"If you time-travel into the past and then try to kill Hitler, it won't work as intended. It may even backfire."
— Rules of Time Travel
If you were given the power to travel through time and Set Right What Once Went Wrong, what would you do to prevent the atrocities of the past? For many, the answer is obvious: kill Adolf Hitler. This would preventWorld War II, the Holocaust, and their myriad side-effects... right?
Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.
First of all, it often proves near-impossible to kill the man in the first place; like most dictators he's protected by various bodyguards and security forces. After all, the guy survived about 42 (known) real life assassination attempts — maybe one of them was yours! Trying to circumvent these by targeting him before his rise to power begins will usually turn out to be ludicrously difficult as well. Locating a lone, disillusioned war veteran wandering around post-WWI Europe is perhaps the ultimate needle-in-a-haystack search.
Secondly, even if you do manage to kill him, something even worse will appear in his place; an even smarter and crueler Führer who wins the war for the Axis, or an individual killed in battle instead grows up to terrorize the world, assuming Josef Stalindoesn't take advantage of the fact that Germany isn't invading Russia in this new timeline and it's the Soviet Union that starts World War II this time. Or Japan starts its own invasion with giant mecha. In addition, if it wasn't for Hitler's nightmarish slaughter of "undesirables" that took place under his leadership, the rest of the world wouldn't have experienced the sort of collective shock upon discovery of the Holocaust that spurred them into beginning the process of purging racist elements from their own nations. After all, the American Civil Rights movement, the end of colonial minority rule in places like India, and other rejections of systems of "racial superiority" only started to seriously take place after the Holocaust. To do otherwise was to essentially agree with Hitler's beliefs, something that no sane person would even contemplate after 1945. If someone does kill Hitler, they'll almost always have to undo it to prevent this.
Even worse, if you manage to kill Hitler with no backfire, millions will be saved and the second world war will be averted. So you get a Temporal Paradox, where you will have no reason to go back in time and kill Hitler, which means you won't, which means Hitler will live, which means that millions will die in the world war and extermination camps, which means that you will go back in time and kill Hitler... after a while, either you'll start to get a little dizzy, wind up in an Alternate Reality, or perhaps just break time entirely, ending more lives than a billion Hitlers ever could.
Then there's always the terrifying possibility that, in saving the world, you risk making an incredible personal sacrifice. This can range anywhere from erasing yourself from the timeline, to the even less desirable option of never meeting your true love. Many people think they'd be willing to make any sacrifice if it'd allow them to go back in time and undo the horrors of the holocaust, but do you think you'd be one of them? Can you live without her? Or him?
Finally, you may screw up so badly you will wish you had never been born. Imagine you are a holocaust survivor, whose every loved one died miserably before your eyes. After the war you devote your entire life to discovering time travel and once accomplishing this feat, at the cost of many more years, you set out to kill Hitler in the only way to ensure he never gains power: before he was born. There's just one problem. You continuously hunt his parents down, yet they somehow keep escaping your vendetta. After numerous failures you are finally caught by the authorities, and Adolf's parents become mentally unstable from the attempts on their lives; as a result, they become the abusive parents history makes them to be. If you are lucky, you escape to the future instead of dying in a prison cell watching the inevitable. But the worst part about it is you realize that all these events would never have happened if you had never traveled through time. You are ultimately responsible for the deaths of your loved ones and millions more.
In short, it appears to be a cosmic law that something bad has to go down in the period between 1930 and 1945. Perhaps it's how World War II defined the 20th century; the technological advances, the political foundations, and the example of man's inhumanity to man at its absolute worst that changed whole societies' perception of evil is ever present with us today. To imagine a world without it is to change everything. It may also be that Hitler, for all that he's considered the pinnacle of modern evil, is still a creature of his time and place; killing one man who did evil doesn't get rid of the circumstances and structure that put him in the position to do evil in the first place.
Consider the Anthropic Principle at work. Some people could reasonably be offended by a story that treats centuries of anti-Semitism like the work of one man. Preventing World War II by one guy playing James Bond or Superman arguably denigrates the efforts of the Real Life soldiers who died to win it. The war is a sensitive subject in general, for obvious reasons, so such a story might never be published. besides, who would read a story in which someone tries to change history for the better, succeeds, nothing goes wrong at all, and most impossibly of all, a utopian timeline that isn't turned into a Crapsack World by a Butterfly of Doom and/or Giant Space Flea from Nowhere (i.e, something like the Third Reich happening somewhere else, war with the Soviets) arises? Not only is that boring, the idea of pitting meticulous planning and futuristic technology against a 1930s-era failed artist would be a Curb-Stomp Battle. Is it moral if someone just shoots him before he does any evil?
Ironically, it would seem that neither FDR nor Churchill (or even Stalin, when allied with them) has this immunity, because stories come up all the time about heroes having to undo a mad would-be Nazi's altering the outcome of World War II using time travel. Clearly, this is because villains simply don't care about any of the stated consequences.
Compare Joker Immunity and Godwin's Law of Time Travel. This is a sub-trope of Precrime Arrest, where anyone is punished for crimes they've already committed from the perspective of the time-traveler. This is one case where attempts to Prevent The War are ultimately counterproductive.
See the Analysis page for musings on how this trope might have worked in Real Life.
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In the Devilman story "Late Spring in Vienna", Akira and Ryo end up in Austria in the 1920 to "kill a demon..." A real one, turned into a Count. He has decided to buy a portrait of his wife Sophie, painted by a poor painter that has no choice - he preferred to keep it because he loves Sophie. A Jewish art dealer makes the arrangement, but the same evening Sophie dies, burnt by her demon husband. Akira and Ryo kill the lord demon and then came back to their time, hoping that history is in good shape after what they done. Then, back in the 20s, the painter is furious after Sophie's death, and places the blame on his dealer: "I hate you, I'll spend my entire life to destroy you and your whole race!" and the art dealer starts to run after him: "Hey, what are you saying? Where are you going like that? Adolf? Adolf Hitler!"
