The U.S. Presidential election of 2016 is already shaping up to be one of the strangest in modern history, and not just because a New York real estate mogul with bad hair and no political experience is at the top of the Republican primary field. In the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the race, not long ago what has to be one of the dumbest questions ever posed to a Presidential candidate went to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, whose brother George W. and father George H.W. once inhabited the office he now seeks. The question, posed by Huffington Post, was: “If you had the chance to go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler as a baby to prevent the Holocaust, would you?” Jeb Bush replied, “Hell yeah, I would! You gotta step up, man.” The “Baby Hitler” scenario is not new: it rears its infantile head often when people start discussing time travel scenarios. Governor Bush’s response to it was probably intended as a light-hearted joke, perhaps to give his failing candidacy and air of geeky humor. Whether it worked to that end I won’t offer an opinion. As a matter of history and logic, though–to the extent logic can be applied to a concept like time travel–the “Baby Hitler” scenario is utterly ridiculous. It’s worth examining, though, if only to unmask the profound misinterpretations of how history works that lie behind it.
In real life, Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889 in Branau Am Inn, Austria, to Alois Hitler (formerly Alois Schickelgruber) and Klara Pölzl, a lower middle-class couple. The way the “Baby Hitler” time travel scenario is supposed to work is that a time traveler could go back in time, from say today, 2015, to Branau Am Inn during Adolf’s infancy and kill him, thus preventing him from growing up and becoming the leader of Germany. Supposedly this means there would be no Nazi Party, no World War II, and the six million Jews and others who perished in the Holocaust would have lived out their natural lives. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The moral question presented is very simplistic. Would you kill one innocent baby who’d done nothing wrong (yet) to save six million, or if you count all the dead of World War II as victims, 80 to 100 million people? Governor Bush eagerly wants you to know that he would take that bargain.
Hitler’s rise to power was an extremely complicated historical process. While he’s obviously the key figure, the Nazi movement and its ideology were larger than just him.
There are two problems with the scenario, though, and that’s before we even get to the moral question. The first is that, from a standpoint of logic, killing Hitler would “change history” for only one person–the actual assassin of Baby Hitler–and nothing would be different for anyone else. Let’s presume that the Republican Party in 2015 builds a time machine (maybe they can borrow Doc Brown’s DeLorean) and actually does send Jeb Bush back to 1889 to snuff wee Adolf. From the standpoint of all of us who didn’t go on the trip, Bush would simply vanish in the DeLorean, never come back, and nothing would change for us. We’d all still be stuck in our real world where Hitler lived and the Holocaust happened. If Bush, having killed Hitler in 1889, then travels “back to the future” of 2015, he would materialize in a world different than the one he left, but he would be the only one who would know the difference. Under this theory Bush would not be “changing history” but instead traveling from one universe to another. The two universes would be identical in every respect up until that day in 1889 when a mysterious stranger from Florida killed a baby named Adolf Hitler, but it’s difficult to see what Bush would have accomplished for the people who sent him on this mission, who would never enjoy the benefit of it (unless getting Jeb Bush out of our universe can be considered a benefit).
Incidentally, this is why the plot of The Terminator, and any other time-travel story that involves “changing history in the past,” is logically flawed. I lampooned this plot cliché in my 2009 novel Giamotti in Winter, which uses the “Baby Hitler” scenario in a tongue-in-cheek manner, except that it’s Baby Napoleon instead of Baby Hitler. In the novel, Giamotti hoodwinks an entire international consortium to build him a time machine to send him back to prevent a destructive war, but, knowing they’ll never see any benefit from it and thus he is not accountable to them, he diverts the machine back to Corsica in 1769 and murders Baby Napoleon to force a jump between universes in order to escape a “prison universe” in which Giamotti has been entombed.
Anti-Semitism had a deep tradition in Germany long before Hitler. Martin Luther, seen here arguing before the Diet of Worms, was an extremely influential anti-Semite of the 16th century.
The second problem is that the “Baby Hitler” scenario ignores broader forces of history and reduces it to an essentially random grab-bag of outcomes which are entirely dependent on individual personalities. Hitler did bear the legal and moral responsibility for the Holocaust. However, he neither invented German anti-Semitism nor laid the conditions in which Nazism rose and flourished in Germany. The roots of European anti-Semitism go back centuries, even before Martin Luther; so too do the basic conditions that forged Germany as an imperial power in the late 19th century, which led to World War I, which led to its defeat, which led to the rise of fascism and ultimately World War II. All of those broader historical processes and conditions would have existed without Hitler, and if he wasn’t around, some other demagogue may have arisen to bring the situation to a head, perhaps sooner, perhaps later. Given the frequency with which mass killings by governments and oppressive regimes occur–there’s one going on right now in Syria, for instance–it’s unrealistic to think that something like the Holocaust could positively never have happened without Hitler. It may well have, or it might have happened in the 1950s instead of the 1940s, or it might have happened in France (which was also heavily anti-Semitic) instead of Germany. Who can say?
The moral or philosophical questions surrounding the Baby Hitler scenario are even more impenetrable, far from the simplistic “one life vs. six million lives” balance that the scenario wants you to think it’s about. Hitler was an evil man, but was he born evil? Was he utterly irredeemable the moment he came out of the womb, and the Holocaust was as good as done the moment he drew his first breath? I have a hard time believing so, but the Baby Hitler scenario presumes it. Suppose, instead of killing a defenseless baby–an act any moral person would view as abhorrent–Jeb Bush found the nicest, most moral, upstanding and gentle childless couple in Austria in 1889, and he kidnapped baby Adolf and left him in a basket on their doorstep. He might have grown up to be a saint, perhaps a doctor who invented a vaccine or a medical procedure that saved millions of lives. Is Jeb Bush’s prerogative to judge a person’s worth? Is it anybody but God’s? (Incidentally, a similar moral question appears in the 1976 Ira Levin novel The Boys From Brazil, which deals with a science fiction plot not to kill Hitler, but to clone him. “Would you kill a clone of Hitler?” poses many of the same issues as the Baby Hitler scenario).
The Boys From Brazil, a somewhat satirical novel about neo-Nazis, toys with a scenario similar to Baby Hitler. It was made into a popular movie in 1978 starring Gregory Peck.
Fortunately we’re talking about a completely hypothetical science fiction situation, which is probably why Governor Bush relished the chance to discuss it–it’s politically much safer for him, I suppose, than talking about what policy he might pursue in Iraq or what he’s going to do about climate change. It’s at least worth thinking about for the logical, historical and moral issues it raises. Would I kill Baby Hitler given the chance? (Remember, I’m Jewish). The best answer I can give is, I don’t know, and I wouldn’t relish having to decide.