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.

Last week, I invited responses to my article on the ethics of killing an infant Adolf Hitler. Writing about Nazis doesn’t typically lead to productive discussions on the Internet, but I’ve been surprised by how thoughtful the responses have been overall, regardless of the respondents’ position. Here’s the first of many readers:

As a history student who is fascinated by historical consciousness in public discourse, I greatly enjoyed your ruminations on Hitler’s theoretical removal from history.

In your decision to spare his life, you rightfully invoke longstanding political ideologies and social developments, such as ardent nationalism and centuries-old anti-Semitism. While these are vital contextual concerns, they should come with a warning label against their tacit implication: that humanity is capable of spawning another Hitler, or that an equally genocidal political party might have attained power. Devaluing Hitler’s agency runs the risk of historical determinism: an unproductive and unhealthy method of analyzing the past, in my opinion.

I agree, but I think we can have it both ways. You can shape the historical context and be shaped by it. Whether Hitler himself or the social and political forces that propelled him to power should be opposed is a question with an easy answer: Yes.

Other readers took issue with the question’s initial framing by The New York Times Magazine:

Their article sounds like a sadistic version of Bill O'Reilly’s Killing Lincoln. I have great respect for the New York Times and its organization, and I feel I vaguely understand their reason for positing such an unusual question, but as a student of history I can’t ignore the facts.

I love the closing line in your piece—“Removing Hitler from history would gamble with one irrefutable truth: He lost.”—as it recalls a very fundamental takeaway from the horrific, unparalleled human brutality and widespread destruction that was World War II, and that is that Hitler was defeated. Antisemitism, racial discrimination, the evil tools of the SS and their many allies to very literally dominate the world has a certain historical quaintness about it today, at least in our part of the world. Perhaps the Times Magazine was just trying to prove a point about forgetting. But then again, there may be more nuanced ways to frame and understand remembering the events of war.

A number of readers who accepted the question’s premise sought alternative figures for removal from 20th-century history. Among the most frequently named targets were the instigators of World War I, including Kaiser Wilhelm II and Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassin Gavrilo Princip, and the founders of the Soviet Union. As one reader puts it:

Hitler-centric solutions are ill advised. Infant Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is your kidnapping target. Without him to advocate terror as a tool, the Communist rise in Russia is defanged. Without the Bolshevik revolution and terror in Russia, as well as fumbled Russian funded attempts at revolution in Germany, the German people are not afraid, and as such do not rush into Hitler’s arms. I believe you can leave Hitler and Germany alone if you remove Lenin, linchpin of the European segment of the Second World War.

One reader offered a more hostile response to which I feel compelled to respond:

The conclusion you reach is based, in part, on sophistry. The question was whether, if you could go back in time to kill baby Hitler, would you do so. You were not given the option of otherwise preventing his rise to power.

WWII killed 70 million people and probably injured 3x that many more. I would assert that killing the person who started that war in the chance such war would not have ever occurred certainly outweighs your concerns about how colonies and technology would have progressed. Even if the U.S. would not have become the dominant power if the war had not occurred, that seems a self-serving reason to forfeit 70 million lives.

Think of that number for a second … that is the same as killing every person in every NFL stadium across the country hosting football this week then doing it again every football weekend for the next five years. Yet, you’d sleep soundly letting that happen knowing you could have stopped it? Just curious if you’d have felt the same way if they were loading you and your family into a boxcar to go to the crematorium? I don’t think you’d have given a flip how history would have played out. You’d have choked baby Hitler with your bare hands to avoid that fate. Not as easy to play the dispassionate philosopher when your a** is going into the showers is it?

The original question’s greatest weakness is that it reduces human history to a set of simple equations. “1930s Germany minus Hitler equals world peace” is a flawed understanding of pre-war Europe and a dangerous misinterpretation of the forces that precipitated so much bloodshed. Hitler’s unique culpability is crucial to understanding the era. At the same time, ignoring social forces like anti-Semitism and revanchist militarism only diminishes how we understand the origins of both World War II and the Holocaust. This, in turn, weakens our ability to prevent future atrocities.

When I then noted some of the direct outcomes of the war, ranging from the G.I. Bill to decolonization, some readers took this as an attempt to justify my “no” by pointing to the positive results of World War II. I intended to make the opposite point. History is filled with those who thought they could bend the course of human events to their will, always with unforeseen consequences. Why would we be any different? Those examples are intended not to justify Hitler’s life or death, but rather to illustrate the fallacy of such a calculus.

Another reader also challenged my approach and offered further insight about the war’s terrible toll:

My gratitude for your “Killing Baby Hitler” essay stems largely from the fact that I had a tough job trying to understand the specific reasons for which I found it so deeply disturbing. It made me think; and I feel safe in assuming that it probably made others think, too, which is generally a good thing.

My conclusion is that you’re missing something so enormous that it’s difficult not to compare it to the “elephant in the living room.” You point out the benefits of having fought World War II and also speculate as to whether the “killing of Baby Hitler” would have prevented the war without fully exploring the flip side of the coin.

As a public health professional I spent much of my career in disease prevention—an important task made frustratingly difficult by the problems inherent in trying to count things that don’t happen. There’s no need to reiterate the staggering losses we suffered during the course of World War II, or during the Holocaust.

In addition to the sheer numbers and the indescribable heartbreak, we lost incredible talent. How many potential musicians, philanthropists, humanitarians, mathematicians, physicians, physicists, engineers, environmentalists, geneticists, journalists, scientists, and writers did we lose—gifted women and men who might have held the solutions to the complicated problems that we, as a planet, wrestle with today? In what ways might the world have blossomed, improved, and prospered had these “numbers” not been snuffed? We’ll never know the full extent of the social, scientific, and artistic treasure we lost, but I for one will assume that it’s staggering.

Had the world been adequately gifted with the clarity and vision required to prevent Hitler, then it might also have been able to respond constructively to what you refer to as “the underlying ideologies and social movements that fueled his ascendancy,” thereby improving the chances of preventing the war.

I tend to agree with your statement that “The America we know today would scarcely be recognizable…” I actually think it might have been a better world, more competent at dealing with issues like religious fanaticism, global warming and, at the national level, a crumbling infrastructure. It might have been a world in which many more great visionaries—people such as the great Dr. Jonas Salk—may have lived to fulfill heroic destinies.