Who was Hitler before Hitler?
September 24, 2006 9:52 AM   Subscribe

Before Hitler, what historical figure did people refer to as the pure archetype of evil?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders to Human Relations (46 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I doubt that there's any exact analogy, but in the early 18th century Napoleon was held in quite low esteem by Brits and Germans.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:56 AM on September 24, 2006

Attila has long had a fan club. Vlad III the Impaler was a memorable arsehole.
posted by paulsc at 10:00 AM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

posted by Axandor at 10:03 AM on September 24, 2006 [2 favorites]

Genghis Khan?
posted by teleskiving at 10:05 AM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

posted by Espy Gillespie at 10:06 AM on September 24, 2006

attila the hun was the first name that popped into my head.
posted by brandz at 10:10 AM on September 24, 2006

posted by caddis at 10:13 AM on September 24, 2006

and Ivan the Terrible
posted by caddis at 10:14 AM on September 24, 2006

Gilles de Rais?
posted by fire&wings at 10:23 AM on September 24, 2006

The Antichrist.

In Protestant countries, the Papacy was a fair candidate.
posted by Leon at 10:31 AM on September 24, 2006

Best answer: In the United States, Benedict Arnold served a similar purpose in the nineteenth century. Among the American Founders, the ultimate insult was to compare an enemy to a roman senator who helped betray the republic for personal gain--though I am blanking on the name right now.
posted by LarryC at 10:34 AM on September 24, 2006

In Dante's Inferno, the three worst spots in hell (one in each of Satan's eternally gnashing mouths) go to Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot.
posted by Iridic at 10:42 AM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

The book "The Most Evil Men and Women in History" [ amazon link] lists the following people:

Attila the Hun
King John
Prince Vlad Dracula
Fancisco Pizarro
'Bloody' Mary I
Ivan IV 'The Terrible'
Elizabeth, Countess Bathory
Josef Stalin
Adolf Hitler
Isle Koch
Pol Pot
Idi Amin

I own the book, but have not yet read it, so I don't know how valuable a reference it is.
posted by blind.wombat at 11:41 AM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

L. M. Montgomery wrote in 1918 in her journal on this subject.

"Has there ever been a man so universally hated as William of Germany? Has any one man before in the history of the world been the ultimate cause of so much agony, heartbreak and death? Well, as I heard an old lady say once, 'If the devil doesn't catch a man like that, what's the use of having a devil?'"

She also quotes Byron's verses on Napoleon.

Of course, she is a notorious Kaiser-hater. Not having been alive for the Great War, I don't have quite as immediate an opinion on the man, except I like his rolls with a bit of cheese.
posted by Sallyfur at 11:50 AM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

right before hitler, i would say Talat Pasha(sp?). He organized the mass killings of 2 million armenians by the ottoman empire in 1915, not to mention taking 9/10ths of he land that belonged to armenia and calling it turkey.

When Hitler was asked how he expects to get away with what he did, he has been quoted as saying, "Who remembers the Armenians?". So i guess there is a price to pay for ignoring the strife and murder of a small nation...
posted by TheDude at 11:50 AM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

In a book I recently read (What If Vol. 2), They compared Napoleon to Hitler, but I think it was more for military reasons than holocausts.
posted by drezdn at 12:04 PM on September 24, 2006

posted by orthogonality at 12:42 PM on September 24, 2006

What Leon said about the pope. Also, Guy Fawkes.
posted by kimota at 12:43 PM on September 24, 2006

Judas Iscariot
posted by frogan at 12:50 PM on September 24, 2006

Larry C: was it Catiline you were referring to?
posted by ewiar at 1:35 PM on September 24, 2006

Best answer: right before hitler, i would say Talat Pasha

I think you've misunderstood the question, which is not about your personal nomination for Worst Person Before Hitler but rather "what historical figure did people refer to as the pure archetype of evil?" As can be seen from the divergent answers, there was none: each nation had its own list of Bad People, and one nation's baddie was another nation's goodie (cf. France/Britain vs. Germany re: Kaiser Bill). It's unprecedented for there to be a universal figure of hatred like Hitler, because 1) the world was not united enough till the 20th century for such a figure to exist, and 2) it's very rare for a figure's own nation to reject him as Germany rejected Hitler.

