The Case Against Killing "Baby Hitler"
Trending for the moment yet stimulating for nigh three-quarters of a hundred years is the following question: would you or would you not—if given the hypothetical chance—murder baby Hitler at the time of his birth? Would you kill in the crib this infant of a tyrant, this future executioner who hasn’t yet a hair on his head?
Persistent as it is disquieting, the “baby Hitler” question is one that won’t soon remit. It’s one to which we—and by “we” I mean those of us inclined toward a counterfactual, philosophical point of view—often return. Fruitless though its pursuit may be, it tempts us. It calls seductively yet it always frustrates at the end. Here, we succumb to its temptation and offer a response.
The question isn’t the least bit novel, yet it remains acutely controversial. For this there’s good reason. It’s evocative and distressing. It’s startling even to those who don’t easily startle. It forces the usually insensitive historian, the comfortable armchair philosopher first to shiver and then deeply to think. She’s made carefully to weigh her options, to place on the scale her moral judgments, and ultimately to decide. On the one end, she weighs infanticide; on the other, genocide. The former is a literally small tragedy—no greater than at most ten pounds and a few ounces. Added to that weight is the potentiality for a benevolent and meaningful adult life that sits unrecognized far-off and way ahead. The latter is a quite different and more harrowing beast. It’s an historical footprint that’s immeasurably large. It’s the decimation of a people, the near-eradication of a religion, and the full-fledged Holocaust of Jews, Gypsies, outcasts—of us all.
To satiate your intellectual appetite in this course of thought, I set before you the odd scenario and again ask, if indeed you were to awaken tomorrow morning to find yourself so godly as to be completely unencumbered by the restraints of space and time, would you not travel back and “off” that now infant, now infamous Fuhrer? If temporality were to be suspended and time rendered naught, and if the grand and awesome beauty of physics were to be considered a mere smudge on the possible sways of life, would you not hasten back in time to the first decade of the most sanguinary century of which our human race has yet been a part? Once there, would you not leap at the reverberative chance to murder the child who’d become the man who’d be responsible for the lion’s share of the twentieth-century’s death? Would you not carry out with a sense of divine sanction, with a feeling of human obligation, and with a drive of personal zeal this truly historic coup?
The fin de siècle beckons; the infant Adolf Hitler awaits. Likely, as are all boys to whom a doting German-Austrian mother tends, our little Adolf is being swaddled near the close of day. Klara Hitler—a woman whose surname both obscures and defines her first—probably holds and pacifies the child whose own first name will never again be used. In a dark Austrian bedchamber, she lulls to sleep the newest member of her growing family of Hitlers. Infantile, knowing not his left hand from his right, baby Adolf is enjoying the attention of Klara and her gentle, maternal touch. It’s the kind of incipient feminine influence, so necessary to a well-developed boy, that did the later Hitler no good.
Little does she know, a hateful and odious manner of thinking will soon envelop and define the boy. The seeds of a Pan-Germanic, sadistic, racist, fascist, Aryan, millenarian view are beginning to germinate in his young bones. Out of Klara’s arms he’ll soon jump, first to the art schools of Vienna and then to the trenches at Ypres. He’ll fail in his pursuit at becoming an aesthete. Artists, though doubtless of a passionate type, are seldom if ever so pugnacious.
His success will be in having been forged into a soldier. For the remainder of his life, he won’t deviate from this line of work. He’ll fight intrepidly for his adopted Bavaria. He’ll become disillusioned by and exasperated of a post-bellum world—one in which he sees no peace if there’s to be no German pride. He’ll perceive as a gratuitous “slap-in-the-face” the Allied Powers’ imposition of a slew of reparations. France and especially Britain have saddled on his once proud, now vanquished German people an insurmountable debt. It’s at once crippling and insulting. Determined not to stand for it, he’ll get to work as a small-time orator on the public scene. He’ll refine his political vent and better formulate his own Nationalist-Socialist creed. This frightful new Demosthenes of the Deutschland will learn to polish his eloquence, captivate an audience, and saturate his rhetoric to an acidic degree. He’ll learn to put into words the feelings he could never hope to exude in his art.
What he’ll further go on to do need not be retold here; the corpses speak for themselves. The answer, then, to our introductory question seems self-evident. If the price to be paid for the preservation of millions of Jewish lives, hundreds of thousands of euthanized children, millions of butchered German youth is but one single Austrian infant boy named Adolf Hitler, the answer appears simple. Kill the damned boy and save the innumerable and innocent many.
This is the position (again, to kill rather than not to kill baby Hitler) to which most people, upon first considering this macabre thought experiment, cleave. Viscerally, it feels the more justified of the two. So too, as it turns out, is it the more retributive. The baby deserves to die, those staking this position attest, and perhaps even to suffer in the process as well. Yet ultimately, this desire to see baby Hitler killed isn’t a blind conviction nor an unprepossessingly morbid fascination with infanticide and death. Rather, in the best of cases, it’s the sober decision of the utilitarian. She wishes to see to it that all others, who would’ve otherwise become ash if adult Hitler had his way, might live. In a word, kill the one in order to save the many.
