Four Reasons Why Going Back in Time and Killing Hitler is Pointless

For all kinds of (good) reasons, we’re probably stuck with this version of history

TimeTravelHitlerAsk anyone what they would do if they had a time machine and nine times out of ten they will say: go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler. On its face it seems like a smart idea. Hitler and his cronies were responsible for starting one of the most devastating wars in history and caused the deaths of millions of civilians for being “racially inferior”. So many lives could be saved and atrocities avoided by the action of just one gung-ho time traveler ready to set time right with a single bullet.

Or not? As good as it sounds, killing Hitler would be a waste of your time. Here are four reasons why:

1) Everything You Are Doing Is Probably Illegal

wolfenstein_3D_hitlerThe above should really go without saying. Modern society is structured in a way that we don’t allow people to carry out justice on their own terms. We have an impartial justice system that presumes everyone is innocent until proven guilty. Meanwhile, we have designated individuals who uphold the law and protect citizens from criminals. That whole system is upended if any yahoo can jump into time machine and shoot whoever he doesn’t like.

Now I know what you are saying. Come on this is Hitler we are talking about. Who really is going to stop me from shooting him? Well for one thing the people of the past, because murder was still murder a half a century ago. Also, you are probably going to have to kill Hitler before he became…well Hitler. So we are thinking somewhere before 1919, when he joined the German Workers’ Party, and 1889, when he was born. If you go back then and kill Hitler, you will probably be tried for murder if you are caught by the police. To them the only thing you did was kill a young man in cold blood. Also some free legal advice: don’t tell them you are a time traveler. It  won’t help your chances in front of the judge.

If you kill Hitler and somehow defy all paradoxes and make it back to your present (which would mean you definitely didn’t change a damn thing, but for the sake of the article lets keep going) don’t expect a ticker tape parade. My guess is time machines will be a bit more complicated than the hot rods people used to wrench on in their dad’s garage. No one is just going to hand you the keys to a time machine and tell you to have fun with all of space and time. You will probably have to pull a Doctor and steal it. So you will come home a thief…and perhaps a murderer. Despite how we remember Hitler, we don’t execute people before they commit a crime. So while it might not be a popular decision, a prosecutor would have no choice but to try for murder.

But then again, this is Hitler we are talking about. Killing him would still be a “good” thing. Right?

2) Morally Questionable

fury_hitlerRemember when I said you would have to kill Hitler before 1919? Anyone thought about killing him as a baby? Do you feel like you are a good person if you drown a sinless baby in their own bath water? Can you stand the wails of a mother who just lost her child?

Extreme example I admit, but murder, regardless of when you decide to do it in someone’s personal timeline, is wrong. Not just illegal, morally wrong. Almost every single major religion and philosophy would agree with me. O sure we have carved out a bunch of exceptions and I am sure you are shouting some at your computer right now (and if you are please stop, you are upsetting your co-workers). Self-defense comes to mind. That has been expanded to cover the protection of others and the millions you could save by killing one man certainly outweigh any moral concerns.

And yet if we accept that we can go back in time and change history, we by our actions show that history is not set in stone. The actions of a single person can thus have great consequences down the road. We reject predestination and we have taken the fate of not just ourselves, but all of humanity into our hands. Can anyone really say they deserve that power? And when that power is offered to them they immediately resort to killing? Kind of disturbing in my opinion. What exactly does that say to us as a culture when we so quickly come to death as a means of making the world a better place. Why not get Hitler some therapy or else show him how cool it is to be a science fiction writer?

And more importantly, if you can change history, then anyone can change history, even their own. Hitler’s path could have gone in a different direction without outside interference. After his death he could have been remembered in history as a health nut and pioneer of animal rights and be survived by his gay, Jewish partner from Ethiopia. You have to allow someone the chance for redemption. Even Harry Potter gave Voldermort one last chance.

Of course, illegality and morality aside, maybe it would be worth it. You could save millions of lives just by sacrificing one, because obviously the last half century was all Hitler’s fault, right?

3) One Person Can’t Change History

river songThere is something called the Great Man Theory of history. To sum up, certain people are just more special than others, and their actions have a significant impact on history. Such a theory has fallen out of favor, especially as we gain a better understanding of the intangible forces that effect history like economics, sociology, etc. Then postmodernism and chaos theory came along and, as Evans’ states in his book Altered Pasts, people rejected “determinism”  and promoted the belief that individuals do, by the expression of their free will, have an impact on history.

