If you had a time machine, would you go back in time and kill Hitler before he became the Fuhrer in Germany? Perhaps you could kill him while he was a homeless artist in Vienna, or arrange to have him shot during World War I. If murdering a person, even Hitler before he committed his atrocities seems wrong, perhaps you could arrange for his parents never to meet. Surely a world in which Adolf Hitler was never born would be a better one.
I would not go back in time to kill Hitler if I had a time machine. I don’t think that killing Hitler would make that much of a difference. Hitler was far from being the only radical, anti-Semitic nationalist living in Germany at the time, and it is likely that if Hitler had not been there someone worse might have seized power. Perhaps someone who actually listened to his generals and won the war.
Probably every country has any number of potential Hitlers living in it at any given time. Usually, these people are cranks who organize minuscule political parties and rant about their eccentric political views. In ordinary times, such people have no chance of obtaining any power. To stop Hitler, we would have to consider what conditions in Germany allowed someone like Hitler to seize power and if those conditions could be changed.
I don’t think that there is much question that World War I created Hitler. If the war had never occurred, Hitler would have remained an obscure artist, living hand to mouth. The economic and political turmoil that followed Germany’s defeat and allowed a demagogue like Hitler to flourish would never have happened. To stop Hitler, we must stop World War I.
But how? It would not be so simple as preventing Gavrillo Princep from assassinating Grand Duke Franz Ferdinand. That assassination was the spark that set off the powder keg that was pre-war Europe, but the powder keg was already there. If the assassination of Franz Ferdinand had not occurred, something else would have been the spark.
I think the root of the problem in pre-war Europe was Germany. This is not to say that the German Empire was solely, or even primarily responsible for the war, every one of the combatants bear at least some of the blame, but the ultimate cause of the tension and uncertainty that made a general war in Europe, if not inevitable, at least highly likely was Germany. To understand why Germany was a problem, we must briefly recall some German history
Unlike countries like England or France, Germany did not emerge from the middle ages as a unified nation-state. Instead, Germany remained a conglomeration of states of various sizes from free city-states to small feudal states to large kingdoms like Prussia and Austria. All these German states were part of the Holy Roman Empire, to be sure, and owed allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor, but the Emperor never had much power outside his personal territories and as time passed, the Holy Roman Emperors had less and less authority until the Holy Roman Empire became an empire in name only, with the various states gaining almost complete independence, until the farce was ended with the abdication of the last Emperor in 1806.
After the Napoleonic Wars, German patriots began to call for German unification, generally based on the liberal ideals of the French Revolution. This did not suit the rulers of the various German states, who preferred to retain their power and privileges, and the German liberals were not very successful. After the failure of the Revolutions of 1848, it became clear that Germany would not be united as a federation of liberal states, but through blood and iron. The autocratic and militaristic Kingdom of Prussia took up the cause of German unification and under the leadership of its able chancellor, Otto von Bismark, Prussia led an alliance of German states in successful wars against Denmark (1864), Austria (1866), and France (1870-1871).
After this series of victories, it was easy for those states not already affiliated with Prussia to join together in the new German Empire, and on January 18, 1871, Bismark proclaimed the foundation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors in the palace at Versailles, with his master King Wilhelm I of Prussia becoming Kaiser Wilhelm I.
This new central European power disrupted existing European balances of power and German military and economic might frightened the other powers. This might not have led to disaster if Germany had been led by wise leaders, who could calm the tensions of a rising Germany, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but leaders of Germany were not wise or disposed to calm the fears of its neighbors.
Wilhelm I had not been particularly enthusiastic about the project of German unification. He was a patriotic Prussian, proud of his kingdom’s conservative, autocratic traditions and he did not want to see Prussia absorbed into a liberal Germany. Bismark, himself a conservative autocrat, assured the King that the German Empire would be a greater Prussian Empire, and while he had to make some concessions to German liberals, such as a constitution providing for a legislature elected by universal male suffrage, permitting political parties, etc, Bismark made sure that all the real political power in the new empire stayed with the Kaiser and his chancellor.
Wilhelm I’s son, Frederick was far more liberal than his father. He was married to Queen Victoria’s oldest daughter, Victoria, and the husband and wife were agreed that the British system of constitutional monarchy was the best system of government. This did not please either Wilhelm or Bismark, and the two conspired to keep Frederick from any position of state that wielded any real power.
The old Kaisar couldn’t live forever, and when he died on March 9, 1888, it seemed that the German Empire would take a liberal turn under its new Kaisar Frederick III. There was just one problem. Frederick III was already dying of cancer of the larynx when he succeeded to the throne. Frederick was Kaisar for just ninety-nine days before he succumbed to his illness, clearing the way for his own son, Wilhelm to succeed him as Kaisar Wilhelm II.
Politically, Wilhelm II resembled his grandfather, Wilhelm I, rather than his more liberal father. Both Wilhelms prized the conservative Prussian values of autocracy and militarism and had no use for democracy in any form. In personality, however, Wilhelm was very different from his namesake. While Wilhelm I had already gained many years of experience in governing before becoming King of Prussia and later German Emperor, Wilhelm II was young and inexperienced when he ascended the throne. The older Wilhelm was a kindly gentleman who lived a spartan life and left the business of government to Bismarck. Wilhelm II was brash, boisterous, erratic, and impulsive. He tended to be impatient and changed his mind often. He quite likely had some form of attention deficit disorder. Unlike his grandfather, Wilhelm II insisted on ruling the German Empire himself, and it wasn’t long before Bismarck was obliged to resign as chancellor.
This was not a good idea. Wilhelm II’s aggressive manner and imprudent, saber-rattling public statements tended to frighten the other European powers, already alarmed by Germany’s growing economic and military power. Bismarck had been careful not to give the European powers cause to unite against Germany. Wilhelm II was not so careful and eventually, Germany found itself surrounded by enemies. Bismarck had tried to keep the peace in Europe after winning the Franco-Prussian War. Wilhelm II was more reckless. Kaiser Wilhelm’s impulsive nature and inexperience at statecraft led Germany, and Europe to disaster.
What if Frederick III had lived? He was only fifty-six when he succumbed to cancer. Had he survived he could easily have lived into his eighties. Both his father and son were long-lived. Frederick III could have been Kaiser into the 1920s, giving him plenty of time to turn the German Empire into a more liberal direction. If Kaiser Frederick III had died in 1920, he might have left Germany a constitutional monarchy with a strong emphasis on individual liberty. Germany might have shed its Prussian military culture and been a pillar of stability in the center of Europe. The expensive arms race that preceded the Great War need not have occurred and the War itself might have been avoided. Kaiser Wilhelm II would have ascended the throne as a mature and experienced leader in his sixties, hemmed in by constitutional safeguards and perhaps content to be an elder statesman. Adolf Hitler would be an unknown and forgotten painter. It would be a better world.
So there you have it. If you happen to possess a time machine, here is what you need to do to stop Hitler, without killing anyone. Just go back to Germany around 1887 with a cure for cancer, somehow convince Prince Frederick and his court that you are not crazy, and give the prince your cancer treatment. Easy.