If you could travel back in time with the ability to change one thing in history, what would that be? What if you could go back in time and kill one person? Who would you kill?
I think many, if not most people you asked the second question to would choose Adolf Hitler. Of course, if you posed this question to Americans this day and age, you’d probably get a lot of people answering Donald Trump, but I still think most would answer Adolf Hitler. If you posed the question to Chinese people, the majority would surely answer Mao Zedong, though those who study history may reluctantly choose Genghis Khan instead. If you asked Russians, they might answer Joseph Stalin. Italians might say Benito Mussolini, Cambodians, Pol Pot, Congolese, King Leopold II…the list of history’s corrupt and evil mass-murderers is lengthy.
Despite all of these choices and the various answers you would receive from people around the world, I still believe the answer you’re most likely to hear is Adolf Hitler. And why is this?
Everybody knows Hitler was responsible for starting World War II, perpetrating the holocaust, enslaving entire ethnicities, and numerous other atrocities culminating in well over 40 million deaths.
But few people actually give him credit for some of the good things he accomplished, either intentionally or as an inadvertent byproduct of his actions.
That last sentence is going to piss some people off. The thought that Adolf Hitler might have accomplished some good with his actions is pretty abhorrent when weighed against the evil he committed, there’s no doubt of that. If you don’t like the idea that Hitler accomplished many good things, then my next sentence is going to be even more repulsive to you.
Someday, history will almost certainly look upon Adolf Hitler as a great leader, and his actions as beneficial to both democracy and the human race.
Cambridge professor and member of Parliament, Lord John Dalberg-Acton, is well known for his oft-quoted line, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Less often do you hear people quote the next sentence in that letter he wrote though, and that sentence may be even more germane. “Great men are almost always bad men…”₂ What he meant by that is that leaders usually become great by doing what is necessary to accomplish their vision, however unsavory those acts may be. Historian and Hardcore History podcaster Dan Carlin sums it up in an interesting way with this question that I’ll paraphrase:
“Would you be willing, under certain conditions, to order the killing of an innocent woman or child? If not, you’re already out of the running to be on the list of great people, at least for the category of world leaders.”
World leaders who are historically considered great men, are almost without exception also very bad men who committed what most would consider to be evil acts.
Great men are almost always bad men.
– The Lord Acton
Alexander the Great is one of the most admired people of all time. There have been more than twenty world cities that have borne his name, most notably Alexandria, Egypt. He was undefeated on the battlefield in more than a decade of waging war. He’s credited with bringing Hellenism – the influence of Greek civilization and culture – to the Persian Empire and throughout much of western Asia, bringing in what eventually came to be known as the Hellenistic Age.
And yet, his sole intent was to wage war in order to enrich himself and his generals in Macedonia, and to expand his influence and his empire for his posterity. He killed an unknown number of people, certainly in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. He looted and burned, conquered and enslaved…and today we honor and keep his memory through cities and shrines.
But he’s nowhere even close to holding the title of the worst monarch in history. Another one that comes to mind is Julius Caesar.
Julius Caesar conquered Gaul, now called France, and killed millions of people – his actions have been called a genocide by some – all for his own personal gain, and that of the wealthy Roman elite. He’s often credited for bringing modern-day France into the enlightened era, bringing culture and literacy to the area by eliminating the Celts. Most modern-day French would agree that Caesars actions were good for them and that they’ve benefited greatly from all those deaths. Yet, that wasn’t his intent, it was simply an inadvertent byproduct of his actions.
Historians credit Caesar and praise him for the results of his brutal and merciless actions, when his intent was purely to enrich himself. One famous quote uttered during the time of Caesar’s conquests was: “The Romans create a wasteland, and then call that peace.”
Genghis Khan is another ruler and conqueror who is generally accepted by historians to be one of the greatest leaders and one of, if not the best, battlefield commanders of all time. His small army of mounted Mongol fighters laid waste to most of Asia and large swathes of eastern Europe for more than twenty years, conquering everybody they encountered, and mercilessly burning, looting, raping, pillaging, and murdering as they rode. Those he didn’t order murdered, he often ordered enslaved, remarking that where he trod nothing would ever grow again.
In his rise to power, Genghis Khan destroyed entire cities and even civilizations. There’s one known story about him ordering all the survivors of a town he besieged to walk in front of a wagon. Many of these were civilians and non-combatants. Anybody who was taller than the wagon wheel had their head cut off.
Yet, he’s revered throughout Asia. There’s a mausoleum and many temples in his honor. Shops, hotels, and restaurants are all named after him. Through DNA testing, it’s been determined that more people on Earth are direct descendants of his than of any other man in history, mostly due to his rampant raping of any surviving women during his deadly warring. Approximately 1 in every 500 Chinese people is his descendent. Hell, he’s even pictured on Mongolia’s money. He’s the George Washington of Mongolia!
