Would You Go Back to 1889 and Take Out Baby Hitler?: Time-Travel Expert James Gleick Answers the Philosophical Question

The vast majority of us have no inclination to kill anyone, much less a small child. But what if we had the chance to kill baby Adolf Hitler, preventing the Holocaust and indeed the Second World War? That hypothetical question has endured for a variety of reasons, touching as it does on the concepts of genocide and infant murder in forms even more highly charged than usual. It also presents, in the words of Time Travel: A History author James Gleick, “two problems at once. There’s a scientific problem — you can set your mind to work imagining, ‘Could such a thing be possible and how would that work?’ And then there’s an ethical problem. ‘If I could, would I, should I?'”

By the simplest analysis, writes Vox’s Dylan Matthews, the question comes down to, “Is it ethical to kill one person to save 40-plus million people?” But time-travel fiction has been around long enough that we’ve all internalized the message that it’s not quite so simple. We can even question the assumption that killing baby Hitler would prevent the Holocaust and World War II in the first place.

Maybe those terrible events happen on any timeline, regardless of whether Hitler lives or dies: that would align with the Novikov self-consistency principle, which holds that “time travel could be possible, but must be consistent with the past as it has already taken place,” and which has been dramatized in time-travel stories from La Jetée to The Terminator.

Gleick doesn’t have a straight answer in the Vox video on the killing-baby-hitler question above as to whether he himself would go back to 1889 and put baby Hitler out of action. “When you change history,” he says of the moral of the countless many time travel stories he’s read, “you don’t get the result you’re looking for. Every day, everything we do is a turning point in history, whether it’s obvious to us or not.” This in contrast to former Florida governor and United States presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who, when he had the big baby-Hitler question put to him by the Huffington Post, returned a hearty “Hell yea I would.” But given time to reflect, even he concluded that such an act “could have a dangerous effect on everything else.” It appears that some of the lessons of time-travel stories have been learned, but as for what humanity will do if it actually develops time-travel technology — maybe we’d rather not peer into the future to find out.

Related Content:

What’s the Origin of Time Travel Fiction?: New Video Essay Explains How Time Travel Writing Got Its Start with Charles Darwin & His Literary Peers

What Happened When Stephen Hawking Threw a Cocktail Party for Time Travelers (2009)

Professor Ronald Mallett Wants to Build a Time Machine in this Century … and He’s Not Kidding

Carl Jung Psychoanalyzes Hitler: “He’s the Unconscious of 78 Million Germans.” “Without the German People He’d Be Nothing” (1938)

How Did Hitler Rise to Power? : New TED-ED Animation Provides a Case Study in How Fascists Get Democratically Elected

The New York Times’ First Profile of Hitler: His Anti-Semitism Is Not as “Genuine or Violent” as It Sounds (1922)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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Comments (9)
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  • Pato says:

    We all have different kinds of Hitlers. If you asked japanese atomic bomb victims who would they go back to kill, Hitler haters probably wouldn’t like the answer. So Hitler ends up being a perfect example of a relative target. Depending on who you are and what you believe, you would justify doing different things if you had a the chance.

  • John says:

    Such a good point, Pato!

  • Mary-Colin e Chisholm says:

    The question presupposes that only killing a baby could stop ww2, as if Hitler himself was completely predetermined. If I could go back in time, the best thing to do might be to spirit baby Adolph away, before his father could beat and terrorize him. Raising Adolph to deal with his emotions and expectations and to develop empathetic relationships, might change the course of history.

  • Ronny says:

    It’s not moral to kill baby Hitler because baby Hitler hasn’t done anything wrong. The suggestion to influence his life for the better is certainly more morally defensible. Also, considering the situation in Germany at that time, there would be no guarantee that anything would change. Chances are another dictator would have risen instead.

  • Bill W. says:

    Instead of killing Hitler, I would have made damn sure he was accepted into the Vienna Art School that rejected his application!

  • Daniel says:

    Do we have to kill him? Why not go back in time and raise him differently?

  • DANNY HARMON says:

    Two problems. One:killing a baby for crimes you believe it will commit makes as bad as the Nazis. Two:there’s no way of knowing that something worse could take his place.

    Hitler was evil, but he wasn’t born in a vacuum, the hated, history and politics that “created” him would still be there waiting for someone to come along.

    Play God and you may create Hell instead of Heaven.

  • GK says:

    This question always reminds me of the new Twilight Zone episode, Cradle of Darkness, where Katherine Heigl’s character does just this. The murdered child’s nanny buys a street woman’s son to cover for her inattentiveness, and the changeling grows up to be Hitler.

  • Asik says:

    If I go back in time What I’ll do Iam gonna kidnap baby Hitler then I take him to Poland and leave him in some random home. I think this is best way to alter history! Hitler well grow up to be a fine Jewish man, not the monster he was. No WW2!

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