Any discussion of World War II (WWII) begins and (unfortunately) ends with one name: Adolf Hitler. The whole point of WWII was to stop the advancing dictator, and it would’ve ended a lot quicker if a more reasonable tyrant were in charge of Germany’s side of it. Without Adolf Hitler, so goes the story line, there is no second World War, hundreds of thousands do not die in battle, or as a result of battle, and there is no Holocaust. The latter may be truer than either of the former speculations, as the Holocaust appears to be a direct result of Hitler’s insecurities and anti-Semitism. The question that people of my generation have often asked is:
If you could go back in time, would you kill Adolf Hitler?”
Everyone says, “Of course! Think of all the many hundreds of thousands –check that— millions of lives that could’ve been saved, if this one man had been killed.” Just about everyone I know lists killing Hitler as the primary objective involved in building a time machine in the first place.
The first question that has to be asked of this theoretical assassination attempt is what date would you put into your time machine’s database? If you landed on the small farm outside of Linz, Austria to find a young, carefree Adolf, what good would killing that young boy have done? Many have theorized that post-WWI Germany was in such dire straits that it was vulnerable to an Adolf Hitler type that could make them feel proud to be German again amid the devastation that the first World War laid upon their country. It is possible that Hitler’s gifts of persuasion, and overall charisma, were such that he managed to get some people to do some things that may not have done if they weren’t so overwhelmed by his charm, but it’s also possible that someone, or some equally heinous movement, would’ve done the same.
After WWI, Allied leaders ignored the status of the country, believing that a devastated Germany would not have the ability, or the will to fight again. They also considered the country’s devastation a just punishment, and an exclamation mark on their victory. Hitler’s rise to power, amid this devastation, set a precedent for the world to follow regarding war-torn countries. As a result, countries like the United States and Britain, now provide aid, financial and otherwise, to war-torn countries to try to prevent another situation from which a Hitler-like leader would be eagerly accepted by that country’s people.
If the time machine maker were to wait until Hitler took over, to thus deprive the Third Reich of its megalomaniac leader, and hopefully cripple it, it could be said that Hitler may have become a martyr that rallied Germans to unify to greater evil. The point to this is that not only did Hitler shape world history in all the evil ways that have been well documented, but the reaction to the aftermath of all that Hitler did set a number of precedents for how the world was going to act if they hoped to prevent another Hitler.
The Foolish Neville Chamberlain
One of the greatest scapegoats of WWII was Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain is historically perceived as naïve for believing that he could trust Hitler’s proclamation, in the Munich Agreement, that if Chamberlain were “to give” the German speaking portions of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, Hitler would go no further. Most historians will concede that there was some naïvete on Chamberlain’s part, in that, as Michael McCarthy writes in The Independent:
“He should have seen then that appeasement would not stop such a power-mad dictator,” that a “A resolute show of force (with the French) might have persuaded Hitler to pull back,” and that “(Chamberlain’s) appeasement actions convinced Hitler of Britain’s weakness and encouraged him to make further demands.”
The historical record also states, however, that Chamberlain was hamstrung by the fact that Britain’s forces were ill-prepared for war in 1938, and that it was far better prepared in 1939. Britain’s government also feared a widespread bombing campaign by the Germans. All of the intel that Chamberlain had at his disposal, according to these sources, said that an attempt at appeasement was the proper course to follow to at the very least slow Hitler’s exploits until Britain was fully ready for the battle. The intel also stated that after WWI, the British citizens were so against any further war that a “Peace in our time” type of proclamation, would go over big in Britain.
Nick Bauman, from Slate, also writes that listed in all of the intel gathered before the Munich Agreement:
“Chamberlain was informed that many of Britain’s WWI allies could not be counted on to join a fight against Germany. Due to the post-war constitutions, and laws, of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S., Britain believed that her ill-equipped forces would be going it alone against Germany’s superior, and better prepared, forces. The Soviet Union was, at that point, something of an enemy of Britain’s, and Chamberlain didn’t think he could count on France holding Germanic forces back for a long period of time.”