Oh, and Napoleon is a terrible answer: even in the countries where he was seen as a frightful enemy, there were many who respected and admired him without being the equivalent of Nazi sympathizers in 1930s Europe.
posted by languagehat at 1:52 PM on September 24, 2006 [6 favorites]

That's so true. Hitler really managed to distinguish himself among the evil doers. Almost everybody agrees that he epitomizes evil, the others, not so much.
posted by caddis at 2:03 PM on September 24, 2006

Best answer: Amalek is a tribe associated with evil in Jewish mythology. The Amelekites attacked the Jews after god miracled them out of Egypt. There's some controversy regarding the possibility that Hitler is a direct descendent of the tribe. Also Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, is commonly identified as an Amalekite. There is a positive commandment in the Torah to obliterate the Amelekites. How this should be interpreted in a modern context is an interesting question. Here's an interesting starting point but there's a wealth of information that's just a short google query away.

To specifically address your question: Amalek was the Hitler to Orthodox Jews before Hitler and Amalek is still Hitler for them. Hitler was bad but he wasn't Amalek-bad
posted by stuart_s at 2:23 PM on September 24, 2006 [5 favorites]

Here are two links you could pick someone from:

List of massacres (Wikipedia)
Mass crimes against humanity
posted by salvia at 2:51 PM on September 24, 2006

caligula and nero have earned lasting and universal contempt ... even the romans, after they were safely dead, despised them
posted by pyramid termite at 3:00 PM on September 24, 2006

Oh, and Napoleon is a terrible answer

I disagree; there were plenty at the time and after who saw the wars Napoleon started as pure evil, and the dictator himself as the embodiment of violent egocentric militarism, even if they may have 'respected' his skill as a commander. Napoleon is a fine answer to the question as asked.
posted by mediareport at 3:24 PM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Don't forget "The Turk," whoever this happened to be at the time.
posted by washburn at 3:55 PM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

I have asked my grandfather this exact question, and his gut feeling was Attila the Hun. He was very young when Hitler came to power though.
posted by Soliloquy at 3:59 PM on September 24, 2006

Best answer: Hitler had the (mis)fortune to be the most powerful lunatic on the planet at the most (in)opportune time: when news broadcasting was reaching a global audience. He was, indeed, a hideous person, but he has probably been exceeded in all his crimes against humanity by others. Stalin for example is often cited as having presided over a far greater genocide, in terms of final numbers.

This is a loaded question, maybe deliberately so. The loading comes with the western perspective, since we've all been taught that Hitler was absolutely evil. It's far easier for us to justify our nations' actions, and the deaths of our troops and innocent Germans, when we consider an utterly evil enemy. This doublethink still seems to hold water today. Even so, it's worth remembering that there are some people who have very little knowledge of what Hitler did. Such a perspective must be very different from ours. When asked for someone who personifies "pure evil", someone with no knowledge of Hitler would probably name a more provincial malevolent, unknown outside their home country - or possibly someone who's crimes are known of only vaguely outside their homeland, such as Pol Pot or Radovan Karadic.

Every infamous leader has had their sympathisers. It's difficult to reduce an historical (or living) figure to an essence of evil when we take into account the fact that they manage to attract varying degrees of support. Would anyone wittingly follow someone "evil"? Presumably the vast majority of people would answer "no", and so it's fair to assume they're not seen as evil by their supporters, only by their detractors. Hitler was defeated by the end of World War II, and so his detractors came to be quite a large chunk of the "western" world. And as we all know, the winners write the history books.

So it seems there would be two classes of "Hitlers" before Hitler: provincial and global. The tone of the question is global, but that is a changeable perspective, since we can see that Hitler's ill repute is western rather than truly global. Still, any nation on the end of a multi-national attack probably considers it to be of global importance.

