But SHOULD the car have run over the young Hitler?

The film students who made the above mock ad which shows a C-Class Mercedes-Benz deliberately running over Adolph Hitler as a boy — thereby satirically touting the car’s supposed ability to “detect dangers before they come up” — really got the folks at Daimler stirred up. They made the students go way overboard in labeling the video as “unauthorized,” and probably helped it go viral.

The ad supposedly asks this question:

  If you were a car, and you could travel back in time and kill Hitler when he was a boy, would you do it?

Well, if you were a Volkswagen, the answer would probably be no, since you’d be murdering your own father, and you’d probably cease to exist. A C-Class Mercedes-Benz, however, would suffer no such temporal paradox, and that’s the vehicle of young Adolf’s destruction in this well-made though extremely odd commercial parody, created as a thesis by some German film students…

That report said the students “wanted to explore the morality of technology by asking what would happen if machines had souls.” And indeed, that’s one of the odd things about the piece — the car seems to have traveled back in time and deliberately killed Hitler, not a human driver.

But set all the weirdness aside, and let’s answer the moral question raised: If a car, or a driver, or any entity, could go back in time and kill the boy Hitler, should he, she or it do so.

Just to get the conversation going, I’m going to say “no.” If you could change history by going back in time — a point sci-fi authorities might differ on — then is killing this boy the best way to prevent what subsequently happened? For this to be a moral act, you’d have to be sure that it would work. And it would do nothing to stop the First World War from happening. It would do nothing to correct the mismanagement of the peace. It wouldn’t prevent the Weimar Republic from failing. It wouldn’t prevent the street brawls between competing groups of extremist thugs, although maybe some group other than the Nazis would have come out on top. In short, it would not change the conditions that not only shaped Hitler, but which enabled him to rise to power. How do you know that someone else, something else, just as bad would not arise?

I’m afraid there’s no substitute for waiting until a guy turns out bad before going after him. Bret Stephens over at the WSJ says what we need to do now is kill Bashar Assad and everyone close to him — because of what he’s done in using chemical weapons. And weirdly, he’s sort of echoing this mock ad by saying we should also kill “everyone else in the Assad family with a claim on political power.” Might that include his 11-year-old son? I hope not, but I sort of gather that it would…

41 thoughts on “But SHOULD the car have run over the young Hitler?

  1. Silence

    You can’t punish people for crimes that they might commit in the future. We also don’t punish children for their parents’ or grandparents’ misdeeds. So no, the car should not have run over the boy who would one day be the Führer.

    Also, the encounter could create a time paradox, the result of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe! Granted that’s a worst case scenario. The destruction might in fact be very localized, limited to merely our own galaxy.

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    And causing “a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum and destroy the entire universe” would be BAD, right? Thanks, Egon, because I was sort of fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing…

    1. Silence

      Actually, that was from Emmett Brown, Ph.D. not Egon Spengler, Ph.D.

      Hello? Hello? Anybody home? Huh? Think, McFly! Think!

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Thanks for commenting, Silence!

    I don’t know where everybody is today… if you can’t get a lively conversation going about the ethics of time travel, well then I don’t know what…

      1. Mark Stewart

        I keep thinking that the City of Columbia extends from Lake Murray to the Kershaw County line…has it shrunk to just Shandon now? It often feels that way to me.

        I don’t think Five Points is the problem for Columbia; though it may be the point that pricks.

        1. Silence

          When you say “armed” and “urban” do you mean “gang-banger” and “black”?

          And yup, the perception is reality. I wouldn’t go down there after about 11 PM anymore, personally.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            No, I meant exactly what I said. We do not know if any of these young people are gang members. We do know some of those who have committed crimes are gang members, but just because a person isn’t in a “Greek” organization, doesn’t mean he’s a Blood!

            The Library programs hip hop music, which appeals to a different crowd from, say, Pawley’s Front Porch, or Pavlov’s.

        2. Silence

          This plan will go along until said underage Chi-O gets behind the wheel of her Range Rover after imbibing a bunch of mixed drinks at Pavlov’s and mows down Strom Thurmond’s daughter in a crosswalk on Harden Street. Then we’ll have an uproar from the community about the lack of DUI enforcement/underage drinking enforcement.
          The local NAACP and ACLU will sue us for violating some gang-banger’s civil right to be out partying in 5-points.

          These things run in cycles.

        3. Mark Stewart

          Epic community-wide fails, such as the homeless and gang issues confronting downtown and Five Points respectively, result in epic amounts of bad press.

          With Five Points, you just have a problem naturally flowing down Two Notch to the flood zone. It seems solvable through tried and true methods of policing. Solvable as in relocatable out of the bright lights of the area. However, the homeless issue is more intractable because the upstanding citizenry are doing it to themselves. That one is going to have to be sorted out not in public meetings, but in Church meeting halls.

