Crimes of the Father, or How We View Justice and Guilt

Sometimes I like to ponder on a thought experiment, which supposes that in March of 1945, Eva Braun gave birth to Adolf Hitler’s only child, who survived the war.  And not only did he survive the war, but everyone knows about him, knows about his parentage, and his location is neither secret, nor protected.  Everything else remained the same as we currently know it now.  Hitler and Braun still shoot themselves in April 1945, Germany still surrenders a week later, the Nuremberg trials proceed as they did.  Every single detail about World War II, and its aftermath, remains the same in this hypothetical timeline as it did in our real history–except for the fact that Hitler’s legacy now includes this baby boy.  So, my question is, how justly do you think people would treat this hypothetical child, in light of his father’s atrocious crimes against humanity?  Remember, he was only two months old when the war ended in Europe, had no hand in any of the decisions carried out by his despot parent, on account that he was too young to even be fully aware of his parent’s existence.  The obvious response I imagine people would give is that they would not blame the innocent boy for the crimes his father had committed, and treat him with the same unbiased opinion as they would any other child.  But this is an easy position for us to claim in a hypothetical scenario, because we are calm and capable of approaching the issue without any emotional consideration.  If the posed questioned was not merely a thought experiment, I think the response would be much different.

You’ve suffered at the hands of the Third Reich; watched your loved ones die around you in agonizing pain; been beaten, starved, left without a home or hope; all due to the actions of that one man who had evaded punishment by taking his own life before anyone else could take it from him.  But here was his son, all that remains of the criminal’s flesh and blood, lying healthy, yet as helplessly as you did at the mercy of his father’s once menacing might.  Now, I ask again, what would your real feelings be towards this child?  Can you honestly say that you would have no resentment or prejudice against him, solely on account of his father’s heinous actions?  And, perhaps, you still insist that your answer remains the same as before, which is fair enough, as I’m in no position to dictate what your personal feelings would be in any given scenario.  But let me ask you another question then: do you believe that the rest of society would be as fair minded as you in dealing with this child?  Or, do you think that it is much more likely that our communal need for justice will quickly develop into a call for vengeance against this spawn of pure evil?

Maybe not at first–our better conscience might win out and prevent us from killing him in infancy–but what about as he grows older?  Would even the most trivial of offenses by the adolescent boy be used as a warrant to denounce him to be as wicked as his father?  Will we associate ever moment of anger and frustration to some inevitable predisposition?  And, if he did become just as bad as his old man, how much of it would we immediately attribute to his genetic relations, without even considering the role our preemptive scrutiny of his character had in shaping his ominous personality?  (Fostering self-fulfilling prophecies is a hallmark of our species, after all.)

I think the way a person responds to this thought experiment says a lot about one’s views of humanity, and its capacity to carry out fair justice, free of biases and prejudices.  I’ve written in the past about my opinions on the failings of our Justice System, how too often we seek vengeance on criminals, than rehabilitation; how we’d prefer to punish a scapegoat, than have no perpetrator to punish at all.  Thus, personally, I think the kid would be dead before he reaches 18 (either through homicide from a vengeful lurker, or suicide brought on through a lifetime of guilt by association for even the most minor of trespasses he might commit in life).  Whether that makes me realistic or pessimistic is anyone’s guess.

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