Made somewhat ironic by the fact that in real life, Hitler sucked at drawing people.
Perhaps the ultimate comic book subversion of this trope is the short story "Killing Time", written by Gerry Conway, illustrated by Tom Yeates, and published in the DC Comics science fiction anthology series Mystery In Space issue #144, December, 1980. An idealistic time traveller assassinates Hitler with a laser rifle at a Nazi rally in 1938, but is then lynched by the enraged crowd. Hitler's generals find the laser rifle, eventually learn how to duplicate it, and conquer the world. Decades in the dystopian, Nazi future, an idealistic time traveller sets off to kill the first time traveller to prevent Nazi victory. In the utopian future of that outcome, a die-hard Nazi time traveller sets off to kill the second time traveller to ensure a Nazi victory, and on and on and on. The story ends with an image of an infinite series of rifle scopes trained upon an infinite number of backs.
This trope is subverted Marvel's Dark Reign: The List #1: Hawkeye asks the other Avengers "if you could go back in time and kill Hitler, wouldn't you?", to which Bucky Barnes/Captain America answers: "I did." Given the way Marvel's Timey-Wimey Ball works, this simply spun off an alternate universe.
Note that in standard Marvel chronology someone did get to kill Hitler. Jim Hammond, the original Human Torch, burned him alive immediately after stopping the suicide that ended Hitler's life in the real world. Yet, in a way, he was still a failure. The original Human Torch was trying to take Hitler in alive to stand in front of a war tribunal but had to kill him to prevent him from blowing up the whole bunker. Hitler used his dying breath to make sure his death was reported as a suicide instead of being vanquished by the enemy so to the public the outcome was the same. It turns out Hitler is exempt from being saved too.
Also note that since in the Marvel Universe Hitler can body surf from clone body to body it's entirely possible for Bucky to have killed him and then Jim Hammond to do it again later.
Parodied to the point of self-awareness in an issue of Deadpool, where Hitler is getting used to beating down time travellers - and then he decides to hijack the time-travelling device and go after Nick Fury. He is killed outside his timeline by Fury, Deadpool and Cable, but the body is brought back to 1945 to keep history flowing.
The Hitler thing was mentioned in a time travel arc of a Godzilla comic book. However, when the villain used his time machine to put Godzilla into the Titanic iceberg, the Big G's escape not only caused the famous collision, but the use of his nuclear breath warmed up the water, increasing the number of survivors.
In an X-Men comic, someone makes the mistake of mentioning this idea to Magneto — who is a Holocaust survivor. Predictably, he explodes. In the movie it was the anxiety of separation from his mother in the camps that first revealed the powers of the Master of Magnetism. Without such violent circumstances, Magneto would be a very different person.
Another X-Men story, the mini-series True Friends, has Kitty Pryde and Rachel Summers accidentally travelling to the late 1930s. Kitty, who is Jewish and learned about the Holocaust from her grandfather, himself a camp survivor, decides to assassinate Hitler and most of his staff, until she is forced to choose between changing history and saving Rachel from the Shadow King.
In a Fantastic Four comic book from the John Byrne era, the Invisible Woman, the Torch and She-Hulk find themselves in 1930s New York with Nick Fury. Fury decides to go to Germany and kill Hitler, and the other three try to stop him. They find Fury being interrogated by some goons while Hitler watches; they overpower the goons and free Fury, and Sue Storm gives an impassioned speech about not altering the timeline. Fury nods, starts walking out the door — and then turns and shoots Hitler. It turns out that it was All Just a Dream.
In a storyline where a future Dr. Doom comes back to kill Reed, it is stated that timelines tend to correct themselves. For example, if you prevent Abraham Lincoln's assassination, people remember the time he was almost killed in the theatre - a couple of days before being killed in a bathtub slip.
Of course, stuff like that is Depending on the Writer - the Marvel multiverse is said to exist partly because time travel almost always changes things... but simply creates an alternate timeline. So for the above example, there would be a universe where Lincoln was killed in the theatre, and one where he wasn't. And probably at least one where he slipped on the soap, but not because of any universal correction as The Multiverse.
In the first story arc of Midnighter's solo series, he is sent back in time to kill Hitler in the trenches of World War One, only to be stopped by the Time Police. Yeah, Garth Ennis isn't known for his subtlety.
Later, in the same story, Midnighter manages another go at things but... a bit late in the game. He decides to go for it anyway and it turns out Hitler is so messed up in the head that it spooks our hero. The guy basically runs away from the crazy.
In their downtime, The Authority likes to go to alternate universes and kill their Hitlers.
In All-Star Squadron #2, Per Degaton noted that he could not time travel to the date of Pearl Harbor due to "interference" in the time stream. (The same writer, Roy Thomas, also had Rama-Tut experience timestream static. Perhaps the presence of so many people attempting to time travel to a certain point creates congestion, similar to many people attempt to use the same exit from a road.)
In one classic Strontium Dog prog, Johnny Alpha and Wulf travel back in time to arrest Hitler and put him on trial before the Court of Ultimate Retribution. They have to pick him up moments before his suicide however, otherwise there would be nothing to try him for.
The appropriately named graphic novel I Killed Adolf Hitler both subverts and invokes this trope as the center to its entire plot. A down-on-his-luck hitman is hired to go back in time and kill Adolf, using a time machine that is only good for one round trip. Only he bungles the job, and Hitler steals the time machine and escapes to the present. With no way back home, he's forced to live through the intervening years the normal way, waiting for the day the time machine arrives so he can stop Hitler.
In a recent issue of Booster Gold, Booster off-handedly asks if this mission is stopping another time traveling Hitler assassin.