The problem is those intangible forces don’t just go away. Hitler was very much a product of his time as Stalin, Churchill or Roosevelt were. The German defeat in World War I, the unfair Treaty of Versailles, the weak Weimar democracy, the economic hardships of the Great Depression, the ingrained anti-Semitism that infected not just Germany, but all of Europe…you would need an army of time travelers to fix all of these problems.

Even without Hitler, it is just as likely some other demagogue would ride the wave of history to the top spot of Germany and start all the same horrors. The faces and details might be different, but the broad strokes of history would be the same. Millions would die, many for arbitrary reasons, and a new world would be born in atomic fire. You would have failed to stop the events you tied to Hitler’s life. Perhaps way down the time road we may see significant changes to outcome of history and perhaps it would be a better world, but the immediate consequences you tried to avert would still happen.

Hold on, I think I see the major flaw of my argument. If history is chaotic and infinite possibilities are available, then it is still possible a better world can come about by the death of one man. Fair enough, but then again…

4) You Might Just Make Everything Worse

inglourious-basterds_hitler-killedIn 1998, actor Stephen Fry won the Sidewise Award for his novel Making History. In this world the character makes Hitler’s father infertile, thus Hitler is never born. Inadvertently he allows a smarter and more charming figure to become head of the Nazis and Germany allowing for a German victory in World War II and worse world overall. This book symbolizes the problems that can occur when anything can happen. Even with the best intentions (and we know which locale uses that instead of asphalt on its highways) you can make things so much worse, as the main character from King’s 11/22/63 found out to his detriment. In fact I could probably name dozens of time travel stories that point out how unforeseen consequences emerge when you screw with the past.

You don’t even need an Axis victory in World War II to make things worse. A militarized, nationalistic Germany carrying out pogroms against Jews and other undesirables within their borders while participating in a multi-polar Cold War with the west, the Soviets and Japan can be just as bad…especially when you consider how many more nuclear weapons there could be and the more triggers that can go off. Even without nuclear fire, would either of these worlds have any conception of human rights? Without that, would we have civil rights, feminism, gay marriage or any of the other social changes we experienced in the last century?

There are just so many worse case scenarios that no one can say with any certainty how history will turn out. The risk is so great anyone decides to take that chance is not just a criminal, but insane.

Conclusion

I will admit, I would love to have a time machine. I wouldn’t, however, use it to change time. I would go back as a passive observer. I would see bands before they were famous or listen to Lincoln argue in court when he was just an unknown circuit court attorney. I doubt my promise not go back and intentionally screw with the past would convince anyone to hand over their shiny new time machine, but its worth a short.

The important thing to remember is that despite all appearances to the contrary, this timeline is probably the best outcome we could have hoped for. Lets remember the past as we build a better future, instead of trying to change it.

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2 Comments

  1. For example, the Russian Revolution was a product of the First World War; Lenin was in exile and the Bolsheviks were a hapless minor terrorist group in 1914. Only the destructive, brutalizing and radicalizing force of the war made it conceivable that they (as opposed to the SR’s or the Kadets) would come to power when the Tsarist autocracy came to an end, as it was almost certainly going to do at some point in the near future given Russia’s rapid economic development and the rise of a middle-class public opinion.

    Absent the war, the most likely outcome in Russia was a gradual (if occasionally chaotic and, on a small scale, bloody) transition to a constitutional monarchy, possibly accompanied by independence for some of the peripheral territories.

    Also there would be about 120 million more Slavs in the world now. In the late 1930’s, Stalin had the statisticians who compiled the Soviet census shot because they had (accurately) shown the total population was declining due to the terror-famines and the purges.

    The inconceivable brutality and tyranny of the Soviet regime and its imitators — the Great Leap in China alone killed 60 million people, and 2.5 million have starved to death in North Korea in the past 20 years, not to mention Pol Pot — is like a black hole in the 20th century.

    Then there’s Hitler, and WWII, and much else; and the destabilizing and demoralizing of Western civilization in general that cracked the lid and let the horrors out.

    Most of the good stuff that happened in the past 100 years would have happened anyway, if often rather more slowly — women’s suffrage was already inevitable, for example. India would have achieved Dominion status in the 1960’s.

    The bad stuff was… very bad, and we’re still living with the consequences. Putin and ISIS, to name just two.

  2. 1) Illegal — so what? Salus populi, suprema lex esto. “The good of the people is the highest law”.