I was at my cabin in Washington State last week and came upon a hive of yellow jackets living in a rotting log. My nephews had actually stumbled onto the hive and both had been stung numerous times, so I went into the woods to exterminate them. Finding the entrance to their lair, I looked into the eyes of two yellow jackets perched in the entrance like guards, and I fired a stream of poison spray directly into the nest. I then waited for it to dissipate and fired another stream, filling the nest with poison and killing probably hundreds of bees. That wasn’t quite enough though. A few hours later I came back and discovered several bees – ones that had probably been out foraging when my murderous rampage occurred – trying to tunnel their way back into the nest, likely looking to attempt a rescue of any survivors. With no compassion, I exterminated them as well, shooting more poison into the nest to wipe out any unlikely survivors.
I was able to commit this bee genocidal act without losing any sleep because I look upon yellow jackets the same way people like Genghis Khan or Adolf Hitler or Atilla the Hun looked upon some races of people – as subhuman. In fact, my actions mimicked one of the favorite plays of Genghis Khan. He would raid some town in his path and order the murder of every man, woman, and child in that town. After the Mongol army had searched the town for anybody left alive, they would ride off, only to return a few days later, thundering out of the hills on horseback and surprising anybody who had been able to hide from them the first time around, or anybody who had been lucky enough to be out of town that original day, maybe hunting, foraging, or traveling. They would then kill all of those survivors before finally setting fire to the town and wiping it from the face of the Earth. This is brutality without limit, absolute and merciless genocide.
Imagine if Harry Truman had been like Genghis Khan. Imagine if, three days after the first ever atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, while the survivors were stumbling around and rescue workers feverishly tried to save the hundreds of people trapped in the devastation, Truman had ordered the bombers to drop another atomic bomb in the same place. That’s what “great men” like Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, or Alexander the Great might have done. Murder without mercy, terror without compassion, and yet, had Truman done the same, he would have been considered a monster, at least to us in the present. We would be too close to those deaths, too modernized to accept the brutality, and too emotionally attached to see the potential benefits that may have arisen from such brutality. If history is any indicator though, at some point in the future that action alone might have made him a great leader, willing to make the tough choices and do what was necessary without an emotional attachment.
Now granted, he did drop another bomb eventually, just choosing to target a different city, which actually resulted in more loss of life than dropping a second bomb on Hiroshima would have done. However, in terms of emotional devastation and inflicting terror upon the enemy, I can’t help but feel a second bomb in the same location would have been a more effective tool at destroying the Japanese morale and ending the war sooner. After all, it was dicey that the bomb on Nagasaki was even going to end the war. The Japanese had vowed at the beginning to fight to the deaths of every last man, woman, and child if necessary. The Truman administration had a whole list of further targets where they were going to drop bombs, providing they could actually build any more immediately, since, unbeknownst to the Japanese, we only actually had two of them in our arsenal at the time. Luckily, they didn’t have to continue down that list.
The lesson here is that when you’re too close in time to the actions of evil men, it’s hard to look at them objectively, and even more difficult to ignore the pain and suffering those actions inflict in order to analyze any recognized benefits of the actions. It’s also tough to look at the unintentional dividends of their actions and reconcile those gains with the evil brutality that it took to accomplish the benefits we enjoy. Getting distance (timewise) on events allows you to be a dispassionate observer. You lose any feeling of compassion toward the suffering and loss of human life.
Men like Caesar, Genghis, and Alexander are considered great men, yet they were also very clearly evil men.
Joseph Stalin was certainly one of the evilest men to have ever lived. He had a famous quote: “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic.” And boy did he ever live up to that quote. He’s responsible for millions of deaths, generally considered to be somewhere between 20 million and 40 million in total. He took the communist ideas of Karl Marx and applied them with an iron fist, ruling over the U.S.S.R. without mercy. There’s little doubt that Russians suffered greatly, their culture set back in devastating fashion due to his barbarous policies and actions. Yet, without him, it’s also quite possible that Hitler and the Axis powers would have been victorious in World War II.
With that fact alone, could history consider him a great man? It seems unlikely just based on the fact that he didn’t really conquer anything, and for some reason that seems to be a prerequisite to making the list of greatness. Regardless, Stalin would certainly never be considered to be a great man this close to his actions in the historic timeline. There are living Gulag survivors, and living victims of his torture sessions. When you can look into the eyes of someone who was a victim of a merciless dictator, it’s nearly impossible to ignore their suffering and proclaim the perpetrator of that suffering to be a great leader.
Which is what makes it so difficult to even write the words I wrote earlier, that Adolf Hitler will someday be considered amongst the great leaders of all time.
I’m currently working on writing a book that explores the question of what you would do if you could travel back in time and actually kill Adolf Hitler. Even more importantly, what would a Jewish person, possibly one who lost family members in the Holocaust, do if they could travel back in time and kill him? It seems like an easy question doesn’t it? After all, there were many attempts on Hitler’s life, some of which are well-known and immortalized in books and movies, and others that occurred even before his rise to power, including one little-known attempt that nearly succeeded while he was incarcerated at Landsberg Prison in the 1920s.