One of the many reasons Chamberlain is still regarded as a scapegoat for all that would eventually go down in WWII was the manner in which he characterized his actions in Munich Agreement. Some Czechoslovakians felt that Chamberlain had sacrificed them to appease Hitler. As evidence of this, they pointed to Chamberlain’s statement that Czechoslovakia was “A faraway country of which we know nothing”. His words may not have been politic, but they reflected the worldwide sentiment at the time, as British historian and Chamberlain biographer, David Dutton details:
“People regarded Czechoslovakia as an artificial creation. The perception by the ’30s was there was a problem, it was soluble by negotiation, and we ought to try. (Czechoslovakia) was not the sort of thing that would unite the country (as) an issue to go to war over.”
Ouch! A great deal of scorn was directed at Chamberlain, and the remaining Allies that backed this sentiment, but it was apparently the sentiment that Chamberlain brought to the Munich Agreement.
It’s also important to note that not only did Chamberlain receive literal applause in Britain for his actions, but he received proverbial applause from Britain’s allies. War had been averted to most minds, and the diplomatic maneuver by Chamberlain was well received by all but Chamberlain’s fiercest, and most vocal, critic: Winston Churchill.
At this point in history, however, Churchill was largely disregarded based on a history of making poor judgments when it came to military affairs. The historical record is on Churchill’s side, of course, but with the war that tore Europe apart (WWI) only twenty years removed, citizens of Britain, and the world, were eager to dismiss Churchill’s warnings and embrace Chamberlain’s “Peace in our time” proclamation … Even if they suspected that it was a only band aid.
In the subsequent months, of course, and in most popular discourse over this issue, Chamberlain became the “naïve” scapegoat, but “Over time,” Dutton writes, “The weight of the historiography began to shift to a much more sympathetic appreciation” of what Chamberlain had to do at the time.
On his deathbed, Chamberlain remained steadfast that his actions in Munich, in 1938, delayed war, and subsequently allowed for Britain to prepare, and eventually defeat Germany. He further stated that he believed that with the “True inside story” of these years in the hands of historians, that he would receive a favorable verdict.
Churchill, though sympathetic in general to Chamberlain’s goals, characterized Chamberlain as “Well-meaning but weak.” Churchill also stated that he believed that a pre-war grand coalition of European States may have been able to have Adolf Hitler removed. Churchill further countered Chamberlain’s position on Munich and 1938, and the subsequent interpretations provided above by Nick Bauman and Michael McCarthy, stating that “The year’s delay between Munich and war worsened Britain’s position.”
History, it has been said, is merely a story of events, cataloged for future students to learn “So that,” as philosopher George Santayana has said, “They are not doomed to repeat it.” Historians, blessed with the gift of hindsight, have largely called the Munich Agreement, a failure, and they have stated that Churchill was right with his opinions that many of Hitler’s actions, and thus WWII, could’ve been prevented. If Chamberlain had been as gifted with the art of persuasion as Hitler, he could’ve led a grand coalition to remove Hitler, such as the one Churchill prescribed. If Chamberlain had been as charismatic as Hitler, and he was able to persuade Britain’s allies that Hitler provided an urgency that would require them to circumvent their constitutions and laws, for the “one time” emergency of removing the unprecedented threat Hitler posed the world in 1938, all of this could’ve been averted.
There’s also the lesson to be learned from the fact that Chamberlain appeared to believe that the threat Hitler posed was exaggerated, and that he didn’t need to do all that Churchill prescribed, and that threat could be appeased, as current diplomats and current social leaders believe current irrational proponents of evil can be appeased, and are exaggerated. But perhaps the most vital aspect of the historical lesson WWII taught to us existed in the fact that Hitler was able to exploit the desire for “Peace in our time” to restore Germanic pride to the heinous levels he did. Killing Hitler, before he was able to accomplish this, probably wouldn’t have prevented this loophole from occurring in history, as someone, or some group, probably would’ve come along to provide history a lesson they would be doomed to repeat.
To paraphrase Voltaire, if Adolf Hitler had never existed, or someone built a time machine to remove him from the historical record, and the many lessons he taught the world, there would be a need to create him.