Catholic Moral teaching: Killing Hitler

This question has been done to death, but here it goes.

You are in a bar in Vienna. The year is 1910.

While sitting at the counter, in walks a young man named Adolf Hitler.

You know what an evil and hateful person he is. You know that in the future he will commit unspeakable crimes and plunge the world into war.

Would it be permissible, in terms of the Catholic Church’s teachings, to kill him, especially if you know it will save millions of innocent lives?

I don’t think it would be moral to kill him prior to his crimes against humanity. We may not do evil, even if we hope that good will result from it. And it would indeed be a hope…we have no way of knowing that Hitler’s death would prevent the Holocaust. Someone else may simply rise in his place and do the same thing.

A better idea would be to try to talk to him and convince him that Antisemitism is wrong. Perhaps you could somehow prove that you’re from the future and then explain that his “final solution” is doomed to failure, that Germany loses WWII, etc.

On a side note, changing the past is most likely impossible. What the hypothetical time traveler would find is that he would be prevented from killing Hitler, or doing anything else that alters history by strange coincidences. As soon as he raises his gun to fire, someone else trips and bumps into him, knocking it out of his hand. Or perhaps the very act of trying to kill Hitler and failing would somehow be the exact thing that puts him on the path to genocide. Instead of preventing the Holocaust, the time traveler would actually play a part in making it happen. :eek:

But it is not doing evil to kill in defense of the innocent. If I am an armed police officer and I see a madman aiming a gun at a young child, then I shoot him dead, I am duty-bound. Just war is similarly justified in order to defend against an aggressor.

Certainly imprisoning or otherwise disabling Hitler’s ability to wreak havoc might be preferable to execution, but if killing him were the only way to stop the Holocaust then killing him would be just and right indeed.

Perhaps not 1910 but historically, the scholastics taught the right of tyrannicide. I do not believe that assassinating Hitler would be immoral.

Kill him, probably not. Sequester him or otherwise render him helpless without doing him physical harm, perhaps. Try to reason with him, certainly. :wink:

Counterfactuals are always true, because the premise is false. (Umberto Eco)


Excellent post.

But not before he’s done anything.

Was Hitler “an evil and hateful person” in 1910?

How would you know this?

And should people be killed for being “evil and hateful”?

Ironically, the moral principle you’re suggesting, if it were capable of being applied, would itself lead to totalitarian tyranny–or else total anarchy. Imagine a world in which people could be not only arrested but just killed on sight because of something the killer believed they were going to do. This would be an impossible state of affairs. So you’d have to vest authority to do this with the government–which would be unbearable tyranny (see the story and movie Minority Report).


If killing Hitler would be “permissible to Catholic church teachings” because you know what terrible things he is about to do…then you’d have to also agree that killing the hundreds of priests who would in the future sexually abuse children would be permissible, too.

Maybe, at the very least, instead of committing murder (reminder: “thou shall not kill”) the first step would be to just excommunicate the guy when it was discovered what he was doing/did.

He wrote in Mein Kampf: “… I am convinced that I am acting as the agent of our Creator. By fighting off the Jews. I am doing the Lord’s work…” because of the belief that Jews killed God.
And he told General Gerhart Engel in 1941 that, “I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so.”

Excommunication at the time may have been appropriate for this former altar boy.


This is a hypothetical situation in which we have secure knowledge of Hitler’s future acts.

I proposed another hypothetical situation in which a man is aiming a gun at a young child. Do we “KNOW” he’s going to shoot to kill? No, but reason allows us to anticipate it, and shoot him dead, yes, even before he has done anything wrong, in order to prevent a wrongdoing and defend innocent life.

I’ve always thought of it this way: Leaving the moral question aside for just a moment, let’s say you make a time machine to go back to 1910 to kill Hitler before he can kill millions. Once you kill him, Hitler, as far as the time stream is concerned, from that moment forward ceases to exist. Meaning his future atrocities cease to exist. Meaning you had no reason to go back in time in the first place. Meaning you didn’t go back in time or kill him. Meaning he goes on his blood-soaked path anyway. Either that, or you get into a recursive loop that ends up with a timey-wimey-ball eating you. :stuck_out_tongue:

Morally? How is it just to punish a person for crimes they have not committed yet? In 1910, Hitler was a starving art-student wannabe in the slums of Vienna, 13 years removed from Mein Kampf, 23 years removed from attaining power in Germany and 32 years from signing off on the Wannsee Conference’s recommendations to kick the endloesung into full speed. None of that had happened at that time, and he was just a lone nut-case obsessed with Wagner and an inchoate hatred of Judiasm. It would be murder to kill someone in that circumstance. Not to mention the kind of move that Hitler himself would have visited upon his enemies if he had the wherewithal to do it.

No, it would not be moral. If you believe that human beings have free will, that child has the potential to become anything.

It’s the reverse of the question about being in a boat with a pregnant woman and a man that will go on to discover a cure for cancer but you can only save one of them. In my opinion, I would save the pregnant woman to save two lives instead of one. That man might decide on another course and the child in the womb may be the one to discover a cure for cancer. Free will.

That’s not the point of debate here. If I understand the premise of the OP, he is saying, someone comes from the future with secure knowledge of who Hitler is and what he will do in his lifetime. Free will doesn’t enter into it.

