Recently, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush was asked if, given the opportunity, he would travel back in time to kill Hitler as a baby. He answered that of course he would, although he admitted that he didn’t know if or how that would change the course of World War II and history.
The whole time-travel-to-kill-Hitler concept has become a bit of an internet meme, and because of this, seems to have a sense of the absurd about it. It’s as if you can’t say that you would do anything else, with the gift of time travel, without mentioning that first.
This has a couple of major problems, and it bothers me that people treat it with such disregard. Of course, I’m also aware of the absurdity of writing a blog post about the issues of time travel, but it highlights a number of greater concerns.
First of all, it demonstrates a facile and uneducated understanding of Hitler’s role in World War II and disregards entirely the causes of it, which are so complex as to have had entire volumes written about them. Hitler has become the epitome of evil, so it follows that everything would be alright, if only we were to get rid of him. But if we were to go back in time to kill Hitler, what would that really achieve? Would it stop the resentment, the wounded pride, and the anti-Semitism which existed in post-WWII Germany? Was it only the presence of Hitler, charismatic and influential as he was, which set the foundation for the mass incarceration and murder of millions of people? If we’re going to Hitler, why stop there? What about Himmler, the architect of the Final Solution? What about Goebbels—would the conviction of the German people have been so strong, had it not been for his skilled and persuasive rhetoric?
And why is it that we focus only on Hitler? Surely, if we were going to go about travelling through time to murder people, there’s a long list of the nasty folk we could bump off, to conceivably make the world a better place. Stalin, for example, or Ceausescu, responsible for the genocide and misery of millions between them. We could definitely do with getting rid of them. Even if we only take the last 50 years or so, we can add Pinochet, Pol Pot, Mao to our list. Just as sinister and nefarious are the systematic and institutional attitudes which contribute to so many deaths. These often sociopathic, dictatorial individuals did not operate in a vacuum. There were a number of factors and other actors to encourage and even insist upon their behaviour. And what about the more insidious destruction of indigenous populations, the world over? Whom do we kill to stop that from having happened? And would that prevent its occurrence now?
Travelling back in time to kill Hitler is not a possibility, and even if it were, how could we stop there, given there are so many others who are also responsible for our bloody past? This kind of flippant disregard for real history and our reluctance to accept our own power and responsibility for what goes on around us isn’t just restricted to talking about time travel. It’s also present in how we go about dealing with these issues in the present day, too. Consider the kinds of celebrations with which the death of Osama bin Laden was met, or more recently, one of Daesh’s more prominent members, ‘Jihadi John’. Each man was just that: a man. A man who can be replaced, by someone just as motivated, just as determined. To think that killing one person would deal the fatal blow to an organisation is not only naive, it’s ridiculous. Heads of states have died or been assassinated in the past—and likely will be again—and the entire country is not brought to its knees. There is shock and disbelief, but the second-in-command steps up, and the country moves on. So would 1940s Germany have done, so would every other group, government, or organisation.
We have to get over the idea that we can solve a problem by simply killing someone who represents it, even if that person is an important representative. Would I go back in time, and kill baby Hitler? Well, no, but why ask such a redundant question, when there are so many issues nowadays, which need our attention? Perhaps we’d be better off if we were to focus on them, so that future generations are less likely to look back and lament our failure to promote equality, and prevent slavery or mass murder, rather than talking about how we would change the past. Perhaps instead of talking about that, we need to realise that the only ways to attempt to prevent such human atrocities are through encouraging education, eradicating poverty, raising standards of living, and improving equality of access to healthcare, employment, and safe and affordable housing. Extremism thrives among the disenfranchised, the poor, the hungry, because those people have nothing to lose, and everything to hope for, when they’re promised the world. If history has taught us anything, it’s that killing people doesn’t seem to be helping much at all. Maybe it’s time to try something new.