This trope is inverted but nonetheless explored in the second The Umbrella Academy story, Dallas, when it is learned that saving JFK from being assassinated would result in world-wide destruction via nuclear war.
Averted in the second issue of Paperinik New Adventures: the villain builds a machine that specifically avoids this and the Butterfly of Doom effect. Though he only gets a single shot at this, and botches it thanks to PK's intervention.
One 2000 ADTime Thriller (Basically a Future Shock involving time travel) had Allied assassins go back to Hitler's birth to assassinate him. Hitler uses Mental Time Travel to take control of his own infant self and kill the assassins, saving his own life in several different alternate realities. However, it comes back to bite him in the ass when his baby self's personality takes him over, leading him to make increasingly idiotic decisions and leads to his eventual suicide.
Averted in Multiverse, a graphic novel written by Michael Moorcock for Vertigo Comics. In one plot thread featuring Seaton Begg, the Meta-Temporal Detective, the time-traveling detective investigates the murder of Hitler's niece, who turned out to be his mistress as well. By the end of that arc, Begg did not actually kill Hitler, but his investigation did result in Hitler being arrested, and the Nazis discredited to the point where they would never rise to power in Begg's timeline. The consequences are never dealt with, as Begg moves on to his next adventure.
In Timecop 2, the protagonist was sent back to prevent Hitler being killed, fails and returns to the future, to a world run by Nazis, complete with time travel technology.
Hitler himself is an example of the time travel exemption in the Australian film As Time Goes By:
Mike: But you've got a time machine—you could stop it. Joe Bogart: Couldn't stop the Holocaust—got rid of Strasser, and this dumb painter named Adolf showed up and did it all exactly the same way. Who'd'a read about it?
Johnny: If you could travel back in time, say, to Germany, before Hitler came to power, what would you do? Would you kill him? Weizak: Johnny, you must know that... I love people. And as a doctor, I am expected to save lives. So naturally, I would have no choice... but to kill the son of a bitch. (raises his drink) Do svidaniya.
In Looper, Old Joe travels back in time to kill a genocidal, telekinetic crime lord called the Rainmaker as a child, only for Joe to realize that Old Joe's attempt would ultimately fail, and as a direct result cause the child to grow up evil and become the Rainmaker.
Darren Shan's Cirque Du Freak saga plays with this idea in conversation in Sons Of Destiny. As the main character, Darren, speaks to Evanna, they converse about the time travelling powers of Mr. Tiny. Evanna says that the events of history are pre-written, only the characters can change. Darren brings up Hitler, to which Evanna says that if he was killed off some other person would replace him, keeping the main events of history in check.
This idea is expanded with a narrative Take That in Terry Pratchett's Lords and Ladies: 'Shoot the dictator and prevent the war? But the dictator is merely the tip of the whole festering boil of social pus from which dictators emerge; shoot him and there'll be another one along in a minute. Shoot him too? Why not shoot everyone and invade Poland?'
In a fictional "documentational" book for time travelers, a scenario is mentioned where someone assassinates Hitler while he is still a young artist. The assassin never returns — in this version of Time Travel, dramatically altering history creates a parallel universe, and he returned to his present day in that universe instead of "ours".
In Stephen Fry's 1997 novel Making History, Hitler's parents are prevented from conceiving, but his absence allows the taller, more handsome, cleverer Rudolf Gloder to ride the tide of frustration that gave birth to the Nazi party, and the results of his reign are worse for the world than Hitler's. Gloder has negotiated a stop to the war with Germany still in control of most of its conquests, and has reined in the anti-Semitism to the point that it hasn't inspired total war from his adversaries. This example is even more impressive when you consider that the entirety of Fry's mother's family (aside from her parents) were killed in Auschwitz. On top of that, Fry is also gay.
In the Alternate History novels of Harry Turtledove's Timeline-191, the Confederates win the War of Secession and a subsequent war with the Union, the United States allies with Germany to win World War One, so World War Two features a fascist France and CSA against the USA and a Kaiser-ruled Germany. The Confederacy is led by Hitler-analog Jake Featherston and his ultranationalist "Freedom Party," complete with a genocidal campaign against Confederate blacks, but we also meet the actual Hitler, a German Army sergeant seething with hate but languishing in obscurity.
In Alastair Reynolds' novel Century Rain, World War II is, in fact averted (although not by killing Hitler, he lives till old age) but the result is a negative one, as it effectively halts the progress of science and technology at pre-1940s levels. 'course, it happens in a separate world, not our world, created as some kind of museum to protect human past. And IIRC, technology may have been artificially halted to prevent rockets from banging on the roof.. Effective. Most great leaps in technology pre-Internet was done in, or for, war.
A passing mention of this is made in Robert A. Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. The plot involves an agency that can travel through time and across parallel universes. One of their early attempts at improving the world involved assassinating (humanely, they simply ensured that his parents were using birth control on the day of his conception) a Hitler-like dictator. His brutal reign doesn't happen, but what was originally a small-scale nuclear war turned into a global one, since the Hitler-analogue had kept the alternate America out of the war. They rid the world of the evil dictatorship, sure, but they also rid it of all life other than cockroaches. Unusually for this trope, they didn't take their failure as a sign that there are things they shouldn't be messing with; instead, they decided they needed better projections about what would happen should they make a change.
Another Heinlein passing comment is that eliminating Hitler was what led to Nehemiah Scudder's fundamentalist theocracy in the USA.
Alfred Bester's short story "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed" also displays a similar paradox. The story involves a professor burning with rage over his wife's affair, who decides to eliminate the other man. He does this by first killing the man's father before he was born, to no effect, he then goes and kills his grandfather. Again nothing. Soon, he's gone on a killing spree against many key figures in history, all in the hopes that one of them would end the existence of his wife's lover. He discovers that no matter how much he changes history, it all continues to make no change in the present. All he succeeds in doing is erasing himself from history.