          1. Silence

            The Soylent Corporation has generously offered to come in and solve Columbia’s homeless problem at no cost to the taxpayer.

  4. Bryan Caskey

    Gonna go ahead and disagree with you there, Brad. You’re correc that, WWI would still have gone forward and I’ll agree that the Treaty of Versailles would also be there. Germany would be in a tough spot in the 1920’s and 1930s. However, if there’s no Hitler, then it’s highly unlikely (if not impossible) for the idea to reunite all Germans living outside the “Reich” would have come to such fruition. Germany doesn’t annex Austria, and very likely doesn’t get the Sudetenland in the Munich Agreement. WWII might not even start. How many people died in WWII? Answer: A bunch.

    However, let’s assume that WWII still starts, with some other rise of nationalism in Germany. Would it still be as anti-semitic as the Nazis? Probably not, because you can’t really get more anti-semitic. So you’ve got a chance to avoid Auschwitz, Treblinka, and the entire Holocaust. How many people died in the Holocaust? Answer: A bunch.

    Also, Silence states that you can’t punish people for the crimes they might commit in the future. I agree, butl, that’s not what we’re doing here. We’re FROM the future, and we know exactly what WILL happen. Hitler is absolutely going to do all those things. So it’s not a “might”; it’s a “definitely” in this hypothetical.

    You’re going to give me a chance to avert WWII and the Holocaust? I’ll act on it. I could argue that NOT killing Hitler, when you know what the consequences will be, is a morally blameworthy act.

    1. Silence

      OK, Caskey – We know that in OUR future – the one that we came from, young Adolf turned out to be a really bad dude, and caused tens of millions of deaths. However, at any moment there exist infinite future possibilities, so who’s to say that the future we are stopping was our own history (future)? A butterfly flaps its wings and causes a hurricane half a world away, Schrödinger’s cat, and all that stuff.
      Maybe in the past you went back to, Hitler decides to skip the Putsch in Munich, meets a nice Jewish girl, settles down, gets married and works an entire career at BMW, and eventually making it up to middle management. I’m not saying that he does, but in the realm of infinite futures it is possible.

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Right, but unless we change something, everything stays the same. Maybe that means we don’t have to kill him. Killing him will definitely affect the future, but maybe we just need to encourage him to become a better artist, or to not be so involved in politics. Killing him is the most extreme thing, but it’s also the must sure way to change the future.

        1. Silence

          but perhaps in our own future, the one we currently know, you were supposed to have gone back in time and encouraged Hitler to be a better artist, or you were supposed to attempt to assasinate him? What if many of the assasination attempts on his life were in fact made by bungling time travellers – from the future?

          Perhaps in our own future, your going back in time to change Hitler was precisely what turned him against die Juden und die Andern and caused the deaths of millions?

          1. Brad Warthen

            You know what? That’s almost easier to believe than the truth — that the would-be assassins had the courage to make the attempt. I’ve always been in awe of that.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      Ah! BUT…

      Let’s say that there WAS a war — say, some nationalist ideology slightly different from Nazism channels German frustration and hurt national feelings into starting a war of retribution, or whatever. Without Hitler in charge, with his Untermenschen obsession, it seems unlikely that Germany would violate the non-aggression pact with Stalin (assuming, of course, that it DID sign such a pact). Take the Soviets off the table, and he wins the war in the West before the United States can even get into it. You could have the SS-GB scenario in which Germany invades England and wins in 1940.

      Hey, take the Soviets off the table, and even AFTER we got into it, would we have won? Hitler was betting, with the Battle of the Bulge, that he could fight us into a stalemate in the West, achieve an armistice, and turn and use all his resources on the Soviets. That wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. We all know from recent experience how hard it can be for a liberal democracy to stay in a fighting mood. Yeah, we were different then, but how different? If we’d been fighting against everything the Germans had, could we have stuck to a Germany First strategy? Imagine the political pressure to turn all we had against the ones who had attacked Pearl Harbor. That would be kind of (although not exactly) the Fatherland scenario, in which we have a Cold War between Germany and the U.S.

      In other words, with some other leader in charge, one without Hitler’s penchant for strategic mistake, maybe we lose the war. So… maybe there’s no Auschwitz, but maybe the Germans win. Which raises the question — would a German win have been a bad thing, even without a Hitler?

      1. O'Brien

        Now THAT’S an interesting question: What would 2013 Europe look like if Germany had won the war by not invading the Soviet Union? The turning point was actually earlier, though. If Hitler had won the Battle of Britain, the war was likely over. Focusing on London and cities was an emotional mistake, borne from a revenge of British bombing of German cities.

