The New York Times Magazine conducted a poll that asked whether its readers could kill an infant Adolf Hitler. On Friday afternoon, the publication tweeted its results to the world.
My personal answer is no.
The basic moral question—could you kill one infant to save millions of lives?—is essentially a more dramatic version of the trolley problem, a thought experiment whereby a person must choose between a speeding trolley killing five people or diverting its course to kill one. That ethical dilemma has its weaknesses and limitations, as my colleague Lauren Cassani Davis explored earlier this month. But even in this extreme iteration, I can’t bring myself to support ending a human life, especially at my own hands.
Moreover, many practical alternatives exist short of infanticide to theoretically prevent Hitler’s rise to power. You could, for example, kidnap the infant would-be totalitarian and turn him over to an orphanage in Australia, thereby preventing him from ever assuming power in Germany. Or you could prevent his parents from meeting to ensure he was never born in the first place. (A question for the philosophers: Does altering history to prevent someone’s birth count as murder?)
But the main reason I would not kill, exile, or otherwise remove Hitler is historical. I admit that all of what follows is non-falsifiable, but I strongly doubt that Hitler’s nonexistence would have prevented World War II or the Holocaust.
Hitler is a singular figure in human history, and the course of the 20th century arguably pivots around his actions as chancellor of Germany between 1933 and 1945. But his dark, looming presence can distract from the broader trends in German society at the time. Hitler did not invent fascism, militarism, or anti-Semitism, although he proved to be remarkably adept at harnessing them for political power. He also was not the first German political figure to adopt the irredentist position that another country’s territory rightfully belonged to the German people.
The strongest argument for removing Hitler from history is the Holocaust, since it can be directly tied to his existence. The exact mechanisms of the Holocaust—the Nuremburg laws, Kristallnacht, the death squads, the gas chambers, the forced marches, and more—are unquestionably the products of Hitler and his disciples, and they likely would not have existed without him. All other things being equal, a choice between Hitler and the Holocaust is an easy one.
But focusing on Hitler’s direct responsibility for the Holocaust blinds us to more disturbing truths about the early 20th century. His absence from history would not remove the underlying political ideologies or social movements that fueled his ascendancy. Before his rise to power, eugenic theories already held sway in Western countries. Anti-Semitism infected civic discourse and state policy, even in the United States. Concepts like ethnic hierarchies and racial supremacy influenced mainstream political thought in Germany and throughout the West. Focusing on Hitler’s central role in the Holocaust also risks ignoring the thousands of participants who helped carry it out, both within Germany and throughout occupied Europe, and on the social and political forces that preceded it. It’s not impossible that in a climate of economic depression and scientific racism, another German leader could also move towards a similar genocidal end, even if he deviated from Hitler’s exact worldview or methods.
Beyond the Holocaust, removing Hitler from history would be a gamble with the highest stakes imaginable. Any theoretical attempt to prevent World War II must also reckon with the possible course of history in its place. Without the war’s economic and military toll, would Britain and France have been better positioned to prevent decolonization, or to at least better able to resist nationalist movements in Africa and Asia with force? The Soviet Union emerged from four years of catastrophe as a superpower, even with 27 million dead and thousands of towns and villages destroyed. Would it be even stronger and more aggressive in 1945 if it were unscathed by war? Would Imperial Japan have retained its possessions and perhaps even have been more successful in its war with China which began before Hitler rose to power?
Meanwhile, the United States would likely have been in a far weaker position in 1945 without World War II. Wartime mobilization doubled America’s GDP, and when Germany and Japan surrendered, the U.S. possessed half the planet’s industrial capacity. The G.I. Bill, one of the largest investments in human capital in history, and the Interstate Highway System, the largest infrastructure investment in U.S. history, are a direct result of American participation in the war. The America we know today would be scarcely recognizable without them.
Perhaps most crucially, Hitler’s rise forced many of Europe’s top physicists, chemists, mathematicians, and other scientists to seek refuge in the United States. Among them were some of the most famous names in modern scientific history, including Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, and more. Fearing Hitler’s ambitions and armed with the knowledge that Germany had its own nuclear program underway, Einstein and Szilard persuaded Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 to launch what would become the Manhattan Project. Bohr, Fermi, Szilard, and dozens of other European scientists subsequently participated in it to develop the world’s first nuclear bombs.
What if that intellectual power had remained in Europe? What if Fermi had created the first artificial nuclear reactor in Mussolini's Italy instead of beneath the University of Chicago’s football stands? What if, during some moment of international tension, Einstein wrote to the leader of Germany and warned him about a nuclear-weapons program in the Soviet Union or the British Empire? What if atomic bombs had been first deployed not to end a war, but to begin one?
These questions should inspire two feelings. The first is humility. We can never know what a universe without Hitler would have looked like. But the implicit argument that his removal would improve history must also consider that his removal could make it worse. Indeed, recent experience should make us doubt our abilities to bend the course of human events towards our will. The Bush administration naively claimed that toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003 would produce a vibrant liberal democracy in the largely illiberal Middle East. Instead it brought about regional instability, ethnic cleansing, civil war, and ISIS.
The second is relief. We live in cynical times, which masks the fact that we live in extraordinary times. Atrocities still occur, but human rights are now a normative value throughout most of the world, even if their enforcement is imperfect. Conflicts are still fought, but the great powers have avoided another world war for seven decades. Racism and anti-Semitism still exist, but pre-war forms of colonialism and pogroms have largely disappeared. This is not the future for which Nazi Germany fought and fell. Removing Hitler from history would gamble with one irrefutable truth: He lost.
I could be wrong about all of this. If you have another perspective on the question or a different interpretation of history, I’d love to hear it. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.