Why Killing Baby Hitler Is A Really Bad Idea

This week, the New York Times magazine asked its readers a question: “If you had a time machine, would you go back in time and kill an infant Adolf Hitler?”. This created a minor internet sensation (which was probably the point of the article). Forty-two percent of the readers who responded to the poll said that “Yes”, they would go back to the past and kill the infant. Thirty percent said “No” and twenty-eight percent were undecided.

This question raises some interesting questions not only about time travel, but also about ethics. Firstly, lets start by saying that killing is wrong. So we would not be justified in killing a baby. We could end it there.

But, we can mention some other concerns. The ethicist and philosopher Janet Stemwedel, writing in Forbes magazine, has outlined the ethical objections very nicely. By killing baby Hitler, you have prejudged an infant for the crimes that he will commit in the future. And you are trying to make that trade off of one life for many. In popular culture, we would mention Star Trek’s Mr. Spock here: “The needs of the many must come before the needs of the few”. Of course a significant difference is that Spock is sacrificing his life for the many, not killing someone else.

Scientifically, time travel forwards is actually possible, because we can use the Theory of Special Relativity. This predicts the effects of travelling very fast, at an appreciable percentage of the speed of light, where time for the traveller appears to flow at the usual rate for the traveller, but for an external observer, the trip takes much longer. So the traveller may return, after two years after starting the trip, and find that twenty years has elapsed on earth. This is time travel of a sort, but it’s only one way. There is no going backwards! The difficulties of going backwards in time have been discussed by the physicist Brian Koberlein, who is far more able than I am to describe the theoretical difficulties of reverse time travel. Forward time travel, requiring voyages of a starship with human occupants over extended periods of time will certainly be possible. We could certainly make a slow clunky prototype un-crewed ship with present technology, and development of reliable closed cycle habitats for say, a Mars voyage or colonisation will give us the long duration mission tools necessary for the crewed part of the spacecraft. Several design studies for fast, interstellar craft have already been undertaken, such as Project Icarus. The technology is within our grasp, if we were willing to pay the price and commit to such a monumental undertaking. It would have to be a truly global effort, and given the rather fragmented state of space exploration at the present (ISS excepted), not terribly likely at present.

But now I want to present some additional historical ideas about why killing baby Hitler would be a bad idea. Hitler was the product of his time, and in the 1920s and 30s in Europe, was one of many to latch onto extreme ideology and anti-Semitism. Removing him from the scene would not have altered the general picture. Another leader would have come forward at some point and most likely similar outcomes would have happened. This is the “history has inertia” type model, enshrined in many science fiction stories (not least Azimov’s Foundation series). Here, the individual does not matter, history can only be described by statistics, and is very difficult to change in direction.

Now consider a chilling prospect. Suppose the Hitler-replacement turns out to be worse than Hitler? This could be in the ferocity of the response- an even more fanatical, even more anti-Semitic, Aryan ideologue. That would inevitably lead to even more carnage. But then suppose the Hitler-replacement turns out to be more efficient than Hitler? Having read a lot of history books of WW2, I am often struck by the number of times that the outcome would have been very different and usually much worse for the Allies if Hitler hadn’t interfered. Suppose the Hitler-replacement was more competent in war than the real one?Or allowed the German High Command, to get on with their job without political interference.

A classic example would be the halt order placed on the victorious German army after the Fall of France in 1940 — they could have pursued the retreating British army to Dunkirk and destroyed it. Instead they allowed it to escape on ships and reform as the core of the British Army which would eventually return on the beaches of Normandy. What would happen if those third of a million men were prisoners instead?

Or suppose that the German research and development effort had not been frittered away on countless exotic super-weapons, but concentrated on a few key technologies, such as jet engines, long range rockets and the A-bomb. Germany had sufficient talented nuclear physicists to make nuclear weapons, given the time and the resources (even allowing for the massive exodus of Jewish scientists to the UK and USA before the war). Suppose Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments and War Production had been given more oversight in the research development and production process, his acumen would surely have given better outcomes for Germany than our version of history.

So if we intend to intervene in history, then the outcome could end up being much worse than the version of history that we live in, rather than an improvement. That in itself is a powerful argument for doing nothing. Which, is actually what we have to do, because we are considering a hypothetical question. What we can do, is study the lessons of history and take steps to prevent the rise of the destructive ideologies which lead to so much suffering. If many people exert that pressure on society, then we can move history along a better path.