Taking another look

I’ve often heard Adolf Hitler used as an example of human evil. With quite a bit of merit. And there is often the hypothetical question of would you, given the chance, go back in time to end his life before it started?

Recently an idea occurred to me which has caused my finger to pause on that retrospective trigger. Icon of evil though Hitler may be, perhaps the history books have not told us the full story. A little bit of speculative interpretation is what I’d like to offer here.

Until the mid-1900’s, humanity was captivated by the beauty of power, and held in awe by the force of destruction. Even today there are still many people fascinated by machines of war. However, it was not until Hitler that we saw the raw, horrific ugliness of power, on a scale and in a setting where none could deny its nature. The terrible crimes Hitler committed have been arraigned on a world stage, and held in contempt by the vast majority of its peoples. This shocking example of power’s misuse may have been what stayed the hands of the super-powers during the Cuban missile crisis. No one wants to be seen again as a destroyer of civilization, or to be added to history’s list of monsters.

Since World War II we have condemned the Nazis, yet the Jews have been left to wonder at God’s silence. What if the horror of that spectacle was what humanity needed in order to prevent its future destruction? The death of those six million may have purchased the lives of today’s billions. If this is possible, then the Jewish race made a profound sacrifice for the sake of all of us, and not a meaningless slaughter; and Hitler is perhaps the least characteristic savior we have ever had.

It is a classic example of adolescence that until one makes a terrible mistake he will not properly respect the nature of power. I wonder if humanity in the early twentieth century was not on a runaway path to oblivion, its morals far out-paced by its technology. No one really knew what it meant for a ruler to have the capacity to casually butcher people by the millions. No weapons existed previously that could inflict the kind of harm seen in the mere moments of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What if the Cold War had not been so cold, but fired by dreams of avarice and conquest? Would we have been sufficiently terrified at our potential for evil, to outlast the threat of doom as we did?

I think Hitler may have been a lesson in self-knowledge that we desperately needed to survive the coming times: a knowledge which was paid for by the blood of the innocent. Perhaps he made us ill enough at our nature that in the hearts of generals and politicians there was planted a desire for things never to reach such a point again.

Should I be thanking the past that a present exists in which to think these thoughts?