It wasn’t really a moral question. It was more of a historical one. I know that now, although I didn’t then. Back then I was seventeen years old and taking the mandatory high school class in world history.
Now, I’d always enjoyed reading about other people in other times and how they lived, how they thought and what they did. Maybe that’s why I paid a little more attention in this class than my school mates and why the question meant more to me than it did to them. Or maybe it was something else, sometime a little less defined but something that struck a chord with me.
It was the last week of school and no one really cared about much of anything then. We were just going through the motions because the state demanded 180 days of learning, or attendance, but our finals had been taken and our grades were already recorded. We were all waiting for that final day, for the start of summer vacation when we could escape into those nearly endless days of sun and sand and baby oil baked bodies on the beach or beside the pool or in the backyard. But right now we were all getting bored out of our gourds when the instructor, a cute, petite blonde in her first year of secondary education (and what might be her last thanks to the many wisecracks and vaguely sexual innuendos of the post pubescent males) made one last attempt at regaining control of the seventh period class. She was at the end of her rope, just wishing for the summer as much as the students.
Leaning on the edge of her desk, and looking as if she wanted to cry, she said, “Okay. Let’s suppose that you had a time machine and could go back to any point in history. Would you, given what you know about the Second World War, go back in time to kill Adolph Hitler before he could get it all started?”
The question seemed to be so fat out of context, so far removed from anything that we had discussed that we all seemed stunned by it. Everyone just sat there looking dumb. Then, from the rear, one of the smartasses said, “It wouldn’t work. You can’t change time.”
Well that wasn’t really the point of the question but before anyone could respond to that, one of his smartass friends said, “Sure you can. We do it every time we go to Denver. Lose an hour one way, gain it in the other.”
There was a scattering of snorts and half-hearted laughs.
The teacher actually smiled, for the first time in days and said, “Since we’re talking about a fantasy here, we can make up our own rules, and I say that you can change time. The question remains: Given the opportunity, would you kill Hitler?”
I was tempted to bring up the paradoxes involved like the classic case of traveling into the past to kill your grandfather before your father was conceived, or perhaps traveling into the future to kill your grandson before he could kill you. But since history and not time travel was the real issue and since I still thought of them as two separate, discreet issues, I decided to keep quiet and see if the discussion would develop into anything interesting. Surprisingly, it did.
Typically, I suppose, the first concern of many of the students was getting caught. Oh, not by the Nazis. Strangely, that never came up. Nobody wanted to be arrested by the police for murder, and given the tendency of police departments to abide by the letter of the law, that seemed to be a real possibility even if the victim was Adolf Hitler. The Nazis, nearly everyone reasoned could be easily escaped by then traveling forward, into the present. It was the contemporary authorities that had everyone concerned. By killing Hitler before he had a chance to start the Second World War and order all the various atrocities, they would be guilty of murdering, essentially, an innocent man with no way to prove what a monster he would become. No one wanted to be arrested and punished for a crime they committed seventy-five or a hundred years ago, especially when the murder had been committed to prevent the murders of millions of others.
No one really thought about it being wrong, and I never understood if it was something about our society and the way we were raised and the way we thought that kept us from even talking about that. No one thought in terms of murder but in terms of being caught, which, now that I have the time to consider it, was an interesting side that we just never discussed.
Anyway, once we decided that we wouldn’t be punished for the assassination by any Earthly source, we got into the meat of the discussion. Hitler, they decided, was directly responsible for the majority of the Second World War. His actions in Europe had allowed the Japanese to expand in Asia and the Pacific, overlooking that Japan had invaded China before Hitler began his expansion, but it was argued that he was the blame for that too. I thought that this was an oversimplification of world politics but kept quiet. The taking of one life, any life, someone said, was morally wrong no matter what the provocation. This was countered with the argument that society had the right to protect itself and frequently did so by executing convicted murderers. Just when it looked as if things were going to degenerated into an argument about capital punishment, the teacher broke in again and called on me.
“You’ve been awfully quiet through all this, Sarah,” she said. “What do you think?”
“I think,” I said, “that upwards of six million Jews died as a direct result of orders issued by Adolph Hitler. Twelve million Russians were killed because he ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union. I think that millions of others died because he wanted to rule the world. I think he created six years of terror that rocked the world, and more years that rocked Europe causing unmeasured misery. There should be no question as to the propriety of executing a man guilty of mass murder in such enormous proportions. Whether or not I could do it, I can’t honestly say, but I think it should have been done as early as possible.”
