Adolf Hitler. Arguably the greatest antagonist of the 20th century. Would you kill him if you could?
In Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, the protagonist goes back in time to 1963 to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Reading such fiction makes you wonder what would be possible with time travel. Many of us would wish to make the world a better place. Stopping the biggest calamity of humankind, World War II, seems like an obvious place to start.
The solution? Kill Adolf Hitler. Grandfather paradox aside, not only would killing Hitler not prevent WWII, it also would not solve the real cause of the war – the Treaty of Versailles.
Fixing our historical lens
The Treaty of Versailles had many problems. The main problem? The blame game. The treaty put the onus of guilt on Germany for World War I. Due to Germany’s actions in WWII, and the now-accepted view of the Nazis as evil, it is tempting to view WWI Germany through the same lens, and the Entente as the good guys. This is far from the truth.
First, similar wars to WWI had been waged between European superpowers for centuries – the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), and many others. Often, states that were allied in one war were enemies in the next one – no one was the good guy No one was evil. In fact, the whole concept of good guys and bad guys in wars is a foolish way of thinking.
No one wins in wars. No medal will replace the millions of lives lost nor the economic catastrophe that war brings. Britain could have stopped Hitler in the late 1930s. France too . Neither did. Yet both countries came out of the war as the good guys. The sacrifices of the French, English, and other soldiers were surely heroic – the actions of their politicians are debatable.
Secondly, Germany was not solely responsible for WWI – many countries on the winning side were just as guilty. It was a Serbian government-backed group, the Black Hand, which organised the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The country then denied reasonable requests from Austria-Hungary to carry out an investigation into the assassination. Russia heavily backed Serbia during the process and had major interest in destabilising the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with France on its side. Germany and Britain had colonial interests which overlapped which further fuelled tensions.
Assassinations of key political figures had occurred in the past, but none had brought about such a war. As such, Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war was also debatable. Evidently, the political situation behind the war was multifaceted and it is difficult to point the blame at one single culprit. The fact that WWI was dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’ implied that such complicated political situations as those prior to 1914 could be avoided in the future by this single conflict.
The problems of Versailles
Blaming Germany created severe economic problems for the country as it was ordered to pay large reparations. The only way to pay them off was to print Deutschmarks en masse, which ended up creating the most infamous case of hyperinflation in history. The Deutschmark exchanged 7.95 vis-à-vis the US Dollar in January of 1919. By 1920 the number had risen to 49.80. In early 1923 one US Dollar bought 41,500 Deutschmarks – by the end of the year it bought 130,000,000,000.
Furthermore, Germany had other restrictions which hampered its economy. The treaty forced Germany to ship coal to several countries for years (a valuable asset at the time) and it increased tariffs and taxes to pay off its debt. Such an environment fostered no entrepreneurial spirit, and it set the foundation for the populist rise of Adolf Hitler who created a socialist state out Europe’s strongest pre-war economy as he promised to right the wrongs of Versailles. This atmosphere would feed populist sentiment in Germany, even if we killed Hitler.
A Different Treaty – A Different Path
It is now accepted that the Treaty of Versailles was a major cause of WWII. However, even a different peace treaty would not have guaranteed peace in Europe. The invasions of Nazi Germany would have been replaced with the invasions by Soviet Russia. Yet, a different peace treaty would have allowed the German and the Austrian empires to remain strong – a vital buffer against Russia. This would have greatly reduced both the length and size of this potential conflict, bringing a quicker end to Communism.
Woodrow Wilson should not have pushed the idea of reorganising Europe, nor the abdication of Wilhelm II. Wilson falsely attempted to paint the powers of Europe as tyrannical dictators that caused the war, whilst his real goal was to weaken them militarily. The monarchies that dominated Europe were only centralised in name – presiding over largely decentralized kingdoms.
Austria-Hungary was split into various parts, thereby allowing each of its numerous nations a fair amount of autonomy. The German Empire was built on decentralisation as it was comprised of several smaller states before its unification in 1871. As such, they were countries with similar ideals to that of America. German-Americans are also the largest American ethnic group.
Ideologies And Circumstances Cause Conflict
Even without the rise of Hitler, there would not be guaranteed peace in Europe due to the expansionary dreams of the Soviet Union of worldwide communism. The Communists were already embarking into Central Europe shortly after World War I – most notably in Germany in November 1918 and in the remnants of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, namely, Slovakia in 1919, Hungary from 1918-1920, and Poland from 1919-1921.
By keeping both the Austrian and German empires afloat, and establishing a much fairer peace treaty, Europe would have been able to defend itself from a future threat of such invasions. It also would have been able to put pressure on the Soviet Union as its economic failures were already visible in the 1920s.
It is questionable whether any of the aforementioned attempts would have even been tried in the first place. Austria had a long military history dating back centuries, whereas some of history’s greatest generals were products of Prussia. One may argue that Austria-Hungary was an unstable monarchy due to no core national identity, however, even such an empire is better than several single countries with separate national identities ruled by communist lords from a realpolitik standpoint.
Furthermore, although the Romanov family was executed, the White Movement was still strong at the time and some sort of restoration of the monarchy through long-distance relatives of the family or some similar solution would have been possible. Although Czarist Russia had its faults, it produced Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and was Western oriented in general. Therefore, even in this regard, avoiding the complete reorganisation of Europe would have helped bring peace to the people of Russia. Even during the revolution, the White Movement gained a lot of support, both militarily and in terms of aid, from the West and many had immigrated abroad following their defeat.
Killing the Man does not Kill the War
Going back in time to stop Hitler would probably not have saved the world from WWII – in fact, it would not be surprising if some other German or Austrian replaced him. The Nazi party was a movement, not a man. If could go back, re-word the Treaty of Versailles. Share the blame more equally. That would do humanity a bigger favor. The threat of the Soviet Union would still be present, however, its influence would be diminished. Stalin would not have found an ally in a populist Germany. Who knows? Maybe even the Whites would have succeeded in restoring Czarist Russia. The Treaty of Versailles is a large part of the problem. Punishment fuels populism.
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