In the novel Days of Cain by J. R. Dunn, the Moiety is an history-monitoring agency run by mysterious hyper-evolved humans from the end of time, whose directive is that history must remain absolutely untouched so they can study it (in this sense, it's the opposite of the agency in Isaac Asimov's The End of Eternity, who constantly tinker with history in order to improve it). The novel centers around a search for rogue agents who are trying to stop the Holocaust (which must be preserved to maintain historical integrity). Interestingly, it's revealed that the other customary linch-pin of history, the John F. Kennedy assassination (as well as the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne), were the Moiety's attempt to stop the Kennedys' rise to power (which was not supposed to happen and was the doing of another rogue agent).
Orson Scott Card's book Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus is probably the epitome of averting this trope... and contains an implication that the depicted act of changing the past happened twice. What convinces the heroes in Pastwatch to go back and alter history (keeping Europeans out of the new world while helping the Mesoamericans make technological and cultural progress so the two hemispheres meet on an even, non-genocidal footing) is evidence that their own timeline is the result of a previous intervention (Columbus originally led a horrific crusade against the Muslim world that crippled Europe and left it easy pickings for a later invasion by advanced Tlaxcalans).
What happened in the previous alternate timeline is conjecture— what the time travelers learn from it really is (in rough order of importance): 1) it's possible to develop technology to send items back in time (until the discovery they were only observing the past), 2) telling Columbus to go eastward (their original plan) would be a waste of time, 3) whatever their decision, they needed to leave a recording giving a detailed account of what change they made and why.
The real irony is that, since the previous time travelers didn't leave a memo, there is no way of knowing whether the world the other time travelers created is improved over the world where Columbus did— whatever it was he did.
One of the main characters in Sergey Lukyanenko's novel Dances on the Snow (a part of the Genome trilogy) mentions that simulations were done on what would happen if certain key historical figures were to be eliminated before they did what they did. The result was that no single person, even Hitler or Stalin, are important enough in the grand scheme of things to significantly alter the chain of events that resulted in the world history. It should be noted that no time travel technology exists in the novel, this was purely a simulation.
In Li Harbin's Time Ghost series, killing Hitler has apparently gone wrong so many times that all time travel units have blocks on traveling to any time in which the man was alive, because the consequences are dire. This becomes a plot point when one Time Spy decides to prevent World War One instead, thinking it would change things so that World War Two didn't happen, which via chain reaction would mean that World War Three (which nearly wiped humanity out entirely) wouldn't happen. The resulting clusterfuck takes up the bulk of Time Ghost's main plot as this goes very, very, very wrong.
Connie Willis's time-travelling historians can't go back to any event which is over a certain threshold of "significance" to world history. "The net" (the name for their time machine) won't open for them, or if it will, results are unpredictable. In-universe, someone did once try to go to Germany to kill Hitler in the early days of the net and ended up in South America. Similarly, you can't go to Waterloo or Lincoln's assassination. Since historians can be in the past for extended periods and travel freely once there, it's never explained why you can't go to a different location a bit earlier and travel to the site of the event you're interested in (perhaps the net somehow knows what you're up to?) but then it's never really explained why it's lethal to exist in the same time period twice, either.
I think it's said in Doomsday Book that the time traveller arrives at a nearby point in spacetime such that she cannot change history. (In that novel she aimed for England 1328 and landed in 1348; she doesn't change history because everyone she meets dies.) The story we read may be the result of a series of loops converging on stability.
In Robert Asprin's Time Scout series, people important to history can't be killed. Period. There's no real explanation, but you'll trip, or sneeze, or die, or your gun will jam, or something, but you will fail. Essentially, in-universe Plot Armor.
The explanation is that when you're in the past, you don't change history, you merely fulfill your already-taken-place-just-hasn't-happened-to-you-yet part in it. So while you can mess about fairly freely in 'the shadows of history', you can't possibly change the way any event was recorded, because history already records that you clearly failed to change it. One villain's cover story involves him discovering an ancient photograph of himself doing something he has not yet done (it's a lie, but the story is accepted as perfectly legitimate effect of the time travel rules).
Inverted in Stephen King's 11/22/63 where, instead of going back in time to assassinate someone, the title character instead goes back in time to prevent an assassination, specifically that of JFK. He learns the hard way that the trope goes both ways; not only did the future of that timeline turn out to become a Crapsack World where the Civil Rights movement never happened, about half of the world was victimized by one nuclear incident or another, and Maine seceded to Canada, but it turns out that drastic changes to history can destroy time itself.
Inverted and somewhat averted in Stanley Shapiro's A Time To Remember. The narrator travels back in time to prevent the JFK assassination, fails, and is himself arrested as the assassin. His girlfriend then goes back, fails to prevent the shooting, but does prevent the hero's arrest. Finally the elderlygenius who invented the machine determines to set things right by traveling back himself and shooting Oswald on Nov. 21. An aversion in that the US pulls its military advisors out of Vietnam, and as a result the world basically relaxes out of the Cold War. On the other hand, we only get to see what happened for a few months thereafter; in a Bittersweet Ending, by traveling back to a time when they themselves were already alive, the protagonists violated the law that something cannot co-exist with itself in the same space/time, and thus sacrificed their own younger selves — and cannot return to their original present.
Animorphs plays with this in Megamorphs 3: Elfangor's Secret, but ultimately averts it, because by the time they get to World War 2, history is already so screwed up that killing Hitler won't matter-he's just a jeep driver in that world. So when Tobias wants to kill him, while Cassie doesn't see how they can kill Hitler in this world just because he's Hitler, given that he didn't do any of the things he did in the regular world. But Tobias "accidentally" kills him a few minutes later.
"Wikihistory" by Desmond Warzel is a short story examining this trope.
