Has a secret ever saved the world?

It was a winter day in January 1894 that could have changed much in the history of the 20th century. Assuming the incident that day actually happened, assuming the following narrative could be more than a legend.

A four-year-old boy was playing on the banks of the Inn River in Passau. The river, frozen in places, is said to have been wild. The boy could not swim and is said to never have learned to swim later, perhaps because of what happened to him at the time. He fell, fell into the water, couldn't get out, was on the verge of drowning.

Another four-year-old saw him from the bank. He hurried over, reached into the water, pulled it out, and kept it from sinking and never surfacing again. The rescuer later becomes cathedral organist and cathedral music director and is called Johann Nepomuk Kühberger.

The other boy becomes the greatest mass murderer of the 20th century and is called Adolf Hitler. Legend has it that he was the unfortunate man who nearly died from drowning in childhood.

Why, he is supposed to have asked himself, didn't he let him die?

It is difficult to prove what could be true about this story. There are clues and speculations that add up to an image that nonetheless remains blurred. The fact that the Hitler family even lived in Passau is only a subordinate clause in many biographies.

Hitler's father Alois was a customs officer and moved to Passau with the von Braunau family in Austria after a promotion. Alois did not stay there long, was transferred to Linz, while Klara Hitler lived with the children in Passau for a while. They moved to today's Kapuzinerstrasse, parallel to the banks of the Inn. The house they lived in belonged to the Kühberger family. The fathers knew each other, the sons were of the same age.

The report about the winter day 1894 can be found in the book "Out of Passau: Leaving a City Hitler called Home" by Anna Elisabeth Rosmus. The writer and Geschwister-Scholl-Prize winner researches the Nazi past of her hometown Passau and now lives in the USA. She emigrated there in 1994 after more and more locals had attacked her for her research and denigrated her as a "nest polluter".

Three years ago, the BR broadcast a radio feature about the legend of a "fatal life saver" and a Swiss-Austrian-German river that "almost saved the world". Rosmus also has a say in it, alongside citizens, children of former citizens, city archivists, a retired city council and the district council of the diocese archives.

The author of the feature, Joseph Berlinger, captures voices from contemporary witnesses who claim that Johann Nepomuk Kühberger was a withdrawn, thoughtful man, because he had regretted the rescue all his life and was partly to blame for the course of history. He wondered why he had to have been so brave and his compassion so strong not to let this boy, wriggling in the water, simply die. But who could have guessed that he would become a dictator of this kind?

Names never appeared in reports of the incident

Berlinger also finds voices arguing against the myth. Has Kühberger possibly lied and simply made up the story? Contemporaries and descendants do not want to believe that.

It is much less likely that one small child will be able to pull another out of the river, depending on how deeply sunk and how strong the current is. In addition, one does not know how dramatic the situation really was. Maybe the boy wasn't too deep in the water.

The Danube newspaper reported on January 9, 1894, however, that a boy had been rescued "just in time from the certain death of drowning". "The same entered the newly formed ice on the Inn below the garrison lazaret and broke through. Fortunately he was rescued by his courageous comrades." Names never appeared in the reports. But many people carried on this story, and suddenly the boy had become Hitler and one of the "courageous comrades" Kühberger.

The more people agree, the more the belief grows that maybe not everything, but something about the story, could be true. This is how legends are born. Added to this is the attraction of the rest of the uncertainty, the attraction of the blind spot and the attraction of speculating about a reverse version of history: If it were true that Hitler almost drowned when he was four, what would the 20th century be like if the rescue hadn't been successful looked like?

The counterfactual "what if" question can be applied to all possible life decisions and fortunes and yet never gives a satisfactory answer. The BBC series "SS-GB" for example with Lars Eidinger, Kate Bosworth and Sam Riley approaches a similar hypothesis directed against the facts. It is about the assumption that the Germans won the battle for Great Britain in World War II.

Is it worth even thinking about what would have happened if world history had taken a completely different course?

It remains a game of thought that can be expanded at will: If Alois Hitler had not married a third time after his second marriage and this third woman, the much younger Klara, had not been impregnated, Adolf Hitler would never have been born.