“If you had a time machine would you kill Baby Hitler?”
At some point in their lives just about everybody gets confronted by this bizarre variation of the Trolley Problem. Those who pose this scenario want to suggest a moral choice between killing an innocent baby (bad) and allowing tens of millions to die (also bad – unless you’re a Nazi.) It contains, however, a fallacy that historical narratives frequently fall victim to; that history is a succession of decisions made by Important People rather than the sum of the actions of all people.
Hitler did not invent European antisemitism. He didn’t create the myth of the “civilian stab in the back.” He didn’t start the Nazi party. He didn’t even originally formulate the Nazi ideology. He was a fiery speaker in a moment that was hurtling towards fascism already. Take away Hitler and some other person would have the same opportunities to do the things Hitler did. The war, the genocide, the cultural theft were actions of people who either liked to do what they were being told to do or didn’t have the bravery or willingness to fight against it.
Now this is not to say that there is no value in examining the actions of people who found themselves in leadership positions, the great value in the study of history is in learning how to avoid the mistakes of the past, but to warn against the idea that movements rise and fall on the whims of single leaders rather than societal pressures.
I feel this is very important to rehash in the era of Trumpism. The Last Guy didn’t spring out of nowhere to create a fascist movement. He found a movement already in existence and brought it together. Could have been almost any other person and even if The Angry Orange should be discredited now there is still a large swath of the population of not only this country but the world at large that is ready for totalitarian nationalism and thinking that killing (or imprisoning or ignoring) one person fixes that is the dangerous precedent we must avoid.
This is daveshayne presenting you with this week’s history thread to you to hopefully post much more coherent thoughts than I have.