Eventually, the Nazis’ unprecedented destruction led journalists to abandon historical comparisons for myth. Some invoked Nordic legends, drawing on Richard Wagner’s opera, The Twilight of the Gods, to compare Hitler to the figures of Loki and Wotan, who rained destruction down on Valhalla. Others looked to Greek mythology and compared Hitler to the figures of Icarus and Sisyphus. By the war’s end, Hitler was bluntly equated with Western culture’s archetypal villain, the devil himself. Whether compared to Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, or the anti-Christ, Hitler was widely viewed as what the Times of London called the “incarnation of absolute evil.”
Observers even projected Hitler’s name back in time to describe earlier historical villains. Hannibal, for example, was called an “ancient Hitler,” Napoleon Bonaparte was described as “the 18th-century Hitler,” and Ivan the Terrible was branded “Russia’s Hitler.” Hitler was also transformed from a proper noun into a verb, with countless commentators referring to the act of “Hitlerizing” political institutions in Germany, Austria, and even the U.S. These rhetorical strategies helped turn the flesh-and-blood Adolf Hitler into the admonitory signifier “Hitler.”
Thus Hitler became a hegemonic historical analogy. He did not so much join the ranks of earlier historical symbols of evil as render them unusable. Indeed, perhaps because Western observers became convinced that wartime analogies had underestimated the Nazi dictator’s radicalism, they began to employ Hitler as the baseline for evaluating all new threats. This tendency is captured—in caricature—by Godwin’s Law: the notion that the longer an internet debate drags on, the more likely participants are to invoke Hitler.
Western society’s hair-trigger Hitler alert has come at a cost. Fears of a “new Hitler” have prompted ill-advised foreign interventions in the effort to avoid another “Munich”—that is, to avoid falling victim to the naive belief that concessions can appease dictators. And when the worst has not materialized, those who invoked Hitler have been accused of crying wolf. Hitler comparisons have therefore lost credibility in certain circles and have given rise to Hitler fatigue.
Our present moment is a tricky one: Some commentators feel more justified than ever in invoking Hitler, yet many feel a bit numb to the comparison. The solution, it seems to me, is not to ban comparisons to the Nazis—as if such a thing were possible—but to grant that analogies have always been a tendentious business, and that only the future can tell which ones were valid. Commentators should proceed with a little more humility, a little more circumspection, and, perhaps, a little more creativity.
Before 1945, the analogical reservoir was more abundantly stocked. Even in the most obscure local papers, there were constant references to an extremely diverse array of historical figures from the classical era to the 20th century: Pharaoh Thutmose III, Alexander the Great, King Herod, Emperor Caligula, Attila the Hun, Richard III, Henry VIII, Guy Fawkes, Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Boulanger, and Benito Mussolini.