Everybody Kills Hitler On Their First Trip

In Science Fiction by Brian Koberlein5 Comments

In the discussion of hypothetical time travel, someone almost always brings up Hitler. After all, if you’ve got access to a nuclear DeLorean or blue police box, who better to eliminate from the annals of time? In internet conversations, Godwin’s law is the observation that in any online argument someone will eventually bring up Hitler to make a point. “Yeah? You know who else liked vanilla ice cream? Hitler!” So when the New York Times decided to poll readers on whether they would kill baby Hitler, they enacted the Godwin’s law of time travel. It was only a matter of time.

The idea of killing Hitler is such a common trope in science fiction that the phrase “Everyone kills Hitler on their first trip.” has become a meme. From a physics standpoint, the challenges of killing Hitler are almost as big as the challenge of time travel itself. As I wrote about in an earlier post, there are metaphysical problems with the physics of time travel, and those would affect whether you could or should kill Hitler to prevent WWII.

One of the problems is the grandfather paradox, where if you go back in time to kill your grandfather before he has children, you wouldn’t have been born and couldn’t have killed your grandfather. The same paradox occurs with killing Hitler. If you eliminate baby Führer and prevent the rise of the Nazis, then you create a world where WWII didn’t occur, and thus you have no reason to travel back in time. Thus, Hitler survives to adulthood and we’re back where we started. Acting as a time-traveling executioner simply creates a paradox.

If time travel is self-consistent, then you can’t change history. You could, however, travel back in time to cause Hitler’s rise to power. So that’s not a good idea.

What about the many-worlds idea, where traveling back in time creates a parallel universe? In that case eliminating Hitler would create a new timeline without Hitler, but the old timeline would also still exist. Your time tripping does nothing to eliminate the pain and suffering of the original timeline. It might also create a new timeline with even more pain and suffering. After all, if Hitler didn’t rise to power, who’s to say that someone worse wouldn’t replace him?

So overall it seems traveling through time to kill Hitler is inconsequential at best, and could be downright harmful. That whole period of history is probably best for novice time-travelers to avoid.

I hear 1985 is nice.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.


  1. Anytime someone asks me where I’d time travel to, I say to see dinosaurs. Forget about Hitler. My first trip would be dinosaurs.

    Hitler was eliminated from the lineage of surnames, though. Know any Hitlers? It’s kinda like his name got wiped out.

  2. In that spirit, how do we not know that a competent Nazi wasn’t killed off by a time traveller so that a failed painter with limited military experience and unlimited ego could replace him instead? We don’t.

    Since Hitler’s ideas on Living Space and the Final Solution were hardly original and the citizens of Germany were waiting for someone to hear exactly what Hitler was selling, all killing Hitler would have done is ensure that someone competent was running the Nazi regime- which is why Churchill and Eisenhower were dead set against it.

  3. We already know of several conservation laws and there may be more to be discovered (Dark Matter & Energy etc.), there just might just be a ‘time’ conservation law too (since we are speculating here) The post states that people would like to go back in time to kill Hitler thereby preventing WW11. But that isn’t even logical since WW11 might then begin by other agencies. Whatever atrocities were commanded by Hitler the one thing he did do was to unite the German people AND unite the world against him. It might those two principles that are important rather the than the person Hitler. Let’s not forget the progress in rocket science too which may have taken much longer to achieve if there hadn’t been a world war. The main point is that there is always a price to pay (just like on the quantum level- a system ‘borrows the energy but it has to be paid back.) Another way is that the macro level is dominated mostly by deterministic classical physics so perhaps the killing Hitler might be unnecessary-just preventing him from becoming a politician might be enough. Another point to remember is that Hitler made several important mistakes which another leader might not have done thereby winning important battles (Battle of Britain for one) and the WW11 result might have been very different.
    So in all speculation, travel back in time to look but don’t touch eh?

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