In an interview this week, Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush weighed in on one of the zeitgeist's silliest questions: If you could go back in time, would you kill a baby Adolf Hitler?
"Hell yeah, I would!" Bush told the Huffington Post when queried on the subject in New Hampshire. "You gotta step up, man."
It raised ethical dilemmas — could you murder an infant on the assumption it would save millions of lives? — and even prompted overly elaborate discussions on the theoretical mechanics of time travel. It's not clear how much of these considerations Bush chewed over before making his rather emphatic declaration.
"It could have a dangerous effect on everything else, but I'd do it — I mean, Hitler," he acknowledged in his conversation with the Huffington Post.
We now face the absurd prospect of more U.S. presidential aspirants offering their take on what they would do if given the chance to use a time machine to travel to an Upper Austrian town at the turn of the century and kill a baby.
Perhaps this isn't as bizarre as it sounds. There are few alternative histories more pondered than those that have something to do with Hitler.
The shadow of the Nazi dictator looms over a rich field of speculative history. Amateurs and professionals have already asked (and attempted to answer) a spate of tough questions: What if Hitler had been accepted to art school in Vienna? What if he and his inner sanctum had escaped to Latin America in 1945? What if Hitler's armies had succeeded in capturing Moscow and breaking the Soviet Union?
The reverse is also the subject of fevered inquiry: What if there had been no Hitler?
Let's leave aside the very relevant point that Hitler, for all the evil he unleashed, didn't have a monopoly on the noxious ideology he represented. Anti-Semitism, theories of racial hierarchies and eugenics, fascist politics and German grievances in the wake of World War I all would have existed without him and could have been harnessed by some other set of actors for a rather similar outcome.
But if the GOP hopefuls are considering it, WorldViews may as well, too.
If the Holocaust never happened . . .
Suppose that a world without Hitler would mean a world where the Final Solution was never enacted, and that the 11 million people systematically slaughtered by the Nazis, including 6 million Jews, had lived.
Sergio Della Pergola, an Italian-born Israeli demographer, estimated in 2009 that before World War II, there were eight Jews for every 1,000 people in the world, whereas now that figure is roughly 2 for every 1,000. According to his calculations, there could be as many as 32 million Jews globally right now, rather than the current population of 14 million.
It raises another key question: Would the nation of Israel, born in the traumatic wake of World War II, have existed?
As WorldViews discussed before, it took the horrors of the Holocaust for many in the West to feel much sympathy for the Zionist cause and the world's Jewish population, a people long subject to European and American bigotry.
In a book published this April, Jeffrey Gurock, a scholar at Yeshiva University, explored a counterfactual version of events in which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain doesn't appease the Führer, the Nazi war effort stumbles in Czechoslovakia and Hitler ends up getting assassinated. Europe's Jewish communities, meanwhile, remain largely intact. A Jewish state in Israel emerges, but it's a nation that doesn't have such close ties to the United States.
Without the Holocaust, the population of Jewish refugees would have been far smaller, Shalom Wald, an Israeli scholar, suggested to the Times of Israel earlier this year. There would have been less impetus for the creation of Israel as a Jewish state.
"There would be no state of Israel, only a strong Jewish community in the land of Israel," Wald told the newspaper. "I’m a Zionist, so it is not easy for me to say that."
New battlefronts, new enemies
The video above is an introduction to a popular computer game that WorldViews played when it was a pre-pubescent nerd. It depicts Albert Einstein hopping, yes, into a time machine in 1946, finding a peevish Hitler in 1924, and disappearing the would-be genocidal dictator.
"Hitler is out of the way," Einstein tells an assistant upon returning to his present.
But what of the consequences? "Time will tell," Einstein mutters. "Sooner or later, time will tell."
Without the specter of the Third Reich, the plot goes, the world is faced with an altogether more menacing Soviet Union, which under Stalin soon embarks upon its own campaign of global domination, overrunning Europe and forcing the United States and its remaining allies into a desperate guerrilla war for survival.
As outlandish as this all is, it's in keeping with a common thread: Some of the most active minds dreaming up speculative history can be found on online forums for real-time strategy video games, where alternative outcomes for World War II provide rich fodder for prospective gamers.
One discussion thread explores a history where the Weimar Republic endures, Hitler gets shot and killed in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, and "a free, democratic and prosperous Germany" finds itself at war on the side of Britain in a continent with a very different configuration of alliances and rivalries.
There is plenty of other conjecture, as Vox's Dylan Matthews points out. British comedian Stephen Fry, in his novel "Making History," conjures up a scenario in which the Third Reich emerges under the stewardship of a leader more capable and less eccentric than Hitler, with devastating consequences. The Jews get mostly exterminated, Europe falls, and a Nazi empire with nuclear weapons stares across the Atlantic Ocean at the United States in a much different Cold War.
And what if there had never been World War II? Would we see the sort of decolonization that swept parts of Africa and Asia in the wake of the war? Would the liberal values and international norms enshrined in postwar institutions such as the United Nations be as prevalent or as widely held around the world?
Of course, there's no way of knowing. But it's all worth bearing in mind when you imagine cutting short the life of that mewling Baby Hitler.
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