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The Hitler Paradox

Many people think of Adolf Hitler (or Joseph Stalin and Mao Tsetung) as the epitomes of evilness… but not as great leaders. I have always found this strange: the one doesn't preclude the other. I believe it should be clear that Hitler, Stalin and Mao were great leaders. They were clearly not morally good leaders (but when I said “great” I meant not “morally good”: if I had meant “morally good” I would have said that and not used the word “great”); they were brutal dictators and killers. Nevertheless, their leadership abilities were extraordinary.

But this is not what I call the Hitler Paradox, this was just an aside. The Hitler Paradox is encapsulated in the following Gedankenexperiment. (I am a great lover of Gedankenexperimente.) Imagine, if you will, that I have a small plastic box, with a red button on top, in my hand. This box can change the past: if I press that red button Hitler's mother will have had a miscarriage and will have lost her baby. No Adolf Hitler, no World War II, no Holocaust. Or, at the very least, not in the form we know them.

Should I press the button? Many people would say yes, without a moment's reflection. But think twice before you answer. We might save the world from a Hitler, but we have no idea whether what we get instead is a better or a worse world. History is full of unanticipated consequences. In fact, history is one long string of unanticipated consequences that change shape and meaning all the time: what seemed good and oh so clever yesterday (say, helping Saddam Hussein in his war against the evil Iranian Republic) may turn out to be a bad idea today. Then again, who knows what historians will have to say in a hundred years' time about George Bush and his Iraq war: what looks like a bloody mess today may (may!), in the long run, turn out to have been a good thing.

But that is still not the main thrust of the Hitler paradox. Let's assume, for the sake of it, that my thumb is still hovering above that red button. Let's further assume that we agree that stopping Hitler with the help of that box would be a good thing. So will I press the button?

No, I am afraid I wouldn't. This is just a Gedankenexperiment, so I can never be sure of what I would do if it were reality. But I think I wouldn't press the button.

Why? Simple. Before and during World War II my grandfather, his wife and their two lovely daughters (of whom one was my future mother) were living in what was then Czechoslovakia. They were what we would nowadays call “ethnic Germans” and when the Czechoslovakian government decided, after the war, that all “Sudetendeutsche” had to go, they had to leave their home village, their house — which was also their livelihood as my grandfather was an independent miller — and almost all their possessions behind. The family fled to Bavaria… and from there another long and complicated odyssey brought my mother to a small town near Frankfurt… where she met and married my father.

Without Hitler my grandfather and his small family would almost certainly not have left home and village. My mother would never have moved to Bavaria, she would never have come up to Hochheim… and I would not exist.

Now the fascinating thing is that I feel absolutely no guilt about not pressing the red button though rationally I should. And that's what I call the Hitler paradox.


$updated from: The Hitler Paradox.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:24 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$