What if one of those attempts had succeeded? Well, it probably would have been a disaster for civilization, particularly if you happen to enjoy the benefits of living in a democracy. More on this statement later.
What makes it so unpalatable to admit that history will probably remember Hitler as a great leader and a great man, is that I’ve studied the results of his actions in pretty great depth. I’ve read his book, Mein Kampf. I’ve visited three concentration camps in Poland, along with the Jewish ghetto memorial in Warsaw. I’ve been to the holocaust museum in Washington D.C. I’ve shed tears in front of this photo of children holding hands as they walked unknowingly to their executions at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
He caused great suffering and great pain, and you could legitimately attribute in the neighborhood of 40 million deaths, on the low side, to his actions. There’s little doubt that Hitler has the military prowess to be considered amongst the great leaders. It would be difficult to find a military historian who would be unimpressed with the success of the German Wehrmacht in nearly every battle they entered. Hitler used his military to devastating effect, taking advantage of the blitzkrieg strategy to first destroy and conquer Poland. He used that same strategy to then invade and conquer Denmark, followed by Norway, despite the two countries receiving help from both Britain and France. The blitzkrieg continued as the Wehrmacht next marched through Belgium and then the Netherlands as they prepared to skirt around the Maginot line to invade and conquer France.
Now, it should be noted that one of the big differences when it comes to future generations admiring Hitler as a conqueror and putting him in the same category as warriors like Genghis Khan or Atilla the Hun, is that Hitler clearly never led from the front. He directed from the rear, and much of his success must certainly be credited to the genius of his frontline military commanders and generals. Of course, conquerors like Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and to some extent, Alexander the Great also relied on their generals and commanders more than on their own fighting prowess, yet history still credits them with the successes of their underlings.
The other big difference is that Hitler failed and died before he could consolidate his holdings, and without achieving success or his end goal. These differences will certainly put an asterisk beside his name on the list of great leaders, but I don’t think it will keep him off it.
Where Hitler didn’t invade and conquer, he made alliances. The photo below of Germany’s success in conquering, controlling, occupying, or allying with nearly all of Europe, along with parts of Asia and Africa is pretty conclusive evidence of Hitler’s status as a great conqueror. The Third Reich’s success at the height of the war was clearly on par with the empire building glorified in the memories of conquerors like Caesar, Genghis, Attila, or Alexander.
Although Hitler was a formidable conqueror, he made one very big mistake, and that was his decision to violate his non-aggression agreement with Stalin and open up a second front to the war by invading Russia. In absence of that decision, it is quite possible, maybe even very likely, that he would have won the war and eventually defeated Great Britain. It’s also likely that America, also caught in a two-front war, would have found it necessary to focus on the Pacific war and abandon the European war had Great Britain fallen, which would have allowed Hitler to consolidate and shore up his power and holdings.
If we can accept that in the future, Hitler will be looked upon by historians as a great military leader and conqueror, just based on the countries he conquered, then we only have to wonder if history will be able to overlook the horrible atrocities he perpetrated. By looking at how history manages to overlook the atrocities from other conquerors it deems great men, it’s quite apparent that eventually, at some point in the future, history won’t care one iota about the deaths or the suffering. As Dan Carlin states in his Hardcore History podcasts, “Nobody weeps for people who died 500 years ago.”
If we as a civilization are able to overlook genocidal atrocities, torture, and rape in pursuit of what we determine as valuable to our species, regardless of the intent of the perpetrator, then there remains little doubt that Hitler will someday fall into the same category of greatness as Caesar, Atilla, Genghis, and so many others. Apparently when it comes to what we’re willing to accept, the ends definitely justify the means. So, let’s take a look at some of the things that were accomplished either as a direct result, or as an unintended consequence of Hitler’s rise to power.
Formation of the State of Israel.
At the end of World War II, hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors and refugees looking for a place to live that was distanced from their awful memories of their destroyed homelands, descended upon what was then known as Palestine, a land that was under British rule.
Jews had been searching for an ancestral homeland since the Jewish diaspora, the scattering of them from their ancestral homeland, and their settling throughout Europe. In 1881, when the Ottoman Empire ruled Palestine, the first wave of Jews attempted to settle there, fleeing from organized violence against them – known as “pogroms” – in Eastern Europe.
There would be four additional waves of settlement, the last and largest occurring after the fall of Hitler, swelling the population of Jews in Palestine to its largest level, 33% of the total. This caused intense conflict between the Jews and the British Empire, and the Jews and the Arabs, over Jewish immigration limits. Some fighting occurred, the British administrative headquarters was attacked resulting in almost 100 deaths, and Britain finally announce they would be withdrawing from Palestine, basically deciding to let the Jews and the Arabs fight it out without them.
After the British withdrawal, the newly formed United Nations voted to create two new states out of the former British territory, one for the Jews and one for the Arabs, with Jerusalem being a neutral city for all. Jews accepted the plan, Arabs rejected it, more fighting broke out, and the Jews won, causing Arabs to flee and the Jews to seize control of the land with most of the borders poorly defined and in dispute. David Ben-Gurion announced the official formation of the Jewish homeland and gave it the official name of the State of Israel. The following day, Arabs attacked, beginning the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and they have effectively been at odds with sporadic fighting since then.
