The New York Times magazine discovered, by polling its readers, that 42 percent of them would kill Baby Hitler. That just goes to show what New York Times Magazine readers know.
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. Do I have proof for this? Well, no, obviously, but it seems right, doesn’t it?
Frankly I think if you are going to go back in time and interact with Baby Hitler you should not kill him. You should try to raise him right. Here’s how.
You get out of the time machine and tip the driver. It is April 20 and you are in Braunau Am Inn, Austria (yes, Austria! Hitler was Austrian, Mozart was German, as Germany is always reminding us). You are in the Hitler nursery. There is baby Adolf cooing to himself in a lacy outfit. “Yes,” you think to yourself. “This is doable.”
You pick up Baby Hitler and rock him soothingly back and forth.
A man and woman (his parents, you assume) rush in and start yelling excitedly at you in German. You had forgotten about them. Also, you do not speak German. When you accepted this mission you forgot to take this into account. 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! Quatre! Cinq!”
Mr. and Mrs. Hitler are now more concerned than upset. Mrs. Hitler picks up little Adolph and soothes him. 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. Hitler,” you say, slowly, “I would like to take this baby and raise it for you. 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. 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! You really think it’s my parenting that did it? I’ll have you know I’m going to have two more children who will not grow up to be world dictators!”
You see your opening, grab little Hitler, and make a break for it.
The next eighteen years are the most stressful of your life.
Baby Hitler is teething and it is driving you up the wall. 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? He’s still probably going to be a genocidal maniac, even if you have been playing him a special record called “Music Definitely Not By Wagner” to put him to sleep every night.
Baby Hitler is now Toddler Hitler. The only thing worse than the terrible twos is knowing that the toddler currently dragging you through the Terrible Twos is Adolph Hitler. Tiny Adolph manages to eat a knob off one of the cabinets. He smiles knowingly at you as he does it. You become very upset and take away his Soffee Giraffe, which you brought from the future because everyone associated with it said that it was the One Toy Guaranteed Not To Screw Up Your Baby In Any Way.
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. You put apple juice in his lunchbox and make sure all his snacks are kosher so he can share if he makes friends. You hope he makes friends. His early childhood felt interminable but now it seems like it’s gone in the blink of an eye. He is wearing his favorite sweater with a giraffe on it.
Young Hitler brings home a drawing he has made. “That is a beautiful drawing,” you tell him. “Unless my telling you that this is a beautiful drawing will make you believe that you are a great artist and then later you will be rejected from art school and it will warp your psyche, in which case, no, it is not a beautiful drawing.”
“Thank you?” Baby Hitler says, uncertainly.
Hitler makes a friend, Kyle. You ask him what he wants to do after school and he raises his hand and shouts “SEE KYLE!” and you faint dead away.
Hitler says he needs a bigger bedroom because he requires more “living space.” “WHERE DID YOU LEARN A THING LIKE THAT?” you ask, panicked. “THAT IS A COMPLETELY ERRONEOUS IDEA.” You try to send him to his time-out spot but then panic that you are associating territorial restrictions with punishment. Instead, you announce that you are going to read Nietzche to him. (“Nietzche is always a punishment,” you say, “not something people voluntarily read.”)
Hitler drinks chocolate milk and it lands in an unfortunate pattern on his upper lip. You panic. Otherwise uneventful.
Hitler brings you a mug that says UBERMOM: WORLD’S BEST.
“I am not better or worse than other moms,” you explain, nervously. “All moms are equal.”
“Whoa,” Adolph says. “Okay. Geez.”
“We had a career fair at school today,” Adolph tells you. “They asked what we wanted to be when we grew up.”
You freeze. “And what DO you want to be when you grow up?” you ask, nervously. “Remember, you can be anything you want. The sky’s the limit. Just not a horrible dictator who kills millions of people. Unless, by putting that off limits, I make it the one thing you want to do. Wait, never mind. Pretend I didn’t say anything.”
Hitler asks if he can walk to school by himself. You panic. Without the Internet to tell you whether you are parenting right or not, it is difficult to tell what approach to take. Is Helicopter Parenting or Free-Range the right approach to take for a growing Adolph? Should you send him to camp this summer or not? Does he need a math tutor? Would being better at math help or hurt him in the long run? Why didn’t you think about any of this when you decided to take this on?
Hitler has written a report for school entitled “My hero is Abraham Lincoln.” You go through it with a red pen correcting Hitler’s grammar.
“There should be a word for someone who cares as much about grammar as you, Mom,” Hitler says.
“There is,” you say. “A grammar n– Lorax. A grammar Lorax.”
Hitler gets a growth spurt. One morning he comes downstairs and announces that he is trying to grow a mustache. “Absolutely not,” you tell him.
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.
“SHUT UP!” he yells. “YOU DON’T KNOW ME! YOU DON’T KNOW MY LIFE! YOU DON’T KNOW MY STRUGGLE!”
“I WISH YOU WOULDN’T USE THAT WORD!” you yell back.
You should not have thrown Hitler a Sweet Sixteen, but he asked so nicely. He gave a speech but it was bad. He looked at his shoes the whole time and mumbled and spoke indistinctly. This made you feel pretty good.
Hitler doesn’t get into art school. 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. Teenagers.
He gets into college and you ride there with him. There are so many lessons you wanted to impart. But what can you possibly say now? You hope he packed enough sweaters. He outgrew the one with a giraffe on it years ago but you still have it in a drawer.
“Don’t worry, mom,” he says. “I’ll be fine.” But will he? You don’t know.
You leave him at the dorm and cry all the way home. Maybe you should have killed him when you had the chance.