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Could Hitler Have Been Prevented?

Updated on February 25, 2015

Could the Emergence of Hitler Have Been Prevented?

How Could the Emergence of Hitler Have Been Prevented? (Assumption: that he did not die young. See explanation further down the page.)

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Hitler's Mother

Hitler in High School

Hitler in the Army, World War I


Hitler Agitating as a Young Political Agitator


Richard Wagner


Wagner's Rienzi Overture

Hitler Practicing Speech Performances

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The Emergence of Hitler

A statement of the form "had x been the case, then it would have been false that Hitler ascended to power" is called a counterfactual conditional. Counterfactuals or contrary-to-fact conditionals pose fascinating challenges. These are conditional statements: if x had been true/false, then y would have been true/false (for any of the mathematically possible true/false combinations). People have difficulties with conditional statements in the first place; now, counterfactual conditionals are much trickier because their logic is not the classical one of beginners' textbooks and is not well understood.

The view that the calamities of World War II and the Holocaust can be traced singly to the influence of one person, Adolf Hitler, is suspect. Monocausal theories have been discredited in historical analysis. Reality is messier than it would have to be for monocausal (single-cause) theories to be admissible. In the case of Hitler himself, his party's poll numbers tended downward whenever the German economy improved only to rebound when the improvement trend was reversed.

Perhaps no one else has had so many texts written about him than Hitler. So-called "Hitlerology" is a field of studies. This fact is itself a sad commentary on our planet's parlous history. Mathematics has had many a genius on whom scarcely a whole book has been written. The interest in Hitler is understandable given the nature of his historical influence. A deeper concern with what is broadly known as the problem of evil is also at work in this case as Hitler is taken to exemplify moral evil and to have made possible the conditions for unleashing horrendous suffering and death affecting millions.

Hitler was born to a lower middle-class Austrian family, near the Austrian border with Germany, the son of a disciplinarian and dour father, a customs officer, and a mother who was much younger than, and a distant relative to, her husband. Hitler adored his mother and, in his late teens, was incapacitated with suicidal grief when she died. The ancestry of Hitler's father was in doubt and was suspected to have been Jewish as his mother became pregnant while working for a Jewish household. Hitler's mother had a patronymic, "Nepomuk," which was emblematically Czech. Hitler grew to fear and hate his father, who probably used force often while dealing with Hitler's "saintly" mother. Unruly and incurably a controversialist at school, Hitler was banished to a vocational high school. It was thought back then that vocational education was something of a punishment and to be meted out to those who have shown dull prospects of success. Oddly, the greatest philosophic mind of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was also packed off to the same vocational school a few years after Hitler's exile. It is to be noted, then, that Hitler did not receive the standard liberal arts-humanities education that was the standard regimen for both building character and for installing the skills needed for subsequent academic pursuits. In spite of this, Hitler maintained a life-long admiration of the classical era, especially the artistic achievements of the Greeks. At the same time, there is nothing in Hitler's teen years that suggests a religious interest. Soon enough, this gap would be filled by the operas of Richard Wagner.

After high school, an orphan after his mother died and long since his father had succumbed to a heart attack, Hitler found himself with a pittance of an inheritance, which he soon frittered away, and without no one in the world - with the single exception of a male friend who was capable of listening silently and patiently to what were already becoming standard Hitleresque tirades. A lost daydreamer, fantasizing about romantic affairs that had no chance of materializing, and without prospects of attaining his own dreams after he was rejected by post-graduate Arts School, Hitler may well have been depressed and even suicidal at this time. And then, he discovered the operas of Richard Wagner, Late Romantic composer, and, suddenly, Hitler's mood was lifted. It is likely that this affair began when Hitler attended a performance of Wagner's opera Rienzi, seldom performed today, at Linz where the teenager Hitler was residing. Like a later Wagner opera, Lohengrin, the tone of Rienzi is messianic-heroic: a noble character sacrifices himself for the good of either a maiden - who has, however, an allegoric significance anyway - or for his country (Rome in Rienzi's case.) Wagner's music, taking off where Romanticism had left but revolutionizing musical languages, had and continues to have a singularly powerful effect on natures of heightened sensitivity (or inclined to "hysteria" as older parlance has it.)

When World War I erupted, thrusting European powers into a futile and protracted conflict that decimated the best of European youth, Hitler joined the army enthusiastically. This was not a rare occurrence, hard as it is to believe. While on the front, Hitler cleverly studied maps before he volunteered for dangerous missions as a messenger. He received an honorary medal for his supposed bravery. The end of the war - a war that had erupted as an automatic and uncontrollable result of interlocking mobilization treaties among European powers - raised haunting questions: although it was never clear that any part was losing, Germany admitted defeat and, as a vanquished power, was saddled with punitive reparations that soon exacerbated the burgeoning economic depression and created a crisis of apocalyptic proportions. The rumor that Germany had been "stabbed in the back" and made to capitulate without having lost on the field took hold and it is one of the axiomatic beliefs Hitler held to for the rest of his life.

