Would you kill this child?*
June 23, 2009
The great time travel test
Daniel Finkelstein Timesonline
If you could travel back in time and intervene at one moment in history what would you do?
That was Michael Gove’s question in yesterday's Times, and one I’d now like to pinch for Comment Central.
“My own hunch”, writes Gove, “is you could avert the need for all of the above if you got between Gavrilo Princip's bullet and Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Almost all the miseries of the last century can be traced to the greatest civilisational catastrophe of all time - the First World War.
“There was a madness abroad in Europe in 1914, as the new Tate Modern exhibition of the war-worshipping Italian Futurists reminds us. Prewar Europe was a uniquely liberal and civilised place. And it was all swept away, in a ceremony of blood that ushered in eight decades of oppression.”
“So I'd wrench the gun out of Princip's black hand. And this is where the argument begins. I defy readers to think of a better use of a rent in history's tapestry. What's your answer to the Time Travellers' Test?”
Times writers give their own answers to his proposition below. But how about you? Would you assassinate Hitler? Catch a bullet for John Lennon? Ensconce yourself in the grassy knoll?
Michael Gove seems to think that had the Archduke not been killed by Princip (and one should point out how nearly he wasn't) then the First World War would not have happened.
I wonder. Lenin's return to Russia is a better bet, though it was his second that year, and he might have kept returning, so the real need was to remove him permanently from the scene, which seems to be precluded by the terms of this discussion.
So I think we have to go with Von Stauffenberg's placing of his bomb on the wrong side of a solid table divide, thus saving Adolf from a certain death. That really was bad luck.
The prudent course for the time traveller is to land in the French Legislative Assembly in time for the declaration of war on Austria on 20 April 1792, and refute with the benefit of hindsight the promise made by Jacques-Pierre Brissot and other republican deputies that victory would be easy.
The war was disastrous and it set off a virulent search for enemies of the revolution (which was stimulated by the inflammatory counter-revolutionary manifesto of the allied commander-in-chief, the Duke of Brunswick).
The consequences were catastrophic not only in the numbers of dead but also in the precedent thereby set for unconstrained actions of the revolutionary state. The brutality of the Bolshevik Revolution 125 years later was prefigured in this.
I'd go back even further than Michael Gove and make repeated visits to un-invent guns.
People who kill people should have to get close enough to feel their breath and look them in the eye. Fewer would be willing to do it.
The French Revolution had disastrous consequences for Europe at the time and sowed the seeds of ideological thought that were eventually reaped in the totalitarian horrors of the twentieth century.
The revolution might never have happened if the French exchequer had not been bankrupted by Louis XVI's decision to declare war on Britain during the American Revolution. Louis was persuaded down this calamitous course by his Foreign Minister, the Comte de Vergennes.
My role in time travel would have been to demonstrate to Vergennes that for all the gain of poking George III in the eye, his actions would not only bring down the French monarchy, create anarchy and ensure the Napoleonic Wars, but also turn the thinking of the Enlightenment into a curse.
Although I admit this does raise the supplementary question - what would have happened if, denied French help, the American colonists had lost their fight with Britain?
While tempted to intervene between the moment when Michael Gove wrote the word "civilisational" and the time when it appeared in The Times, or just before John Terry took his penalty against Manchester United in the Champions League final, advising him to take a different run up, I fear these would be frivolous uses of a wonderful power.
David would like to have moved Von Stauffenberg's bomb. I think we can do better than that. I feel it would be worth a throw of the Time Travellers' dice to have landed in the 1920s and killed Hitler in a glassing fight outside a beer hall.
Now, this might not have prevented the Holocaust. But actually I think there is a good chance that it would have done
* A photo of Adolph Hitler as a child.