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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