Ner'zhul was not a monster. He did not order the Draenei killed because of greed or anger, nor was he trying to conquer their lands or take over their cities. No, he did it because the Spirits told him that it was absolutely necessary if he wanted his race to survive.
Of course, we now know it was not the Spirits Ner'zhul heard, but the sinister whisperings of Kil'jaeden. But think about this for a moment - how in the world was Ner'zhul supposed to know this? The Orcs had lived in peace and had never been exposed to demons, or for that matter even another friendly race other than the Draenei. They were completely unprepared for Kil'jaeden's subtle manipulations.
Ner'zhul did not suspect any trickery. Why would he? In his mind, the Spirits that had always guided him with such care and concern would never lead him astray. The advice of the Spirits was the backbone of their entire culture and society. The idea that the Spirits were lying would be impossible to even comprehend - it would be like Elune misleading the Night Elves, or the Light deluding its faithful clergy.
It is also important to remember that at this point in time, the Orcs were very much a fledgling race, with little worldly experience and knowledge. Much like a young child will unhesitatingly do anything their parent says, the Orcs had complete and utter faith in their ancestral Spirits. They were completely loyal, and completely trusting.
Unfortunately, when dealing with someone as cruel as Kil'jaeden, these were not traits to be admired, but exploited.
Even when the Orcs began their tragic war upon the Draenei, Ner'zhul never derived any personal joy or satisfaction from their victories. Some Orcs did, sure - namely Gul'dan and Blackhand - but many, such as Ner'zhul and Durotan, believed they were only doing what was necessary to survive. They fought not for power or for bloodlust, but simply because they believed what their "Spirits" were telling them.
We know this to be true, because when Ner'zhul did learn of Kil'jaeden's trickery, he was aghast and horrified at what he had done. The shaman wanted to deny the Demon Lord, to resist, but he was powerless to do so - his treacherous apprentice, Gul'dan, told Kil'jaeden of Ner'zhul's change of heart, and Kiljaeden stripped Ner'zhul of his powers and broke his will, before assigning Gul'dan to be the new spiritual leader of the Horde.
Initiating the slaughter on Draenor was Ner'zhul's first great crime, but I believe with time even this terrible wrong would have been forgiven. After all, the Draenei know that while the Orcs may have been the ones wielding the axes, they were not really to blame. They were nothing more than pawns in an ancient, cruel game; convenient tools to be used by Kil'jaeden and then discarded after they had outlived their usefulness. They know full well what the Legion is capable of - Velen realized it way back when hostilities first broke out, and tried to persuade the Orcs from their dark path, but was unable to convince them.
However, Ner'zhul's legendary sins did not end there. After the Draenei fled Draenor, the planet began tearing itself apart, leaving the Orcs stranded on a broken, dying world. Even after Gul'dan opened a portal to Azeroth, giving the Orcs a new chance at survival, they were pushed back by the Alliance forces (and Gul'dan's own treachery) and ended up once again trapped on their crumbling home.
The Orcs were doomed. Draenor was barren and dying, and could no longer support them, and those still on Azeroth were isolated and alone, and would surely have been hunted down and killed eventually by the vengeful Alliance.
But then Ner'zhul made a decision that would have colossal historical ramifications - he decided to re-open the portals, to find new, healthy worlds for the Orcs to invade. His quest would end up shattering his homeland into the fragmented Outland, grant Deathwing and his brood passage to Draenor, and finally, lead to Ner'zhul falling into the clutches of Kil'jaeden, who tortured and corrupted the ex-shaman, transforming him into the Lich King. (And we all know what kind of nasty stuff he was responsible for.)
It's easy to see why Ner'zhul is so hated and vilified in Warcraft history, to both in-game characters and players. However...it's easy to condemn his actions, but could you have acted differently in his shoes?
Would you have been able to sentence your entire race to extinction?
I think Ner'zhul did the only thing any rational being would have done. He was well aware of the destruction and bloodshed that would ensue by re-opening the Portal and once again laying siege to the Alliance, and of the sickening monstrosity of finding new, innocent worlds to lay waste to simply so the Orcs could survive. But the alternative - doing nothing, and letting his people slowly die a starving, wasting death on the shattered ruins of Draenor - was unthinkable. As the original leader of the Horde, the one who, though unintentionally, had set them down this path of pain and self-destruction, Ner'zhul felt it was his responsibility to make things right.
|Ner'zhul paused and glanced back "But you said you could reopen the portal. Why do that if not to return there?"|
"Return, yes, but not for battle." Gorefiend closed the gap between them again. "We need only to find and claim certain magical artifacts. Once we have those, we can leave Azeroth and never return."
"And stay here?" Ner'zhul waved a hand, the gesture encompassing much of the stricken landscape around them.
