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Insomnia's avatar

History in the subjunctive here: Would you kill Hitler if given the chance?

Asked by Insomnia (347 points ) October 6th, 2009

Let’s say you had the chance to go back in time to Munich in the 1930’s when Adolf Hitler was still just an ‘ambitious politician.’

Let’s say you had a firearm and you saw Hitler alone walking home from a tavern and it was absolutely guaranteed that you could kill him and then immediately flee and be transported back to the future.

1.) Would you do it?

2.) How different would the world be now?

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49 Answers

cookieman's avatar

Yes. I don’t care how different the world would be now. To spare all those lives – yes.

steelerspilot's avatar

Yes, I love history and dictatorship is something some people have to deal with. I would try to kill him. He killed Jews. He is dumb.

Sarcasm's avatar

@steelerspilot He killed a lot more than just jews.

I’m typically someone who sticks with the “evil I know” (As opposed to the evil I don’t know), but I think in the case of Hitler, I’d rather go with the evil I don’t know, and assassinate him, assuming I had the time machine and capacity to escape from Germany before getting assassinated myself.

Insomnia's avatar

I see most people would do it. I probably would.

I’m interested in the hypothetical question of how different the world would be today.

RedPowerLady's avatar

Of course I would.

holden's avatar

1) If I thought that killing him could save lives, yes.

2) There is nothing to say that the world would be any different without Hitler. Hitler was an opportunist who found a way to capitalize on Germany’s longstanding anti-semitism and its eagerness for a scapegoat in the poverty of the post-war era. For all I know there are ten thousand Hitlers that may have risen to power in the absence of the one we remember today. Those millions of people may have died anyway. What I would rather do is go further back in time to World War One and warn the leaders of the Entente of the events that would later occur in World War Two. Then I would leave it to them to see fit that Germany’s borders be redrawn after its defeat and its people be parceled out to its neighboring countries. This would decentralize and displace the German people and render such a nationalist uprising impossible.

efritz's avatar

yes.

It’s hard to see an alternative worse than the pointless deaths and inhumane treatment Hitler was responsible for.

holden's avatar

@efritz to say that Hitler was responsible for all the pointless deaths and inhumane treatment of World War II is kind of letting all of the people who actually carried out his orders off the hook, don’t you think?

Saturated_Brain's avatar

I wouldn’t do it. What’s passed has passed. Hitler caused something so drastic, so world-changing that to change him would most probably cause a vastly different world today. It was mainly his aggression which caused WW2 and it was WW2 which created the world as we know it today.

Furthermore, on a totally selfish note, changing Hitler would probably change the world so much that I probably wouldn’t have been born. And that’s a world I would not like to “be in”.

All in all, there were other people who did more damage than Hitler. Stalin or Mao come to mind..

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

No, because as @holden said ^^ there, there is no proof that killing Hitler would have changed anything. There were plenty of opportunistic criminals in that era. Hitler was simply a man of the times that figured out that propaganda wins wars. Goehring, Goebbels, and many of his henchmen were far worse than Hitler. Had any of them come to power instead of Adolf, even more would have died.

Stalin was an absolute monster, and made Hitler look like an old spinster.

The only reason Hitler didn’t go after Britian in a big, big way was that he would have to cross the English Channel to review the lands he had dominated, and he had an extreme fear of crossing bodies of water. He instead, developed a two-prong assault by reneging on his non-aggression treaty with Russia, and moved on a western assault, effectively dividing his forces. The assault on Russia happened in the Fall, and they made great progress until the vicious Russian winter set in, and the Germans were not properly equipped to fight under such brutally cold conditions. Hitler refused to send them winter gear, and when they began to lose, he denied them the chance to retreat. Thousands of German soldiers were sacrificed to Hitler’s megalomania.

Hitler had a problem with women working in industry, (as we Americans did not, remember Rosie the Riveter?) and he short-changed himself a ready and willing body of workers due to his old-fashioned thinking. He also waited too long to use prisoners of war as forced labor.

Had someone with more trust in the military come to power instead of Hitler, Germany would very likely have beaten all comers. Britian was pretty much all that was left in Europe to be conquered. Hitler’s Buzz bombs, while frightening, were not enough to completely cow the British. They remained a major thorn in his side all through the war. Hitler committed suicide when Berlin got caught between the pincers of the Allies and the Russians.