Adolf Hitler was a big proponent of the formation of a home for the Jews, although he preferred they settle much further away, completely out of Europe. Madagascar was actually one of his preferred choices. At some point during his reign, he changed his mind about creating a home for them, and decided to exterminate them instead. This, more than anything is what caused the wave of Jews to flood to Palestine at the end of the Holocaust, which created the pressure cooker effect in that region, which caused the British withdrawal, which caused the UN to step in, which resulted in the formation of Israel.
If you look at the history, you can see that this result was clearly a direct consequence of Hitler’s actions. In fact, it’s difficult to see a different path toward the Jews ever getting their own homeland without the actions of Adolf Hitler. Although this is clearly an unintended consequence of his actions, it is also very clearly something good that came out of those actions.
I often wonder, were you to ask an Israeli citizen, particularly a Jewish Israeli, if they thought the formation of Israel alone made the atrocities of Hitler’s actions worth it, what they would answer? I suspect they would vehemently answer that it was not worth it, but I wonder what their actual thoughts on the matter would be? Clearly if they lost a loved one to Hitler’s barbarism, or if they themselves were a survivor, the answer would have to be no. But what if you were to ask someone young, a 20-year old say, who’s parents and maybe even grandparents were not even born during Hitler’s time? What if you were to ask someone 100 years from now, when they have no connection whatsoever to anybody who suffered or died under Hitler’s rule? I wonder how much time will have to pass before the answer becomes, yes, it was worth it?
History tells us that 500 years will do it for sure, but I suspect it may be much less than that.
Military and space technology advances and innovations.
Undoubtedly, one of the things history will remember Hitler for is his dedication to advancements in science and technology. Despite fighting a two-front war against most of the world, he placed scientific innovation at the top of his list of objectives and priorities. Now, granted, he wanted these advancements to give him a better chance at winning the war, but after he was defeated, the Allied powers were able to utilize many of Nazi Germany’s technological advancements to rocket our knowledge forward.
The Nazis did amazing work on many weapons of war, including inventing the first ever production helicopter, the first radio guided bomb, great strides in missile technology, and creating the largest ever liquid-fueled rocket, among other things.
Enjoy flying above the weather and at speeds faster than a car can drive? Thank Adolf Hitler, who oversaw the invention of the first jet-powered fighter, the Messerschmidtt ME-262. Before this little beauty, the skies were filled with propeller-driven aircraft, and it wasn’t until the U.S. managed to capture one that we were able to reverse-engineer the technology and use it to create aircraft like the F-86 Sabre and the B-47 Stratojet. It was German physicist Hans Joachim Pabst von Ohain who invented Pabst beer the first operational jet engine as well.
Wernher Von Braun is known as the father of rocket technology and he was yet another German who worked for Adolf Hitler during the war. Under the umbrella of the Nazi regime, he developed the V2, the first guided ballistic missile, a huge step toward the ICBMs of today, and a gigantic leap toward the ability for space exploration. After the war, Von Braun was brought to the US along with 1600 of his closest friends and Nazi war criminals – check out Operation Paperclip for more on this – where they propelled us into the space age. None of this would have been possible without Adolf Hitler’s commitment to funding and driving rocket technology.₄
As with most technology, it would have come along eventually, but one of the wonders of war is that the tech field always ends up getting a huge boost forward, and those benefits eventually trickle down to civilian technological improvements. There’s zero chance we would have reached the moon in 1969 without Hitler’s commitment to, and funding of, Von Braun’s rocket research.
By the way, the Nazis also created methamphetamine. I was going to write a big thing about the benefits of stimulants, but I’m too tired.
An end to systemic anti-Semitism and pogroms against Jews.
I don’t want this one to read like I believe that anti-Semitism is dead, because I’m not an idiot. In fact, a recent statistical analysis shows that there may be as many as 150 million people across Europe who harbor serious anti-Semitic views.₃ This is a scary big number for this day and age.
That being said, before and during the time of Hitler, anti-Semitism was a much bigger problem. For starters, it was considered completely acceptable, and possibly even vogue, to be openly and vocally anti-Semitic. Pogroms – attacks on Jewish persons and destruction of their properties – were common, merciless, and often brutal. Leaders, scholars, and influential people of the day openly bandied about ideas of what to do about “The Jewish Question” or “The Jewish Problem.”
Hitler was not the first to consider Jews to be nomadic sub-humans…far from it, actually. In fact, in Mein Kampf, he talks about his struggle actually coming to terms with the rampant anti-Semitism that surrounded him. He was a young man living and working in Vienna at the time, and he spends a long time in the book writing about his first encounters with Jews, his studies of their cultures and beliefs, and the debates he often engaged in with them. Mein Kampf is a weighty, difficult-to-read tome, but below, I’ve cut and pasted some of the relevant parts of his chapter on his discovery of Jews and how he grew to loathe them.