"You know as well as I that Draenor is dying. Soon it will not be able to sustain even those of us left."
He had not remembered the shaman as being so slow-witted. "It will not have to," Gorefiend assured him. speaking slowly as if to a child. "With these artifacts in hand, we can leave both Azeroth and Draenor behind and go someplace else. Some place better."
Now he had Ner'zhul's full attention. Something like hope flickered across the white-painted face. For a long moment. Ner’zhul stood poised either to reenter his hut and resume his self-pitying seclusion, or to embrace this new possibility.
"You have a plan for this?" the old shaman asked finally.
Another long pause. Gorefiend waited.
"... I will listen." Ner'zhul turned and stepped back into his hut.
But this time Teron Gorefiend—warlock and death knight—came with him.
-Beyond the Dark Portal
It was an impossible dilemma, and Ner'zhul made the choice that would reignite the great war with the Alliance and end the tentative peace that had fallen upon Azeroth. Even now, years later, the Orcs have struggled to outgrow their terrible past and come to terms with the atrocities they committed. Orc society is driven by a heavy sense of guilt and redemption (or was, pre-Garrosh, anyway), and some elders like Eitrigg and Saurfang know that they will never be able to truly atone for their sins.
But you know what? They survived. The Orcs still exist, still live and breathe today, all because of Ner'zhul. Deep down inside, whether they want to admit it or not, every Orc knows that Ner'zhul is single-handedly responsible for the survival of their race...that he essentially sold his soul to save his people.
Ner'zhul did many bad things. His actions indirectly, and later, directly, caused unspeakable suffering and disaster. He will be forever remembered as the one who ordered the slaughter of the Draenei, the one responsible for the Dark Portal's reopening and the renewal of the endless Horde/Alliance conflict, and as he who became the first Lich King.
And he was all of these things. But back when he was a broken, shattered ex-Shaman facing the very real threat of extinction, he did what needed to be done to ensure the survival of his race. For all his flaws and mistakes, for all his crimes, he just wanted his people to survive. He didn't re-open the portals for greed or power. He did it for hope.
This isn't the first time we've seen this scenario, of a leader doing everything and anything in his power to save his people, no matter the cost. Another famous example is Aiden Perenolde, former leader of Alterac during the Second War, who betrayed the Alliance and allowed the Horde free passage through his lands in return for leaving its citizens unharmed.
Just like Ner'zhul, Perenolde is also reviled to this day, by both in-game NPCs and real-life players. He is regarded as a vile traitor, a monster, a coward, and perhaps most damning, someone who sold out the rest of humanity - his own race - for his own gain.
Because of the scope and ramifications of his actions, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest villains in Azerothian history.
Few people realize that Perenolde's agreement with Orgrim Doomhammer was not motivated by greed, a lust for power, jealousy/envy of the other nations, or anything like that. No, Perenolde met with the Orc Warchief and agreed to the treacherous bargain for one reason and one reason only - survival. And not simply his own - the survival of his people, the civilians and citizens of Alterac.
|Doomhammer nodded. "So your message said. What do you want from me?"|
"Assurances," [Perenolde] replied.
"Of what sort?"
"I want your word, as a warrior and a leader, that you will keep your warriors in check," the man answered. "No killing, raiding, razing, or other atrocities here in the mountains. Leave our cities and villages intact and do not hound or hunt our people."
-Tides of Darkness
After going over the details, Doomhammer agreed to spare Alterac in return for free passage.
|"When we conquer this land I will place my protection around these mountains, that none may violate them. You and yours shall be safe."|
-Tides of Darkness
Later, when Perenolde explained his treasonous decision to his general, a man named Hath, and Alterac's other horrified commanders, he told them quite honestly and clearly why he felt the treaty was necessary.
|"Yes, I would have us conspire with them!" Perenolde snapped, losing his composure. "Because I would have us survive!" He let his anger, and his terror, boil over into his words. "Do you have any idea what we are facing? The Horde, the entire Horde, is planning to sweep through these mountains! Through our home! Do you have any idea how many of them there are? Thousands! Tens of thousands!" Hath nodded grudgingly, as did a few of the others—they had seen the same reports he had. "And do you have any idea what these orcs are like? I have seen one of them, no farther away from me than you are now. They are enormous! Nearly as tall as trolls, and twice as wide! Massively muscled, with tusks and fangs—this one carried a hammer it would take three men to lift, and he waved it about as if it were a child's toy! No man could stand against that! They'll kill us all, don't you understand? They've already destroyed Stormwind, and Alterac will be next!"|
"But the Alliance—" Hath began. Perenolde laughed bitterly.
