dec 3 '15 at 13:06
  • @virmarior, speaking of Chinese philosophy - could you perhaps recommend few humble texts relating to political philosophy? (I am familiar with Chinese aesthetics (in particular with Xie He six principles and the numerous interpretations they invited), and as to Chinese political philosophy - merely familiar with Taosim (Lao tzu) and Confucianism). In either-way thank you again for the comment. – Jordan S Dec 3 '15 at 14:44
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    I would say you're going to need to read secondary literature to get a good grasp on Chinese political philosophy, but a good start would be Bryan van Norden's Mencius translation from Hackett. For a Daoist texts, Sun tzu is actually the easiest to grasp (it is at least in contemporary grouping seen placed with the *Daoists). – virmaior Dec 3 '15 at 22:54

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