This is the ethical school of thought for whose formulation we have the inimitable Jeremy Bentham and the liberal John Stuart Mill to thank. The latter certainly improved upon the former’s work, but both constructed their respective philosophies on common ground. They wanted, in essence, to pursue the maximization of happiness, the augmentation of pleasure, the diminution of pain. The means by which this maximally “hedonistic” or “felicific”, to use Bentham’s terms, outcome came about mattered not. The end was to be more highly esteemed than its antecedent means. Such an end was to be judged morally right or wrong, palatable or repulsive, based on the consequences that it produced.
The consequentialist, to give this eager killer of baby Hitler her proper name, stands athwart the deontologists. More than merely recondite names, the two schools have debated each other for the better part of two hundred years. The victor, as the contest stands today, is yet to be declared. Though it should be said that no one holds their breath for the crowning of the philosophical champion in this toilsome, ponderous fights of academic distinction.
To put it in as succinct a manner as is possible, the deontologist is duty-bound. She’s a moralist in whose unwavering opinion the joined senses of duty and fidelity are prioritized above all. Quiet and resolute where the consequentialist is possibly vagarious and ever-changing, the deontologist regards as inviolate the established moral precepts to which she’s bound. In the halls of her hagiography stands alone the sage of Konigsberg, the great Immanuel Kant. It’s at his pedestal she bows in intellectual deference, recognizing the unique mark on humanity he left. Transcendental idealism, metaphysics, critiques of pure and practical reason, and pie-in-the-sky wishes for perpetual peace—of all these exhausting cognitive feats, Kant’s grand masterpiece is his deontological thought.
So grand, indeed, that we continue to esteem it even to this day. Applying it to the question at hand, the proud Kantian, the dutiful deontologist would rebuke the consequentialist’s position that baby Hitler need be killed. After all, she who subscribes to Kant is admonished to move about this world as though the maxim of her action were to become, by her very will, a universal law. This, in so many words, is the philosopher’s bitingly persuasive “categorical imperative”—the perhaps overly-syllabic idea for which he’s so deservedly loved. The idea would encapsulate the entirety of his noble ethical pursuit. A law that might enable the infanticide of baby Hitler would, perforce, permit the murder of any child who might be suspected of transgressions later on in life. Any child so ill-fated wouldn’t have a passing chance. It would be as if he were, before acquiring the ability to speak, completely predestined to an abruptly premature end.
In most cases, when comparing Kant’s argument with that shared by Bentham and Mill, the former is the more compelling. That said, the case of baby Hitler gives the confident Kantian an unusual pause. The problem involving Hitler is one that’s altogether different. It strains the tendency to deem victorious Kant in all philosophical debates. Hitler was, after all, a uniquely bad boy. Yet still, even as I come closest to siding rather with the British empiricists than the German idealist sage, I can’t force myself to deviate from Kant.
Infanticide mustn’t be allowed. Indeed, it’s prohibition ought to become, if we want the best and most humane of worlds, a universal law. In need of further convincing? Ask yourself, would you permit the murder of your own newborn child whom you carry in your arms? Would you offer him to death if informed by a time-traveler that the baby suckling at your breast would be the devil of his age? Surely you’d be startled (while second-guessing the parenting books you’d read), but I hazard to guess you’d refuse this hitman speaking prophecies of the future. You’d set a course toward the prevention of such an end and hope to improve upon this portentous lot.
We’re thus left with the uncomfortable resolution that baby Hitler will live. What, then, are we left to do? Are we idly to sit by and let history repeat itself to the tune of millions of dead Jews? If we can intervene in his life or death, surely we’re permitted to do more. The best course at this point would be for us to remove from his home this infant Hitler and change the conditions in which he was reared. After all, a man is only slightly more than the sum total of his parts, and it’s his past experiences that most fully build him into the person he becomes. As such, we blame not “Hitler” exclusively, but the constituent parts that made him into the demon he became. He, like every other vile killer that history has been so unfriendly to produce, is a man constructed by the circumstances in which he lived, the influences to which he was exposed. Change those two things, and you obviate atrocity.
Thus, baby Hitler must live. So too must baby Napoleon and for that matter, baby Nero and baby Caligula as well. It’s useful to remember that before this thought experiment was asked exclusively of baby Hitler, it was applied to all the aforementioned kings. In the case of all, if given the chance to kill them in their infancy, the impulse is to do just that. But we must, in our hasty time-travel, stop and think. The moral route is to drop the dagger, to pick up the pacifier, and to change whatever circumstances you can.