It's still tricky to find a "Hitler" though, since international news coverage would have taken many months just a few decades ago. And so we'd need to find a leader whose very name epitomised fear and hate at the time, as well as their having an actual "bodycount" to back them up. Personally I'd discount Caligula as cruel and hedonistic, but not really in the same fear-inducing league as Hitler.

Just for the hell of it, I'll take an appetite for international war as the measure of the evilness, since that would suggest a huge number of detractors to label the person "evil", as well as a potentially huge number of dead. So, I'd suggest on the "global" scale (and with precious little figures to back me so I may be completely wrong): Genghis Khan; Atilla the Hun; Alexander the Great... If only my history was better I'd probably be able to think of a few more. Possibly the French, British and Spanish monarchs or "generals" during the invasion of the north and south Americas (Francisco Pizarro, as mentioned by blind.wombat). Come to think of it, I'm sure Queen Victoria had a pretty bad rap in the colonies. Saladin (a.k.a. 'The Turk'?) too, possibly, although only due to his demonisation by European Christians. Torquemada also seems a worthy candidate (b.w again).
posted by ajp at 4:42 PM on September 24, 2006 [14 favorites]

In many places around the world, Eve's daughters are still paying for that one bite.
posted by rob511 at 5:00 PM on September 24, 2006

In chinese history it would be Empress Wu
posted by delmoi at 5:15 PM on September 24, 2006

stuart_s : "To specifically address your question: Amalek was the Hitler to Orthodox Jews before Hitler and Amalek is still Hitler for them. Hitler was bad but he wasn't Amalek-bad"

Well, if you're specifically looking at for Jew-killing, then there's also Bohdan Khmelnytsky who may not have lead the Chmielnicki massacres but was certainly the catalyst (and also lent his name to the events).

ajp : "Hitler had the (mis)fortune to be the most powerful lunatic on the planet at the most (in)opportune time..."

I would tend to agree. I think if you look at the historic record before the “modern era” and the beginnings of global communication—radio, telegraph, telephone, et cetera—you'll find despotic, crazy-ass, murders (normal humans) in leadership roles in nearly every nation-state, city-state, and tribe.

So, within our collective zeitgeist, meme, whatever-you'd-call-it of Western Civilization, only Hilter occupies the archetype of Hitler.
posted by Colloquial Collision at 5:26 PM on September 24, 2006

Hannibal ad portas.
posted by oxford blue at 6:01 PM on September 24, 2006

Dante put Judas, Brutus, and Cassius in the mouths of Satan at the icy center of Hell. Judas was also portrayed in most medieval art and liturature as the archetypal Jew, the focal point for anti-Semitism. He's often portrayed as having red hair, sometimes with a large, "Jewish" nose. There are some scholars who believe that his very name, Judas (Ioudas), is derived from the word "Jew" (Ioudaioi). It's ugly, but I think he's a pretty good candidate for the archetype of evil for quite a chunk of Western, Christian civilization.
posted by EarBucket at 6:08 PM on September 24, 2006