You must realize, of course, that the above statement can be taken to mean that your “sense of justice” entails that the death penalty is a JUST consequence for the sexual abuse of children (which it rarely has been in the case of priests,) otherwise why would you make a claim that “killing the hundreds of priests who would in the future sexually abuse -]children/-] [adolescents] would be permissible?” The action of killing priests could only be considered “permissible” if you agree that capital punishment is a just penalty for sexual abuse.

Is that your position?

Are you also advocating, perhaps, that the death penalty should likewise apply for rapists, since the crime would seem to be, roughly speaking, the same, or, arguably, worse?

You have to be a little more selective and less simplistic in digging up evidence. To make certain claims based upon very tenuous evidence shows a less than fair-minded perspective on serious issues that have a long history of uncertainty and much better scholarship on the subject than you present.

Of course, Hitler’s claim to be doing “the Lord’s work” in a largely Christian country should be taken as a sincere expression of his deepest held beliefs rather than just making political hay at a time when he absolutely needed the loyalty of the nation. :rolleyes:

The “depth” of your analysis of historical events is :bigyikes: as is your sense of justice.

Shows a real paucity of knowledge of the situation as if such a simple step would have turned Hitler into a remorseful and repentant saint straight away.

You may want to read the Encyclical MIT BRENNENDER SORGE (On the Church and the German Reich)
Promulgated by Pope Pius XI on 14 March 1937 where Pius explains much of his reasoning regarding Hitler.

Some excerpts…

  1. Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community—however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things—whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.
  1. Beware, Venerable Brethren, of **that growing abuse, in speech as in writing, of the name of God as though it were a meaningless label, to be affixed to any creation, more or less arbitrary, of human speculation. **Use your influence on the Faithful, that they refuse to yield to this aberration. Our God is the Personal God, supernatural, omnipotent, infinitely perfect, one in the Trinity of Persons, tri-personal in the unity of divine essence, the Creator of all existence. Lord, King and ultimate Consummator of the history of the world, who will not, and cannot, tolerate a rival God by His side.
  1. In your country, Venerable Brethren, voices are swelling into a chorus urging people to leave the Church, and among the leaders there is more than one whose official position is intended to create the impression that this infidelity to Christ the King constitutes a signal and meritorious act of loyalty to the modern State. Secret and open measures of intimidation, the threat of economic and civic disabilities, bear on the loyalty of certain classes of Catholic functionaries, a pressure which violates every human right and dignity. Our wholehearted paternal sympathy goes out to those who must pay so dearly for their loyalty to Christ and the Church; but directly the highest interests are at stake, with the alternative of spiritual loss, there is but one alternative left, that of heroism. If the oppressor offers one the Judas bargain of apostasy he can only, at the cost of every worldly sacrifice, answer with Our Lord: "Be gone, Satan!

Clearly, Article 9 was addressing Hitler’s claim to be doing the “Lord’s work.”

It would still be murder, since Hitler in 1910 was as innocent as anyone else.

The guy aiming a gun at a young child is not innocent - he is guilty of death threats, and killing him is an act of defense. It could be likened to killing Hitler in 1935, when his intentions were clear, but not to killing him in 1910.

But it’s not clear that this is even possible. It’s a bad idea to base ethical dilemmas on something that may be intrinsically nonsensical. It’s difficult enough to explain how God can know “future free choices” (yes, I know about and believe in timeless knowledge–the problem is how those choices can then still be free). It’s much less clear how one creature could ever know with certainty what the free choices of another creature would be. It’s also not clear that time travel into the past is possible.

But even granting the premise, it would still be morally wrong, because Hitler-of-1910 isn’t responsible for a later “Hitler’s” actions. The only way it would work is if you could prove that the Hitler of 1910 had already planned his later crimes. I’m still dubious about it, but at that point perhaps there could be some case.

Let’s put this in a starker form: what about killing the infant Hitler? What about aborting Hitler before he was ever born? I think that at this point it’s clear that such actions would be wicked.

The only really good episode of the shortlived Twilight Zone remake of the early 2000s concerned this issue (at least the only one I remember). A woman goes back in time to murder the infant Hitler, but in the end can’t do it and swaps him for another child instead. The implication, of course, is that the real “Adolf Hitler” wouldn’t have committed these crimes. (I believe the child was a gypsy child in the episode, which was in extremely bad taste, to put it mildly, given Hitler’s genocide against gypsies–but it was still a memorable episode in a generally unmemorable reboot of a great series!)


If you shot hitler in 1910 you are in mortal Sin. If you shoot hitler in cold blood in 1945, you are in Mortal Sin. The Church is very specific about this. Killing is wrong.

Also we are catholic, we reject predestination as defined by Calvin. Every person, including Adolf Hitler, has the opportunity to repent. The SS Commander of Rome During WWII ended up converting to Catholicism in the late 1950s. there is always a door to repentance, right up until we breathe our last.

Very good point:thumbsup:

Does anyone else ever ponder what difference the premature death of Hitler would have made in the first place? The premature death of Hitler does not resolve all of the problems caused by WW1, it wouldn’t make the ludicrous reparations go away, it wouldn’t resolve the latent hostility that existed against Jews, nor would it have ended the struggle between communists and reactionaries and so on.

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