A Question of Morality

I floated the following hypothetical question on Twitter yesterday and was quite surprised at the response, so I thought I’d repeat it here and see what the reaction is.

Please make your choice before reading my opinion below the line.

My view is that killing Hitler in 1933 would have been morally indefensible. But, I can hear you saying, he went on to be responsible for millions of deaths! Surely taking his life would have prevented the loss of many more?

Well, my response is that we know that now but could one have been certain then the future would turn out the way it did? Can you justify killing someone you think might commit a murder, even though they haven’t done it yet?

Where the real moral failing lay in the years leading up to World War Two was in those who could have opposed Hitler by lawful means, but chose not to do so. And I’m not just talking about German citizens who failed to speak out against him, but the people and institutions abroad who sat on their hands or actively collaborated with the Nazis to the extent that they became normalized. Seeing fascist Marine Le Pen using the BBC as her mouthpiece yesterday (on Remembrance Sunday, of all days) it struck me again how dangerous the current time is. We must resist fascism wherever we see it, before it’s too late.

22 Responses to “A Question of Morality”

  1. Dark Matter (DM) Says:

    Killing someone doesn’t kills his/her ideology just as burning
    books don’t destroy the ideas they content.
    Fascist ideology in some form or
    other will always going to stay. Suppressing it only makes
    it mutate into another form. We all have some form of hatred
    to some or other members of the society. This is the root cause of
    fascist politics. System chooses individuals as leaders
    not otherwise.

    • Hitler was a rather good public speaker though I gather. Would his replacement have won as many seats in future elections?

      • I take back the comment. it appears in 1933 democracy was finished anyway so the concept of not being elected is not really relevant.

      • Dark Matter (DM) Says:

        In my view it is part of fascist ideology
        not to allow the opposition, even if they are
        fascists, to speak. Hitler is long gone but his ideology
        remains. There is not a single country where hate
        based politics is not flourishing. Good political
        orators can’t start a political movement in a vacuum.
        Hate base politics always take center stage during
        economic hardship. It has nothing to do with individual
        leader’s personal charisma.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        And of communist ideology, Dark Matter!

  2. Due to my bad eyesight, I first read 1939 before voting. The question then becomes, at what point does it become defensible?

    As noted above, things could almost literally backfire if assassinating a popular tyrant. On the other hand, if bringing down one person would save even more lives, sure. But it is seldom clear if this would be the case, especially when the person in question is not directly killing others.

    Of course, the movie Minority Report and the novel by Philip K. Dick on which it was based explore moral questions of this sort.

  3. The problem has never been Hitler.
    The problem was the society that held those ideas that Hitler made visible, otherwise no one would follow him (or another tyrant like Mussolini); so that the German society was ill, and the killing of Hitler would not change anything (there would be substitutes); later it was easier to manipulate the masses with the control of the information.
    It is not possible to destroy the ideas of a people (only with an extermination, but it is not a good idea), there was political error before Hitler, that changed the mind (in the wrong direction) of the German people; so that one must be cautious in governing a country in the best possible way.

    • This is usually the case. Occasionally, there might be a tyrant who stays in power even though most people hate him, even his own henchmen, but he runs a tight ship. In such a case, a political assassination might improve matters. But usually, it will backfire, and if the reasons for the tyrant’s success are to be found in a substantial proportion of the population, then an assassination will usually make matters worse.

      It is of course easy to imagine that one evil person is the cause of a much bigger problem, and hence that disposing of said person would help matters. The truth is usually not as simple. In the case of Germany in the 1930s, it is not just Hitler’s support in the population (particularly among young women; in some sense, he was a pop star) which makes the idea of him being responsible for everything absurd, but also things like the Treaty of Versailles. (No serious historian believes that anything similar to the rise of the Nazis would have happened if the Treaty of Versailles had been more fair. After World War II (even though Germany started this one, but didn’t start World War I), the Marshall Plan was a much better approach.)

      • Dark Matter (DM) Says:

        During financial crisis labour unrest intensify.
        To counter that
        big business houses fund hate based politics to undermine
        labour unity. Rest are details.
        This generic form of political dynamics has appeared
        in many countries in similar situations. Germany before world war II is only the most well known example. Politics like
        physics has certain rules — replacing individual players
        can’t change these rules.

  4. telescoper Says:

    By the way, Godwin’s Law is officially suspended for the purposes of this post.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    I agree with Peter and would have ticked Yes – the action would have been morally indefensible. I’d like to know what particular “people and institutions abroad who sat on their hands or actively collaborated with the Nazis to the extent that they became normalized” Peter has in mind for criticism, though.

    The scenario under consideration is the centrepiece of this entertaining novel, published in 1939:


    • Let’s see, there was a king of the United Kingdom, for one.

      Sweden was criticized for being neutral in the war yet allowing the Nazis access to resources. (The “what if” question is whether resistance would have made matters worse for Sweden while giving the Nazis even more access.)

      Did the Allies really know nothing about the concentration camps? If they did know something, why not disrupt the transports to them, rather than bomb civilians as part of “strategic bombing”?

      The USA entered the war only when they were attacked by the Japanese, not because they wanted to fight the Nazis.

      After the war, justice was milder than it could have been, because of the “we need you to fight Stalin” idea.

      And so on.

  6. Is it wrong to kill someone? If the answer is “it depends”, then the answer is no in this case. It would have been certainly more useful sooner than later… 🙂

  7. The problem is we have no choice but to elect monkeys as our leaders. We all are. Try to solve this one!

  8. energiesombre Says:

    It’s easy to judge in retrospect. But I think in early 1933, for anyone who cared to know, Hitler and the NSDAP did not hide their plans to overthrow the unstable democracy once they came to power. SA and SS tyrannized the population, and there was substantially more violence against the left than the right, with the help of police and justice. People were murdered by Nazi groups, and one can argue that Hitler was directly responsible.

    So there seem to be some arguments that killing Hitler in 1933 is killing a tyrant. More so by March 1933, when democracy had basically ended in Germany, and many people had been imprisoned murdered by the Nazis.

  9. Joseph Conlon Says:

    As a semi-serious reply, never was so much influence, over the whole future of Europe, provided to a single UK constituency than in Fulham in 1933.

    Had the ‘Peace Bye-election’ not seen a shock defeat for the National Government, would the UK have rearmed earlier and more rapidly? Would that have been enough to deter Hitler?

    Counterfactuals, counterfactuals. But morality is complicated.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      It is indeed! My favourite counterfactual is that Britain might, in the late 19th century, have sought an alliance with Bismarck’s newly united Germany against Russia: Germany vs Russia in Europe and Britain vs Russia in Asia (the “great game”). Bear in mind that World War 1 was intended to be Germany vs Russia, initially through proxies that each side was willing to back (Austria and Serbia). It only spread to the Western Front through alliances.

      Returning to the counterfactual, as part of such an alliance with Germany, Britain might have required it not to attack France – Germany already had the western border it wished after winning the Franco-Prussian war – while Britain could have neutralised any French threat to Germany, resulting from the Franco-Russian alliance, by threatening France. The British Navy would have been on Germany’s side and the Anglo-German naval race in the years before the war would not have taken place. No alliance between Britain and Germany was forged in the crucial decades, however. The result was World War 1 and its continuation two decades later, then the Iron Curtain for a generation.

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