Hitler was a lousy planner and had trouble delegating authority, and he kept his seconds-in-command continually fighting amongst themselves for his favor, as well as making sure all final decisions were his own. Killing Hitler might have saved millions, or it might have caused the deaths of millions more. This question has been brought up by historians countless times, and even they cannot agree on whether shooting Hitler before he came to power would have been a good idea or not.

drdoombot's avatar

In Steven Fry’s Making History, Hitler is wiped out of existence by never being born. Some other, more capable guy ends up being Fuhrer of Germany, and succeeds where Hitler failed: he conquers all of Europe and exterminates all of the European Jews. Pretty frickin’ scary.

ABoyNamedBoobs03's avatar

we don’t know how deep the ripples of our choices go, morality tells me yes, but I honestly don’t think I would, because you can’t honestly say if your choice would make the world any better or infinitely worse.

Jeruba's avatar

Just a speculative question? Or an essay for a class?

DominicX's avatar

Have to agree with @ABoyNamedBoobs03, but, I mean, there’s a fairly good chance that it would’ve done a lot more good than bad. I wouldn’t have a problem killing him if I knew that it was going to save millions of lives.

@Jeruba

Oh God…not this stupid shit again…you’ve got to be kidding me. Save it for a different thread.

Insomnia's avatar

@Jeruba

A speculative idea.

Anon_Jihad's avatar

I don’t know. I think I’d let him keep breathing. I strongly believe reports of the Holocaust were grossly over exaggerated. I am not a Holocaust denier, but a lot of the numbers fail to add up and very few of the camps had any of the implements to cause this genocide, so it was very likely on a dramatically smaller scale.

So in this case I’ll take the known evil of an unknown. Plus pre-war Hitler was not guilty of any crimes worthy of death, and while I’m very pro-death penalty, I’m also militantly opposed to punishing people for things they’ve not actually done, even if it’s just a matter of when. Preemptive strikes no matter how justified are the same as attacking first in my eyes, and thus in the wrong.

Anon_Jihad's avatar

Plus as far as I’m aware of, The Doctor never attempted as such, and must not have for a reason.Like, a really good reason.

Jeruba's avatar

@Insomnia, we’re assuming that we’re going back from now and that we know what we know now?

I don’t think I could kill a man in cold blood. But given time to prepare for the journey back, I would certainly be willing to attempt some other way of changing the course of things. An interesting question might be what other action could have prevented him from following the path he did, or prevented German society from taking that shape. But I am inclined to think that whatever Zeitgeist allowed him to exert that kind of influence would have produced similar destructive results, even if not the same, and that great evil would still have been done to many.

frostgiant's avatar

I think @Jeruba may be onto something here. What if you allowed Hitler to continue on his path and instead loaded up your 1981 DeLorean with newspapers, Life magazines, almanacs, etc. and distributed them to the future leaders of the Allied Nations? If they didn’t immediately throw them in the trash WWII might only last a week, with limited casualties and impact on future events.

But any one of those people spared could have conceived the next world dictator, and so on and so forth…

markyy's avatar

Just saw Louis CK’s show yesterday and I can’t let this opportunity pass to share what his thoughts on the issue are. If you are sensitive on the issue of rape, you might want to skip it.

ragingloli's avatar

No.
As Dan Aykroyd put it, most of today’s views on human rights stem directly from the lessons learned after the the Holocaust. Considering that humans only tend to change their ways after catastrophies, it stands to reason that without the Holocaust, the western world today would be much less supportive of human rights, anti-discrimnation and egalitarianism.
Besides, manipulating time will result in unforeseen consequences, of the likes that are worse than what already is in the books. Without Hitler, Stalin would probably have increased the Soviet Union’s might and territory, culminating in the invasion of western europe, creating a Soviet empire. Having such a powerful enemy, the US would NOT have intervened in that annexion, WW2 would just have been a European continental war won by the Soviets, giving it access to the Atlantic, a perfect starting base to commence the attack on the US later. The real WW2 would have been USA vs Soviet Union, and it would almost certainly have been fought with nuclear weapons, resulting in a Nuclear Holocaust. Nevermind the fact that Stalin also hated the Jews and killed them by the millions as well.

as a side note, temporal mechanics tells us that you can not change the past as that would lead to a paradoxon. The best you can possibly do is create an alternate reality in which you succeed, but the original timeline is still intact and the Holocaust still happened in that timeline

ragingloli's avatar

@holden
Dismantling Germany? Really? How about preventing the then allies of WW1 from putting the sole blame for WW1 on Germany and the massive reparations that would have bankrupted the country, given that they were dragged into the war because they had to honour pacts they had with other nations? The animosity against the treaty of Versailles was after all one of the main points in Hitler’s rethoric to rally support.
The other thing that really helped Hitler come to power was the great depression. Why not go back in time before that and prevent that from happening, by making the US government implement stringent regulations? I think that would be more useful.

