If you find yourself suddenly gaining access to a time machine, what’s the first thing you’d do? If you said “kill Adolf Hitler”, then congratulations; you’re a science-fiction character. Actually, the whole “access to a time machine” thing suggested that already, but the desire to kill Hitler clinches it. Any time-travelling sci-fi character (at least ones created by Western society) seems to want to kill Hitler, so much so that there’s a trope about how it’s impossible.
That attempting to kill Hitler has become such a common sci-fi plot device speaks volumes. What about Stalin? He was arguably worse, killing 20 million of his own people to fuel his ideology. But no, Stalin went about his business unmolested by time travellers, all of whom are busy targeting Hitler.
It’s understandable. Who wouldn’t want to prevent the holocaust? It’s probably the worst thing in history. And I only say “probably” because I don’t know all of history, and the human capacity to be awful should not be underestimated. But as noble as it seems, killing the Fuhrer via time travel is a terrible idea, for real-world reasons, not just those in fiction. So should you get hold of a time machine and make plans to kill Hitler, here are some reasons why you shouldn’t.
Could you actually kill another human being? Despite what pop culture implies, humans generally aren’t predisposed to killing each other. This isn’t an absolute, of course. Abstract thinking about homicide is relatively common, and many humans end up taking the lives of others due to complex circumstances such as brutal upbringings/environments, or possibly psychiatric illness. And of course, some people are just evil. It seems challenging to reconcile these motivations with the mentality that plans to kill Hitler as an altruistic act.
But let’s assume you are willing to kill one to save millions of others. All of history to visit, and your first port of call involves killing. Fine. Whatever. When do you kill Hitler? As a child, Hitler hadn’t done anything monstrous enough to warrant his murder, so would you be willing to take his life then? Minority Report struggled with this issue, and that was on a much smaller scale.
Maybe later, when the Reich is in place but he hadn’t committed genocide yet. But would this be too late? Once everything has been set up, would eliminating Hitler change anything? This brings us onto another reason not to do it.
Stephen Fry dealt with this superbly in his book Making History. Without spoilers, the problem is that many assume Hitler was the sole cause of the second world war and all the associated horrors. Sadly, this is a gross oversimplification. Germany in the 1930s wasn’t a utopia of basket-weaving peace lovers who were suddenly and severely corrupted by Hitler’s charismatic moustache. The political tensions and strife were all there, results of a previous world war and a great depression; Hitler was just able to capitalise on this. But if he hadn’t, say because he had been eliminated by an errant time traveller, then there’s nothing to say that nobody else would.
Problems rarely exist in isolation. Just like you can’t go in and rip out a tumour because it’s connected to the wider body which will react badly to such a blunt intrusion, elimination of the main figurehead won’t necessarily prevent events that were as much a product of the wider socio-political context. So if you did try it …
There’s the oft-quoted example of the butterfly effect, ie very small changes in a very complex system can have very big effects. You can criticise Hitler for many valid reasons, but one thing he wasn’t was “insignificant”; if he were, there’d be no desire to assassinate him. So even if you did succeed, given the impact he had on so many lives, you’d drastically alter the future/present, even if it panned out to be “better” without Hitler.
Say whoever replaced him was ineffectual and the war ended with reduced loss of life and destruction. In this timeline, maybe no German rocket scientists ended up in the US. The space programme loses some of its best minds, and happens more slowly (or not at all?) The space race resulted in a breath-taking amount of scientific advancement and spinoff technology, one strand of which eventually led to time travel. Now that you’ve changed things, time travel wasn’t invented in your lifetime, so either you vanish and the whole thing is undone, or your time machine does. So now you’re stranded in wartime Berlin. And you’ve just killed the beloved leader of one of the most powerful military machines in history.
Good luck with that.
This may seem like a minor issue, but it’s not wise to dismiss how Hitler and his actions shaped the society of those who opposed him. The Nazis are almost unanimously considered to have been the “bad guys”. The phenomenon of Godwin’s law underscores the cultural reflex of Nazis = evil and wrong. Anyone who agrees with them in present times is (quite rightly) condemned en masse. Without this stark and horrible example of how prejudice and fascism can lead to atrocities, would such things be as vilified as they are today? The existence of Hitler likely served to unite his enemies at a societal level, which has considerable ramifications.
And let’s not overlook the consequences of the war that led to important changes in terms of equality and the like in society as a whole. This isn’t to say these things wouldn’t happen anyway, but it’s likely they happened a lot faster due to Hitler’s presence. It’s impossible to say how many may have suffered and died over the years, if people hadn’t banded together to fight Hitler. Is this something you’d risk changing?
This is overlooked surprisingly often, so it bears repeating: Hitler didn’t win. Whatever you think of the present, we don’t live in some bleak wasteland dominated by a global Reich. Because Hitler and his armies lost. Although it was a costly victory, it was still technically a victory, so why risk going back and interfering with an outcome you favour? And arguably, it was due to Hitler’s incompetence as a strategist that the war panned out the way it did.
In a way, Hitler had the perfect combination of drive, charisma, evil and incompetence to unite the world against him and ensure that his forces lost. It’s such an unlikely combination of factors that the only way to consciously make it happen would be to go back in time and remove anyone else who might have …
… oh. Oh dear.
Dean Burnett promises he is not a time-travelling Nazi. But then, he would say that, wouldn’t he?