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Time travellers: please don’t kill Hitler

23 February 2014

From The Guardian:

If you find yourself suddenly gaining access to a time machine, what’s the first thing you’d do? If you said “kill Adolf Hitler”, then congratulations; you’re a science-fiction character. Actually, the whole “access to a time machine” thing suggested that already, but the desire to kill Hitler clinches it. Any time-travelling sci-fi character (at least ones created by Western society) seems to want to kill Hitler, so much so that there’s atrope about how it’s impossible.

That attempting to kill Hitler has become such a common sci-fi plot device speaks volumes. What about Stalin? He was arguably worse, killing 20 million of his own people to fuel his ideology. But no, Stalin went about his business unmolested by time travellers, all of whom are busy targeting Hitler.

It’s understandable. Who wouldn’t want to prevent the holocaust? It’s probably the worst thing in history. And I only say “probably” because I don’t know all of history, and the human capacity to be awful should not be underestimated. But as noble as it seems, killing the Fuhrer via time travel is a terrible idea, for real-world reasons, not just those in fiction. So should you get hold of a time machine and make plans to kill Hitler, here are some reasons why you shouldn’t.

. . . .

Stephen Fry dealt with this superbly in his book Making History. Without spoilers, the problem is that many assume Hitler was the sole cause of the second world war and all the associated horrors. Sadly, this is a gross oversimplification. Germany in the 1930s wasn’t a utopia of basket-weaving peace lovers who were suddenly and severely corrupted by Hitler’s charismatic moustache. The political tensions and strife were all there, results of a previous world war and a great depression; Hitler was just able to capitalise on this. But if he hadn’t, say because he had been eliminated by an errant time traveller, then there’s nothing to say that nobody else would.

. . . .

There’s the oft-quoted example of the butterfly effect, ie very small changes in a very complex system can have very big effects. You can criticise Hitler for many valid reasons, but one thing he wasn’t was “insignificant”; if he were, there’d be no desire to assassinate him. So even if you did succeed, given the impact he had on so many lives, you’d drastically alter the future/present, even if it panned out to be “better” without Hitler.

Say whoever replaced him was ineffectual and the war ended with reduced loss of life and destruction. In this timeline, maybe no German rocket scientists ended up in the US. The space programme loses some of its best minds, and happens more slowly (or not at all?) The space race resulted in a breath-taking amount of scientific advancement and spinoff technology, one strand of which eventually led to time travel. Now that you’ve changed things, time travel wasn’t invented in your lifetime, so either you vanish and the whole thing is undone, or your time machine does. So now you’re stranded in wartime Berlin. And you’ve just killed the beloved leader of one of the most powerful military machines in history.

. . . .

This is overlooked surprisingly often, so it bears repeating: Hitler didn’t win. Whatever you think of the present, we don’t live in some bleak wasteland dominated by a global Reich. Because Hitler and his armies lost. Although it was a costly victory, it was still technically a victory, so why risk going back and interfering with an outcome you favour?

Link to the rest at The Guardian

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58 Comments to “Time travellers: please don’t kill Hitler”

  1. Okay. When I go back in time I won’t try to kill Hitler, despite being the good Jew that I am. I figure evil is evil and if you kill one evil another will take its place.

    Besides, Replay, the brilliant time-travel novel by Ken Grimwood, pretty much covers that paradox.

  2. don’t you just start a new time stream (branch) and the one you left continues on unchanged?

    • That is one school of thought.
      Another school says you never time travel to your own past, only somebody else’s in parallel universes.
      A third school is your past already incorporates your travels.
      A fourth says the universe reconfigures itself to changes.
      A fifth (from Larry Niven no less) says time travel is impossible so any time travel story is dy definition fantasy, not science fiction. By which logic he gave us the storiesof Svetz, the time retrieval expert, such as FLIGHT OF THE HORSE.
      Pick yer poison. 🙂

  3. If one wanted to minimize suffering in the western world via time travel assassination, Arminius would be a much better target than Hitler or Stalin. That is one butterfly that had a really long effect on history.
    Second place would go to a certain desert merchant a few centuries later.
    Third place, Constantine.
    Personally, I wouldn’t go for assassination, though.
    I rather favor the Conrad Stargard approach.

    • Ooh, Felix, me likey – I’m sending you back.

      • Okay, but I’ll need time to brush up on my latin.
        And load up a few choice texts on my eink reader.
        (I already have a solar powered charger so that much is covered.)

    • Desert merchant, really? Can we really blame the founder of a religion for the acts of so-called followers down the centuries, followers with their own interpretations, or those calling themselves followers who are really just opportunists co-opting religion as a cover for their own agendas? If so, couldn’t you say the same, perhaps even more easily, of JC, based on acts perpetrated by his “followers”? Hitler, on the other hand, gave direct orders & was not being misinterpreted or misunderstood – no question his followers acted in perfect accord with his wishes.