Once, when passing through the inner City, I suddenly encountered a phenomenon in a long caftan and wearing black side-locks. My first thought was: Is this a Jew? They certainly did not have this appearance in Linz. I watched the man stealthily and cautiously; but the longer I gazed at the strange countenance and examined it feature by feature, the more the question shaped itself in my brain: Is this a German? As was always my habit with such experiences, I turned to books for help in removing my doubts. For the first time in my life I bought myself some anti-Semitic pamphlets for a few pence…
Naturally I could no longer doubt that here there was not a question of Germans who happened to be of a different religion but rather that there was question of an entirely different people. For as soon as I began to investigate the matter and observe the Jews, then Vienna appeared to me in a different light. Wherever I now went I saw Jews, and the more I saw of them the more strikingly and clearly they stood out as a different people from the other citizens…
This fictitious conflict between the Zionists and the Liberal Jews soon disgusted me; for it was false through and through and in direct contradiction to the moral dignity and immaculate character on which that race had always prided itself. Cleanliness, whether moral or of another kind, had its own peculiar meaning for these people. That they were water-shy was obvious on looking at them and, unfortunately, very often also when not looking at them at all. The odour of those people in caftans often used to make me feel ill…
Here was a pestilence, a moral pestilence, with which the public was being infected. It was worse than the Black Plague of long ago. And in what mighty doses this poison was manufactured and distributed. Naturally, the lower the moral and intellectual level of such an author of artistic products the more inexhaustible his fecundity. Sometimes it went so far that one of these fellows, acting like a sewage pump, would shoot his filth directly in the face of other members of the human race. In this connection we must remember there is no limit to the number of such people…
I had now no more hesitation about bringing the Jewish problem to light in all its details. No. Henceforth I was determined to do so. But as I learned to track down the Jew in all the different spheres of cultural and artistic life, and in the various manifestations of this life everywhere, I suddenly came upon him in a position where I had least expected to find him. I now realized that the Jews were the leaders of Social Democracy. In face of that revelation the scales fell from my eyes. My long inner struggle was at an end…
If your adversary felt forced to give in to your argument, on account of the observers present, and if you then thought that at last you had gained ground, a surprise was in store for you on the following day. The Jew would be utterly oblivious to what had happened the day before, and he would start once again by repeating his former absurdities, as if nothing had happened. Should you become indignant and remind him of yesterday’s defeat, he pretended astonishment and could not remember anything, except that on the previous day he had proved that his statements were correct. Sometimes I was dumbfounded. I do not know what amazed me the more–the abundance of their verbiage or the artful way in which they dressed up their falsehoods. I gradually came to hate them.₈
It’s quite obvious, if we’re to believe Hitler’s own words, that he was not a hater of Jews until well into adulthood. I think it would be an interesting take to explore how things might have been different had Hitler encountered a Jew in those days he respected, one who could have debated him on the level he desired, perhaps even just a single Jew he could have befriended. Could you imagine the different world we might live in had that occurred?
Nevertheless, although Hitler is responsible for the most devastating persecution of the Jewish people in history, the fact that they were being persecuted throughout Europe during the time before Hitler’s rise to power is clear. Again, this didn’t end after Hitler’s downfall, however, it was greatly diminished, and with the formation of the State of Israel, finally giving the Jews a homeland, we can assign credit to Hitler for making that happen. In fact, giving the Jews a home of their own was actually his goal, though the idea that they would be ensconced in what was at the time, British Palestine and that they would become a respected and world-leading country would have appalled him.
Formation of The European Union.
Adolf Hitler was an avowed nationalist, and it was his abject sense of nationalism that gave rise to the idea that German citizens were the pinnacle of the human race, valued above all others, and that everybody should desire to become a citizen of Germany. This idea, spread around Europe during Hitler’s time, was truly his goal, at least in the beginning…to achieve great things for all German citizens.
After Hitler’s defeat, Winston Churchill gave a speech to European member states, advocating for the formation of what he called, “The United States of Europe.” This idea gave rise to several coalitions and treaties throughout the 1950s and 1960s, all of which culminated in the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993 which officially formed the European Union.
Without Hitler’s devastation of the continent through his nationalist notions, it’s incredibly unlikely we would have seen the necessity for the joining together of all of these member states. Without the various treaties linking them together, it’s also quite possible we would have seen additional wars breaking out on the European continent in the intervening decades since 1945. There’s no doubt that despite the great many years it took for the EU to actually complete their union, the seed of the idea was planted as a direct result of Hitler’s actions.
5. The downfall of Benito Mussolini.
There’s just no way to be nice about this. Mussolini was a dick. There is zero chance that history will consider him to be a great man, or a great leader. He will forever be viewed by history as a dick. Despite his dickish behavior, Italians somehow let him rise to power as the leader of the National Fascist Party to become Prime Minister, a position he held – in theory—from 1922 until 1945. In reality, he only actually was Prime Minister, a title that implies some sort of constitutional governance, from 1922 until 1925, at which point he dropped all pretense of Italy being a democracy and installed himself as a sort of supreme dictator.
