Kill Baby Hitler, or Kill Baby Fascism?

Would you be in favor of killing baby Hitler?

This was the question posed recently to the celebrity podcaster Ben Shapiro at the March for Life on January 18, 2019 at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Shapiro is famous for his conservative, pro-capitalist, pro-American, pro-Israel, anti-abortion views. He took the question seriously and answered logically that the answer is no. He is staunchly anti-abortion, so his answer of course had to be “no.” It was strange that the question was framed as “would you kill baby Hitler” rather than “would you allow his mother to have an abortion.” Are they asking about forcing Hitler’s mother to undergo an abortion, or are they asking about raiding the family’s home and ripping the child from its mother’s arms? Shapiro at least answered sensibly enough that there would be no justification for “killing baby Hitler” because “Hitler” as we know him didn’t exist yet. He was just a baby.

There could be various ways of ensuring that the child didn’t grow up to be the sort of person who would organize a genocide and wage a war of conquest across Europe. However, it was peculiar that Shapiro suggested the best way to do this would be not to create a loving society that didn’t create such monsters, but to “take baby Hitler out of baby Hitler’s house and move baby Hitler into a better house where he would not grow up to be Hitler, right?” Ben Shapiro is an extreme social conservative, but here he is advocating state intervention in parental rights—not giving any assistance to the struggling parent but kidnapping the child from the parents based on some supposed foreknowledge or criteria that determine how the child would not grow up to be Hitler.

Serious treatment of this question (which erupted previously in the Twitterverse in 2015 after a New York Times poll about it) also presumes that one could draw a line somewhere and decide which future crimes warranted intervention in the lives of the infants who would grow up to become future criminals. Should we eliminate only the mass murderers? How many murders count as mass murder? Why only murderers? We could just try to eliminate all problematic people that will emerge in the future. And by the way, why don’t they ask about “baby Henry Kissinger” or “baby Lyndon Johnson”? I have no idea why Ben Shapiro or anyone wastes time taking these hypothetical questions seriously. Even Jeb Bush was aware of the idiocy of the “kill baby Hitler” question when he was asked for the funniest or most bizarre question he had been asked on the campaign trail in 2016.

Taking this question seriously is idiotic first because there is no time machine and no one could ever know which fetus is going to grow up to be a mass murderer, so it is a distraction to even think about the matter. It scores no points in the debate about abortion. Second, the question presumes that it is primarily individuals that set the course of history. In this case, the implication is that World War II and the Holocaust would not have happened if Hitler had not been born. This is an absurd way to approach the study of history.

WWII had its roots in WWI, which had its roots in rivalries between empires—Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, French, British, German, Russian and American. In addition to these rivalries, another factor was the tension between imperialism and the international socialist movement. Gasoline was literally and figuratively added to this volatile mix because these tensions arose during a time of rapid technological advances and the race to dominate the energy sources that new technologies depended on.

By the time Hitler rose to power, German resentment had been stoked for fifteen years by the way WWI had been settled with punishing terms imposed on Germany. In addition, the European civil war was brewing between communism and capitalism. The US government and US corporations were willing to support Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and European socialist movements. Germany was viewed as a problem only when it became clear it was a threat to British and American interests and when its genocidal policies became too clear and appalling to tolerate. At that point there was an alliance of convenience with the Soviet Union in order to defeat the German and Japanese challenges to US-Anglo imperial supremacy, but of course it couldn’t last after Germany and Japan were defeated.

From this very brief and general outline of the early 20th century, one might have good reason to say that Europe and the entire world was headed for the most violent and terrifying conflict in world history, regardless of which individuals rose to power. The conflicting interests of the imperial powers and the class struggle existed regardless of which “evil babies” grew up in this historical setting.

If Shapiro were serious about exploring alternative histories, he could have done better by looking back at the voices who saw the coming storm in the early years of the 20th century and described ways it could be avoided. Just weeks before the outbreak of WWI, French socialist parliamentarian Jean Jaurès denounced nationalism and called for solidarity among the working class of Europe as a way of avoiding the coming catastrophe, but he was assassinated by a French nationalist shortly afterward. We could ask if the course of history would have been different if Jaurès’ assassin had not been born, but obviously WWI would have happened anyway. The better question to ask is not about people but about aborted political transformations. What if a workers’ revolution had swept across Europe and killed fascism in its cradle?

It is revealing that some people now consider discussions about “killing baby Hitler” to be serious treatment of history and ethics. Unfortunately, Ben Shapiro seems uninterested in serious analysis and remains willfully ignorant and dismissive of socialism as a positive force in the world history—the primary force that paid the highest price and did most of the heavy lifting in “killing adult Hitler.”   

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