Hit by economic depression, daily galloping hyperinflation and massive unemployment, Germany was also prey to ceaseless political conflict that spilled over to the streets as political parties, both from the left and the right, nourished paramilitary branches that resorted to the use of extralegal violence. It was as if several small-scale civil wars were raging at any time. Cities like Munich could fall to, and be ruled by, one faction before another party took over and dealt with its opponents summarily and in deadly fashion. It was not unusual to be caught in the melee as a bystander, taken to be a Communist by the Nationalists or a Nationalist by the Communist, rounded up and carried over to a place of extra-judicial summary trial and execution. Moreover, the explosive unemployment had as result uncountable numbers of suicide - often committed by the method of inhaling gas through the pipe exhaust system with which ovens were equipped. This recurrent tragedy furnished the later Hitler with a rhetorical flourish and it appears time and again in his speeches.

Hitler was reduced to unemployment and homelessness. He took residence in homeless shelters, trying to go by on selling drawings he made. Told that he should study Architecture rather than Painting when he had applied and had been rejected by the university examining board, Hitler drew buildings with painstaking and even pedantic accuracy but he showed a disturbing inability to draw human beings (except when he attempted humorous sketches.) He decided to seek employment through the Army's Intelligence services, which were recruiting war veterans like Hitler. His assignment was to join a fledgling and insignificant party, the Nationalist Socialist Party, for the purpose of spying on them. Once a member, Hitler could not refrain from joining the debates with genuine enthusiasm, making a powerful impression in the process on account of his tenacious rhetorical exertions. He joined the party for real, forgot about his intelligence-related assignment, and the rest is history. After he consolidated his position, often having to resort to the threat that he would resign if he is not "supreme without equals", he brought the party to as high a percentage of popular support as 38% - a number that must be placed in the context of a fragmented and polarized political environment in which a great number of political organizations vied for power.

Initially a genuinely socialist party (bent on carrying out redistributive policies, if elected), the party leadership, Hitler especially, compromised and courted industrialists and financiers - apparently anticipating to project beyond domestic policies. He attempted to stage a coup - the term is "putsch" - in Munich. An event was scheduled, to take place appropriately in a beer-hall, to be attended by all the political forces of Munich and with a view to effecting some reconciliation and pacification for the common good. Executing a psychological device he was to utilize many times again in the future, Hitler attended late; he showed up incongruously and menacingly dressed in a trench-coat, accompanied by militant members of his party and with weaponry and armed vehicles arrayed outside, and attempted to kidnap the political establishment. Meeting unexpected resistance by political opponents he had literally at gunpoint, he threatened, theatrically, to kill himself, for the good of the Motherland of course; the message of threat to the rest of the gatherers was not lost. Although no further developments transpired on that evening, a rally had been planned by the NAZI party for the following day, to be attended by some luminaries (former War generals and such) who were party members. The authorities ambushed the rally, many NAZI members died and Hitler himself was injured before he was arrested. The court did not dare impose the maximum penalty, which would have been severe, and instead sentenced Hitler and his co-conspirators to brief jail terms. It was in prison that, surrounded by sycophantic and adoring admirers, Hitler dictated his major opus, Mein Kampf (My Struggles.)

Hitler came to power by legal means, when he was asked to form a national-unity, coalition government. He secured vital posts and gradually, especially after the passing of the venerated but ineffective German President Hindenburg, consolidated his position. Using political agitation as an excuse, and possibly implementing a plan of arson that reduced the Parliament building to ashes, Hitler succeeded in having the legitimate legislative branch of Germany hand over more and more "emergency" powers to the executive branch.

The Hitler government, which had no plans to ever relinquish grip on power, put in place an extensive New-Deal-like Keynesian program, that took the German economy out of recession and boosted employment. The effects of the policies were redistributive toward the economically less privileged - a rare occurrence in economic history. Hitler's popularity reached messianic dimensions, boosted conveniently by far-reaching and relentless propaganda. Ever taking an interest in rhetorical and propagandistic matters himself, Hitler, who even designed military uniforms and podium decorations by himself, betrayed characteristically Wagnerian influences in his exertions. A typical Hitler speech begins softly, almost inaudibly (something like the prelude to Das Rheingold) but crescendos violently, stressing themes of Germany's fall and redemption which parallel the chain of events of Hitler's life. Thus a mystical union is presumed forged between the leader, who embodies Germany, and the ravished maiden Germany now to be saved by the knight-in-arms Hitler. It is difficult to miss the similarities to Wagner's Lohengrin, whose Act I ends with the rapturous hail to the knight who saved the maiden, "Sieg Heil." That Wagnerian opera has an unholy development, as the virtuous maiden, seduced by "foreign" and "pagan" magical influences, comes to doubt her hero and causes a thumping downfall.