Best answer: languagehat writes "Oh, and Napoleon is a terrible answer: "
On the contrary, there had been a tendency to displace the traditional popular association of the Antichrist with Rome onto Republican France (p. 76). It did not take much of a leap, once this pattern had been established, to then project the image of the Antichrist onto Napoleon. It was an image, moreover, that flourished in most parts of Europe, and certainly in Spain and in Russia after the French invasion of those countries. In Britain, one pamphleteer by the name of Lewis Mayer – who today would best be categorised as belonging to the religious loony fringe, and who was the author of texts like Bonaparte, the Emperor of the French, considered as Lucifer and Gog (1806), and The prophetic mirror or a hint of England, containing an explanation of the prophesy … proving Bonaparte to be the Beast (1806) – counted the number of emperors, popes and heads of state ‘alluded to by the horns of St John’s first Beast, Rev. 13’ and came to the conclusion that there had to date been 665 – Napoleon was the 666th (p. 83). It is a delightful example of the identification of Napoleon, or at least Napoleonic France, with the Devil, and it was not an isolated one.
But in partial support of languagehat:
Napoleon left an ineradicable imprint upon nineteenth-century men of letters. Goethe, mesmerized by the Corsican as well as by Byron, thought Napoleon embodied "continual enlightenment" and in thinking about the daimonic accorded him central importance. Stendhal in his autobiographical Life of Henri Brûlard asserted that he "fell when Napoleon fell"; and in The Red and the Black Julien Sorel, worshipping Napoleon like a god, lived his version of the Napoleonic myth until his death. Balzac said he would finish with the pen what Napoleon had started with the sword, and he wrote two thousand pages a year for nineteen years to prove it. Grillparzer, self-described "enemy of the French," confessed that Napoleon fascinated him "with a magic power" and put him "under a spell as a snake does a bird." Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment enthusiastically identifies himself with Napoleon in his passionate longings for greatness, whereas in War and Peace Prince Andrei's ardor for Napoleon leads him to self-alienation. Even Nietzsche, for all his reservations, valued Napoleon's courage and viewed him as the one individual capable of bringing about European unity. Similarly, Beethoven, also battling his misgivings, could not expel Napoleon from his imagination. At first glance it might appear that the composer admired the republican Napoleon, inheritor of the French Revolution, and despised the royal Napoleon, emperor and despot. But in fact Beethoven's feelings, like Byron's, were ambivalent and fluctuated wildly over the years.

In England, a Napoleonic cult was extensive and ardent during the Emperor's lifetime. As E. Tangye Lean has compellingly demonstrated, Whigs of such diverse backgrounds and careers as John Cam Hobhouse, Samuel Whitbread, Lord and Lady Holland, Thomas Moore, Elizabeth Inchbald, William Hazlitt, and Capel Lofft, shared Byron's unabashed yet ambivalent admiration for the French Emperor. [4] This empathetic Whig involvement with Napoleon's fortunes no less than the European image of him as a dynamic man of destiny helps us put into perspective Byron's own self-identification.
But also, caricatures of Napoleon: Napoleon as the Antichrist, the beast of the Apocalypse; Napoleon the death god; the devil taking Napoleon to hell; Napoleon as the devil. As a devil, ogre; as the "Corsican Butcher".

Contemporary British poem "The Devil at Malmaison"; Malmaison was Napoleon's residence.
posted by orthogonality at 6:22 PM on September 24, 2006 [5 favorites]

The main emphasis of [chapter 3], though, is the way Wordsworth and Coleridge began depicting Napoleon as a Miltonic character, quintessentially evil and on par with Milton's Satan.
. . . .
[But supporting languagehat:]
The focus in Chapter 4 shifts to Byron, whose ambivalent admiration of Napoleon has been well documented. Bainbridge relies most on Don Juan , Childe Harold's Pilgrimage , and letters to illustrate Byron's attempts at self-aggrandizement by retaining Napoleonic values even after Waterloo. In Don Juan , Byron identifies himself with Napoleon in no uncertain terms:

. . . .
Continuing to follow the Napoleon's career, Chapter 5 traces the literary response to Waterloo, which elicited an outpouring of verse that even Wellington observed: "I am really disgusted with and ashamed of all I have seen of the battle. The number of writings upon it would lead the world to believe that the British Army had never fought a battle before" (p. 154). Bainbridge deals with several of these responses: Walter Scott's The Field of Waterloo, Southey's The Poet's Pilgrimage to Waterloo, Wordsworth's "Thanksgiving Ode," and sections of Byron's Childe Harold. Perhaps the most fascinating material in this chapter is Bainbridge's articulation of the way Waterloo almost instantaneously became an institutionalized tourist destination. As Poet Laureate, Southey felt himself obliged to travel to the battle field for the specific purpose of composing a poem upon the battle since so many poets of less official station had already done so. Bainbridge does a good job of showing how the "Waterloo Poem" became a genre unto itself in the years following the battle. At the same time, he shows how Waterloo provided writers like Wordsworth (who did not hurry to the battlefield) a fitting culmination to their Miltonic analogies for Napoleon. The Lake Poets now had the fulfillment of their poetic prophecy, as Napoleon's defeat confirmed their estimation of him as an egotistical Satan whose failure was inevitable. This was both a politically and poetically expedient stance.

