It happened today - September 28, 2015

Henry TandeyWhat if? What if? Some say such historical questions cannot even be asked, let alone answered. I reply that if we cannot say what would have happened if some event had gone otherwise, we cannot speak intelligibly of causation, separate the essential from the trivial. So what if Henry Tandey had shot Hitler?

In case this question is obscure to you, there’s a persistent legend that Tandey, a British private and VC winner, encountered a wounded German lance corporal near Marcoing on September 28 and spared his life. And it was supposedly Hitler.

It seems highly unlikely. I don’t mean it seems unlikely that Hitler was nearly killed in World War I. He served throughout the war, was twice wounded and twice decorated (once on the recommendation of a Jewish superior) and must have had numerous brushes with death. Still, Tandey’s account, during the capture of Marcoing for which he won the VC, of having a German in his sights and being unwilling to kill a wounded man, who saw him and nodded thanks, has strange but highly placed support, from Hitler himself.

When Neville Chamberlain was in Germany to sign the disastrous Munich Agreement, Hitler took him to his new country retreat and showed his personal copy of a famous painting by Fortunino Matania of Tandey carrying a wounded comrade at 1st Ypres in 1914, and said “That’s the man who nearly shot me.” Tandey did apparently spare someone’s life on Sept. 28, 1918, and Hitler thought it was him. So maybe it happened.

Now I’m all for shooting Hitler. And to kill him in a war would not have been murder, as it would have been to assassinate him between November 1918 and September 1939. But one cannot reasonably be expected to foresee that the 29-year old soldier staggering backward in defeat, exhausted and wounded, will if he lives found a totalitarian movement and, in his early 50s, wage an anti-Semitic genocide on a hideously unprecedented scale and launch a second world war.

It was pity that stayed Tandey’s hand. And pity is a good thing. By September 28, 1918 Germany was beaten, and the battle in question was over and the Germans had lost it too. I do not know whether someone else might have done what Hitler did in the 1930s if someone, Tandey or another, had shot him years earlier. Germany was rife for bitter radicalism, but Hitler brought a special combination of evil insanity and public relations genius to the task of turning that radicalism into global horror.

Whatever one decides, Tandey is not at fault for a split-second decision in favour of mercy on Sept. 28, 1918, at the tail end of a war that had seen so much death.

It happened todayJohn Robson