The Ethics of Killing Baby Hitler

25 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

In Praise of the New York Times Magazine’s “Baby Hitler” Poll.

The New York Times Magazine conducted a poll that asked whether its readers could kill an infant Adolf Hitler. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stirred controversy this week when he claimed that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler had not set out to destroy European Jewry, but rather deport them.

The basic moral question—could you kill one infant to save millions of lives?—is essentially a more dramatic version of the trolley problem, a thought experiment whereby a person must choose between a speeding trolley killing five people or diverting its course to kill one. I have often felt that most of historical Hitler’s difficulty stems from a life spent constantly fending off assassination attempts from the future, an effort that doubtless left him paranoid and exhausted. If Twitter can often feel like a cauldron of bad opinions and stressful newsflashes, sometimes days like this redeem it: when the Internet seems to rise up as one—half in earnest and half in jest, the baby Hitler outrage mingling with the jokes about baby Hitler’s baby moustache—to comment on something so deeply pointless that the whole news cycle seems to collapse. Baby Hitler turned out to be a perfect phrase-meme: ridiculous-sounding but nicely visual, simple and intelligible enough that it easily shapeshifted to accommodate every other dumb recent internet mania, from pea guacamole to anti-vaxxers to pizza rat. You could, for example, kidnap the infant would-be totalitarian and turn him over to an orphanage in Australia, thereby preventing him from ever assuming power in Germany.

Or you could prevent his parents from meeting to ensure he was never born in the first place. (A question for the philosophers: Does altering history to prevent someone’s birth count as murder?) But the main reason I would not kill, exile, or otherwise remove Hitler is historical. Sure, it was trolling, but the savviest kind of trolling: a strategic way of ginning up the exact kind of artificial conceptual binaries that tend to rile people up on Twitter, of inviting people to eyeball a proposition and swiftly pick a lane. I admit that all of what follows is non-falsifiable, but I strongly doubt that Hitler’s nonexistence would have prevented World War II or the Holocaust. According to the subsequent discussions on Twitter, those who voted “no” didn’t do so just because of their unwillingness to kill a baby, but also because they were afraid of triggering the “grandfather paradox.” The hashtag “#babyhitler” started trending on Twitter, drawing many responses. In fact, the Times Mag’s “Dear Reader” feature as a whole—a recurring poll that poses questions with minimal context and invites readers to choose one of several answers—might be the most impressive example of mainstream media Twitter trolling we have.

Hitler is a singular figure in human history, and the course of the 20th century arguably pivots around his actions as chancellor of Germany between 1933 and 1945. Recent “Dear Reader”s include “Is spanking okay?” (Spanking present-day kids, that is, not Baby Hitler: 32 percent said “Yes”; 68 percent said “No”) and “Do you think human beings are truly suited for monogamy?” (“No,” 46 percent; “Yes,” 54 percent). The Washington Post, for its part, published an opinion piece suggesting that the smart time travel mission would have been to snatch Hitler in his cradle from his parents and raise him alone.

Sometimes “Dear Reader”s are provocative in a plaintive way: “How many times have you been in love?” Every publication is looking for ways to provoke readers into engaging with them without weirding out said readers by wrecking their brand. “Dear Reader” strays gently from the Times brand in a way that seems less like a gaffe than like side-eye at the idea of the Times brand. He also was not the first German political figure to adopt the irredentist position that another country’s territory rightfully belonged to the German people. There is baby Adolf cooing to himself in a lacy outfit. “Yes,” you think to yourself. “This is doable.” A man and woman (his parents, you assume) rush in and start yelling excitedly at you in German. The exact mechanisms of the Holocaust—the Nuremburg laws, Kristallnacht, the death squads, the gas chambers, the forced marches, and more—are unquestionably the products of Hitler and his disciples, and they likely would not have existed without him.

You put down Baby Hitler, who is now crying something awful, and begin to gesture. “Achtung!” you say. “Achtung!” (You don’t know any German at all and you are not sure of what achtung means, other than that it was a U2 album title.) “Ein!” you yell. “Zwei, drei! Focusing on Hitler’s central role in the Holocaust also risks ignoring the thousands of participants who helped carry it out, both within Germany and throughout occupied Europe, and on the social and political forces that preceded it. It’s not impossible that in a climate of economic depression and scientific racism, another German leader could also move towards a similar genocidal end, even if he deviated from Hitler’s exact worldview or methods.

You try the time-honored American method of speaking English loudly and slowly in the hope that suddenly people in a foreign country will miraculously understand you. “Mr. and Mrs. You see, your son here grows up to become the worst dictator in history, responsible for mass genocide, but I–” (well, this sounds really stupid now that you’re saying it out loud, but I suppose you’re stuck) “–feel that I will be able to do a better job raising him than you did.” Mr. and Mrs.

Without the war’s economic and military toll, would Britain and France have been better positioned to prevent decolonization, or to at least better able to resist nationalist movements in Africa and Asia with force? Hitler speak excitedly to one another and you assume that they are saying something along the lines of “Come into my house and say a thing like that! I’ll have you know I’m going to have two more children who will not grow up to be world dictators!” Baby Hitler is teething and it is driving you up the wall. Would Imperial Japan have retained its possessions and perhaps even have been more successful in its war with China which began before Hitler rose to power? Does it still count as traveling back in time heroically to kill Hitler if you do it because it is 3 a.m. and Baby Hitler has awakened you from your first sound sleep in weeks?

Perhaps most crucially, Hitler’s rise forced many of Europe’s top physicists, chemists, mathematicians, and other scientists to seek refuge in the United States. Among them were some of the most famous names in modern scientific history, including Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, and more. Toddler Hitler throws a tantrum that reminds you of the worst excesses of his speaking style later. “Adolph,” you tell him, sternly, putting him into his I LOVE GREAT BRITAIN, AND I WOULD NEVER ATTEMPT AN AIR CAMPAIGN AGAINST IT lion pajama onesie, “if you carry on like that, no one is going to listen to you or take you seriously.” You drop Young Hitler off at kindergarten.

Fearing Hitler’s ambitions and armed with the knowledge that Germany had its own nuclear program underway, Einstein and Szilard persuaded Franklin D. What if, during some moment of international tension, Einstein wrote to the leader of Germany and warned him about a nuclear-weapons program in the Soviet Union or the British Empire? Instead, you announce that you are going to read Nietzche to him. (“Nietzche is always a punishment,” you say, “not something people voluntarily read.”) You freeze. “And what DO you want to be when you grow up?” you ask, nervously. “Remember, you can be anything you want. The Bush administration naively claimed that toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003 would produce a vibrant liberal democracy in the largely illiberal Middle East.

Hitler has been locked in his room all afternoon and you don’t know what’s going on in there. “You need to let me in, Adolph,” you say, knocking for a fifth time. You cook him his favorite dinner and repeat the family mantra, “Other people are not to blame for your problems.” He seems okay but he is so hard to read these days.

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