The Man Who Could Have Shot Hitler

I was interested to learn of David Johnson’s new book, The Man Who Didn’t Shoot Hitler (The Story of Henry Tandey VC and Adolf Hitler, 1918), which has received a lot of attention in the British media.  The book’s implicitly counterfactual title alone makes it intriguing. 

The title refers to the alleged encounter (“alleged” because it remains unverified) between Tandey and Hitler at the Battle of Marcoing in France on September 28, 1918. 

As The Daily Mirror reported in a recent article:

“In the dying moments of the First World War 22 years earlier, [Tandey] had pointed his rifle at a wounded German soldier trying to flee a French battlefield. Their eyes met and Henry lowered his gun. The German nodded in thanks then disappeared.

In that moment of compassion for a fellow human being, Henry, then 27, let 29-year-old Corporal Adolf Hitler walk free.
Free to become the most reviled dictator and mass murderer of all time.
‘I didn’t like to shoot at a wounded man,” he said in 1940. “But if I’d only known who he would turn out to be... I’d give 10 years now to have five minutes of clairvoyance then.’
It was the biggest “what if?” in history and, until his death in 1977 at the age of 86, Henry had to live with the stigma of being “The Man Who Didn’t Shoot Hitler.”

The intrinsic interest in Tandey’s life revolves around the question of how history would have been different if he had shot Hitler.  Needless to say, the premise requires that Tandey actually had the opportunity to kill the future dictator.  It is anything but clear whether or not this was the case, however.

A recent NPR story casts doubt on the likelihood that the two soldiers encountered one another as legend would have it.  Moreover, as the Mirror explained, the source for the story of Tandey’s historic act of omission was none other than Hitler himself.

“For 20 years Henry had no idea he had missed the chance to kill Hitler. But in 1938 he received a shocking phone call from Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who had just returned from a fruitless meeting with Hitler to try to talk him out of war.
Chamberlain had been invited to Hitler’s hilltop retreat in Bavaria and shown a reproduction of a famous painting called The Menin Crossroads.

An Italian war artist had captured soldiers of the Green Howards evacuating the wounded at the Battle of Ypres in 1914 – with Henry Tandey in the foreground carrying a comrade on his back.
Incredibly, Hitler recognised him as the man who spared him four years later on September 28, 1918.
He told Chamberlain: “That man came so near to killing me I thought I should never see Germany again. Providence saved me from such devilishly accurate fire as those English boys were aiming at us.”
Needless to say, Hitler was far from being a reliable source about his own biography.
But we can assume that he had his reasons for making his claim about Handey.
It seems clear that Hitler saw it in his interest to claim that Handey (then Britain’s most decorated WWI hero and thus an appealing person for Hitler to claim a historic connection to) spared his life.  This enabled Hitler to validate his longstanding belief that Providence was committed to ensuring he fulfill his world historical mission.
This being the case, it would seem as if Tandey’s current, counterfactually inflated reputation as the man who “could have changed history, but didn’t” is itself dependent upon Hitler’s own counterfactual effort to inflate his own post-World War I significance. 
The ongoing fantasy about Tandey rests on Hitler’s own counterfactual nightmare. 
Both highlight the ongoing psychological appeal of counterfactual speculation.


S.M. Stirling said…
It's really not relevant. Hitler was a runner for four years on the Western front, the most dangerous job in the infantry, much more so than being an ordinary landser. He was wounded, he was gassed, he was in actions where half or more of his unit died, and he didn't get killed or crippled. He had the devil's own luck, because he was the sort of soldier -- an enthusiast who volunteered for everything and fought with vicious fearlessness -- that usually doesn't survive.