Who was Hitler before Hitler? The Atlantic Answers October 9, 2018 10:04 PM   Subscribe

Back in 2006, stupidsexyFlanders asked Mefi: "Before Hitler, what historical figure did people refer to as the pure archetype of evil?" We might have a new contender for best answer.

The Atlantic has tackled that very question in their piece:
How Americans Described Evil Before Hitler

Short answer? Napoleon III. Sort of.

It's not exactly the same question as posed in mefi, but it's good food for thought and it's nice to see that Metafilter was tackling this 12 years ago.

The author, professor Gavriel Rosenfeld, has a new book out titeld Hi Hitler, and write at this blog.
posted by Telf to MetaFilter-Related at 10:04 PM (26 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

Leopold II of Belgium was less of an idiot and more malign than Napoleon III. Of course he kept his worst damage to Africa (and, maybe, his family).

MetaFilter — Ahead of some curve since at least 2006!
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:34 AM on October 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

I just assumed it was Kaiser Wilhelm. Shows how much *I* know.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 5:15 AM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Some vintage SCDB there.
posted by fleacircus at 5:38 AM on October 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Short answer? Napoleon III. Sort of.

Huh? No. Not even sort of. Are you saying that because he happens to be the first name mentioned? He was not compared as "ultimate evil" (which is what we mean by "Hitler"), he was compared as "guy who swore to uphold the constitution but then turned out to be a militarist with no respect for the constitution." Here's the takeaway from the linked article:
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.
Which is pretty obvious anyway.

Fun fact: Napoleon III was known to his enemies by the nickname of Badinguet (allegedly the workman whose clothes he used to escape from the fort of Ham in 1846). I know this because I ran across the Russian form of "Badinguet" in a Dostoevsky novel and had no idea what it meant; happily, we live in the Age of Google and I was able to find out. And now you know too.
posted by languagehat at 5:50 AM on October 10, 2018 [19 favorites]

They made a fort out of ham?
posted by Grangousier at 5:56 AM on October 10, 2018 [18 favorites]

You're not familiar with the rich history of pork based defensive works?
Ham Castle, Château de Ham, Ham-sur-Heure Castle, Armour Ham
posted by zamboni at 6:11 AM on October 10, 2018 [14 favorites]

Hi Languagehat,
Only sort of in regards to the question of people searching for an analogy as Hitler ascended. Certainly not in any greater sense. Hitler has definitely come to reside in the realm of ideas as a sort of platonic ideal of evil on level unto himself.

Anyway, it was sloppy writing on my part and I don't want to get hung up on it. "Sort of" was doing a lot of heavy lifting and I really just wanted people to check out the article. The two are in no way equivalent.
posted by Telf at 6:11 AM on October 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was thinking Tamerlane
posted by thelonius at 6:19 AM on October 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

In Dante's inferno Satan chews on Judas, Brutus and Cassius with his three mouths simultaneously, indicating that they had to be historically bad to earn that kind of treatment.
posted by Alison at 8:24 AM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]


(for all sorts of bad history reasons? He wasn't worse than the average ancient world tyrant. Don't forget the base expectation of ethics and goodness was rather different than coastal-usa post internet social media enlightenment).
posted by sammyo at 8:28 AM on October 10, 2018

Attila the Hun? So badass that "The Hun" was a British nickname for the Germans in World War I 1460 years later.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:46 AM on October 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

Vlad the Impaler? You know, because of all the impaling.
And being named Vlad Dracula, inspiring the name of Dracula.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:48 AM on October 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Judas was framed.
posted by clavdivs at 10:28 AM on October 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Judas was framed

Worse yet.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 11:30 AM on October 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of being reprehensible - all the way to the abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain web of history; He could have been Alexander, or Pythagoras, or Rurik, or Jesus; He chose an infamous destiny: He was Judas.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 11:52 AM on October 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

Hey, got a tree nicknamed.
30 pieces of silver was a popular slam.

Interesting question.
"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”—...or should commentators look closer to home—to American demagogues including Huey Long and George Wallace?"

"The names were devised by Disney gag man Dana Coty, who took them from Huey Long, Thomas Dewey, and Louis Schmitt, an animator at the Disney Studio in the 1930s and 1940s."

And why Caligula. Claudius had a higher death count amongst the privileged...class...huh.
posted by clavdivs at 12:06 PM on October 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

How about Andrew Jackson?
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:38 PM on October 10, 2018

posted by Thorzdad at 1:41 PM on October 10, 2018

"Little military shoes" doesn't quite have that umpf

Perhaps the authors premise is valid in that Hitler took the regionalism out of the evil people labels. History gets conveniently dim or example Benedict Arnold.

As an odd note, in the movie Downfall, Hitler betrayed screams "Fegelein, Fegelein, Fegelein" in his last hours. As if a rational act from a psychopath becomes cowardice in which no responsibility is possible as it was wiped out years before.
posted by clavdivs at 2:04 PM on October 10, 2018

Thutmose III? Huh, that's a deep cut. He's no one's favorite, but he's not the only pharaoh to usurp the achievements of a predecessor and harry the Levant.

Leopold II and Andrew Jackson have only recently become widely understood to be genocidaires, the reason for which is left as an exercise for the reader.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:26 PM on October 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

In France, that would certainly be Attila... but only since the 19th century, when the whole "Attila was the WORST PERSON EVER" motto became part of the school curriculum. Before that he was some kind of minor antihero who was used as a villain in religious hagiographies such as the Golden Legend - he's the reason why Sainte Geneviève is the patroness saint of Paris. Montesquieu and Voltaire even said nice things about him. I've tried to determine the origin of the citation "Where Attila's horse passed grass did not grow again" that is familiar to generations of French schoolchildren (and probably others: "Attila" is a brand name for a herbicide in some European countries) but the earliest citation I could find is in Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) and French sources don't mention the quote before 1842 (some people claim that the citation comes from Priscus but it's not).
posted by elgilito at 4:11 PM on October 11, 2018 [4 favorites]

I suspect Clive James would have some insight.
posted by philip-random at 3:54 PM on October 13, 2018

At certain times, Caracalla has been the archetype for cruel Roman emperors.
posted by gimonca at 8:33 PM on October 15, 2018

posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:12 PM on October 15, 2018

I haven't browsed Metatalk in years. And today I do, and there I am!
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 2:38 PM on October 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

Hitler Sr.
posted by klangklangston at 4:40 PM on October 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

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