        Germany missed a chance to end the war in the summer of 1940 before the US gets in. Once the US gets in, it’s over. Now, don’t get me wrong: Invading the Soviet Union was a huge act of hubris from Hitler, but he also made other mistakes within the Russian campaign.

        Would a non-Hitler led Germanic homogeny be a good thing for the continent of Europe? No, probably not. But I doubt it would have lasted. But even though it’s something to think about, it still doesn’t change my answer. I’ll take out boy Hitler and take my chances with fate.

  5. Bryan Caskey

    To further support my point, I would refer you to the end of “Back to the Future”, which Silence earlier referred to:

    Marty McFly: [Doc has just been shot. Marty runs over to him] Doc! Doc!

    Marty McFly: [Marty turns Doc’s body over to reveal it is apparently bullet-ridden and lifeless. Marty begins to cry] No! No!

    Marty McFly: [Doc suddenly blinks and sits up] You’re alive.

    Marty McFly: [Doc unzips his radiation suit to reveal a bulletproof vest underneath] Bulletproof vest? How did you know? I never got a chance to tell you.

    Marty McFly: [Doc smiles and removes a weathered piece of paper from his pocket. Marty unfolds the paper to reveal it is the warning letter he had written in 1955, taped back together] What about all that talk about screwing up future events? The space-time continuum?

    Dr. Emmett Brown: Well, I figured, what the hell?

  6. Mark Stewart

    Which is why the efforts of those who attempted to assassinate Hitler during WWII should be more widely known. They believed he had demonstrated his evil to such a degree that the world was at risk, and they knew the probabilities inherent in the attempt for themselves.

    I’m personally kinda fuzzy about how the whole going back in time to change history without really altering it would work out for those in the future (present).

    That’s why we have the responsibility to influence our present. That is our true destiny; the future will judge our choices made today. The past is just that to us – historical and immutable.

    1. Bart

      “That’s why we have the responsibility to influence our present. That is our true destiny; the future will judge our choices made today. The past is just that to us – historical and immutable.”….Mark

      I agree with your comment wholeheartedly. To add just one more point to it in the context of the last three word, “historical and immutable”, as related to our present situation. History does repeat itself and the unfortunate circumstances of the human condition have doomed it to continually repeat history in spite of the lessons available if we stop for a moment and consider them, take them to heart, and actually try to implement them as a daily practice.

      An interview with MLK by Sander Vanocur on May 8, 1967 revealed “that the dream he had that day in some ways “turned into a nightmare.” It is worth the time to watch the interview. MLK understood what the long road meant and understood that taking the short, quick fix would end up setting the dream back, not moving it forward.

      So, if one could go back in time and stop something evil from happening, that day would be one for me to go back and stop the tragic shooting of MLK on that fateful day.

  7. Norm Ivey

    But what if there are time travelers, and the tragedy of Hitler and the Holocaust is the result of someone’s monkeying around with the time/space continuum? What if the original future/history was better than the one we know now, but bad enough that someone tried to correct it with unintended consequences? What if the only way for America to achieve what it did it the twentieth century was for us to defeat Hitler and Germany in war? Would we trade our prosperity and position in the world for avoiding Hitler and WWII?

    I think that if we ever make an attempt at time travel into the past, we’ll never know if it is successful because any change the traveler makes alters reality–even for the time traveler himself. His personal history would immediately be replaced with new reality, and he would just be confused about where and when he is, and probably unable to return to his original time and place because the history that led to the development of time travel itself would be altered. It seems to me the only way for it to ever work is to travel forward in time only, but that means not having the ability to alter the past. Dean Koontz wrote a book, Lightning that used the premise that time travel forward was the only possibility.

    I suppose you could travel forward, see the future’s past, return to the present and take actions to alter the future. But would anyone believe you? Such a project should be called the Cassandra Project.

    Best to let the past be, as terrible as it is, and learn.

    1. Dave Crockett

      Dammit, you guys are impinging on a story I’ve been trying to write for nearly 30 years now….

      In it, a mechanism of time travel is found to be a relatively simple thing. A quasi-government agency, the Department of Historical Information Coordination (yeah, DHIC) is charged with confirming the historical accuracy of key points in the past. The explicit presumption is that any ‘change’ of the past comes forward into a new reality. So, all observation has to be on the QT and great pains taken not to change anything.

      Then an aberrant DHIC staffer goes back in time to kill his father before he was born (the usual paradox) to end his own existence. He kills dear old dad, only to find when he returns to the present that he is still very much alive and is whisked away into permanent incarceration.

      Yup, as it turns out, there is some isolation between what we know as the ‘past’ and what we perceive as the ‘present’. DHIC has been aware of this since its early days but hidden it from general knowledge, for fear that while widespread meddling in the past might not have individually perceptible effects on the present (killing one’s father before one’s conception with impunity)…evidence suggests that there is a critical mass of meddling that can take place before the entire fabric of time begins to splinter.