The teacher looked a little disappointed at that. It has taken me twenty years to figure out why.
The funny thing was that of all the things that happened to me in high school, that discussion, that single question, was the thing that stuck. It might be said that it influenced my college career. Not directly because I was interested in science and physics but I took more history courses than a science major is required to take. I don’t know why. Maybe I thought it would help me understand the motivations of the natural world if I could understand the motivations of the historical one, help me understand why things were the way they were.
Perhaps it was not after all, so very odd that I found myself, after college and grad school, working on a project that suggested that time travel was possible. In grad school we had spent hours over beer and pizza arguing the subject, all of us conceding, because of Einstein, that travel into the future was possible but that it was a one way trip. You couldn’t get back. All you really did was sort of speed up your own path to the future while others stayed on the slower route. Dr. William Callahan showed up with a strange set of figures and several small electromagnetic devices that seemed to prove his figures correct. After that I continued to be interested in history, but also assisted Callahan with his tiny inventions, working with him as he made them into larger ones, one that could hold small test animals and finally, humans.
The first tests were nothing spectacular. Just trips backward or forward in time. Small trips of several hours or days or weeks. At one point, because of the necessary secrecy, Callahan refused to provide some small caliber government bureaucrat with certain information he had requested, all funding was cut off. Callahan, unlike the rest of us, didn’t panic. He merely leaped a week into the future, learned the outcomes of various horse races, lotteries, pools and games, and bet accordingly. He didn’t want to break anyone’s bank, so he was careful, but he did accumulate the money we needed to keep working. Such is one of the bizarre quirks that dot the time travel landscape.
Even with all that, I still found time for my study of history, and one night, shortly after Callahan’s feat of temporal-financial wizardry, while I was reading about some newly discovered records of Hitler’s sordid personal life, the old question recurred to me. If I had a time machine, would I go back in time and kill Hitler?
And suddenly it was more than just a rhetorical question asked by a frantic high school teacher because I found myself with a time machine and I could go back. I had a grade “A”, almost government approved, fully certified, completely functioning, honest-to-God time machine. H. G. Wells must have been spinning in his grave. It struck me that I could go find out exactly what Mr. Wells thought about this time machine because I could, with an error of only plus or minus twenty minutes return to any time after 1850, and ask him what he thought of it. I could go farther than that, naturally, but the error increased as the length of the shoot increased. On closer shoots, the accuracy was higher. Why, I could go to say 1933 with an error of only plus or minus ten minutes.
I could go to, say, February 27, 1933, the eve of the Reichstag fire. A time when Hitler would be out roaming the streets with his Nazi cronies, drunk on the power of his new position as Chancellor, riding high on the realization of his political ambitions were all about to come true. A time long before the start of the war in Europe, when Berlin was full of American tourists and artists and writers, and an American who spoke a little poor German would not look out of place and might even be welcomed. A time when Adolph Hitler would be most accessible, most vulnerable because the history of assassination attempts was still in his future.
Almost without thinking about it, I had made the decision. I had answered the question. There was no reason to rush. The time machine wasn’t going anywhere and I had complete access to it. I brushed up on my German, haunted the second-hand shops for clothing that was appropriate to the time period, altering those items that didn’t fit well, completed the necessary paperwork to apply for a permit to purchase a gun. Because I wanted a revolver and not a rifle or shotgun, and because I lived in New York, the gun took an incredibly long time. It was nearly a year after the idea had occurred to me, or rather recurred to me, when I checked my historical notes one last time and took a taxi down to the university.
It was nearly midnight, and there was no one around except the night watchman. He smiled when he saw me come in and said something about working too much. I muttered an appropriate reply and heard him say something about it being too bad work had to spoil my party.
“It’s a terrific costume,” he called as I walked down the hall. I hoped that Adolph Hitler would think so too.
