It’s one of the classic time-travel question, and embodies part of what I hate about time travel as a literary device, but I’ll get to that part in another post.
But the relevant question here, posed over many decades, is “If you could go back in time and kill baby Hitler, would you?”
The hypothetical dilemma here, obviously, is whether or not you would kill an innocent in order to prevent the deaths of millions. But to be honest, that question is simultaneously boring (because most of you almost certainly would) and irrelevant (because there’s no way to know if it would actually work).
“Come the moment, come the man”, to paraphrase slightly. Hitler wasn’t some super-villain capable of controlling the masses through sheer will, nor some incredibly talented orator with the gift and skill to sway the minds of millions.
Hitler was just a man.
Not particularly tall, definitely not all that good looking, a forceful but not particularly skilled orator, and an absolute failure at anything beyond the most basic level of, for lack of a better way of putting it, gutter politics. Hitler was both the “savior” of the Nazi party, and one of its greatest liabilities.
Plus he looked ridiculous in lederhosen.
But Germany was ripe for someone like Hitler. Defeated in The Great War, economically crippled by punitive measures, stripped of national pride, it’s no great wonder how Hitler managed to accumulate a mass of dedicated followers willing to physically attack his political opponents. Like every other demagogue throughout history, he told them what they wanted to hear, and gave them a focus for their anger.
So let’s return to the question. Would you kill baby Hitler?
Fundamentally the question is just a massively scaled up version of the trolley problem. Which is convenient, because the exact same flaw exists in both thought experiments: Will this action actually save lives?
On the surface it seems easy enough; flip the lever, kill one man to save five. Or smother one baby to save millions.
But will you?
Like a great many thought experiments, the narrow scope of the question reduces it down to a pointless exercise. Because there is no way of knowing what exists beyond the narrow confines of the scenario as presented.
I had a class called Christian Morality when I was in high school, particularly ironic since I am an atheist, but my parents weren’t dreadfully thrilled when the local school district decided to change the feeder patterns for two of their schools, and the one I was going to be routed into had a… problematic reputation. So hey, send Chris to Catholic School, and I’m sure he’ll fit right in.
For the record: not really. I mean, great school and all, excellent programs, and while both of the principals during my time there were later outed as child molesters, they did at least have the dignity to tell us this years later.
Weirdly though, every single admitted molester on the list they sent was was already dead.
Probably just a coincidence.
Water under the bridge, and the fact of the matter is that I actually very much enjoyed my Christian Morality class because arguing ethical dilemmas is a lot of fun, as far as I’m concerned, particularly when one side is arguing with one hand tied behind their backs.
Yes, I did debate the rest of my class, teacher included, to a standstill on the lifeboat dilemma. But that one is easy, because while there are a number of imponderables, the odds are pretty easy to calculate.
The trolley problem is slightly more complex, because you have no way of knowing what exists further down the track if you do pull the lever. You know that the trolley is supposed to be going down the track where it will kill five men. And trolleys and trains run on rails. Rails that don’t leave a great deal of room to maneuver, and are frequently used to move vehicles in opposite directions, all according to carefully coordinated schedules to avoid things like, say, a head-on collision between two fully loaded trolleys if some idiot flips a switch he shouldn’t be touching.
Which, incidentally, was my answer to the trolley problem. With the amount of data presented in the experiment, I could not in good conscience flip the switch, because while it might save four lives, it also has a not-statistically-insignificant chance of ending a great many more lives.
Which brings us back to baby Hitler.
Would killing baby Hitler prevent the Second World War?
Would killing baby Hitler prevent the Holocaust?
Would killing baby Hitler result in a net positive outcome?
Impossible to know.
The sheer number of variables is immense, and no matter the hour, come the moment, come the man. By strangling lil’ Adolph, you open the door to any number of possible futures where some variation of the Nazi party rises up only this time it’s not crippled by Hitler’s various obsessions.
You could very well wind up not only failing to prevent the Holocaust, but in a scenario where our pseudo-Nazis gain control of continental Europe, and conduct their pogroms on an even greater scale. A scenario where a resurgent Germany beats the United States to the bomb, and instead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki being immolated in a nuclear pyre, it’s London and Washington D.C.
Admittedly, positive outcome for the Japanese in this scenario, but also… Nuclear Nazis. Probably not good for anyone in the long run.
You can attempt to run the odds on possible outcomes of dictatorial infanticide, but as mentioned, the number of variables is so staggeringly large that success or failure in your sanguine devoir is impossible to calculate, in terms of achieving a net positive outcome.
I mean, killing a baby is easy enough to do by accident, but altering the course of human history is usually a bit harder than just stacking a couple extra pillows on an infant.
Now, you might use your time machine to go back and negotiate better terms for Germany in the Treaty of Versailles. Or worse terms, and break the country up entirely, as some wanted to do. Or you could go further back and provide Archduke Ferdinand’s drivers with an up to date itinerary.
And in each instance, you could very well make things worse. A stronger Germany, less crippled by postwar debt, with its honor intact, might be less likely to fall under the sway of a dictator. Or it still might, only starting from a stronger position. A fractured and destroyed Germany might never recoalesce, but it might also leave the door open for a wave of conquest by an opportunistic Soviet Union. By saving the Archduke, you might well delay the start of the First World War, only to have it happen regardless at a later date, with greater technological sophistication and an even bloodier outcome.
Boiling history down to a sequence of important events makes it easier to teach and understand, but in so doing you obscure so much of the complexity that makes these sorts of thought experiments exercises in futility. And yes, I know, the further up the educational ladder you progress, the more of that complexity and subtlety they introduce, but I sometimes despair that the apparent level we’ve chosen to stop at in our universal education, at least in the United States, is that historical problems could be solved with simple changes.
And that is the kind of mentality that leads to the sort of disastrous interventions that have become so routine for the US. “If we just kill that one guy”, “if we just stabilize this one city”, “if we just do X we’ll get good outcome Y” and we have caused untold amounts of death with that thinking. There has to be a better way.