Mussolini consolidated his power by first using his secret police to remove all political opponents, then creating a one-party dictatorship to ensure that he and his buddies were the only ones in power.
You would think that Italians would have fought back against this kind of power grab, but once again we see the power of nationalism and persuasive speech in the rise of a determined ruler. By the time Italians began fighting back against Mussolini, it was too late…he was entrenched and ruled with an iron fist, ruthlessly ordering the death or imprisonment of all who opposed him. By 1925, he had dismantled virtually all constitutional and ordinary restraints on his power and had effectively turned Italy into a police state.
When war broke out in Europe, Mussolini held back on declaring allegiance to one side or the other until he determined that Hitler seemed likely to defeat France, at which point he made the classic dick move of siding with who he thought would be the eventual winner, joining the Axis powers and eventually declaring war on the United States. This didn’t work out too well.
Italy suffered great losses throughout the war, and when it became clear that Eisenhower’s armies were likely to cross the Mediterranean and attack the Italian mainland, Mussolini panicked, begging Hitler to make peace with the Soviets so he could free up Nazi troops to help defend Italy. Hitler, in a battle for the ages on the eastern front, refused.
As bombs began to fall on Rome, the Italian people had finally had enough. Dino Grandi, Mussolini’s minister of foreign affairs, minister of justice, and president of the puppet Italian parliament, openly revolted against him. Grandi eventually petitioned the king to remove Mussolini from office, a power the king held but could effectively only use with enough support from the powerful politicians who surrounded Mussolini…support he now had. Mussolini was removed from office in 1943, arrested, and imprisoned.
He was rescued by Nazi troops a few months later, and Hitler propped him up as the puppet head of government for the territory of Northern Italy, a position where he served only to pacify the Italian people that an Italian was still in charge as opposed to Hitler running the country, which fooled exactly nobody, but did serve to keep the Italian people subdued for a short period of time.
On April 25, 1945, with Allied troops invading Northern Italy, Mussolini attempted to flee to Switzerland. He was captured, and then executed the next day, along with his mistress and a dozen or so members of his government who were fleeing with him.
Were it not for Hitler and his war, there’s a good chance the Italian people would have suffered under Mussolini’s rule for many more years. Even if Mussolini himself had not held power for much longer, by eliminating all other political parties, the Fascist government would have been able to hold out for decades longer at least.
As Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Had World War II not interfered with Mussolini’s plans, what trouble might he have decided to thrust Italy into once he completed establishing himself as sole dictator? At what point would he have eventually done away with the King, recognizing his power as a threat? Would Italy be the beautiful tourist destination it is today if Mussolini and his fascist party had remained in power for decades longer? How much more suffering would the Italian people have endured without Hitler’s war outing Mussolini’s true nature and the dangers of fascism?
By the way, just as a side note, after his execution, his body was transported back to Milan where the population was able to spit on it and stone it with rocks. He was then strung upside down at a gas station, along with several of his followers, where more rocks were thrown at him for a few days. Whatever happened to the days of this being acceptable? Can we bring this back?
Now, we’re going to get into the realm of things we should actually be thankful to Hitler for today, especially if you’re an American reading this, but also if you’re a citizen of any democracy who enjoys freedom. This brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning of the blog, about who you would kill if you had the chance to go back in time. Unfortunately, without the actions of Adolf Hitler, the world would very likely look completely different today. And probably not in a good way.
The weakening of Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union, and communism in general.
Without the ruthlessness and brutality of Joseph Stalin, there’s little doubt that the Third Reich would have eventually ruled over Europe. If I tried to tell the entire story of the war on the eastern front, I’d need dozens of blogs of this length, but to sum it up, it was the pinnacle of suffering and barbarous, inhuman conditions. The losses suffered by the Soviet Union is staggering. More than 10 million soldiers and more than 15 million civilians died, most of the civilians starving to death. The Soviets lost 134,000 armored vehicles, more than 100,000 aircraft, and more than 70,000 villages and towns that were completely razed. More soldiers died fighting on the Eastern front than in all the rest of the battles of World War II around the globe combined.
At the beginning of the war, Hitler and Stalin had a non-aggression pact. It was actually completely likely that the Soviet Union would have eventually joined Hitler in the Axis powers. Inexplicably – and this action will certainly be a point of argument for opponents of my premise – Hitler decided to violate the pact, open up a second front to the war, and invade the Soviet Union. Hitler’s justification for the invasion was that he thought the Soviets were weak…as he stated to his generals, “The Soviet Union is a house of cards. We need only kick in the door and watch it come crumbling down.”
Take a second and imagine the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. If you know anything about those decades of struggle, you know that although the United States eventually won, at many points, the Soviet Union was close to getting the upper hand. Now picture how much different that might have looked had Stalin been able to maintain his frosty fortress in Asia without it being significantly weakened by his war with Hitler. Imagine if Hitler had kept his pact, the USSR had taken half of Poland and many of the Baltic states as per the agreement between Hitler and Stalin, and now imagine this altered history Soviet Union without the loss of all those soldiers, civilians (26 million combined!), aircraft, tanks, etc.