Zen's avatar

Without hesitation.

Grisaille's avatar

Put me in the “don’t step on a butterfly” crowd.

dpworkin's avatar

I would prefer to have been able to travel back to the time of the Macabeean wars, and have had the Hasmoneans win. Hellenized Jews would have meant no Roman persecution, no Christianity, no codified antiSemitism, and no matter what else Hitler or anyone else might have done later, they wouldn’t have bothered with the Jews, because the Jews would have been just a quotidian presence.

Also, there would have been no Popes, no Crusades, no Inquisition, no prosecution of Galileo. Unfortunately, no Mont St Michel or Chartres, but, you know, tant pis.

gussnarp's avatar

I’m gonna go with “no” on this for two reasons.

1. I don’t know if I could really kill a man in cold blood, even knowing his future.
2. As others have stated, it might not really accomplish anything. Butterfly effect and what not.

aphilotus's avatar

Hey man, I played Command and Conquer. I know what happens when you go back in time and kill Hitler.

OF COURSE I WOULD SHOOT HIM! WHO DOESN’T WANT TROOPS WITH TESLA COILS STRAPPED TO THEIR BACKS!?!?!?!

gussnarp's avatar

@pdworkin Interesting answer there, but if a “dangerous” minority to persecute doesn’t exist, one will always be created.

aphilotus's avatar

@gussnarp The Fluther Jellies! They don’t fear god hard enough! Kill them to show them His righteousness!

mattbrowne's avatar

Yes. But then I would ask Scotty to beam me up.

Buttonstc's avatar

@pdworkin

I’m still scratching my head trying to figure out how your scenario would mean “no Christianity”. Could you elaborate a little on that one point?

BTW. Historically speaking, there is someone for whom eliminating Hitler was far from hypothetical. Dietrich Bobhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor was involved with others in a plot to assissinate Hitler. For this he was imprisoned and subsequently hanged shortly before the Allies invaded.

Buttonstc's avatar

Edit: Bonhoeffer

Dang iPhone

shego's avatar

I would, no questions asked. He murdered people, hurt families, and wiped out many. If there should be any type of “cleansing” it would be him, and his military. They knew what they were doing.

Ria777's avatar

@ragingloli: As Dan Aykroyd put it, most of today’s views on human rights stem directly from the lessons learned after the the Holocaust. Considering that humans only tend to change their ways after catastrophies, it stands to reason that without the Holocaust, the western world today would be much less supportive of human rights, anti-discrimnation and egalitarianism.

really hypothetical…

to me it seems that in places that had a history of ethnic violence, the ethnic violence continued and where it hadn’t, it didn’t. the Klu Klux Klan didn’t say, “we have learned a terrible lesson about prejudice now”. Stalin went on to do his own kind of anti-Jew progroms, civil war in Serbia, etc.

and to date, no u.s. leaders have gone to trial for war crimes likes carpet bombing civilians in southeast asia and iraq.

Jack79's avatar

1) no, exactly because 2) the world might actually be a lot worse, and in any case we don’t know if it would be better.

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

@Buttonstc there were several assassination attempts upon Hitler, many by Germans, several by the Polish Underground, and a few by British agents. If you are truly interested in all the people that had a hand in trying to kill Hitler, and not just the one story that became a Tom Cruise movie, read Killing Hitler by Roger Moorhouse. The author does more than just outline the people and their attempts, he draws on various sources to create a truly fascinating book that shows just how much of a charmed life Hitler led. The chapter in that book about the man who attempted to blow Hitler up by wearing a bomb under his coat, and becoming the world’s first suicide bomber, is very eye-opening.