"The Alliance what?" he demanded. "Where are they now? Not here, I'll tell you that! We formed the Alliance to protect our kingdoms against exactly this sort of attack, but here we are with the Horde breathing down our necks and the precious Alliance is nowhere in sight. They've abandoned us, don't you see?" He could hear his voice rising to near-hysteria, and sought to rein it back in. "It is every kingdom for itself now," he told them as calmly as he could manage. "I have to think about Alterac first. The other kings would do the same."
-Tides of Darkness
One of Perenolde's officers asked him if he believed the orcs could be trusted, and Alterac's king was honest - he didn't know. But, he explained, it was their only option if they hoped to survive.
|"We have no choice," he replied slowly. "They can crush us with barely a thought. If they betray us, we are finished. But if they hold to their word—and I think they will—Alterac will survive. No matter the cost."|
-Tides of Darkness
Perenolde was in an impossible situation. If he remained loyal to the Alliance and ordered Alterac's military to oppose the invading Horde, he would be condemning each of his nation's citizens to death. The Horde would have slaughtered the soldiers, burned and pillaged their way across Alterac, and been well on their way before any reinforcements from Lordaeron arrived to help. And this wasn't some unjustified assumption by Perenolde - it was 100% true. Later on, even when furious about Perenolde's betrayal, Trollbane doesn't deny it. Alterac was on their own, isolated, scared and completely doomed unless Perenolde did something. So he did.
Was it the right decision? Who could possibly answer that? People speak bravely of making necessary sacrifices for the greater good, but talk is cheap. Besides, it's one thing to heroically sacrifice yourself for the benefit of others. It's quite different to consciously sacrifice thousands of innocent people, even if IS for "the greater good."
I repeat - what was Perenolde supposed to do? Do the "right thing" for the rest of the world, and valiantly oppose the forces against him in a suicidal stand? Maybe he could have armed Alterac's merchants and farmers with swords so they could flail helplessly at the hardened savages cutting them down? Or give daggers to the mothers so they could slit their children's throats, and then their own, rather than be butchered by these green-skinned, crazed monsters?
Even Thoras Trollbane, the volatile, violent leader of Stromgarde, sympathized with the reasoning behind Perenolde's decision when he traveled to Alterac to seize command.
|Trollbane glanced around them. None of the Alterac soldiers were close enough to hear him as he lowered his voice. "You're a fine soldier and a good commander, Hath," he said softly, "but you've always been a terrible liar. You knew they were heading south, didn't you?"|
The Alterac general sighed and nodded. "Perenolde made arrangements with the Horde somehow," he admitted. "Free passage in exchange for protection."
Trollbane nodded. That was what he had suspected. "And you went along with this?" he demanded.
Hath stiffened. "We were faced with annihilation!" he replied sharply. "They would have crushed us all, and slaughtered our people! And there was no one to aid us!" He shook his head. "Perenolde made the choice to protect Alterac first and foremost. What he did may not be decent, but it saved lives!"
"And what of the lives in Lordaeron?" Trollbane asked softly. "They will die because you allowed the Horde to pass unhindered."
Hath glared at him. "They are soldiers! They know the risk! The Horde would have killed our families, our children! It is not the same!"
Trollbane nodded, feeling some sympathy toward the older man. "No, it is not," he agreed. "And your loyalty to your people is commendable. But if the Horde conquers Lordaeron they will control the entire continent. What makes you think you will be safe?"
Hath sighed. "I do not know," he admitted. "Their leader gave Perenolde his word, but I do not know how far such a creature may be trusted." He shook his head. "I told Perenolde we should abide by our oaths to the other nations, but he countermanded that. I have sworn fealty to him, and I must obey. Plus I thought he might be right, that this might be our only chance for survival." He frowned. "But survival of the race is more important than that of any one kingdom. And if we do not have our honor, we have nothing at all." He raised his chin, a stern expression settling over his features. "Well, I will reclaim our honor," he declared.
-Tides of Darkness
The true irony here is that while Hath, Trollbane, and even Perenolde had no way of knowing this, Doomhammer fully intended to keep his word and leave Alterac untouched, and protect it as he had agreed. (This isn't speculation - Doomhammer states it in the novel.) Why? Because he had given his word; because it was a matter of honor.
In the end, Perenolde was arrested, had his nation and rank stripped from him, and his family line was disgraced. He was shamed and lost everything for his treachery. But was he actually wrong? After all, he managed to successfully accomplish the impossible. Because of his actions, Alterac lived. True to his word, Doomhammer led the Horde through the mountain passes and left its citizens and lands unharmed. Granted, it may not have happened exactly the way Perenolde had intended, but every Alterac citizen that survived the war did so because of their king.
Still not convinced? Still think Ner'zhul and Perenolde should have done the "right thing" and sacrificed their people for the greater good? Surrendered their lives so that others might live?
Tell that to Velen.
