If you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?

The question asked in this node title poses an interesting dilemma, one that has frequently been the subject of speculation, both in science fiction and in philosophical works. It is a dilemma that is entirely hypothetical, since we do not have time travel at present, but it serves as an illustrative exercise in some fundamental questions of history and moral philosophy. As such, it is a very important subject.

The dilemma is, in fact, two-pronged. Not only does it ask:

Is it right to commit murder, to avoid what one knows will be horrifying consequences for large numbers of people?
it also, if more subtly, contains the question:
Would actually committing such a murder be sufficient to avoid those consequences - would it make a difference?

Moral aspects

The first question is the moral portion of the dilemma. Wrestling with conscience, one must decide whether to overcome the taboo that is placed upon outright murder. Should one kill someone verifiably responsible for multiple deaths, before they can do the deed? Is the person innocent, before the fact? Is it wrong to kill under any circumstances, or are there exceptions? Is the magnitude of murder significant, or is one murder equally as evil as many murders?

The approach one selects to answering this part of the question depends upon one's religious and moral convictions. These are, in some ways, related to the moral problems of capital punishment and assassination of known terrorists. When the governor of Texas turns down the final appeal of a death row inmate, or when the state of Israel chooses to bomb a known terrorist, they are making one answer to this question. The anti-capital-punishment picketers outside the prison, and the people who condemn Israel for its action, have chosen to answer the question in the opposite way.

Whichever answer one chooses to the first question, the choice is fundamentally determined by one's moral convictions. Not so the second question.

Practical historical-philosophical aspects

The second question is eminently practical. Is Hitler (or whichever other example one may select) truly the primary cause of the horrors of the camps, or is he the result of historical trends, which would have produced someone like him, even had he himself not been around? In other words, would it even do any good to kill him? This is not to dispute the fundamental evil of Hitler's actions, but would it have changed anything?

The answer one selects to this second question is important - it is determined by one's view of how history works. Subscribers to the "Great Man" theory of history will maintain that Hitler (like Napoleon, Louis XIV, Caesar, Alexander, and others like them) were central figures of history, and that they personally made a significant change in the way history unfolded. With this point of view, it seems natural to argue that killing Hitler would have made a difference. Maybe not a complete change in history, but significant nonetheless. Of course, the question is whether it would have made a positive difference - could, for instance, a different German dictator have had more military realism, and kept the peace with the Soviet Union, until the Allies had been defeated?

The opposing viewpoint is structuralist: it sees historical events as a result of complex structures of causality. In such a view of history, people are merely exponents of greater historical trends. The tendency here is to argue that, had Germany not had Hitler, it would have had someone very like him.

Now, doubtless, the "truth" is somewhere between these two extremes. Still, the subject makes for fascinating contemplation.

Making History

In the British comedian and novelist Stephen Fry's Making History (a book I highly recommend), this dilemma is the central theme. The protagonist is, by various means, given the choice - to change history in such a way that Hitler's parents never had him, or to leave things be. Unsurprisingly (else the book would be pointless), he chooses to effect change.

He does not devote much thought to the moral part of the dilemma - he is young, and finds it very easy to think in terms of good and evil. Nor does he give much thought to the historical-philosophical portion of the dilemma, again due to his youth, and this negligence brings him much grief. Suffice to say that Fry is strongly, if not completely, in the structuralist camp.

While Fry's protagonist shows little thought for the moral and practical consequences of his choice, Fry devotes a great deal of subtle effort to exploring the underlying dilemma. As such, this book is an excellent study of its implications.

The teleological problem

One aspect not immediately part of the dilemma, but still germane to the (hypothetical) choice, is the question:

Would killing Hitler (and presumably averting the consequences of his actions in history) be tantamount to depriving Humanity of an important lesson, one which it needed to learn?

This is not strictly part of the moral/philosophical dilemma - instead, it presupposes that history is a teleological process, one that has a definite purpose. The nature of the supposed purpose would depend on one's worldview, whether religious or secular. Presumably, such a purpose (whatever its nature) would require uncomfortable lessons to be learned. Might the Holocaust be such a lesson? If so, would killing Hitler not simply mean that Humanity would just have to learn this lesson at a later date?

Given this supposition, it is not inconceivable that killing Hitler to avert his crimes would be an action against the best interest of Humanity.

Summing up

Questions such as these may seem pointless and counterfactual, but we can learn a great deal from them. They are hypotypical - they pose a completely hypothetical and abstract question, but one that forces examination of fundamental moral and philosophical issues. The answer that one chooses, and the reasons for choosing it, reveal our basic assumptions about morality and (historical) causation.

If given the choice, would I do it? Is the mind-shattering magnitude of the crimes committed by Hitler sufficient to overcome my moral revulsion for outright killing? I don't know. I suspect that I would be tempted beyond my capacity to resist, but I hope that I'd choose not to do it, on moral grounds.

As to the historical-philosophical question, I believe the answer is simpler: I cannot bring myself to believe that the Devil I know is better than the Devil I don't. I'd take the chance.


Appended remarks:

  • Lucy-S has pointed out, quite correctly, that (teleologically speaking), the lesson of the Holocaust was potentially taught before (viz., the Spaniards in the Carribean) and has been replayed later (in Rwanda and Bosnia). As she puts it, "it seems a lesson we're not doing a very good job of learning". I have to agree - but I maintain that Hitler was more than merely the instigator of the Holocaust. In terms of lessons to Humanity, Hitler is the "bonus plan" - he demonstrates so many negative aspects of human collective activity that it boggles the mind.

  • jasonm says: "if I was around then and I saw you about to kill that dorky spotty neighbor kid Adolph, I'd try to stop you. and I'd also be morally right in trying to do so, wouldn't i?"
    Yes, and I doubt that I'd be able to kill a child, even given the knowledge of his future acts of evil. This raises the question of when exactly Hitler "went bad". Was he born evil, did the capacity for evil grow gradually, or was there a sudden and drastic change? In any case, there is a great deal of moral difference between killing Hitler the child and Hitler the adult. Children are by the definition of childhood absolved from the moral consequences of their acts until they put childhood behind them, and I don't see why that absolution shouldn't apply in this case.

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