Not only would the Soviet Union have been stronger, it’s quite likely the United States would have been much weaker. They would have had to commit more forces to the European war, at least in the short term, which would have weakened efforts in the Pacific theater. It’s also entirely possible Stalin would have set his sights on further territorial expansion by means of Alaska.
This sort of revisionist history can, and does go deep into the rabbit hole as you start imagining all of the possibilities, but it’s quite clear that had Hitler never come to power, the Soviet Union would have been an entirely different beast, regardless of whether there was an actual war in Europe. With America committed to fighting the spread of communism, and facing a much, much stronger opponent, this world would look entirely different.
2. The strengthening and heralding of the United States as the predominant world power.
The United States, along with most of the world, had been mired in the Great Depression for much of the decade leading up to the start of World War II. In fact, it was Germany’s weakened and externally reliant state of affairs that at least partially allowed them to welcome the rise of the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler, with his promises to revitalize the German people and transform the country into a self-sufficient, economic power.
In the U.S., Roosevelt had enacted his New Deal, and it had at least partially revitalized the American economy, though it did not completely mitigate the disaster of the Great Depression. However, when the war began in Europe, the vast majority of the U.S. industrial machine turned to war production, selling supplies and materials to (mostly) the allied nations in Europe, particularly England and France.
Seeing the future potential for the U.S. involvement in the war, while at the same time getting years of reprieve from actually being involved, allowed the U.S. to be as prepared militarily and industrially as a non-aggressor participant could possibly be. The entire U.S. auto industry, for example, had switched from producing automobiles, to producing planes, tanks, armored vehicles, and other war machines, both for sale to the Allies, and as a stockpile for our own preparedness. War bonds were sold at very low interest rates, hawked by celebrities as a way for the average citizen to contribute to the war effort. The number of Americans required to pay federal taxes rose, from 4 million people in 1939, to 43 million by 1945, a staggering increase. Not only did the number of people required to pay taxes increase exponentially, the taxes themselves saw incredible increases as well. People making more than $1 million per year, for example, were taxed at 94%, a mind-boggling figure.₆,₇
Adding to the years of selling materials and preparing war machines, not a single bomb struck the U.S. mainland during the entire war. Every factory in the country was producing 24/7, the workforce was at a maximum, including a huge percentage of women for the first time, and money was flowing in from the Allies as their own factories fell to the Axis bombing and they needed to purchase what they could no longer produce.
Even after joining the war effort following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. was still able to produce a surplus of military supplies to sell to the Allies. Following the end of the war, as Europe began the long and expensive process of rebuilding, the United States became a literal supermarket, providing building materials, loans, and manpower in order to repair the devastation across the European continent.
Of all the countries involved in the war, the U.S. was in the best shape, both economically, and structurally, by a long shot. While other countries struggled to unbury themselves from the rubble and chaos, the U.S., barely scratched, was able to take great strides in distancing themselves as the most wealthy and powerful country in the world.
This wealth and power has carried forward all the way to today, allowing the U.S. to win the Cold War, win the space race, and build the most advanced and most powerful military in the world. Imagine if this had gone differently. We never would have been able to experience the epic film, Team America: World Police. Devastating.
3. The U.S. development of the first atomic bomb.
It’s a near certainty that the United States would have never been the first country to develop the atomic bomb were it not for Adolf Hitler. A startling proportion of the most famous names on the list of physicists involved in the Manhattan Project were from Germany, Hungary, or Poland.₅ Take a look at this list of nuclear (and other) physicists who fled the Nazi regime and emigrated to the United States:
Albert Einstein – Obvious genius. A real Einstein. Actually, the real Einstein. German by birth, he was visiting the U.S. in 1933 when Hitler came to power. A Jew, he wisely decided not to return to Germany, becoming an American citizen instead. He received the Nassau Point letter, also known as the 1939 Einstein-Szilard letter, which was written to President Eisenhower, informing him of the recent discovery of sustainable nuclear chain reactions in Uranium and the potential to harness that energy to create a bomb. The letter was written in German originally, then brought to Einstein at his home on Long Island, where it was translated to English, signed by Einstein, and then sent to the president. This letter, and Einstein’s signature in particular, convinced Eisenhower to order the formation of the group responsible for the Manhattan Project. It also opened his eyes to the fact that the Germans – minus their top nuclear physicist talent obviously – had already discovered chain reactions and were already hoarding Uranium and beginning work to harness it’s power and build a bomb.
John Von Neumann – Physicist and mathematician. The kind of math that looks like Greek when you see it. Oh, and he spoke Greek. He basically performed all the mathematical equations for the bomb.
Leo Szilard – Discovered nuclear chain reactions. Actually wrote the Nassau Point letter to President Roosevelt and brought it to Einstein for him to sign and forward.