Abney Park came out with a novelization of their band's fictional backstory. In it, they subvert the trope by kidnapping baby Hitler and raising him aboard an airship full of pirates.
Spoofed in one sketch in Free-Range Chickens, in which a time traveler succeeds in murdering baby Hitler and then finds himself unable to explain to a horrified onlooker why he did it. "Officer? This man just killed a baby."
Averted, with a catch, in Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. Ursula lives her life over and over, and as she becomes more aware of past lives, she realizes she has a unique opportunity to kill Hitler before WWII. In at least two lives, it seems she does so. However, this results in her instantly being killed, so she can't "enjoy" the altered timeline.
Timewyrm: Exodus from the Virgin New Adventures has the Doctor prevent Ace killing Hitler, telling her that if Hitler dies a competent madman could lead Germany.
Live Action TV
In the new Twilight Zone, an agent comes back in time and kills an infant Adolf Hitler. In order not to be punished, his maid kidnaps a beggar's baby and it is raised as Hitler, becoming the one we know.
In the original Twilight Zone episode "No Time Like the Past", a time-traveler attempts to snipe Hitler during a speech from a hotel window. He is forced to abandon the attempt when the maid calls the police on him.
The same episode averts the whole "doesn't think to go back farther" thing, as the time-traveler also attempted to prevent the sinking of the Lusitania. It doesn't work either.
Screw Hitler. The lesson of TZ seems to be : First kill the Dangerously Genre Savvy maids. They're just a leetle *too* efficient.
Or just take some Christmas lights with you.
He had a nice clean shot, then, his gun jammed. By the time he cleared it, the maid shows up with the cops.
In one of the novels, the Doctor helps Hitler to prevent other aliens from making things worse. Another criticised the whole "kill Hitler before the War" theory as a hypocritical exercise in futility, since the only person who would ultimately be able to kill Hitler before he'd done anything to merit death (as a baby) would be someone who could willingly murder an innocent (a.k.a another Hitler).
Doctor Who has always used the Daleks as a metaphor for the Nazis, so the following exchange from Genesis of the Daleks is about as close to this trope as we're going to get:
The Doctor: Just touch these two strands together and the Daleks are finished... Have I that right? Sarah Jane: To destroy the Daleks? You can't doubt it. The Doctor: But I do! You see, some things could be better with the Daleks. Many future worlds will become allies just because of their fear of the Daleks... But the final responsibility is mine, and mine alone. Listen: if someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you, and told you that the child would grow up to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child? Sarah Jane: We're talking about the Daleks, the most evil creatures ever invented. You must destroy them! You must complete your mission for the Time Lords. The Doctor: Do I have the right?
Played for Laughs in the episode, "Let's Kill Hitler", when the Doctor gets forced at gunpoint by Amy's friend Mels to go back in time to kill Hitler. Meanwhile, the crew of the Teselecta, a time-traveling infiltrator robot crewed by miniature humans who punish Karma Houdinis, tries to punish Hitler in 1938, only to realize they've come too early (they normally abduct them just before their deaths). Before they can rectify their mistake, the TARDIS comes crashing through the window, saving Hitler's life. Hitler takes the opportunity to shoot the robot, hitting Mels instead. Rory then punches Hitler in the face and locks him in a cupboard, and he is never heard from again that episode while the true plot starts, with Mels regenerating and revealed to be River Song.
Hitler: Thank you, whoever you are. I think you have just saved my life. The Doctor: Believe me, it was an accident. Amy: What do you mean, we just saved his life? We cannot have just SAVED HITLER!
"Shut up, Hitler!"
Rory: There's a pounding in my head. Amy: That's just Hitler in the closet.
In one rather heavy-handed episode of Sliders, it was discovered that a world in which California was essentially a Nazi state, complete with the ethnic cleansing of minorities, had never had a Hitler (as per one character's befuddled reaction when Hitler's name is dropped), and had therefore never "learned its lesson", namely the horrors of racial oppression and genocide.
In another Twilight Zone episode, the central character somehow takes over the body of a young Hitler. After tormenting him for a while, the protagonist prepares to force Hitler to commit suicide. However, Hitler reasserts control just before throwing himself into the river. In shock over the whole experience, he wonders why the protagonist, who had identified himself as Jewish, did these horrible things to him. In a combination with the Butterfly of Doom, the protagonist realizes that he had possessed Hitler before he had acquired any anti-Semitic feelings, and his possession caused those feelings. His attempt to prevent the Holocaust directly caused it.
Star Trek: Enterprise. In "Storm Front" Captain Archer is urged by one of the people in the Alternate Universe where Germany is winning WW2 to use his phase cannons to destroy Berlin, but he tells her to be patient and let him correct history his way. This is a somewhat odd example, as history had already been massively screwed with, and conceivably Archer could have sterilized all of Earth to no ill effect, as the one event he did need to change would reset everything anyway.
In the season five premiere of LOST, Pierre Chang explains to a foreman that the unlimited energy source beneath the Orchid greenhouse can be used to manipulate time. The incredulous foreman replies "What, we're gonna go back and kill Hitler?" to which Chang replies "Don't be absurd! There are rules! Rules that can't be broken!"
Red Dwarf. Hitler is saved from successful assassination when Lister steals his suitcase (with a bomb inside) during one time travel (where he uses "evolved" film developer).
In Supernatural Gordon uses this trope to try and justify killing Sam to Dean, asking him if he was able to sit next to a very young, aspiring Hitler, would he shoot him?
In The Drew Carey Show, Drew contemplates whether it would be moral to kill Hitler, and concludes he couldn't because then there would be no A & E.
But then he revises his opinion because he'd be on that channel all the time as the guy who killed Hitler, yeah!