The machine was simplicity itself to operate. I rechecked my figures one last time and then keyed the spatio-temporal coordinates for the shoot into the computer terminal, after accessing the system with the proper user code. I fed the data for a delayed shoot initiation sequence, and a two hour event duration prior to retrieval. I hoped two hours would be enough. I didn’t want to risk more than that in case I was captured by either the SA or the secret police. Although I had no doubt that they could make things highly unpleasant in a matter of minutes, I figured they wouldn’t kill me outright, preferring the publicity of a sensational trial before a swift execution. The only problem lay in the machine being able to lock onto me if I was unable to make it back to the original shoot geographic coordinates prior to the retrieval.
The tracer was designed to take care of that. It provided a trans-temporal signal that the machine could scan for and lock onto. We had developed it as a safety device. Originally it was worn like a wristwatch, but I was afraid they might take a watch away from me if I was captured, so I had modified the container. I retired briefly to the little lavatory connected to the lab and inserted the tracer where I hoped it wouldn’t be found for the two hours, if I was captured. It wasn’t as good a fit as I’d thought it would be, but I could live with it.
I went back to the terminal and punched in the shoot initiation start sequence. All but the last numeral. My finger hesitated over the final digit. Until that moment, none of it had really seemed real. It had been something to think about, speculate over, plan, like an honest man fantasizing about a multi-million dollar bank robbery. Until I pushed the button, it was all still just a game, an esoteric exercise on the cerebral level that I could call a halt to at any time. Push one button and step into the machine. That was all I had to do. I stared at my hands. The left trembled slightly, but the right, with its index finger poised over the button held firm. At the final moment, could I kill another human being? Even a madman who was responsible for the death of the six million Jews, my own grandmother among them. I felt the sweat bead on my forehead and wiped it with the back of my left hand. Then I glanced down at my right hand. The finger was bent and turning red. Without consciously being aware of it, I had pushed the button.
I rushed down the short flight of steps into the pit and slammed the chamber door behind me, locking it to prevent any accidental intrusion should anyone else come into the lab. The red-lighted interior seemed to take on a strange shimmering, and then turned gray as a wave of dizziness and nausea washed over me. I slipped forward onto one knee and reached out a hand to steady myself on the side of the chamber. The wall was only a few inches from my fingertips. Then everything went black as my hand kept right on going through the wall and I toppled slowly forward.
My forehead bumped against something rough and unyielding. The side of a building. The weather was cold, the cement wet. I reached again with my right hand, and weakly touched the brick wall in front of me. I took several deep breaths, feeling the cold air burn its way into my lungs, and exhaling little clouds of vapor. The dizziness passed and I got unsteadily to my feet.
I was standing next to the back wall of a five story building, behind a stack of wooden crates, and a confusion of cardboard boxes and garbage cans. The machine had set me down in an alley, away from the curious stares of the people who walked the street, only a few yards away. It wasn’t supposed to do that. Then I remembered that the uncertainty of principle governed the geographic as well as the temporal coordinates of the shoot. For a sobering moment, I was thankful that the machine had not set me down inside a concrete wall.
A truck lumbered by, looking like a museum piece and honking its horn noisily, jarring me out of my reverie. The truck was followed by a couple of horse-drawn wagons, clattering down the street, and then, finally, I heard the snatches of conversation from the pedestrians. All in German. I had made it.
I waited until there was a break in the foot traffic, then slipped out of the alley and onto the sidewalk. Now I realized how cold it was. In my effort to appear attractive to Hitler, I had worn a relatively short skirt, short by 1930s standards anyway, and a white ruffled blouse and only a short cloth coat. In the space of a nanosecond or two I had gone from a 78 degree, air conditioned laboratory to a below freezing Berlin street. I fought to control the involuntary shivers and turned toward what I assumed to be the north, looking for a street sign or newspaper vendor, something to confirm both my location and the date.
Suddenly a man came out of a restaurant across the street and began running straight toward me. For an instant I thought I had been found out, done something to tip the man off that I was not from Berlin in 1933 and that I was not who I seemed to be, that I was somehow dangerous. But I was just the first passerby the man had seen as he rushed from the restaurant. He spun me around and pointed to a glow in the sky toward the east, shouting much louder than necessary that the Reichstag was burning. I tried to get him to stand still long enough to question him but he didn’t know anything more about it, just that the fire had started and spread quickly, or so he thought. In less than five minutes the whole building was ablaze.