Hitler wasn’t the only murderous leader in WW2. The British sent bombers to Dresden to catch a battalion of Nazi tanks set to pass through there. After the bombers were launched it was discovered that the Nazi military had already passed through Dresden. Churchill chose to not call the bombers back, and thousands of innocent German civilians died in what was known as a garden city, as it had no defensive walls and no military bases. There was no German military there at all when it was carpet-bombed into oblivion.

This is the same city Kurt Vonnegut talks about in his book Slaughterhouse Five. He likens the cityscape to looking like the surface of the moon when he and his fellow prisoners escaped from the fifth slaughterhouse building.

drdoombot's avatar

@pdworkin Yes, but Hellenized Jews might have also meant the end of the Jews as a distinct people. History seems to support the idea that the Jews maintained their identity outside of their land because of the adaptations they made to their religion. The Hellenized Jews would likely have gone the way of the Hittites, the Sumerians, the Assyrians, etc.: just disappearing into history.

Dr_C's avatar

I might knee cap the little sonofabitch but i wouldn’t kill him. Maybe just incapacitate him enough where he would no longer be a threat to anyone ever again.

gussnarp's avatar

Now, if you could control Hitler prior to his coming to power, indoctrinate him into a different way of thinking, that could have interesting results. But again, butterfly effect, I would be loathe to change anything in the past.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@holden
@evelyns_pet_zebra
@drdoombot
@anyone else who said someone would take the place of Hitler, or that was a strong possibility

If you study influential leaders you will find they have certain characteristics that other leaders, and non-leaders, do not have. One of these characteristics is Charisma. This Charisma is what allows the leaders to move millions of people to their point of view. Without it people are unaffected. Look at the TONS of leaders who have really been unable to move millions but have tried. If Hitler would have not-been then it is very unlikely another person would have taken his place. And if so it is very unlikely they would have had the set of characteristics necessary to change the point of view of thousands of people towards genocide. That is not something to take for granted. It is very likely that with Hitler’s death people would have survived. If you look at the research on leadership and moving masses.

gussnarp's avatar

@RedPowerLady There’s something to be said for your argument, but Hitler didn’t do it alone. He could not have come to power and committed the atrocities that he did had Germany not already been in the midst of political turmoil and had antisemitism not already been common in Europe. Not only that, he also had Joseph Goebbels, whose skills played a major role in Hitler’s rise to power and his ability to control the German people. It is entirely possible that with Goebbels’ help, any relatively charismatic leader might have played the Hitler role.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@gussnarp Yes but he did move the masses and really that is what is of the utmost importance when we are talking about genocide. I’m not arguing that no harm would have been done without hitler. What I am saying is that there is a likely chance that a genocide would not have occurred simply because the mass amount of people he affected would be much smaller without having a leader with that set of personal characteristics. It is entirely possible that with Goebbels’ help, any relatively charismatic leader might have played the Hitler role.
Ahh but research says that charisma that moves the masses is either present or not present. Again though I say that yes someone else would have likely caused damage but the chance that they would have found someone who could move the masses is quite unlikely. I mean look at the relatively small amount of leaders who have been able to have that affect, despite support of brilliant people behind them (there has been quite a bit of research on this subject from what I understand and the researchers find it simply amazing that quite a specific set of characteristics is needed to have such a great affect).

What I’m talking about the difference between a horrible racist war vs. genocide. No matter what I would take the chance, simply for the possibility that the genocide would not have occurred.

p.s. purposely not capitalizing hitler this time around

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

@RedPowerLady the anti-semitism of the German people already existed, and Hitler merely found a way to capitalize on it. I’ve read enough about Hitler over the years to know that what he did was not as phenomenal as some people assume. There were others with even worse views about Jews and other non-Aryan races that could have easily surpassed what Hitler did.

Hitler had a rough childhood, and according to the book by Augustlan Kubizek, Hitler spent most of his youth perfecting his oratory skills and trying to become an artist.

There are a lot of things about Hitler that many people simply assume, and many of them are untrue, being based on the propaganda of Goebbels. Post WW1 Germany was a place of terrifying unemployment, and the burdens placed upon the country at the end of that war were very stifling and truly horrendous. The world made Hitler, and if he hadn’t become the Chancellor of Germany, and the ultimate Fuhrer, someone else very likely would have. The German people needed solutions, and Hitler found a way to provide them. To speculate WW2 and the Holocaust would have not happened had Hitler not been born or been killed as a young man is quite unlikely. I don’t know how to explain it any better.

