You can’t kill Hitler

Oct 28, 2015 by

Print Friendly

Last week, while wandering through Exodus 15 debating whether or not the death of Pharaoh’s soldiers was justified, the teenagers (I would call them “my teenagers,” but they are uncomfortable with possessive pronouns, so these particular teenagers shall remain ambivalently “the” teenagers) stumbled into the age-old pacifist dilemma:

If given the opportunity to kill Hitler, would you, and would you still call yourself a pacifist?

Much to their frustration, at the time, I didn’t answer the question. The answer is, of course, no. The answer is always “no,” because this question is first of all a word-trap designed to catch pacifist inconsistencies. Its phrasing, almost always spoken by pro-war voices looking to poke holes in the pacifist stance, is based on flawed logic.

You can’t kill Hitler because you can’t kill Hitler. The whole premise of the question assumes (1) that there is such a thing as moral murder and (2) that it is possible for a human to, factoring all information, come to the utilitarian conclusion and carry out the ethical action that results in death. The question is, “Knowing what we know now, assuming you could apparate to a point in time in which all confluence of factors aligned to allow for the murder of a despot that is guaranteed to result in a net loss of fewer lives, would you align yourself to be the arbiter of death and justice?”

The Hitler question is a variation on a theme, but the logic of all these questions are flawed. The scenario is always, “Given all hindsight and knowledge, would you prevent unnecessary death?” Yes, from a utilitarian view, yes. There are two flaws in this logic. First, it assumes Hitlers are relatively common, and there is a reasonable chance of facing this dilemma in my life. Hitler is an anomaly among billions. No one bases ethics on anomalies. Or, let me rephrase: an ethics of anomalies is either paranoid or unjust or both. Second, it assumes I have the foreknowledge and certainty that my actions will prevent millions of death. The likeliest chance of killing Hitler was before his rise to power. The premise of the question is not only absurd because Hitler is dead, but because it assumes you enter the space-time continuum at just precisely the point where you can prevent millions of deaths and have the foreknowledge that you are doing so.

The nearest assassination attempt on record — July 20, 1944 — came so late in the war that it is a relatively small impact in the overall death toll. The utilitarian question is, “Isn’t it better to save more lives, even if that means killing a small number of others?” But that question begs a host of others: How many lives must be saved? Can you quantify such a hypothetical thing as “prevented death”? Were there not so many other points along history’s clock where a non-violent response — a German people’s movement; a better recovery plan from World War 1 — would have prevented Hitler’s coming to power? Why is violence the most reasonable time-traveling possibility?

That plot failed by the slightest flukes, the two or three minutes that prevented Colonel Stauffenberg from setting the second bomb as well as Colonel Brandt’s slight movement of the briefcase just before the bomb went off. As it was, the attempt killed four in leadership and, if the second bomb had gone off, would have killed 20 of the Third Reich’s top power. What happened — what actually happened — was a matter of chance; the original question assumes any element of chance can be accounted for. That is simply not the case.

The question, as an exercise in ethics, is invalid. As a thought experiment it perhaps has some use, but all ethics is practical, based on practical knowledge and reasonable likelihood of occurring. No one creates an ethical system based on ethical outliers; not in the just-war movement and not in the pacifist movement. When the question is premised on omnipotent information and improbable likelihood, it is ethically non-functional. (Which is why I at first refused to answer.)

There is a more complicated and interesting way to phrase the question:

If given the opportunity to kill Hitler, and you do it, could you justify it as a pacifist?

This question is far more interesting because it engages pacifism seriously, yet also preserves the utilitarian argument.

I remain a convicted pacifist. Given the absurd premise that, in 1939, I had the opportunity to murder a mass murderer without creating a chronological vortex that causes a similar result, yes, I would. However, the answer to this question is still no.

As a pacifist, given a scenario where murder is justifiable, my ethical stance is that it is never justifiable. My taking the power of God, the power of death over the life of another, is not justifiable. Even if — given a severe hypothetical that I never been anywhere near in my life to encountering — even if I commit the murder, I refuse to justify it.

This is the pacifist stance. To never justify the taking of life.

There is a parable of a wealthy gentleman who approached a woman and said, “Will you sleep with me for $100?”

“No,” she says. “I’m not a whore.”

“What if I paid you $1000? Or $100,000? Or a million dollars?”

“For a million dollars,” she replies, “I would sleep with you.”

“So we’ve established that you’re a whore,” the wealthy man responds. “Now we’re just negotiating a price.”

There is, of course, a feminist critique to be made of this conversation, but the point of it rings true. It is a utilitarian and cost-benefit mentality. To say murder, in any case, is justifiable — is to say all ethics is cost-benefit and there is no defensible universal claim. We’re just negotiating the price. A pacifist is one who refuses to put a moral price, a utilitarian price, on life. A pacifist may murder Hitler, but a pacifist will never admit that the murder was ethical. Prudent, perhaps. But not ethical.

This is why the pacifist voice matters. Because it will not negotiate on the price of life. It will not resolve the dilemma; the pacifist voice is and ought to be honest about wrongdoing. A pacifist does not justify death, ever, but instead realizes the extreme scenarios may result in death, but that death is not — was never — ours to justify.

Hillary Watson is a full-time Mennonite pastor in suburban Chicago. She blogs at, where this first appeared.

Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.