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.
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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.
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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.
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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?