The Ethics of Killing Baby Hitler, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That question is back in the news after Jeb Bush asserted that “hell yeah” he would have killed that pre-tyrant tyke. Matt tackled the question a few weeks ago in a more considered fashion and then addressed a round of reader emails. Here’s one more round:

My first impulse would be the formality of uttering, “Sorry, baby Hitler,” then whack.

But Matt Ford makes good points about the historical uncertainties. I merely want to add something that he seemed not to mention: the fact that Hitler was a terrible military strategist who didn’t trust his generals to run the war. For example, if he’d had sense enough not to open that second front in Russia, he might have overrun all of Europe, including the British Isles, in no time. So maybe thank God it was Hitler and not someone with better sense.

Another reader also seems to subscribe to the Great Man theory of history:

It appears to me that you cannot argue that the individual does not matter in the case of Hitler but does in the case of Fermi, Einstein, etc. If you take a deterministic view of Germany entering a war and murdering six million Jews, then the progress of science would act the same as political events and those inventions would simply be the logical progress of science.

Personally, while I understand that argument, I reject it.

This is the heart of the disagreement between Marx and Nietzsche/Machiavelli. When I look at history, I see great minds and powerful leaders who changed the direction of the world—changed paths of history that cannot be predicted or imagined without them. It mattered that Martin Luther King—that precise individual—lived, because he seized a moment to transform society. Kant or Marx or Heidegger show the broad trends of history, but the great individuals in history rise above to change directions and alter our political, scientific, and intellectual landscape.

A German law student provides a history lesson and some speculation:

This is what I think would have happened in Germany and Central Europe had Hitler been killed as an infant:

Firstly, Germany would have regressed to an authoritarian system of government anyway. One can be fairly certain of that because it had essentially happened before Hitler even came to power. Since November 1929, Germany was ruled by “Presidential Cabinets”—i.e. the chancellor governed without parliamentary backing under “emergency degrees” (Notverordnungen) issued by the president of the Reich, Paul von Hindenburg, a general and loyalist of the old German Empire. Every time the diet [legislative assembly] of the Reich voted to lift such a degree, it was dissolved by the president, to which he was entitled under the constitution of the time. A new diet would be elected, and in the meantime the chancellor would continue to rule without parliamentary control or approval.

This scheme was obviously not intended under the constitution, but the democratic factions were unable to stop it. As for the army and the judiciary, they were openly contemptuous of the republic and democracy and desired a restoration of the Empire. In July 1932, a coup backed by the authoritarian national government removed the democratic government of the Free State the Prussia, the then-largest constituent state of Germany, and, contrary to popular opinion, a bastion of democracy and republicanism.

In time these forces and President von Hindenburg would have felt confident enough to openly lift the constitution. They would have either created an authoritarian republic without any parliament, based on the raw power of the bureaucracy and the army, as some factions on the far right desired, or recalled Emperor Wilhelm II from exile in the Netherlands.

Secondly, such a state would have desired a restoration of the old Imperial borders, but without the Nazi’s ideological and irrational obsession, and with the global depression dragging on, they would have lacked the confidence to start another global war. Thus they might have contended themselves to pursuing unification with Austria, removing some the disabilities of Germany under the treaty of Versailles and entrenching their authoritarian system of government. They might likely have instituted new legal disabilities for the German Jewry up to eugenics, even if they had not attempted outright genocide.

Such a Germany would have been as depressing a place as the one in the Nazi timeline, just as Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy. As such, the brain drain from Europe to the United States would have occurred in much the same fashion. Large-scale war in Europe would thus not have happened, but entrenched dictatorships would have remained in place for decades.

Another reader broadens the debate:

I greatly enjoyed Matt’s very well thought-out article.  I have one point
to add that I have not seen discussed: Preemptive Justice.

If those who would kill or approve of an infant death were put to test,
what other preemptive killings would they allow? Answering yes to the
question “Would you kill an infant Hitler?” means that one approves of
applying justice before the commission of a crime. So, does that mean we jail someone because they are certain to commit other crimes? “In 2022 you will commit the crime of armed robbery. You are sentenced to seven years in the State Penitentiary.”

Another reader recommends some science fiction:

Nancy Kress wrote a fascinating short story (“And Wild to Hold”) about a future government agency that would go back in time and simply kidnap key people, including Hitler, the prince of Czar Nicholas II, and one of the wives of Henry VIII. We might not need to kill them—just change them, or remove them.

That’s the approach that Funny or Die took:

Another reader sent the video embedded at the top of this note:

I thought you might be interested to know that this issue was addressed in a German student film several years ago, a mock commercial for a new Mercedes. (It was included in an article I wrote on German humor for 3 Quarks Daily in 2013.)

Some other non-violent ways of stopping Hitler:

Twenty years ago I was listening to the radio program “And the Rest of the Story,” which told the story of a German man who wanted to have a family and children. Unfortunately, his wife died, so he went to the the head of the German  government and asked for a special request. He wanted to marry his dead wife’s sister. They had to grant this on an individual basis. If the German Government had denied him the option to marry his wife’s sister, Hitler would never been born. Or, just simply go back in time to the point when Hitler was a struggling artist in Vienna and purchase some of his paintings and offer to provide him a gallery to exhibit his artwork. If his career as an artist could provide him with just enough income to stay at it, he would have not given up on his dream.