It's not just that Napoleon was seen by some as the quintessence of evil, it's also that he becomes the measure or evil or greatness and the preoccupation of artists, much as Hitler is the the measure of evil and an object of fascination in late 20th century art and entertainment (e.g., a host of movies, novels set in Nazi Germany, the mainstay of the History Channel).
posted by orthogonality at 6:35 PM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

franz ferdinand
posted by strangelove at 6:47 PM on September 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Niccolo Machiavelli.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 7:48 PM on September 24, 2006

posted by caddis at 7:53 PM on September 24, 2006

posted by crunchland at 9:38 PM on September 24, 2006

I could see Napoleon being a good answer, in the context of the time. History has been far kinder to him, however, than it will ever be to Hitler.

And Hannibal is a bizarre answer. Even in ancient Rome, I don't think he was regarded as evil.
posted by mkultra at 10:22 PM on September 24, 2006

Earlier, I mentioned briefly "The Turk," but perhaps should have elaborated. The Ottoman Empire was for centuries a very serious and lingering existential threat to Europe, as well as a challenge to its Christian belief. The generalized figure of "The Turk" (and it was this figure who Byron died trying to fight) compounded by some very real cruelties on the part of the Ottomans led to a looming stereotype of alien evil that has really only had one pre-Hitler competitor as a standard representaion of Evil in the minds of European Christians. And we all know who that would be, right?
posted by washburn at 11:24 PM on September 24, 2006

It did not take much of a leap...to then project the image of the Antichrist onto Napoleon.

Here's Tolstoy on Napoleon:

One of his brother Masons had revealed to Pierre the following prophecy concerning Napoleon, drawn from the Revelation of St. John...Writing the words L'Empereur Napoleon in numbers, it appears that the sum of them is 666, and that Napoleon therefore the beast foretold in the Apocalypse. Moreover, by applying the same system to the words quarante-deux, which was the term allowed to the beast that "spoke great things and blasphemies," the same number 666 was obtained; from which it followed that the limit fixed for Napoleon's power had come in the year 1812 when the French emperor was forty-two. This prophecy pleased Pierre very much...
posted by Iridic at 5:27 AM on September 25, 2006

Response by poster: As noted in Metatalk, I agree it was a hastily composed question, which led to some understandably offtarget answers, compounded by my being too busy to check in immediately after asking it. There were some helpful answers, though, which I'll go in and note.

Probably too late now, but I was getting at this: Today, when we speak of evil personified, Hitler is almost the shortcut for that, even (especially, I guess) in the most casual conversation.

Me: "My boss, grrr, he's the worst person in the history of the world."
You: "Worse than Hitler?"

For most of us alive today, Hitler is the go-to bad guy, the proper noun we attach to the abstraction of pure evil. Who was that guy pre-Hitler? If Jefferson had called 18th-century Godwin on John Adams at the Constitutional Convention, who would Adams have been alluding to?

The question was intended to be much more about cultural norms and touchpoints than about historically bad people.

Same comments x-posted to the Metatalk thread. Thanks to all who weighed in, apologies for seeming to throw out a flip chat question.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:13 AM on September 25, 2006

Response by poster: On closer reading, I see that about 11 responses down, LarryC addressed my intent almost perfectly!
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:24 AM on September 25, 2006

Larry C: was it Catiline you were referring to?

Yes! Thank you. Both Hamilton and Jefferson referred to Aaron Burr as "a Catiline" after Burr's attempt to steal the election of 1800. To men so invested in a sense of public honor, it was the ultimate insult.
posted by LarryC at 9:46 AM on September 27, 2006

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