      The DHIC investigator on the case finds this out, only to find out that the splintering has already taken place and that our ‘present’ is an aberration of our own time line but the powers that be don’t want it ‘fixed’ and he, too, is tossed in the hoosegow. Only his future doppelganger from an uncorrupted timeline holds the key to bringing us back into a timeline in which Hitler didn’t come to power, Kennedy wasn’t assassinated, the Challenger didn’t blow up and global warming doesn’t happen. Several of these events were, in fact, caused by DHIC interference.

      Working title has always been “A Time to Every Purpose” and the errant DHIC staffer is from Spartanburg.

      But, I haven’t pulled it all together… *sigh* Any ghostwriters out there?

        1. Silence

          Perhaps, Dave will travel to the past and write it. I for one am going to time travel to the mid 1990’s and write a seven novel series about a boy who grows up to be a wizard.

          I will then travel further back in time and write a book about a boy who is raised by an Egyptian king and wanders around the desert. Later characters will include a woman who gets pregnant without doin’ it, and her son, a boy who grows up to perform magic tricks including turning water into booze.

          I’m gonna be RICH!

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Don’t forget Arthurian legend.

            The thing is, you’d sort of be writing the same story over and over. The Messiah story. The story about the arrival of The One.

            Moses is the forerunner, the prototype. All subsequent such stories will be about the One who delivers his people from some sort of Egypt. The story of Jesus is the most profound (and for me, the most sacred).

            But Arthur and Harry Potter are both unlikely, ordinary, humble boys who are destined, unknown to themselves, to be The One. Same with Paul Atreides, and (less so — the boyhood part is missing) with Neo in The Matrix. And Frodo Baggins. And, in a satirical sort of way, Valentine Michael Smith.

            Then, farther afield, you have Luke in “Cool Hand Luke” and Terry in “On the Waterfront.” Although they have no special powers, beyond Luke’s charisma and indomitable spirit, and Terry’s willingness to bleed for the many.

            No one, in Western culture at least, has come up with a more compelling story line. So we keep hearing, and embracing, the same one…

          2. Silence

            I’m just thinking of maximizing my royalty earnings. I figure writing about Abraham and co. and A boy wizard would pretty much do it.

    2. Silence

      @ Norm – you could travel to the future, but unfortunately (or fortunately for the integrity of the space-time continuum) you could never return to the past. Time travel is a one-way ticket.

  8. Brad Warthen Post author

    The bottom line for me would be that, even if I could justify it in the abstract, when it came to it, I couldn’t harm the boy. All my doubts would assert themselves at the moment I was about to act. At least, I hope so.

    There probably is no cause that to me would be worth deliberately harming a child. I like to think that, had I been in Winston’s place, when O’Brien asked, “If, for example, it would somehow serve our interests to throw sulphuric acid in a child’s face — are you prepared to do that?,” I would have said “no.”

    It’s easier for a C-Class Mercedes-Benz to do it, because it has no conscience.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      That’s probably the toughest part. At the point you have to kill him, he’s still a boy. There is the potential (even if we assume it’s 100% going t happen) for evil, but it hasn’t manifested itself yet. The better solution is to see if you can change the boy’s outlook on the world. When you get down to it, taking a life is very hard, especially something premeditated like our hypothetical.

      it reminds me of Abraham’s test to kill his son (after they’ve been childless for years, and Isaac is the miracle baby) in Genesis 22 on faith alone. To me, that’s one of the hardest tests the Lord ever gives anyone in the entire Bible. Chokes me up every time I read it, and it amazes me at the faith Abraham had.

      Yeah, I’d probably shrink back from killing him. Now, nothing says I might not kidnap him and commit him to a Catholic monastery deep in the Spanish countryside.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I don’t know about Spain. He could still meet up with Franco.

        Tibet, maybe.

        Or just have his family emigrate to America. Then rig it so that everything he does is a success (your knowledge of the future would help in this; in particular, you can steer him away from ruin in the Depression), and he sees himself as the embodiment of the American Dream, and becomes a remarkably effective motivational speaker (“You, too, can do it!”), although with some really odd and disturbing gestures while speaking…

        When the war comes anyway, he goes to work for the government selling war bonds…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          His powerful penchant for self-delusion would, of course, help reinforce his belief that “he built that,” even though his success owes to your having steered him to the right investments at the right time.

          I don’t know how you get that influence over him, though. Haven’t worked that out yet…

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          And everything could go wrong, even in that scenario. He could become an even more virulent, and more successful, version of Father Coughlin, building a populist, nationalist, antisemitic political party with real clout at the polls…

    2. Karl Childers

      I don’t think anything bad ought to happen to children. I think the bad stuff should be saved up for the people whose grown up. That’s the way I see it.

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