All along the street, people faced toward the east. Some stopped and just stared into the sky at the glow, while others rushed forward, some almost running toward the fire. I fell in with a group of them and tried to listen, but most of them were so excited that they were speaking too fast for me to follow the conversation. I did hear one of them blame the communists, and figured he was probably from the SA and had foregone the brown shirted uniform intentionally. I knew the Nazis had tried to frame the communists for the fire and figured the man had been ordered to mix in with the crowds to help plant the rumor.
People seemed to pour into the street from the buildings all around me. As we neared the Reichstag we ran into a police roadblock but the crowd surged onto the sidewalks and swept past the roadblock, pushing and shoving its way closer to the fire. Thick smoke hung in the air, and above that the sky was orange. They we turned a corner and far down the street I could see it. Flames were shooting into the sky. Hundreds of firemen were milling about, trying ineffectually to put out the fire with their primitive equipment.
Slowly the crowd slipped forward. I could hear shouting of the firemen as they brought in more equipment, unwrapped hoses, and pumped water. In the street, the excess was already beginning to freeze.
Finally the crowd stopped and it became clear that I wouldn’t be able to get much closer. It had never occurred to me that thousands of Germans would be on the streets. From what I’d read, I had always had the impression that there would be a small crowd, a few hundred perhaps, standing behind wooden barricades as the police tried to keep the curious back far enough so they wouldn’t get hurt, and to allow the firemen to work. I needed time to circulate, to find Hitler among the masses. I knew he was supposed to be there but I didn’t know precisely where.
I shouldered my way through the throng, expressing my apologies as best I could, until I reached one of the barricades and then I could go no farther. There were storm troopers on the other side and they were letting no one through. I tried moving sideways, exchanging my spot with the person standing next to me, but the going was slow, and I only succeeded in reaching the street.
I spotted Herman Goering, standing next to one of the fire trucks, silhouetted by the flames. He made a great show of appearing to direct the firefighting operations but seemed to be more interested in talking with the police and the storm troopers and just generally watching the fire than doing any real good. I was mildly surprised to find him on the scene so quickly, although some historians had suggested that Goering himself actually set the fire in the first place. Then I remembered that as President of Prussia in 1933, his official residence was the Presidential Palace, just across the street.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, there he was. Adolph Hitler. Standing beside Goering with Goebbels in tow. He was dressed just as I had imagined he would be, in an old, gray overcoat, an ornate red, white, black and gold Nazi armband the only color visible in the flickering light. Goebbels was between him and the fire, and cast “der Furher” in shadows. The little corporal turned toward the crowd, and I could see the tiny black mustache. It was a little like looking at an old newsreel, as the shadows gave a black and white portrait of the man. He gestured toward the top of the Reichstag, pointing upward as Goering leaned forward to whisper something in his ear. As I watched him, he threw back his head and laughed.
I was running out of time. I had to speak to Hitler, get him off by himself for a few moments. I couldn’t be sure of hitting him in the crowd and I certainly couldn’t hope to shoot him in so public a place and to survive the attempt. Surely I would be killed by the mob or the storm troopers or either Goering or Goebbels before I would be retrieved. I pushed forward, as close to the barricade as I could get, leaned forward and waved frantically.
“Herr Hitler,” I called. “Herr Hitler. Over here.”
To my surprise, he walked forward, to the barricade, gave me an appraising look, and greeted my politely in German, of course. I tried my sexiest smile and said, “Congratulations, Herr Hitler.”
His face became instantly suspicious and he asked, “Congratulations for what, Frauline?”
I continued to smile. “Becoming chancellor and achieving the recognition and power you so richly deserve.”
He smiled back. “Thank you, Frauline. You are too kind. These are troubled times and one is privileged to serve the Fatherland in whatever small way one can.”
“You are much too modest,” I said. “But what you say is true. These are troubled times. And the country, indeed the entire world, needs a strong man such as you to lead us back to prosperity.”
He positively beamed at that but there came just the faintest questioning look in his eyes. He said, “Forgive me, but there is something strange about your accent. You are not German, I think.”
“American,” I said and smiled so wide that it almost hurt my teeth. “I’m an artist. I’ve come to Germany to study and paint its fine, solid buildings and strong people.”
I’d never held an artist’s paint brush in my life, but I knew of his interest in art and painting of buildings and I didn’t figure he’d have time to find out that I didn’t know Hansa yellow from Hooker’s green.
