Why, despite what you may believe, the answer is invariably “no”
It’s a common parlor game (even for those who don’t have parlors): if you could be alive back in 1936, would you kill Hitler? If you’ve ever opened a history book you can play the same game with a bit of variety by asking if you’d have killed Lenin back in 1916 when he was still easily found most days sitting in a Viennese tea room. Would you have killed Mao back in 1938?
Between them, Hitler, Lenin, and Mao were directly responsible for the deaths of nearly 100,000,000 people. Yes, that’s right: one hundred million human beings. People just like you and me who were gassed, starved, beaten, tortured, raped, strangled, burned, and shot simply because men like Hitler, Lenin, and Mao lived.
So: would you kill Hitler?
Some people who’ve had charmingly comfortable lives in which the greatest personal trauma they’ve dealt with is a parking ticket, claim that by killing Hitler one would “descend to his level” and therefore such an action would be morally illegitimate.
Let’s examine this amusing notion for a moment.
Imagine we’re at home and we have a small daughter playing happily nearby. Suddenly the door bursts open and a man enters brandishing a knife. He begins disemboweling our daughter, who is screaming with terror and pain. We could stop the assailant but that would likely require us to cause him significant and perhaps fatal harm, which would mean we’d descend to his level and become just as bad as him. So naturally we sit back and explain to our little daughter as she bleeds out over the floor the high moral stance we’ve taken, knowing that she will appreciate our philosophical position even as her tiny body spasms in its final death throes and her eyes go blank forever.
We must all hope that we’re never in a situation where we need the assistance of someone who thinks this kind of attitude is “morally correct.”
Moving on from simple-minded platitudes about false equivalences, we come to the salient fact that most people are wholly unprepared to act when faced with physical challenge. These folk are the 85% who freeze, waiting to be told what to do or robotically going through familiar motions even as the situation disintegrates around them.
The hard reality is that most people will always be unable to act purposively unless they’ve been inducted into a military-style organization that laboriously trains them into different patterns of behavior and reinforces those patterns at every moment of the day. Lacking such training, the vast majority of people wouldn’t kill Hitler or any of the other dictators mentioned above because they lack the ability to act.
These are the people who stand watching as a gang kicks the life out of a helpless victim in the middle of a busy street. These are the people who use their smartphones to film violence instead of acting to stop it. These are the ordinary everyday people who comprise the great bulk of society. None of them would kill Hitler despite their possible illusory beliefs to the contrary.
Then there are the 5% or so who simply panic. These are the folks who scream and get in everyone’s way in an emergency. They can’t help themselves: they become overwhelmed and simply lose all conscious control. As anyone who’s ever trained to deal with life-and-death situations knows, these are the people who must be put down instantly before their panic and fear spreads to the 85% who are standing around and staring in empty-headed fashion. Then the 85% need to be gripped firmly and told what to do, and be made to do it, fast. These folk aren’t cut out to kill anyone.
Only about 5% of people are able to act purposefully in a life-and-death situation. So, right off the bat, we can say with fair confidence that 95% of people wouldn’t kill Hitler.
What about the remaining 5%, who could potentially act in a purposeful manner? It turns out most of these folk would also not kill Hitler. Firstly, hardly anybody is able to see the obvious right under their noses. While it is easy to look back after the history writers have turned the past into a simplified Morality Play, the reality is that during the time events are actually playing out, most people are completely oblivious to the obvious. “We couldn’t have known what he was going to do,” is what ordinary people say afterward when the bodies have been counted and the horrors exposed.
Yet they could have known, because the Great Leader told them in excruciating detail in books and pamphlets and speeches.
Then they sat and watched as the Great Leader did the things he said he was going to do. And still they told themselves this was Right and Good and Everything Will Work Out In The End and God Has A Plan.
Most people simply assume (a) everything will carry on much as before, or (b) things will extrapolate in a straight line. This means perhaps at most 0.01% of people have the ability to see where things are really headed, but nearly all of those folk will fall into the “can’t act purposefully in a dangerous situation” category. Meanwhile a great many people will simply tell themselves that what’s happening isn’t happening, or if it is, it’s not serious.
Secondly, most of the people who’ve either got the natural disposition and/or the training to act purposefully are very likely to be those who embrace dictatorship because they imagine it is “patriotic.” Uneducated and simple-minded people live by platitudes and fairytales because reality is too complex for their limited cognitive abilities. This is why the vast majority of British military below commissioned officer rank and most lower-rank police officers strongly supported Brexit and it is why a sizeable majority of non-officer US troops and ordinary police officers likewise adore Trump. It’s why the German police and armed forces embraced Hitler. Soldiers and police officers are people who like being told what to think and what to do.
No one is better at telling such people what to think and do than the Great Leader, who always dresses up tyranny in the guise of patriotic law-and-order.
This is why it’s absurdly easy for the cynical and power-hungry to take control and change the course of affairs beyond what most imagined possible. Most people today aren’t aware that in 1913 global war was widely believed to be impossible. Germany was the most civilized country in the world, with high rates of literacy and recognized as the philosophical center of Europe. Global trade tied nations together. War was understood to be economic and social suicide. Everyone was too civilized and sensible to go down that dark path.
And then on July 28th 1914 everyone stood by and watched what happened next. Just as they stood by on January 30th 1933 when Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.
No one sees the obvious or is prepared to act.
And so, no one ever kills Hitler.