How Americans Described Evil Before Hitler

Commentators compared the Nazi leader to Napoleon, Philip of Macedon, and Nebuchadnezzar.

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) asked a makeup artist to clone a portrait of the German leader after D-day on June 6, 1944, because they feared that he would be able to flee from Germany assuming a disguise.
The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) asked a makeup artist to clone a portrait of the German leader after D-day on June 6, 1944, because they feared that he would be able to flee from Germany assuming a disguise. (REUTERS)

Adolf Hitler has been dead for more than 70 years, but he has gained immortality as a historical analogy. Simply glance at today’s news headlines: Major political figures from around the world, including Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are routinely compared to the Nazi leader.

Some scholars and journalists claim that Hitler analogies have great contemporary relevance for making sense of the global surge of right-wing nationalism, authoritarian populism, and neofascism. Others dismiss such comparisons as exaggerated hyperbole. Both sides have legitimate points. Yet, since the political climate is in flux, it may be some time before we can determine whether the comparisons are appropriate or alarmist.

In the meantime, we can better understand the argument by examining an earlier but strikingly similar craze for historical analogies from the Nazi era. While commentators today debate whether Hitler analogies explain modern politics, observers back then tried out various analogies to explain Hitler.

In the decade and a half between the Nazis’ rise to power in the early 1930s and the collapse of the Third Reich in 1945, Anglo-American journalists singled out a murderer’s row of notorious revolutionaries, religious fanatics, dictators, conquerors, and warlords who they believed could illuminate the Nazi threat.

Regardless of which historical figures were invoked, the analogies served several didactic goals. The commentators sought to make Hitler comprehensible by comparing him to familiar examples; they aimed to reassure people psychologically that the events they were experiencing were merely new versions of older ones; and they showed how past precedents could provide guidelines for present-day action. As often as not, the analogies did more to conceal than reveal Hitler’s radicalism.

Following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor on January 30, 1933, journalists expressed a mix of caution and confidence by invoking the figure of Emperor Napoleon III. The Brooklyn Eagle declared that, because few people had originally taken Louis Napoleon Bonaparte seriously before he seized dictatorial power, it was important for people not to underestimate Hitler and remember that while he “took the oath to defend the constitution, [so] did Napoleon III.” By contrast, the Middletown Times told its readers that “the German nation is suffering from a temporary aberration. Hitler is merely a symptom, [just] as Napoleon III [was a] ... symptom ... of feverish French progress from the First Empire to the Third Republic. It is a physical and mental illness that has serious aspects but is not necessarily fatal.”

The analogies used to explain Hitler’s violent purge of the SA on the “Night of the Long Knives,” in June of 1934, also conveyed a mix of caution and confidence. Some observers underscored the threat by comparing the killings to the murder of French Huguenots by Catholics during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. Others sought solace in the French Revolution by arguing that Hitler’s purge duplicated “the victory of the Rightist Girondists against the revolutionary and socialistic Jacobins.” As one paper optimistically opined: Germany’s “Napoleon may be yet to come.”

Analogies weren’t used just to explain events, but also to advance particular agendas. In 1939–41, for instance, American journalists compared Hitler to Philip of Macedon in order to encourage U.S. intervention in the war. They pointed out that when the city-states of Athens, Sparta, and Thebes failed to heed the Athenian orator Demosthenes’s admonition to unite against the Macedonian threat, they went down in defeat and lost their freedom.

By the time Americans were invoking Philip, however, many European observers felt that historical analogies no longer held water.

In 1939, following the Nazis’ invasion of Poland, the Times of London called Hitler the “Nebuchadnezzar of modern times,” only to note that “Hitler has far surpassed his exemplar; for Nebuchadnezzar carried away no more than ten thousand captives … Hitler has displaced a far larger multitude.” As reports of the Holocaust increased in number in 1944–45, Americans also began to feel that Hitler had eclipsed the atrocities of previous dictators. Writing about his visit to Buchenwald in The New York Times, Harold Denny declared that while “Tamerlane built his mountain of skulls ... Hitler’s horrors … dwarf all previous crimes.”

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.

If commentators restore comparative diversity, they may not prevent a “new Hitler”—diversity did not prevent the original Hitler either—but they might better hold their audiences’ attention and point them in the direction of more germane historical episodes. Is an Austrian dictator really the best reference for Trump, or should commentators look closer to home—to American demagogues including Huey Long and George Wallace?

We should never forget Hitler. But neither should we allow him to monopolize our perspective on how the past can illuminate the present.