To understand the Holocaust, one must understand history, and not only how Hitler came to power, but also why. Killing Hitler may or may not have altered history. There is simply no way to tell. If the Art Academy of Vienna had accepted Hitler, we might not even be having this conversation, and Hitler would have been no more than a footnote in history as a third-rate painter. He was more of an architectural painter than anything, and if he had followed that path, who knows what may have been.

Look closely at the men whom Hitler surrounded himself with, and you will find that many of them were very monstrous in their quest for ultimate power. If you remember, Hitler went to prison after the failed Beer hall Putsch. that was when he wrote Mein Kampf. Hitler didn’t really have any charisma, he simply understood how powerful propaganda was, and he understood that finding a scapegoat for Germany’s woes was paramount to his cause. He spoke to German’s suffering populace and like many other dictators, he gave people what they wanted to hear. Many Germans distrusted Hitler from the beginning. Those people were eliminated. And if a Germn didn’t join the Nazi Party, the ability to live day to day was severely hindered. Hitler killed more than Jews, he killed homosexuals, Gypsies, the infirm, the elderly, the mentally and physically handicapped. He murdered or had murdered anyone that he perceived stood in his way. He had his thugs kill a member of the German Parliment by taking the old man onto a deserted road and they killed him with pick axes.

He learned to place the blame on the Jews by listening to other Germans who were even more virulently anti-Semite. Hitler was a monster, but he wasn’t the only monster in Germany at the time. There were plenty of sadistic killers to fill the ranks.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@evelyns_pet_zebra I never said that Hitler was the only monster. What I said was that he had the power to move the masses and that skill is not found in many other leaders. That is true whether you believe he had charisma or not. So even though there were those to follow there is nothing to say they would have had the same power. I would never take the chance at allowing such a hateful person to live simply because killing him might not stop the Holocaust. Quoting all the history in the world would not change my opinion about that. The only idea that you have stated so far that would give me pause to think is that somehow killing him would cause more deaths. I am hard pressed to believe that but it is the best argument so far. The rest of it, the numerous other people who were hateful, moves me not. If I had a chance to stop Hitler, or any of them, I would’ve gone for it.

gussnarp's avatar

@RedPowerLady You may be right, but I think what @evelyns_pet_zebra and I are arguing is that Goebbels is the one who had the power to move masses, Hitler either was a tool for him, or used him as a tool, or both. Of course it took all of them to make the holocaust, but we have no way of knowing if killing Hitler would stop the holocaust, or in fact result in a worse one. (I apologize if I overstepped my bounds in assuming you would agree with me, @evelyns_pet_zebra )

RedPowerLady's avatar

@gussnarp Look I don’t agree with you but you have made a good point by pointing out an individual who should deserve the axe as much as or moreso than hitler himself. I am open to the possibility that killing hitler would not stop a holocaust, we never know what will happen if we changed the past. What I am stating, pure and simple, is that if I met a man who I knew was responsible for genocide I would not think twice about giving him the axe. If I had the power to do so. Unless for some reason I had a really good reason to believe that it would cause more people to be killed. As a human being who is full of emotions and empathy there is just no way I would seriously be able to look that man in the face and let him continue his path of tyranny (should I have the chance to stop it). And I doubt that at the time of seeing him I would be able to think through my actions.

Now I understand that you must believe it is more likely than not that killing him would cause more deaths. I don’t believe that and if I did I would not argue my point about killing him. That is our difference of opinion and really as you’ve stated there is no way to know. However I do think that there would have been no argument if the bunch of you would have said simply that you wouldn’t do it because of your knowledge of history and the belief that more people would have been killed if hitler was not the leader. Vs. saying you didn’t know if it would accomplish anything. I can understand and get behind the first argument, not the second.

gussnarp's avatar

@RedPowerLady For me the second and the first go hand in hand. I don’t know if it would accomplish anything, given my knowledge of history. But then, what I actually said regarding my action (I know, it was a lot of posts ago) was that I also wouldn’t do it because I don’t believe I could kill another human being in cold blood. So that is also at odds with you. If, somehow, you get the chance someday, try to get Goebbels and Goering too, just to be on the safe side.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@gussnarp I understand the not being able to kill someone aspect. I’m not sure I could do it either honestly but I just assume my emotions would overwhelm me to the point I was able to do it. But If I were to have the chance, I’d go for them all like you say so thanks for that info ;)

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