What if Hitler had been killed in 1941?

Using a time machine to block the Holocaust and German invasion of the USSR

 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The basic premise of Righteous Kill, the debut novel of Ted Lapkin, is a staple of science fiction. Physics professor Gerhard Hoffmann invents a time machine. He wants to send Special Forces, equipped with 21st century technology and weaponry, to kill Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, and most of the Wehrmacht High Command before June 1941, thereby creating a power vacuum filled by German generals who have no ideological impetus to invade the Soviet Union. Their cancellation of Project Barbarossa, Prof. Hoffmann believes, “means no orchestrated Final Solution.”
To this premise, Lapkin, a former combat intelligence officer in the Golani Infantry Brigade, who now runs a consulting firm specializing in strategic communications and government relations, adds an interesting wrinkle: Wracked with guilt over his grandfather’s participation in the Wannsee Conference that authorized the Holocaust, Prof. Hoffmann wants the operation to be conducted by Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s elite intelligence-gathering and direct-action unit. If their mission succeeds, he tells the prime minister of Israel, there is a 95% percent probability that the Jewish state will be established (albeit in 1951) with a much larger population of immigrants willing and able to leave war-ravaged, still antisemitic Europe.
Righteous Kill is a suspenseful and action-packed melodrama that keeps readers wondering whether the mission will be accomplished, if the Special Forces will return home, and how, if at all, the operation will change the course of history.
Righteous Kill is at its best when the Israeli Special Forces are conducting their deadly mission in Nazi-occupied France and fighting their way back home on the land and at sea. Determined to make his account “historically accurate and militarily plausible,” Lapkin studied topographic maps, contemporary aerial photographs, unit orders of battle, technical weapons specifications, and Geoportail, the cartographic website of the French government. His mastery of detail is impressive.
Lapkin indicates, for example, that Nazi paratroopers were not allowed to jump with their rifles and submachine guns. These weapons were simultaneously dropped in containers mounted beneath the fuselage of their airplanes. Battalion commanders became aware of this post-landing vulnerability during an assault against Waalhaven airfield in the Netherlands, but the design of the Third Reich’s RZ16 parachutes (which eliminated directional control over descent and increased oscillation) made a solution impossible.
“Of course,” Lapkin writes, “none of these papiersoldaten geniuses safe behind their desks in Berlin had ever conducted an opposed airborne assault armed only with a pop-gun.”
ALAS, LAPKIN does not have the instincts or the skills of a novelist. His prose is clumsy and filled with clichés. For no discernible reason, exchanges are sometimes partially rendered in German, French and Italian. The narrative is littered with radio exchanges – “This is one, good copy. Two, copy. Three, affirmative. This is Mishnah, good copy. Fast and affirmative.” On a single page, a character snorts derisively, flashes a caustic smile, blushes, sneers, retorts with barbed contempt, and raises her voice to an indignant pitch. A Gestapo officer “reveals his nicotine-tarnished dentition in all its chestnut-hued ugliness.” Lapkin (awkwardly) inserts the “hierarchy of needs” theory of Abraham Maslow, a Brooklyn College professor of psychology. An Israeli soldier and the young German-Jewish lawyer he has rescued, Lapkin writes, “were soon engulfed by a tidal wave of desire that drowned inhibitions and washed away constraints of social convention like a sandcastle on a storm-tossed beach. Arguments over ethics and philosophy were forgotten as two wounded souls sought solace in each other’s arms from a world of blood and loss and sorrow.”
Righteous Kill also raises, but quickly disposes of, issues related to wartime morality. As befits a World War II melodrama, his sentimentalist is a woman, Emma Cohen; his pragmatist is Yossi Klein, a man. And it is clear from the outset whose position will prevail. Although Emma rails against the brutality of Yossi’s decision to kill his German prisoners, she recognizes “the peril that would ensue” if they learned that they had been attacked by time travelers. And that what appeared to be Klein’s callous indifference was actually righteous contempt by a soldier “who took no pleasure from a task he viewed as an ugly necessity.” Emma also asks herself, “What if discriminate acts of brutality against evil were the only way to ensure the survival of innocents?” Somewhat later, Emma pleads “mea culpa maxima” to Klein’s claim, “made with a gotcha smile of triumph,” that she was a Benthamite after all, “engaging in precisely the same sort of utilitarian cost-benefit analysis you previously found so deplorable.” Not surprisingly, Emma, Yossi and Mr. Lapkin reserve their sympathy for the never-again soldiers of Sayeret Matkal who died so they could live. “Tears of grief over what was sacrificed, tears of gratitude over what was accomplished,” tears of hope that those who survived could create a better – and more just – future.
The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
By Ted Lapkin
Silvertail Books
453 pages; $19.95