The Hitler Problem
Killing Hitler was the easy part. A knife between the ribs, a slight twist like working a knob of gristle from a roast. That’s all it took. I removed the identification papers from his shabby coat, disfigured his face-—Protocol 14, Do Not Create A Martyr-—checked carefully to make absolutely sure, and rolled what was left of him into the Danube.
Then I waited for history to change, though I knew it wouldn’t. Only in the time-sealed compound back home would our scientists, historians, ethicists, and agents be able to track any new deviations from Timeline Alpha, the canonical history, the terrible world Hitler had shaped in his own image. For me, panting slightly and washing my hands in the cold river water, nothing would change— and yet, I waited to feel a shift, a tug, a small movement that would ripple and spread and remake everything.
I knew better. Back at the compound, we’d trained for this moment, this paradox of triumph and emptiness. I still had work to do, cleaning out the target’s squat in the men’s hostel, destroying any writings or drawings, but for the most part, my mission was over. I’d finish up here, go to Switzerland and the Basel Minster cathedral, leave a message for my future colleagues to find a century later underneath a certain flagstone in the northern tower, and execute my Final Protocol. Then, history would be wiped clean: no Hitler, no war, no Holocaust. Millions of lives saved, the deviant course of humanity set right.
The thing was, I wasn’t the first agent to travel back in time to kill Hitler.
The thing was, I was the sixth.
An elite corps of twenty agents had trained for this mission, but after it became clear that Riley, the best and brightest of us, would be chosen, the rest of us never really expected to be deployed. Riley was sent. We monitored the timeline. There were changes, small alterations, but still there was Hitler and all the rest.
So they sent another agent. Riley had traveled to Munich in 1919, hoping to catch Hitler in the narrow window between the end of his service in the first war and his rise in the German Workers’ Party. The second agent went back further, to kill Hitler as a surly schoolkid in Linz. The resulting timeline showed Denmark, rather than Poland, being invaded in 1939, but otherwise history remained largely the same.
We kept sending time travelers, and there kept being Hitlers. We sent agents to kill art school Hitler, World War One soldier Hitler, and, finally, baby Hitler. That last one was tough; some of the ethicists in the compound argued that this wasn’t really killing Hitler at all, since he hadn’t yet developed the experiences and values that made him the despicable piece of shit that was Hitler, but eventually they were voted down. I’m glad I wasn’t sent on that mission. We all knew the famous photo of baby Hitler, dressed all in white and cooing at the camera with his frankly adorable little bow of a mouth. I think I could have done it. I’m sure I could have done it. But still, I’m glad I wasn’t chosen.
The thing was, we had every reason to believe that each of these missions had been successful. All of us had learned every stitch of the man’s life by heart. I could have told you his favorite color (brown), the name of the dog he adopted during the Great War (Fuchsl, a winsome fox terrier), the sexual position he and Eva attempted during their one and only consummation in the Berlin bunker (missionary, followed by a laborious handjob and a great deal of weepy spooning, Eva being the big spoon). We knew every friend and acquaintance, every political turn, every stone in the Eagle’s Nest. There was no way the missions could have failed.
The Hitlers were different, yes, but they were still Hitlers. They had the same moustache and haircut, the same charisma and drive. Some seemed a little taller. One’s recorded voice was measurably deeper, one’s jaw more square. One, our analysts thought, almost certainly showed blond hair at the roots of his dark side part.
We had killed Hitler, but there were new Hitlers.
We even received two messages from the hiding place in the Basel Minster (Protocol 21). The first, from Riley, was terse and to the point. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. SURVEYING SECONDARY THREATS BEFORE EXECUTING FINAL PROTOCOL. This sent the historians into fits— Riley had been one of those who argued for taking out goons like Himmler, Goebbels, and Mengele, and I agreed with him, but in the end we had both conceded to the ethicists’ insistence that we limit our missions to the primary target, a single murder to prevent millions. But it seemed Riley, out on his own, had decided to ignore that protocol. History rippled. Auschwitz and Birkenau vanished from the map of killing centers; new markers appeared in Ostrow, Jaroslaw, and Chemnitz.
The second message, from the fifth agent, was more oblique. WE CAN DO MORE I MUST DO MORE THIS WORLD CAN STILL BE SAVED, read the yellowed paper we disinterred from the cathedral tower. Again, the historians freaked. Some said we should send two agents together, a kind of assassin buddy system, but the scientists reminded them that this was impossible. Some said we should shut down the program altogether. Some argued that we alter the primary target and kill Neville Chamberlain instead.
In the end, they sent me. We’d already made an attempt on art school Hitler, but we all agreed that since this version of the man was an insufferably pretentious turd, he was worth another shot. And, like I said, it was easy. I followed him from the rathskeller, pushed him against a wall, and slid the blade into his chest. He’d barely made a sound. Blood oozed through his shirt, and his pants darkened with piss. I pitched him into the Danube as easily as a sack of garbage. He was such a small man, after all.
So: Hitler was dead. Again. And this time, I’d make sure he stayed dead. I’d already decided, long before I was strapped into the time machine, that I would not execute the Final Protocol. I understood the rationale— Protocol 2, Do Not Create Unnecessary Timeline Disruptions— but, like Riley, I believed that history needed supervision. A knife between the ribs wasn’t enough, as the previous missions had shown. History was bigger than one man, but maybe one man could steer it, turn it from its bloody course.
Also, obviously, I did not want to kill myself. Why should I? I knew the timeline so thoroughly I felt sure I could avoid any mistakes that would lead to historically disastrous outcomes. I wouldn’t invent the Internet or the artificial heart. I was young, healthy; I had served my country. Didn’t I deserve a life, even if that life had to be lived in Weimar Germany?
I stood beside the Danube, under the dim light of gaslamps and a watery quarter moon, letting the cool air dry my hands. The river had swallowed the body, the ripples already soothed away. It was almost morning; I could smell woodsmoke and yeast from the Viennese bakery ovens. I had no technology from the future, no phone or computer or even a Rubik’s Cube— such items were impossible to transport through time— but I didn’t need them. I was a strong young man, highly trained in psychology, politics, history, and warfare.
A man like me could go far in this world.
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