      • Of all of the major religious founders, only one led armies. He set the tone.
        Ditto for Constantine who took a communal pacifist religion and recast it as a militant imperial institution.
        Take either or both out of the picture and you have a lot less religious warfare.

    • Give me all my shots, teach me passable contemporary Greek, and let me take down Aristotle – and take his place. I will show you a world of wonders.

  4. This brings to mind this brilliant and hilarious short story, Wikihistory by Desmond Warzel:

    http://www.tor.com/stories/2011/08/wikihistory

  5. Maybe I’m a terrible person, but I’ve never understood the imperative to kill Hitler. It always seems rather lazy to me when science fiction writers go this route, like they couldn’t be bothered to comb through history and find the trends that set mankind on the wrong course, and right those trends. I guess that would take more work though.

    Hmmm…maybe I just gave myself a story idea.

  6. Let’s Kill Hitler?

    Spoilers?

    Paging River Song.

    (Doctor Who fans will get it–and I didn’t think this episode was that great)

  7. I’d argue some things become cliche because they’re so true or resonate so deeply, but then, (spoiler!) killing Hitler is a big subplot of The Prodigal Hour–which addresses the butterfly effect and branching alternities. That’s one of the major reasons I wanted to write it; I wanted to really depict a temporal paradox.

    I leave whether I was successful in doing so as an exercise to readers.

    This is overlooked surprisingly often, so it bears repeating: Hitler didn’t win.

    While true, I think this misses a point that most of the time the primary motivation behind killing Hitler is not preventing the Nazis from winning but rather preventing them from killing ten million people.

  8. This is funny, because in my book R.I.P., Cat, the great grand daughter of Vlad V (fifth), a vampire, asked him if he met Hitler and why didn’t he kill him. Vlad gave her two reasons, first Hitler was elected democratically, a lot of Germans believed in him. By 1941 he was God’s gift to the Germans. Second, many other Nazi leaders were more than willing to continue his ‘Kampf’ and the whole events in that period of history was like an unstoppable train wreck.

    • I read somewhere that early in the war, the Allies considered assassinating Hitler, but after a couple of years decided not to. They realised that while he was a brilliant and charismatic politician, he was a hopeless military strategist, and if he was killed, the Germans might replace him with someone who actually knew what he was doing.

      So there’s an idea (though it’s probably been done before) – the time travellers on a mission to kill Hitler are not pacifists who want to prevent the war or bring it to a swift end, but neo-Nazis who want to give Germany a competent leader, to make sure they win the war.

      • Reminds me of the old Atari game: Eastern Front 1941, where the gamer is tasked with winning the (well-nigh impossible) war with Russia.

        A smarter Nazi leader would have left Russia alone and let the US and Japan face off alone while they consolidated France and eastern europe.
        Classic strategic overreach.

        • Many variables were at work, but the basic fact was that if USA would not have entered the war, Nazi Germany would have won the war. Russia was armed and given know how by US after it entered the war. Until about thirty years ago, Soviet Union was making car engines using Jeep motors technology. I don’t think Jeep or AMC or USA ever got compensated for the knowledge they received from us.

      • Exactly, everyone has their own motives to kill Hitler, or for that matter any leader in any country.

  9. Forget Hitler. I would go back in time to kill Nigel from New Jersey. I really hate Nigel from New Jersey.

  10. “Hitler was the sole cause of the second world war and all the associated horrors.”

    Right! And what about Japan? They were off doing their own thing for much of the war too. With the exception of “The Final Countdown”, we don’t hear much in sci-fi about stopping Japan and the Pacific Theatre part of the war. Maybe the fixation on Hitler is that we have that one person who serves as a perceived linchpin to it all making him the convenient target for stories.

    • I love that movie! Kirk DOuglas’ speech as Capt. Yelland on why he decides to interfere is incredible.

      • Too bad they didn’t have the guts to take the story to its logical conclusion. Unlike John Birmingham in his Axis of Time trilogy. I wish he’d follow up the new timeline.

        • What do you consider its logical conclusion, Felix? Kind of curious because the movie follows your third school of time travel to a tea.

          • The logical conclusion was to go ahead and stop the attack on Pearl, because that is what the movie was promising from the beginning. The movie was based on the quandary of whether to intervene or not and then the decision was taken out of his hands, making the point moot. Basically, they ran away from their own premise.

            A more honest time travel story was TIMELINE which promised a class three story and delivered exactly that; the fun being in seeing how all the pieces fell into place.

            Mind you, I loved Final Countdown, but I wish they’d had more faith in their material.

            • I agree. My personal interpretation of the captain’s actions was always that the reappearance of the time vortex gave him the idea that God wanted him to break off the attack.