A non-time-travel example appears in Sanctuary. It is revealed that Druitt has killed Hitler months before D-Day, but the German high command has been using body doubles to make it appear that he's still alive. In fact, they are glad Hitler's gone. Druitt realizes that Germany can't be brought down simply by killing one man. Interestingly, in the pilot episode, Helen claims that Druitt is a time traveler from the future, which would make this trope true, if his backstory wasn't RetConned later into a Victorian scientist who became a teleporter after injecting vampire blood.
In series 3 of Misfits an old Jewish man who's bought Curtis' power attempts to travel in time and kill Hitler. He accidentally drops his 2011 phone, Hitler finds it and Nazi tech leaps forward sixty years in an instant. When he gets back to 2011, he has created a world where Nazi Germany won the war and now rule Britain.
So Kelly gets given the time-travel power and uses it to go back and take the phone off Hitler. And then chin him. And ask him why he's "such a fookin' dick". And then "kick the shit out of him".
In the song "Parantaja" by Finnish garage metal band Riivaaja, a man of Jewish descent devises a time machine, travels to the past and assassinates Hitler. He returns to his own time to see the Soviets having completely taken over, and figures the only solution left is to go back to the past and assassinate himself.
Dan Bern's song "God Said No" has the narrator asking God to send him back in time to kill Hitler (as well as prevent the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Jesus). God refuses (duh), saying that if He did send the narrator back, he wouldn't actually do the things he claims he would, instead getting caught up in other, more self-serving activities.
Spoofed in Anal Cunt's "I Went Back In Time And Voted For Hitler", wherein the singer doesn't go back in time to kill Hitler but instead to vote for him.
In the Champions module "Wings of the Valkyrie," the heroes must go back in time to save Hitler after another time traveller kills him before the Nazi Party rises to power... creating an Alternate History where things came out even worse (Germany went communist; the West lost the alternate version of World War Two to the German-Soviet alliance; a falling-out between the victors led to World War Three; several cities have been nuked and the major powers don't seem at all afraid of doing it again when the next war breaks out; the United States is sliding into homegrown fascism). Most people in the alternate 1987 have a general sense that civilization is inevitably going down the drain. It caused some complaints from less Genre Savvy readers who had trouble with the premise that offing Hitler might make the world worse.
It should be noted that the original version submitted by the credited author presented the heroes with an alternate history in which killing Hitler creates a worldwide Utopia; the point of the original version was to present the players with an opportunity to debate morality and present a hard choice about whether to restore the original history. Editorial meddling (and possibly concerns that such a module might be a campaign-ender) resulted in the published version, which greatly embarrassed the credited author. The less genre savvy readers included Holocaust survivors and (IIRC) the Anti-Defamation League, who had trouble with the premise that slaughtering 6,000,000+ Jews (and others) might make the world better.
In GURPS Time Travel, it is said that many new recruits to the Time Patrol ask this question: they are given more or less the same answers detailed at the top of this article.
It's also acknowledged, in a way, in the GURPS Infinite Worlds setting (which is more about crosstime travel). Some agents of Centrum (the antagonist timeline) have noticed that Homeliners get downright irrational (or even more so than usual) about timelines where Hitler exists, especially if he's winning. To Centrum, he's just another genocidal despot like so many in (other people's) history.
The GURPS WW2 sourcebook, in a passage concerning the use of Infinite Worlds and time travel, gives this very trope as an unnerving example of a quest hook, about the players having to go back in time to protect Hitler lest he gets assassinated and a far more skilled leader takes his place and wins the war for Germany.
Played with in Genius The Transgression. You can kill Hitler, but it won't do anything (except get the Time Cops mad at you). Hitler has been killed six times over, so the setting's Time Cops started cloning him. If you head back to 1921 Hamburg, you can get a tour of the cloning facility. In an added twist, the Time Police got there a bit late — there was a Nazi party that led Germany to World War II and the Holocaust, but Hitler wasn't behind the reins first time around...
There's a very high rate of suicide among timecops who have to protect the Nazis.
In the time-travel RPG Continuum, the Fraternity of Thespians use various disguises and impersonate historical figures throughout time to prevent Narcissists from changing the Known universe. It's very rude to ask them how many times they've had to impersonate Hitler; the common reply is "Further information is not available here."
Feng Shui uses this trope in order to explain how superficial shifts (changes to temporal events that don't involve capturing Feng Shui sites) work in the setting. If you killed Hitler in the 19th century hoping to keep Nazism and its various atrocities from going down, it would not work, because somebody else would simply take Hitler's place.
The central premise of Command & Conquer: Red Alert is that shortly after World War II, Albert Einstein uses a Time Machine to meet Hitler at the one moment in history where his location in civilian life was absolutely verified (just outside the gates of Landsberg prison on December 20, 1924, after completing his sentence for his role in the Beerhall Putsch) and then erasing the future dictator from history. While this does succeed in preventing the original World War II, the power vacuum leads to an even greater conflict as Josef Stalin makes his own attempt to conquer the world, with the Soviets and Allies (including Germany) slugging it out with weirder weapons.
The Soviets pull an Einstein on Einstein in Red Alert 3; on the verge of defeat, they use a time machine of their own to take out the Allies' main scientist, erasing not only Einstein but the nuclear technology he helped create. While this causes the Soviet Union to be much more powerful in the new timeline, it inadvertently creates a new world power, the Empire of the Rising Sun, forcing the Soviets to ally with the Allies to defeat the Japanese (and canonically losing anyway). Einstein proves to be an exemption to this rule in that a corporation springs up to provide the Allies with chrono- technology in his place. Also note that by taking Einstein, and by extension nuclear weapons out of the picture, the game developers were able to create a war game that didn't involve dropping a nuclear bomb on the Japanese (never mind that previous games had Chrono-technology as a personal invention of Einstein, while nuclear weapons were developed by the Soviets, without Einstein directly contributing to the project, because the developers certainly don't want you to think about the story).