“I too have an interest in art,” he said. “Perhaps we could discuss it some time.”
“I would be honored. But, unfortunately, I leave for Cologne tomorrow. I don’t suppose… no, it’s too much to ask here and now given the circumstances.”
“You cannot know that unless you ask. The strong do not hesitate over what may be. They take what they need.”
“Yes, well, I was wondering, tonight perhaps? My train does not leave until late tomorrow morning and it is so cold out here on the street…” I left the last unfinished and hoped I wasn’t wrong about the train, or at least if I was, that he wouldn’t know that.
“A moment,” he said and then motioned to Goering.
I heard him ask, “Is anyone in the Presidential Palace right now?”
Goering shook his head.
“Then would you open one of the rooms for the young lady and see to it that there are some refreshments sent to it?”
Goering gave me an appraising look and a sort of little pouting half-frown of approval. Evidently I wasn’t quite his idea of the perfect woman but that didn’t really matter. It wasn’t Goering I was trying to impress.
He moved off to one side and spoke to one of the brown shirts, who took off at a dead run.
Hitler tapped another storm trooper on the shoulder and indicated the wooden barricade that separated us. The man moved it and Hitler held out his hand for me. He escorted me along the street, over the hoses and around the firefighting equipment, to the front of the Presidential Palace. Goering opened the door, whispered something to Hitler and then backed out, almost like a subject leaving the throne room.
The Furher gestured down a hallway and said, “I will join you in a moment, my dear.”
The moment turned into several minutes. At first I just sat on the bed, looking at the door, with my hand in my purse, feeling the hard walnut of the revolver’s grip. Finally I started to get hot, so I took off my coat. I could feel the perspiration beading on my forehead, and I knew that not all of it was due to the heat. It was a combination of things, worrying about running out of time and about shooting another human being, even if that human was Adolph Hitler.
I hadn’t thought of it that way until I’d stood across from him at the barricade. While I was planning this little venture I had envisioned him as some kind of inhumane monster, maybe a little bit larger than life, maybe with warts on his nose or crooked fingers or an unnatural psychotic gaze in his eyes. But that wasn’t the case. Hitler, in the flesh, seemed smaller than life, the kind of man you wouldn’t look at twice in a crowd. And yet, he was a man who was destined to start the worst war in all of history, a man responsible for millions of deaths.
When I had spoken to him at the barricade there had been nothing but a kind of timid sexual excitement in his eyes, despite the Nazi bravado of his words. I had counted on that. I knew he had trouble relating to women, and had read accounts indicating that this affliction tended to manifest itself in sadomasochistic behavior. I was sure, from my studies, that he wouldn’t be able to resist a thinly veiled proposition from a reasonably attractive woman who expressed an interest in strong, aggressive men. And I had used his own weakness against him. Somehow, it made me feel a little less clean.
Maybe it was because I didn’t feel clean, just then, or maybe it was just a way of passing time while I tried to decide whether to kill Hitler or just invent some excuse, make my apologies and get the hell out before the machine locked onto the tracer and whisked me back into the 21st century. I got the brush from my purse, stepped to the mirror, and started brushing my hair.
When the door finally opened and Hitler stepped in, he trapped me near the mirror. My purse, with the gun in it, was on the bed, and he was between me and the bed. For a fraction of a second, I imagined he knew about the gun, but realized all the modern technology I was used to didn’t exist in 1933. He just smiled and took off his coat throwing it over my purse. He stood there for a second, wearing that gray, double breasted coat with the Iron Cross and the Nazi eagle on it with his eyes locked on mine. I was surprised to see that his were blue and rather sad looking, and I knew right then I couldn’t go through with it. I’d been a fool to think I could take a human like even if that life was Adolph Hitler’s.
I stood paralyzed as he stepped closer and unbuttoned my blouse, felt a tug, and then my skirt was lying on the floor. I realized I’d let things go too far, but I didn’t seem able to act. I seemed not to be me anymore, but to be floating a few feet overhead, hovering about the ceiling and watching it all happen to someone else.
He twisted and sort of pushed me backward toward the bed and I found myself sitting on the edge of it. He was pawing at my chest, fumbling with my brassiere. The front hook closure seemed to baffle him. Suddenly, he grew enraged and grabbed the bra in his hand, yanking me to my feet, and tearing the undergarments from my breasts. That finally snapped me out of it, and I opened my mouth to scream and got a mouthful of knuckles for my effort. He slapped me twice, once on each side of the face, knocking me back against the bed.
