The New York Times Magazine caused a stir on Friday when it tweeted a question about the morality of killing baby Hitler.
— NYT Magazine (@NYTmag) October 23, 2015
This kind of Hitler-killing fantasy is perhaps best dealt with by a good dose of science-fiction satire (hat tip to Ben Domenech) highlighting the inherent paradoxes of time travel. But it has also set off a wave of pretentious “think pieces” that take the idea way too seriously.
This is, in fact, a stupid question for a whole host of reasons. The main reason is that it assumes something that is impossible, certainly to us. That’s why the best response was this one.
@NYTmag If you were the moon would you explore yourself
— Steve Kovach (@stevekovach) October 23, 2015
It shows what ridiculous mental knots you can tie when you entangle yourself in impossible hypotheticals. “If you were the moon…” is a hypothetical that leads to nothing and anything. So is “if you could go back in time.”
Yet killing baby Hitler may just be the debate of our era. It embodies so much of what is wrong with how we look at history, at our place in history, and at how a culture changes.
It turns out I’m way ahead in the think-piece derby, because I had already addressed the important baby Hitler question while taking on the role of Iraq War hypotheticals in the Republican primary. Here was my response:
Think about it: you could single-handedly prevent the rise of a monstrous dictator, save the lives of millions of Jews, and prevent the world’s most horrific war. But in the actual moment, of course, you would just be murdering somebody’s baby, which would make you the monster. This is the basic problem with retrospective hypotheticals. They invite us to ignore or rewrite the actual context of past decisions; they allow us to make easy assurances that we would have gotten everything right and never made any mistakes; they tend to confuse more than they enlighten.
Ah, but isn’t that what we love to do these days: ignore and rewrite historical context? Isn’t the assumption behind the baby Hitler example precisely the sort of thing we love to hear—that if only someone as enlightened as me had been around back then, every bad consequences could have been avoided, and universal peace and love would reign?
This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the Nazi hypothetical, including in a much more realistic form. When I was a kid, I participated in a brilliantly constructed summer program in which a group of students had to re-enact the 1938 Munich Crisis, which is widely accepted as the moment when the European powers blinked and emboldened Hitler’s aggression. So our task was to play the roles of the various presidents, prime ministers, and diplomats and see if we could do better.
You can probably guess the punchline. Maybe we did a little better—Neville Chamberlain set a low bar—but not that much. Sure, we were only kids. Then again, we were precisely the sort of people who were susceptible to the notion that if only we young and idealistic types had been in charge, we could have solved all the problems, especially with the benefit of hindsight. But sometimes the problems really are difficult. After all, even if you could have gotten Britain and Poland and France and Czechoslovakia to agree to band together and respond to the crisis by invading Germany—well then, our side would have be the one waging an aggressive, preemptive war, right? Which just might have us asking ourselves, “Are we the baddies?”
In America, the parallel hypothetical for “progressive” types might be whether they could go back in time and kill Thomas Jefferson. Or perhaps they could merely discredit him by helping to spread those rumors about Sally Hemings. After all, he was a slave owner, right? Doesn’t he deserve it?
That’s pretty much what they’re trying to do. Given that we don’t actually have time machines, they’re doing the next best thing, which is to erase Jefferson from history, taking him off the Democratic Party’s Jefferson–Jackson fundraising dinners, trying to remove his statues from college campuses, and so on.
Yet in the actual context of his time, attacking Jefferson would not have been a blow for freedom or racial equality. It would have been a blow for monarchical absolutism and the divine right of kings, because that was the issue he and his contemporaries were really fighting about. All of the stuff we debate today is possible only because they settled that issue first.
But analyzing all of this in historical context misses the point because for most of the people who debate this, the point is how they want to feel about themselves today. Railing against Jefferson because of racism and slavery is a modern way of telling yourself that you’re a “progressive” while you reject one of the most genuinely progressive leaders in history.
That’s why a debate over killing baby Hitler is so emblematic of our era. It’s not about a real challenge in a real context with real risks and trade-offs and uncertainties—such as the Syrian civil war, Ukraine’s fight for independence from Russia, or Venezuela’s slide into socialism. It’s just modern posturing about your “progressive” feelings concerning a scenario that is safely impossible, so that you will never be called to act upon your pronouncements.