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Killing Hitler: when is assassination justified?

Moral judgment should not be based on knowledge that comes only from hindsight. Wolfgang Wildner

Killing Hitler: when is assassination justified?

It seems a truism to say less lives would have been lost if those responsible for mass deaths were, themselves, killed before perpetrating their crimes. That morals aside, the world would have been better for it had someone assassinated Hitler before the second world war.

The film 13 Minutes (2015), now showing in cinemas, dramatises a real-life attempt to do just that. In 1939, Georg Elser, a worker who feared that Hitler intended to start a war that would lead to to many deaths, planted a bomb in a beer hall in Munich where Hitler was due to speak. Hitler escaped death by leaving 13 minutes before the bomb went off.

Elser was right about the war. Hitler was on his way to plan the invasion of France.

Elser is now regarded by many Germans as a good man who courageously acted according to his conscience. Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged him as a hero of the anti-Nazi resistance. The post office issued a stamp commemorating him. Streets have been named after him and monuments erected.

But was his deed morally justified? Lothar Fritze, a philosopher in the Hannah Arendt Institute for Research on Totalitarianism published a newspaper article and, more recently, a book, Lothar Fritze: Legitimer Widerstand? Der Fall Elser (2009), casting doubt on the moral legitimacy of Elser’s actions.

By criticising a person who many regard as a model of heroic virtue, Fritze stirred up a public controversy and was accused of contributing to attempts to sanitise the Nazi regime.

Fritze’s purpose is not merely to morally assess an act that took place more than 75 years ago. He fears that glorification of Elser’s deed could serve to justify present-day acts of terror. He has in mind the deeds of the Red Army Faction, an organisation of radical leftists of the 70s who justified their acts of terror and assassination by their conviction that the West German state was a continuation of fascism.

Fritze does not think it was wrong for Elser to attempt to assassinate Hitler. Nor does he think that the moral legitimacy of the attempt was undermined by the fact that it failed. Moral judgement should not be based on knowledge that comes from hindsight. What worries Fritze was the fact that the bomb killed innocent people. Two waitresses died as a result of the explosion.

Is it ever justified to kill a few innocent people in order to save the lives of many more?

Fritze has doubts about the morality of killing the innocent in any circumstances. But even if killing innocent people is justified in exceptional cases, he thinks that those who commit a violent act must be prepared to do all they can to prevent their deaths. They should be prepared to sacrifice their own lives if necessary.

Fritze thinks that Elser was morally at fault because he should have used the 13 minutes to warn people about the bomb as soon as he realised that his attempt on Hitler’s life had failed.

Trailer – 13 Minutes.

If Elser had sacrificed himself in this way he would have done a good deed. But it is doubtful that self-sacrifice was morally required. If we regard him as a resistance fighter at war against a tyrannical and murderous regime then we should put him in the same moral category as a soldier in a war.

Soldiers have an obligation to minimise harm to the innocent, but not to sacrifice their own lives to prevent deaths that are unavoidable if they accomplish legitimate ends. Killing a man who was a threat to the lives of so many people counts as a legitimate end.

But this justification raises another question about the morality of Elser’s deed. Fritze questions whether Elser, a man who was not particularly interested in political affairs, could have made a reliable judgement about the inevitability of a war.

The film makes a few suggestions of about why Elser thought that Hitler’s dictatorship would lead to disaster. How he actually reasoned is unknowable. Nevertheless, it would not have taken political expertise to anticipate that Hitler’s invasion of Poland two months earlier was a prelude to world war.

The Red Army Faction had no such justification for attacking officials of a democratic, law-abiding state, whatever its faults.

Some historians think that the death of Hitler in 1939 could have saved millions of people, including most of the Jews of Europe, from death. Elser committed a desperate deed in desperate times. The stakes were high. He failed in his aim and a few innocent people died. But he deserves the recognition that he has recently received.

What does Elser’s case tell us about the legitimacy of acts of violence against unjust political leaders or officials?

Fritze rightly emphasises the importance of avoiding harm to innocent people. He rightly insists that those who contemplate violent deeds should be certain that their cause is just and that there is no viable alternative. Taking these considerations seriously rules out terrorism and acts of violence against leaders or regimes that can be combated in other ways.

But it does not exclude the possibility that citizens might find themselves in a situation where violent acts are the only means of avoiding serious evils.