I could taste the warm-sticky-sweet flavor of blood in my mouth, and knew that my lip must be cut, as I looked up at him standing there quietly above me with his hands folded behind his back. He smiled slowly, that same boyish disarming smile I’d first seen at the barricade, and there was a sad, almost pitying look in his eyes. Der shon Adolph. He held out his had to me to take it, and helped me to my feet like a perfect gentleman. I was a bit numbed by the sudden change in behavior.
He bent forward and kissed the back of my hand, then patted it with his right hand as he held mine in his left. He was mumbling something in German and his voice soft and reassuring as though he was telling me that I was being forgiven for whatever terrible transgression I had committed. Then he hit me a hard blow to the stomach.
It was a good punch, just below the solar plexus, delivered with the right fist while he held my wrist locked in his left hand. I sagged, wheezing, tears beginning to well in the corners of my eyes. He held me up by my wrist for a second, running his right hand over my breasts, then dropped my hand and let me fall to my knees. As I looked up gasping, my eye caught sight of the strap of my purse, sticking out from under his coat. I glanced toward Hitler and he had his back to me. He was standing in front of the bureau, looking for something in one of the drawers. He turned back around as my fingers inched toward the purse. There was a short, wire whip in his hand.
“Please, Liebehen ein Augenblick.” I stammered. “There’s something in my purse that you’ll find a whole lot more interesting than that whip.”
A quizzical expression crossed his face that somehow seemed outrageously funny. He stepped back a pace and nodded his assent, a short, quick jerk of his head.
I weakly tugged the purse out from under his overcoat, almost dropped it between my knees, and struggled with the clasp. I finally got it open and reached inside. “Dolph, baby,” I said, “you’re going to love this.”
My hand came out wrapped around the butt of the Smith and Wesson .38 Special, cocked the hammer and pointed it directly at his chest. The expression that crossed his face when he saw the little nickel plated revolver and finally realized it was a gun, was twice as comical as the one he’d worn only moments before.
The blood didn’t drain from his face, or his forehead break out in a cold sweat, none of those trite little clichés that Hollywood is so fond of. In fact, he showed no fear at all, only a kind of little lost boy confused look.
My gaze narrowed down until I could only see two things, the whip in his hand and the swastika beneath the Nazi eagle on his chest. I pulled the trigger.
The pistol roared and jumped in my fist. In the small, closed room, the shot sounded like a cannon.
The Furher’s expression changed from confusion to stunned disbelief. He stood there, swaying slightly for a moment, then his hand relaxed and the whip slipped from his fingers. He looked at me with dumb eyes and his lips quivered. Finally, he asked, softly, “Why?”
“Not because of this,” I said. “I knew the risk and I willingly set myself up. I want to thank you, though. I don’t think I could have done it if you hadn’t turned out to be a perverted bastard. Even to save millions of lives, I don’t think I could have done it.”
His eyes were beginning to glaze over as he stared at me from where he lay on the floor.
“What are you talking about it,” he asked, coughing.
“Dreams turned to ashes.”
I wanted to say more to him. I wanted to tell him about the war he would have started, the death and suffering that would have come. I wanted him to know just why he had to die now, but there wasn’t time. My watch indicated a minute and forty-five seconds until retrieval, and with the uncertainty principle still in effect, it could be much less. I stooped and scooped up my clothes. As I straightened, the door burst open and Goering charged into the room. He glanced at Hitler on the floor and began pulling a small pistol from his uniform pocket. I brought the .38 up to fire but neither of us got the chance. The field closed around me, things started to shimmer and blur out, and I felt faint.
When my head cleared, I was kneeling on the floor of the transfer chamber. I’d made it. I’d gone to pre-war Berlin, killed Adolph Hitler and got back alive. For a moment I just knelt there sobbing with relief. Then I struggled into what was left of my clothes, unlocked the door and stumbled out into the travel pit.
I was momentarily blinded by the dazzling brilliance of a powerful flashlight, and strong hands seized my arms. My hands were quickly forced behind my back and I heard the metallic click of handcuffs being snapped around my wrists.
“You are under arrest!” said a voice I didn’t immediately recognize.
