No, I Would Not Kill Baby Hitler

“Knowing what we know today, would you go back in time and kill baby Hitler if you could?”

Every time I hear this question I cringe a little. I find the presuppositions underlying it highly dubious. Leaving aside the paradoxes of time travel (I will save the discussion of the incoherence of the concept for future posts), the belief that you could change history in a meaningful way by adding or subtracting a single person is highly problematic: social forces play a bigger role than any individual. There is a feedback loop between the individual and society, each shaping the other. When conditions are ripe for a movement, a person will emerge to be its standard-bearer. That person is less unique than we are apt to think.

“Hitler Didn’t Drop Out of a Clear Blue Sky”

The social, political, and economic conditions in Germany between the two phases of the great world war are well known. Alice Miller makes a convincing case in her book, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, that Hitler was skilfully triggering deeply programmed responses from the German people that had been burned in by the pedagogical norms of the early 20th century. What’s more, the silly brown-shirt fringe group he was leading only gained power after it received the backing of the German military-industrial-financial complex (with help from abroad). Had there been no Hitler, they could have / would have chosen someone else to represent their interests.

The scenario presupposed by the “kill baby Hitler” question seems to assume that Hitler was some sort of demonic presence with super-human powers, not the sick but ordinary man he actually was. It also assumes he had no rivals. Suppose you go back and kill baby Hitler, only to find out later that all you have done is create space for his otherwise unknown rival, Schitler, to rise to power in his place — with the difference that Schitler is slightly less psychologically damaged and slightly more intelligent than Hitler, just enough so to actually win the war?

The idea that you could change history by plucking one person out is like thinking you could end a hurricane just by removing the molecules that form the wall of the eye: other molecules would form a new eye wall almost instantly.