In the early flight combat sim Corncob 3D, Hitler was apparently killed by a thrown bottle earlier in his life. In place of WWII, however, there was an alien invasion. Somewhat inexplicably, F4U Corsairs are still developed and flown against the alien threat.
In War Front Turning Point, Hitler is assassinated very early in WWII. This, however, makes things worse: under the even more effective leadership of his successor, the Nazis are able to occupy Great Britain. And when they are eventually defeated, things go haywire: Russians take Germany's fall as the chance to advance into Western Europe, triggering a new conflict with the Allies.
In an unused poster in Portal 2, you are informed to, in event of time travel, avoid both your past and future selves, your dad, and Hitler. An unused and unrecorded Cave Johnson line states that all alternate parallel universe versions of you (or whatever test subject he was talking to at the time) are Hitler. He also warns you not to kill him if you meet him during the tests.
Somewhat averted in Titanic: Adventure Out of Time. The protagonist is a former British government agent, waiting in his apartment in the London of 1942 for a German bomb to land on him. He reflects on the past, and how it could have been altered. Somehow, he then ends up back on the Titanic, given a second chance to complete his mission. If you succeed, and manage to escape on a lifeboat with three particular items, Hitler never comes to power, WWI is similarly averted, and peace and prosperity reigns in Europe. Of course, if you escape but with two or fewer of the three items, in any particular order, there are various other horrible fates waiting for Europe, such as Soviet dictatorship under Stalin (without any Hitler to counter him, his power grew far greater) or the world wars not only going ahead, but Germany invading Britain. Amusingly, one of the items is a painting done by Hitler, which if recovered, makes him a famous artist, and thus he has no time to involve himself in politics.
Heinz Heger in Shikkoku No Sharnoth has apparently been going for something like this. Whether it works or not is left ambiguous, but he himself views it as a failure.
Invoked in this strip , when Wonderella gets her hands on a baby Hitler. She and Patrietta consider 'fixing' him to not be a monster (or as much of one), Queen Beetle points out that Hitler was too influential to history to change, and even influencing him to be an ordinary citizen would create a Grandfather Paradox. They send him back, but let him keep his teddy bear. Cue killer chainsaw wielding teddy bear robots.
Queen Beetle: [If Hitler] wasn't a monster anymore, you'd never do this in the first place. There'd be no reason to "fix" a nice Hitler.
Discussed in thisReal Life Comics; Greg wants to go back in time and change something trivial (Las Vegas choosing to build a giant TV instead of a life-size U.S.S. Enterprise) and Tony points out all the cause-and-effect even a twenty-year change would cause before adding "Why do you think I haven't gone back to the mid-1930's and killed Hitler before World War II started?"
Played with by xkcd when Black Hat Guy goes and kills Hitler... in April 1945, in the bunker, while the Red Army is storming the city and Hitler is just about to commit suicide. Played straight from the perspective of the person who persuaded him to do it, since it was a reasonable assumption that he'd know to do it before World War 2. Black Hat guy was right after all when he said they should have used the time machine to do something fun, instead of wasting their only chance at time travel in a futile attempt to satisfy the other's person's "obsession with this Hitler guy."
Of course, given what a humongous troll Black Hat Guy is, it's entirely likely that he deliberately missed the point of the other person's insistance on killing Hitler out of spite, thus calling into question exactly how futile it would have been otherwise.
Referenced in Homestuck when Jake meets Meenah, who in another lifetime went on to become an evil empress and then traveled to this universe, took over earth, flooded it, and wiped out almost all of humanity. Jake reasons that this basically makes her fish-Hitler, and therefore that, since everyone knows that if you travel back in time and meet Hitler you must kill him, he should immediately beat her up. Except, of course, he hasn't gone back in time, and Meenah isn't even really the same person as the Condesce anyway, so all he achieves is beating up an innocent person while their friends freak out around them. Then again, Meenah was already dead...and she barely noticed because she had just learned about said alternate self and was Squeeing over her. So maybe not that innocent.
In Captain SNES, one of the non-canon side stories include this. The end result is a dystopian future with a gendercide. Alex, however, finds himself intrigued when Marle throws herself at him. So much so that he wants the Hitler's Time Travel Exemption Act repealed.
Commander Badass of Manly Guys Doing Manly Things is a member of the Navy TIALS, an elite group of time traveling soldiers from the future who go to right wrongs in history. While Hitler himself is mostly left alone (aside from getting a punch in the face), the Vietnam War is presented in this context: the Commander went to that time period twice, once to win the war for America, and a second time to stop himself cause winning the war caused the Rambo movies to never exist, and that's just too bizarre a world to contemplate.
Averted in this one, where the time traveler succeeds by going back and providing Hitler with a scholarship at an art school at the right moment. Although history is vastly improved, the traveler discovers that it still has a few disturbing attributes.
This parody PSA is an inversion, with a time-traveling Hitler narrowly avoiding getting hit by a car.
The short story Wikihistory is basically a time traveler's message board discussion about the importance of not trying to kill Hitler, with an increasingly angry moderator repeatdly going back in time to clean up the mess made by noobies.
Parodied in Hardly Working's Killing Hitler. The first time they try it, the adult Hitler beats up the time traveller. The second time he does it again, but as an adolescent. The third time traveller attacks him with a rifle when he's a small child. However, Hitler steals it, and then forces the traveller to tell him how to make an atomic bomb. And then kid Hitler travels through the portal into the future.
Averted in Punching Hitler; although they don't kill him, they punch him repeatedly, causing him to change the direction of his life repeatedly in the end and presumably averting the Holocaust.
Invoked in the Alternate History timeline Weber's Germany; Paul Driscoll from The Twilight Zone manages to shoot Hitler during the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, but that just leads Friedrich Weber, otherwise a historical nobody, to seize control of the Nazi Party, then Germany, radically changing the course of World War II.