In the meantime, and in flagrant violation of the Treaty of Versailles which had ended World War I, "traitorously" to Germany, Hitler embarked on a massive re-armaments effort, in the process modernizing the German army in technological and tactical ways that were leaving other European powers behind. Hitler had to bluff repeatedly throughout this period, and before the German military had grown formidable. The easy success of this endeavor inspired him with confidence in his skills - if needed, accompanied by undiplomatic tantrums, unheard of then or ever since in the world of politics. He received support by the Italian Fascist Mussolini, which he never forget, to the point that, subsequently, he would let Italy become a liability to the German war effort. British Prime Minister Chamberlain's infamous appeasement further reinforced Hitler's contemptuous regard for effete democracies - Hitler and his entourage joked obscenely about the "absurd" Englishman who would carry an umbrella as part of his wardrobe and regardless of the weather's conditions. Hitler was genuinely surprised when the European powers came together and declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland.

Philosopher David Lewis


Philosopher Saul Kripke


Essential Qualities

Does a Person Have Essential Attributes? (These are the attributes which the person must have to be who he/she is.)

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The Study of Counterfactuals

The study of counterfactual conditionals (conditionals of the form "had x been true, then y would have been true") is quite complicated. The standard logic of introductory textbooks includes a conditional function defined over the set {True, False} which captures only the minimal condition for implication: we cannot possibly have a conditional statement as true if we have true antecedent and false consequent. In other words, we must ensure that "if x, then y" is false if x is true and y is false. For every other combination of true/false, however, the conditional function yeilds as output the value true! This is not a genuine conditional but it is the only one that is available to a Boolean-based and context-free logical system. Clearly, this conditional is inadequate for tracking counterfactual. Every counterfactual conditional has a false antecedent. "Had x been true, y would have been true" implies that "x is not actually true." The Boolean choice of conditional function would make every counterfactual be automatically true!

The most extensive work on counterfactuals was undertaken by Princeton philosopher David Lewis, now deceased. His ideas are incorporated in what have become available treatments of counterfactuals in the Logic literature.

Take a counterfactual "had p been the case, then q would have been the case," and symbolize it as "p #-> q". How do we evaluate it? The trick is to think of it as @(p -> q) where "@" stands for a modal - something like "necessarily" but without it being logical necessity. Operators like "@" are analyzed as follows: for #(p -> q), we track the values of "p -> q" throughout all states of affairs of a set of situations we specify based on what modal we are analyzing. This is not an empirical investigation but a matter of building a model. The statement @(p -> q) is to be true if and only if (p -> q) is true in all the sets of affairs in the set. The trick, then, is to specify HOW these states of affairs or situations or worlds "look" into each other or are related to each other. For counterfactuals, Lewis' idea was that we restrict the worlds we count as included on the basis of similarity to the actual world. Some way is needed, obviously, of fixing what we call "ceteris paribus" (other things being equal) if we are interested sensitively and specifically in the conditions under which the counterfactual is true. This is the similarity criterion - we need to track the conditional "p -> q" throughout the mathematically definable worlds that are similar to ours; if "p -> q" is true in all those worlds, then the counterfactual conditional @(p -> q) or p #-> q is true in our actual world.

There are problems surrounding the similarity criterion. Is a world in which Messi is Brazilian more or less similar to ours than a world in which Neymar is Argentinian? We cannot linger around such issues here. At the least, we exclude the worlds in which Hitler dies before the time when he ascended to power. Such worlds are rather dissimilar to ours, alas, in relevant respects. As for the other counterfactuals posed in the poll posted above, see if you can apply the similarity analysis.

Another philosophic problem arising in counterfactual analysis is metaphysical. Suppose we are evaluating "had Hitler never discovered the music of Richard Wagner, the Holocaust would have never happened." We don't know if this is true. For it to be true, it has to be true that "if Hitler does not discover the music of Richard Wagner, the Holocaust does not happen" in each world that is similar to ours in relevant respects. So, it cannot be true that "Hitler does not discover the music of Richard and the Holocaust happens" in any one of those similar worlds. A metaphysical issue is this: we are tracking a possibilified Hitler - the person named "Hitler" as we are supposed to construct him in the model throughout possible worlds which are not actual. How do you track someone throughout possible worlds? One counterintuitive idea, which was brilliantly defended by philosopher Saul Kripke, is that you simply track the person by the name or label or tag they happen to have had. This is not intuitive because it reduces to nonsense the normal-sounding statement "Hitler might have been named Schlum in a possible world." Kripke's view is neo-nominalistic: think that the alternative to treating names as "rigid designators" as Kripke proposes, would be to look for some elusive and rather spooky essential attributes the person has, which make the person what he is and so that he wouldn't be who he is if he lacked those attributes. For a counterfactuals analysis, actually, it comes across as a better idea to de-rigidify the name: to allow that the statement "Hitler might have been named Schicklgruber" is not nonsense. This is dictated by considerable, and meaningful, speculation on whether this alternate name, which was initially the name of Hitler's father, would have been too indistinguished-sounding to allow Hitler's meteoric rise in popularity. It is also seems tempting to lapse to essentialism by allowing certain essential properties to operate: a Hitler who is not evil is not the same person as Hitler in any world. This remains problematic, however. After all, why can't we also pursue, as meaningful, the counterfactual "had x happened, Hitler would not have grown to be evil"?

© 2014 Odysseus Makridis


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