              However, here’s a bit of fridge logic for anyone who likes the ending: how did the captain of the Nimitz know that the second vortex would return them to the present? For all he knew, it would send them further back into the past, and might not return again, which would lead to a much larger disruption of history.

              This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that IIRC the Nimitz was essentially being pursued by the second time vortex and could not evade it (which would give some credence to the theoretical state of mind I ascribe to the captain.) However, the strike force was in visual range of the enemy: they could have at least launched a missile salvo, which would have greatly diminished the effectiveness of the Japanese attack and caused the Imperial forces catastrophic confusion as to the source and possible return of the counterattacking entity.

              • Exactly. They were in engagement range.
                One salvo of Sidewinders and Sparrows would’ve decimated the attackers and probably sent the fleet straight back home with stories of secret american weapons.

        • Too bad they didn’t have the guts to take the story to its logical conclusion.

          I believe you’ll find it was more due to budget than guts :).

      • Suzan> Oh I know! Still one of my favorites. That first time the Zero pilots are overflown by the Navy fighter jets was just one those great moments.

        • “Senator, I assure you that the Nimitz is more than capable of defeating any attack, should it occur.”

          • I dug out the DVD yesterday and I realized the thing is ripe for a remake.
            Or better yet, somebody ought to take on AXIS OF TIME. Preferably HBO. Just showing the cultural differences between 1942 and 2020 would keep the audience glued.

            • Felix> I know, I think I may have to cue it up on Netlfix, myself. And, yeah, a remake could really work with the right people involved. I had to look up Axis of Time, as I hadn’t heard of it before. Sounds like another great one for a cable series.

          • Marc> Yep, there’s a memorable line.

  11. Forget rocket technology – the big advances in medicine (penicillin, antibiotics, blood transfusion, etc) were driven heavily by pure necessity during WWII. I heard a medical historian say he figured those advances have saved more people than WWII cost, which I thought was a sobering thought. And personally, I’d rather target Himmler.

    • “I heard a medical historian say he figured those advances have saved more people than WWII cost…”

      What a disturbing thought. But yes, that’s why I don’t find the “kill Hitler” story lines all that effective on me. That era was full of all kinds of horror, but there was also some good that came from it. Life is messed up that way. You rarely get to take only the good.

  12. Pre-chronotransport thinking always amuses me. Of course, you can’t change history. You can bring people back after their impact on history is over. Ever tried to pin down the date of William Ockham’s death? #JustSaying

  13. Instead of killing Hitler, why not see to it that he gets into art school?

  14. Well, I would go back in time and destroy the dinosaurs with a giant space rock, thus opening up a niche for the mammals. Wait, maybe I did that.

  15. the writer is sort of only speaking about fiction, perhaps true.

    But the vapid toss-off about hitler and germany [as though all germans are somehow groupthink in any ‘germany’] in this article is beyond puzzling. The actual living survivors of hitler and his turncoat pal stalin, would refute this hitler-lite, germany-lite, WWII-koolaid in deuces and all aces.

    Kill hitler in fantasy fiction. Sure. Go right ahead. Or not.

    But instead of aspartame version of history, PITY those in Sudetanland whose grab by hitler opened the slaughters of the many and the many throughout what was renamed Bohemia and Moravia [former czech], meaing:[real people, real children, actual elderly farmers who ran for their lives with their grandbabies under their arms, real brides and grooms murdered at their weddings, and more who were murdered], pity those in Poland [real people, real children, and more who were murdered], and pity the tens of thousands of children and adults euthanized on hitler’s orders before he even thought to carry out Kristalnacht, before he invaded Poland, before he hired the malignant evildoers of the universe to carry out his “purges’ of Jews, Catholics, Rom, gays, and any other group hitler deemed subhuman.

    I am beyond amazed at any modern marzipan versions of what actually happened re hitler/wwii : blood and gutting, rapes and burning, torture, purposeful starvation, flensing open pregnant women, murder of the animals the farm people loved, murder upon murder upon murder of human beings who did not carry rifles, innocent citizens on all sides who wanted only to live to see their children’s children. Dont get me started. Seriously.

    Kill hitler or not in fantasy fiction/sci fi/ whatever. But just my .02, I dont think for a moment that a few paras on one person’s take on hitler and his times, especially a person who was not a witness nor a survivor, gives even a shard of the entire bloody and still bleeding sets of infinite stories of that time. To try to imprison history in a five slim assertions, is like saying even one person’s life is made up of their bones with some skin thrown over the top, only. That that is the full content of a person’s life.

    It isnt. There are at least ten stories to every day of every person’s life. Even more stories per day to a nation’s life. Even more, millions and millions more daily, DAILY, to the life of a war. They cant be reduced to five averrings.

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