I almost laughed. “No, wait. You don’t understand. I work here.” I figured the night watchman had become suspicious about the noise in the lab and called the Campus Police.
Then the man stepped closer and I recognized the familiar brown uniform. I glanced down and saw that he had drawn his weapon, a Luger pistol.
“You are under arrest,” he repeated, “for murder of Adolph Hitler on the evening of February 27, 1933.”
So it was an historical question, not a moral one. With all my interest in and study of history, all my supposed intelligence, I wasn’t smart enough to see that. None of us in that class understood what the teacher was trying to get at.
Hitler may have been one of the primary causes of the Second World War but he was also one of the reasons the Germans lost it. Without him to make unreasonable demands, to sacrifice millions of soldiers to hold onto or capture Russian cities when every tenant of common sense military tactics demanded withdrawal and consolidation of forces, without him to call a halt to the Battle of Britain just at the crucial moment when England was beaten to her knees, these mistakes were not made.
Germany repudiated its Axis alliance with Japan and consolidated its power base in Europe, while the United States was busy fighting the war in the Pacific. Ernst Rohm, a founder of the Nazi party before Hitler became involved in it, and head of the Sturmabteilung successfully seized power in a coup in 1934, executed Goering and Himmler, and persuaded the Prussian officer corps that backing him was a more attractive proposition than opposing him. After which he consolidated the Wehrmacht, veteran’s groups, SS and the Gestapo, all under the SA and named himself Defense Minister as well as President and Chancellor. The Luftwaffe and German Navy fell in line shortly thereafter. The German scientists at Peenemunde completed their rocketry research unimpeded by not having to worry about building missiles to hit England, and on January 21, 1946, Nazi Germany successfully tested the world’s first atomic bomb, or rather warhead, a top a V-4 missile near Tashkent, in German occupied East Central Asia.
Thirteen months later, the Luftwaffe Strategic Rocket Forces, acting on orders from Rohm, launched nuclear missile strikes against New York, Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, San Diego and Los Angeles in the opening act of the Third World War, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Somewhere along the time lines, a SA administrator in the Gestapo learned of our time travel project and to protect themselves, the SA arranged for me to travel back, or rather come forward or… It gets kind of confusing after having been tortured for weeks to extract every scrap of information from the only available mind from an alternative reality. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to remember which is my history and which is theirs. The point is, the SA had to make sure of Hitler’s death to ensure their own survival and ultimate world victory but they also had to stop me. The solution to the problem, from my point of view was immediately apparent. If I could travel back again and prevent myself from shooting Hitler, German would lose the Second World War as it was supposed to. I knew that. So did the SA. And they arranged to stop me by my arrest and execution.
As I lay here, huddled in the corner of my windowless, furnitureless concrete cell, listening to the water drip from the steam pipes, my fingers broken and my feet too swollen from beatings to hobble over to fight off the rats that are fighting over my last meal, it’s still a little difficult to believe everything could have turned out so wrong. I thought it was all so carefully thought out. And it was. But not by me. By the SA.
Rohm is dead now. He died of a heart attack in 1967 at the age of eighty while in bed with an eleven year old boy. But he’s had his successors, and the SA is still firmly in power.
So the Nazis won the Second World War. And the Third. And all because they didn’t have Hitler to screw things up for them. Because I had killed him. And all because I didn’t understand the question being asked by a high school teacher. So who’s the biggest criminal in history, you tell me. Adolph Hitler or me.
That, I guess, is a philosophical question, and not because I gave the Nazis the world. The SA got something from me that was far more important than a Nazi hero they could eulogize, or the ultimate victory over the Allied Powers. They got the knowledge that history could be changed and the insight that one must be careful to weigh all factors before attempting to make such a change to the correct historical path. They also got something else. Something they would never have gotten their hands on if I hadn’t killed Adolph Hitler on that night in February 1933. They got the means to extend their power throughout all ages.
They got Dr. Callahan’s time machine. The Hitler of my past once boasted that the Third Reich would last a thousand years. Thanks to me, it looks like he may have been more than just a little shortsighted.
I can hear them coming for me now, their hobnailed boots echoing down the stone corridor outside my cell. I wonder if it will be the hangman or the firing squad, not that it matters all that much to me now.
God, I wish I’d paid more attention in that history class.