"Time Travel Travesty" inverted the trope, in that the time-traveller WANTED something bad to happen. An evil genius comes up with an Evil Plan, go back in time to kill Hitler causing the Soviet Union to take over Europe. His henchman called him out on it, stating he's just copying the plot of Command & Conquer: Red Alert. Unlike Red Alert though, the universe just explodes.
In the Family Guy episode "Back to the Pilot", Stewie and Brian travel back to 1999, where Brian takes the opportunity to warn his past self about 9/11 despite Stewie warning him not to change history. When they return to 2011, Brian is hailed as a hero because he prevented the attacks, and when Brian insists to Stewie that changing history has done nothing but good they then go a little further into the future and discover that the country is a post-apocalyptic nightmare because ofGeorge W. Bush. They set things right by going back and telling the versions from the start of the episode not to try changing things.
In another episode, Peter and Brian go back into the past, and Peter ditches an important date with Lois (to whom he is not yet married at the time) to hang out with his friends. In the process, he returns to a future where Lois is married to Quagmire instead, and despite all the good in the world that has occurred due to Peter's mistake, he realizes he's willing to screw the world over again to get her back.
Subverted as a Discussed Trope in South Park: in the episode "Make Love, Not Warcraft", Cartman directly asks Clyde if he would go back in time and kill Hitler given the chance, then adds that he himself wouldn't, because he thinks Hitler was awesome.
In the Futurama episode "The Late Phillip J. Fry," Farnsworth kills Hitler after reaching the creation of a new, identical universe following the end of the current one. We don't see the consequences, but later on he attempts to kill the next universe's Hitler and accidentally kills Eleanor Roosevelt instead.
Robot Chicken demonstrates a possible loophole to this trope: a skit during the episode called "Dicks With Time Machines" features...well, dicks screwing around with past. However, the last one doesn't try to kill Hitler, but instead chooses to publicly humiliate him by showing footage of him on the toilet at one of his rallies. This effectively destroys Hitler's ability to get anyone to listen to him and changes the name of the skit to "Heroes with Time Machines".
Downplayed in The Simpsons; Homer wakes up at work thinking he has travelled back in time and the first thing that comes to his mind is stopping Hitler, but he is in the present day and just missed the point about a retrospective radio show talking as if the year were 1939. The writers also toyed with this idea for a sci-fi themed Halloween episode but nothing was produced and only a raw internal short touched the topic.
China Il had an episode in which Steve Smith and Ronald Reagan worked together to avert every disaster that had ever taken place, including stopping Lincoln's assassination and converting Hitler to Judaism. This inevitably resulted in the present age being attacked by every apocalyptic event possible, and as for Hitler, the Nazi party was now made up of Jews.
Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox by Professor Zoom during his Breaking Speech against the Flash. However he notes instead of killing Hitler, as is typical of this trope, that The Flash could have used his powers of time travel (which he achieved by running so fast that he could go backward in time) to "Stop Kennedy from being assassinated or making sure Hitler stays in art school. But no, you had to go save mommy."
Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, who do audio dramas in the vein of old fashioned Radio Drama, had a story called The Assassin, where the time traveler trying to halt World War II goes back in time to assassinate a six year old boy, to prevent the formation of Nazi Germany. The catch? Hitler was the guy who eventually replaced the dictator-to-be that was assassinated by the time traveler.
One recurring joke in John and Hank Green's Brotherhood 2.0 videos is the Evil Baby Orphange, a project suggested by a fan in the midst of a conflict over whether killing Baby Hitler was ethical: instead of killing him, kidnap and bring him to a mountain retreat with other kidnapped historical despots.
The short play If You Could Go Back... presents the scenario where the scientist that created the machine has to send her layabout roommate to stop the assassin she herself sent multiple times, as in each iteration they try and assassinate Hitler earlier and earlier in his career, and each version only makes things worse. At the ending, the scientist goes back to Hitler's childhood and talks to him and hugs him - changing his nature rather than adding violence to a violent world. Not that that changes the end result - a new dictator arises and does the exact same thing.
There is a 1966 Swedish play, Å, vilken härlig fred!, about war, democracy, and civil rights that touches on this. One scene is in an alternate history where Nazi Germany won WWII and... not very much seems different. A movie poster announces the latest 007 film — 007 Gert Fröbe, that is — and the latest teenage fad is rück und rüll music, but otherwise the actors read the actual newspaper of the day and discuss current events that the audience would be familiar with. But: when one of the actors complain about Hitler getting the Nobel Prize ("a fat geezer who spends his time at the Riviera wrapped in a blanket making bad paintings") a member of the audience leaves to come back later with some uniformed policemen who drag the actor off stage.
This time machine tale takes a moment from stealing cereal through time and creating paradoxes to explain why it won't work.
This ad for Mercedes has Hitler being run over by a car as a child, as the car "detects dangers before they come up". Not surprisingly, the ad was rejected.
Referenced in Real Life when the Austrian town where Hitler was born was captured by the Allies. Among the residents who spoke up at a meeting where the townsfolk decided to surrender without a fight was the elderly midwife who'd aided in Hitler's birth. She pointed out that their town would already suffer a black mark throughout history, in part because she hadn't strangled him as a newborn; as much as she wished she'd done so, the shames of the past couldn't be changed, and putting up a futile resistance now would only reinforce that stain.
Dean Burnett, writing for The Guardian, argues against assassinating Hitler here, on the basis that it's impossible to know whether doing so would make things worse (amongst other things).
British soldier Henry Tandey had the chance to kill Hitler during World War I - as in, he literally had Hitler lined up in the sights of his rifle and was moments away from pulling the trigger - but didn't, as he couldn't bring himself to kill a wounded, helpless man. When World War II rolled around, he wished he had.