    If you’ve got access to a time machine, you can probably evade the police simply by picking your time carefully — eg., killing Hitler during WWI by dropping a locally untraceable poison, for example a massive tab of LSD, into his beer, or waiting with a sniper rifle close to somewhere you know he’s going to pass. It’s a miracle he survived four years of the Western Front as a runner, which was the most dangerous infantry job, anyway.

    That, however is merely a practical matter. Compared to time travel itself, it’s trivial. If nothing else worked, you could use a suicide vest.

    As for what happens when you get back, first, who’s to know what you did, and second, it’s outside the jurisdiction of any contemporary authorities anyway.

    In short, screw legal technicalities, who cares except anal-retentive, passive-aggressive bureaucrat types? The law is simply a tool, there to ensure better outcomes.

    2) No it isn’t immoral. It’s immoral -not- to kill Hitler.

    If you have the power to prevent something (eg., WWII, the Holocaust) and you don’t do so, you are responsible for it. As the Talmud says, “If a man come up against you, to slay you [or another], forestall him by slaying him first”. (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Sanhedrin.)

    Killing of this sort is a political act, and as Max Weber put it, the ultimately decisive means of political action is always violence. Stop trying to force everything into an extension of the judicial system. You don’t kill politically (as in war, for example) because someone has been arrested and tried and convicted of doing something individually wrong; you kill in politics to enforce your will.

    3) One person can’t change history:

    This is complete garbage. Individual choices do matter, and particularly wars don’t just “happen” due to “vast impersonal forces”. Individual men (it’s usually men) and small groups -decide- to make them happen. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand really did cause World War One, at least in the sense of the war starting that year with that constellation of forces and parties, because it removed the powerful man who was immovably opposed to Austria-Hungary starting a war over Serbia. FF was a nasty piece of work but convinced that general war would destroy the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was right, too.

    With respect to WWII, nobody in the German elite wanted it except Hitler. The generals were convinced it was a bad idea because they thought (rightly) that Germany would probably lose given the vast disparity of resources. They could add up GDP and population figures.

    Most of the top Nazis, like Goering, also thought the odds were bad. Only the unique ascendency Hitler had acquired by 1939 enabled him to force the decision through, and that required a cascade of unlikely historical accidents. And Hitler was a reckless gambler by nature with extremely radical intentions that couldn’t be accomplished without a general war and a total overturning of the European state system. German nationalists generally wanted to improve Germany’s power and position; Hitler wanted to sweep the board clear and upend even the basic demographic structures of the continent.

    An authoritarian nationalist dictatorship in Germany in the 1930’s was quite likely; and nearly everyone wanted Germany to rearm, to unite with Austria, and if possible to overthrow the territorial provisions of Versailles in the east.

    That’s not the same as deliberately provoking a war with Britain and France, or attacking the USSR. Those were Hitler’s decisions and everyone else at the top in Germany thought they were insanely risky. They were just not in a position to object.

    The Holocaust was also Hitler’s baby. Antisemitism was common throughout Europe (still is, thinly disguised) but Hitler’s inner demons were fairly unique. Plenty of other possible regimes would have made life unpleasant for Jews; virtually no other conceivable one would have set out to kill every Jew in the world.

    It wasn’t a popular policy that made the regime stronger internally and it didn’t help Germany’s wars of conquest; quite the contrary in both cases. It happened because Hitler wanted it, or more precisely because the Nazi structure was full of men who knew that Hitler wanted the Jews gone, and were securing their positions by “working towards the fuhrer”.

    4) Oh, please, this is just an excuse for gutless paralysis.

    Nobody can ever predict the future, so all actions have unforeseeable consequences. That doesn’t free us from the responsibility to -act- in this world. Altering the past is -less- subject to uncertainty than acting in the present, because at least with the past you would know what -did- happen and have some idea of why.

    In short, stop over-analyzing yourself into freezing like a deer in the headlights. Make your plans, calculate the odds, then roll the dice.

    Incidentally, avoiding WWII and the death camps would be worth quite a few “social changes”, to anyone but a moral imbecile, I’d think.

    What we’ve got is not a particularly optimum outcome of the past 100 years.

    So sure, I’d kill Hitler. But given the ability to travel in time, what I’d probably do is go back and kill Gavrilo Princip.

    Hitler’s regime was only possible because of World War One, the seminal disaster from which most of the ills of the past century have flowed.

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