Enrico Fermi – Nobel prize winner in physics. Built the world’s first nuclear reactor under the football field at the University of Chicago. Posited the famous Fermi Paradox question – during his lunch break, of course.
Edward Teller – Known as the father of the hydrogen bomb. Designed the thermonuclear weapons of today in collaboration with Stanislaw Ulam (a Polish mathematician who also fled the Nazis and emigrated to the U.S.)
Hans Bethe – Nobel prize winner in physics. Chief theorist at Los Alamos during the effort to build the bomb.
Eugene Wigner – Nobel prize winner in physics. Collaborated with Einstein and the others on the Nassau Point letter. Led the group responsible for the design of the nuclear reactors that produced weapons grade Plutonium.
Each of these incredible physicists were Jews, or, in one case, married to a Jew, and each of them fled the Nazi regime just prior to the start of World War II. Many of them lost close family members in the concentration camps of the Holocaust…family members who were either unable or unwilling to flee along with them.
It’s quite clear when looking at this list of all the top names from the creation of the first atomic bombs, and the first thermonuclear bombs, that had Hitler not come to power, along with his anti-Semitic views and pogroms against Jews, these scientists would not have fled for the safe haven of America, and would have instead done their work in Europe, the most likely beneficiary of the first ever atomic bomb being Germany. Ironic, considering the stringent disarmament treaties from their World War I loss that governed Germany prior to Hitler coming to power.
4. The greatly diminished future potential for a nuclear war
Without the rise of Adolf Hitler, Stalin would have been an absolute powerhouse in the east, one with territorial expansion ideas and weak neighbors to his west. It’s not difficult to imagine Stalin moving his incredible, incomparable military forces to the west, only to encounter a nuclear armed Germany or Hungary.
It’s also not difficult to imagine a shaky peace in Eastern Europe as more and more countries learned about and began development of nuclear weapons. Without the U.S. having dropped two of these early bombs on Japan, would there have ever been nuclear non-proliferation treaties and agreements? It was the recognition of the devastating power of these weapons that made the world take a step back and decide rules and laws were needed to govern them.
One of the theories behind Enrico Fermi’s paradox – if the math says that alien civilizations should be littering the galaxy, then where are they all – is that when a civilization discovers the power of the nuclear chain reaction, they usually use that power to destroy themselves, basically bombing themselves back to the stone age where everything starts over again. What if our planet was destined for that? What if the only thing that stopped us from that fate was the rise of Hitler right at the moment we also became just technologically advanced enough to discover nuclear fission? Think about the timing of those two events and think about how it took Hitler coming to power at just that moment for all the nuclear physicists to flee to America where they were able to collaborate on their findings and create the first bomb for the United States. Which we were then able to use to end the war against Japan, something that would otherwise have cost tens of thousands of American lives to accomplish.
These two events, the discovery of nuclear chain reactions, and Hitler’s rise to power, are two of the most pivotal and potentially destructive events to ever occur in the history of mankind. And they just happen to have occurred within a few years of each other. Had either one happened a decade earlier or later from the other, our world might not even exist today. For them to happen at the same time, on a timeline that stretches for millennia, is an incredible coincidence.
Much of this is undeniably speculative of course, particularly that last part about us dodging nuclear planetary annihilation thanks to Hitler. However, it’s quite obvious that we’d be looking at an entirely different world without his influence, and I think it’s equally apparent that the likelihood that world would be a much worse place is statistically quite high. We can’t know what potentially devastating changes would have occurred without the rise of Adolf Hitler, but it’s more difficult to imagine a world that’s much better than the one we currently enjoy than it is to imagine a world that’s much worse.
At no point in this paper did I expound on the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler and his regime. Those atrocities are well-known, well-documented, and generally acknowledged by history in everything you might read or study about the topic. The point of this paper is not to dwell on those horrible actions, but rather to look at what future historians might have to say about Hitler based on what current historians say about other world leaders who committed atrocities on similar levels to Adolf Hitler. Sadly, as I’ve mentioned a few times, history doesn’t seem to care.
When I started this blog with the question about who would you kill if you could go back in time, I was reminded of the lessons from both Stephen King in his novel, 11/22/63, where the protagonist goes back in time to stop the assassination of JFK, only to learn that his actions resulted in a massive nuclear war that thrust the world into a nuclear winter, and the lesson in the Ray Bradbury short story, A Sound of Thunder, where a time traveling Tyrannosaurus Rex hunter treading on a simple butterfly caused tremendous ripples of change when he returned to his own time.
Though fiction, both of these lessons are certainly applicable when considering the hypothetical question of who you would want to kill if you could go back in time. Adolf Hitler may be the easy and obvious choice, but would the world actually have been better off without him? Or will we someday glance back in time, removed from the emotion of being close to the horrendous tragedies he perpetrated, and consider him to have been a great leader and his actions to have had a net positive impact on our society?
1. Letter from Lord Acton to Bishop Creighton https://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/165acton.html
8. Various excerpts pulled from Mein Kampf. http://www.greatwar.nl/books/meinkampf/meinkampf.pdf