Why I Wouldn’t Kill Hitler with My Time Machine

So, it’s a pretty classic thought experiment: If you had a time machine, would you go back and kill Hitler before he had a chance to start WWII?

Thanks to my daily internet divagations, I found myself revisiting this classic hypothetical today, and, given my brain’s penchant for the road less traveled (and for giving concrete answers to rhetorical questions), I found myself answering the question with a pretty definitive ‘no,’ though for practical rather than the usual moral or ethical reasons. I offer my rationale below, not as any sort of definitive answer, but as food for thought for hungry thinkers.

It goes like this:

One of the premises of the question is something called the Great Man Theory of History. It’s pretty self-explanatory, but the gist is that history is made or at least deeply affected by the decisions of particular people who occupy an outsized place in the history of their own time (Hitler, of course, being a prime example). It’s a relic of 19th-century philosophy that still occupies a solid chunk of territory in our present-day map of the world, and I think for a lot of folks it rings intuitively true. Whether that’s a result of its proximity to the limit-shape of actuality or its status as received wisdom is, I think, more up for grabs than is often acknowledged, and for my own part I believe the answer to be more a function of the latter than the former.

The thought experiment at the heart of our present inquiry takes as an assumption that without Hitler, there is no Nazi takeover of Germany and therefore no WWII. Which ignores all kinds of structural and cultural factors that were undoubtedly at play during that time, things like antisemitism and a German nationalism wounded by the unsatisfying conclusion to WWI (which was itself a result of a complicated and particular historical configuration of alliances and enmities and the pressures of industrialization: seriously, what was the cause of WWI? The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand? I would argue that was just the spark that lit a powderkeg that would have found some reason to blow even without that particular catalyst).

Without a lengthy and, for our present purposes, unnecessary divagation into the fine details, the point I’m trying to make is that Germany was poised — for structural, cultural, and historical reasons — to go to war again. Hitler was just the particular catalyst that manifested. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been someone else.

So why not kill him anyway? Because once you put aside the Great Man Theory and accept the structural pressures that were pushing inevitably for what was basically the continuation of WWI, it actually turns out to be not a terrible thing for someone like Hitler to be the Fuhrer, because Hitler was a really bad military strategist. His insistence on opening the Eastern front and sending history’s largest invasion force into a war of attrition in the middle of the Russian winter was the deciding factor for the eventual end of the war (I know we Americans like to cast ourselves as both the victors and the deciding factor in that. And of course we played our part. But it was the Russians who won the most and did the most to defeat the Germans. If you don’t think that’s true, just ask yourself how well the Normandy invasion would have gone with four million more Axis troops in Western Europe). Had someone smarter been in charge, the war might have ended very differently, and not in a way I think most contemporary folks would think was good.

I know I’ve ranged pretty far afield from the usual parameters of the thought experiment we started with. And by no means do I wish to denigrate the usual contemplations it inspires (nor do I wish, in case anyone’s wondering, to condone the awful carnage of the wars, or the execrable actions of the Third Reich, most especially with regard to the Jews). If there’s a point to the present divagation, I suppose it is simply this: that things are always more complicated than they can be made out to be, especially when it comes to the unfolding of vast historical events, and that while individuals can and sometimes do have an outsized effect on the way those events unfold, the structural, cultural, and historical tides in which those individuals are embedded play a much deeper role than we are sometimes inclined to think, and that if we want to understand and effectively engage those forces, we must engage with the complexities that underlie them.

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