The destruction of Draenor, the corruption of the Orc race, the thousands who died during the great wars when the Horde invaded Azeroth - all of these tragedies could have been avoided had Velen "simply" sacrificed himself and his people to the Burning Legion. Instead, they fled, over and over again, each time leading the Legion to untarnished, pure worlds, ripe for decimation.
You might say this isn't a fair comparison. That Velen and the other Draenei were victims. After all, they didn't ask for Kil'jaeden to come and shatter their perfect society. And this is true. But then again, did the Orcs ask the Draenei to come live on their planet, and bring their demonic curse with them? Did Perenolde and Alterac ask for the Horde to invade their lands, and force them to choose between betrayal and extinction?
Now, Velen had no way of knowing Kil'jaeden would become so obsessed with revenge and relentlessly, eternally devote his entire existence to hunting down his former people. Velen can't really be blamed for settling his refugee people on a new world to live in peace, only to have the Eredar arrive and destroy everything.
Not the first time, anyway. Or maybe the second. Possibly even the third.
But how long do we give Velen this free pass? He's not a dumb guy. It wouldn't have been long before he spotted this terrible trend and realized that no matter where the Draenei went, the Legion would always be close behind. That settling on a new world was essentially dooming it to demonic invasion, sooner or later. Hope and optimism that the Legion won't find them is a nice thought, but after 25,000 years of being pursued and hunted by Kil'jaeden's servants, the Draenei should definitely know better by now.
What makes matters worse is that time and time again, the Draenei arrive on a new world and bring their horrible demonic legacy down upon its residents...and when the Burning Legion arrives (as it always does), what does Velen & company do? Simple - they just up and leave, and let Kil'jaeden unleash his fury upon the innocent native inhabitants instead.
Let me repeat that.
THEY FLEE AND LET OTHER RACES BE BUTCHERED IN THEIR PLACE.
|So often before, Kil'jaeden's forces had descended upon a world where Velen was thought to be, only to have him escape. Kil'jaeden had nursed his insulted pride by destroying such worlds, but the slaughter of primitive races—though pleasant—did not slake his demonic thirst for complete and total revenge.|
-Rise of the Horde
And this isn't some heroic retreat, where the Draenei fight the demons valiantly alongside the native people until all hope is lost, and only then do they agonizingly withdraw and blast off into space at the last second. Nope, they actually just abandon the planet before the Legion even shows up, and let Kil'jaeden do whatever he wants to their former neighbors.
I'm rather horrified at this, to be honest.
You know what it's like? It's like the Draenei are being chased by a rabid wolf, and they keep grabbing innocent kids off the sidewalk and hurling them backwards into the wolf's path, just to aid in their own escape. It's cowardly, shameful, and pretty much the most selfish thing ever.
But hey, at least the Draenei have only been doing this for 25,000 YEARS.
What. The. Hell.
Need some scale to go with that? When a young Durotan meets with Velen in Rise of the Horde, he mentions that the Draenei arrived on Draenor about two hundred years earlier. At the end of the novel Durotan is older and wiser, but still very much in his prime, so at most a few decades have passed. This means from the time the Draenei arrived on Draenor, it took Kil'jaeden no more than 250 years to track them down and once again destroy their lives.
250 years. And the Draenei have been on the run for 25,000 years.
That's A THOUSAND WORLDS.
Think about that for a second.
Now granted, we don't know if the Draenei's tenure on Draenor was unusually short. Maybe it usually takes the Legion way longer to locate them, or maybe this planet's destruction went exceptionally fast because Kil'jaeden didn't have to actually transport his demonic troops across space. But how much longer? Four times as long, to make a nice even 1000 years per planet? Oh, that's only TWENTY-FIVE PLANETS. Ten times longer? That's still TEN PLANETS.
That's a lot of innocent blood on those blue hands, Velen. How many cultures fell so that the Draenei could live? How many races perished for the crime of simply existing on a world you once called home?
And if things start looking bad on Azeroth, if the Legion shows up in force and starts beating us back, are the Draenei just going to pack up and leave?
As for Velen's leadership decisions...well, what should Velen have done? Should he have stayed behind on Argus and let the Legion slaughter him and the rest of the uncorrupted Draenei? Should he have given the order to stop fleeing long ago and just let Kil'jaeden's minions catch them, so the Draenei wouldn't be leading them to innocent new worlds?
Surely selfless, noble sacrifice would have been the right thing to do...the "honorable" decision. Right?
After all...it's for the greater good.
But Velen has never done these things. He can't. He simply cannot condemn his people to death, even if their survival means that countless others will suffer and perish. He bears the burden of leadership upon his shoulders, and feels personally responsible for each and every life in his charge. He just can't make that sacrifice.
And neither could Ner'zhul. Or Aiden Perenolde.
Some decisions are simply impossible.