Napoleon – Hitler, the improbable comparison
A purely ideological interpretation of history can impel historians to form erroneous conclusions on the nature of regimes and historical fact.
The Napoleonic episode offers a case study.
For a long time, historians were unable or unwilling to avoid simplification. Two sides – those “against” and those “for” Napoleon – clashed on a sterile battlefield where ideological monocausality defined the wars fought by the various European powers.
It is thus that one school of history, in a rather authoritarian step, came to place the First Empire in the category of “military dictatorship” with the aim of enhancing the Revolution's prestige: I sought to refute such a conclusion at the Consortium on Revolutionary Europe just a few years ago, and I shall not be returning to it here.
It is in a slightly similar vein, however, that this article will seek to discuss a more contemporary branch of this tree of historiography.
In general terms, this particular branch maintains the following idea: that the Napoleonic Wars can be reduced to a history in which a benevolent and liberal Britain rose up initially against bloodthirsty Jacobinism, and subsequently against Napoleon, to prevent the continent from falling under the yoke of a “tyranny” intent on subjugating it.
Thus Britain's Endseig was one of “good” over “evil”, a Manichaean vision which denies the inherent complexity of our world and its history. Such is the view presented, for example, by Henry Kissinger, in his synthetic work on European diplomacy.1
In a wild and anachronistic turn for the worse, this simplified, ideological vision was magnified further with the arrival of an even more absurd theory, one which enjoyed a certain success with a general public all too fond of simple ideas. It can be summarised in a single phrase: just like Hitler, Napoleon was defeated by the true defenders of common freedom.
This startling approach went on to find its methodological footing at the heart of one of the 1980s' burgeoning trends, the comparative biography.
This vogue enjoyed enormous success, notably with the monumental comparison of Hitler and Stalin, by Alan Bullock. In this case, the historian was comparing the biographies of two individuals who had lived and come up against each other at the same time and in the same context.
Whilst nevertheless requiring a sensitive touch, this new craze had a chronological and factual basis that could be, at a push, built on the idea of a shared time-period and the fact that the protagonists were involved in the same events.
However, this comparative trend opened the door – initially in the English-speaking world and subsequently in continental European historiography – to unrestrained comparison between Napoleon and Hitler.
This time, any basis for such an approach was found in alleged similarities, coincidental evidence and strained connections pushed to breaking point. The authoritarian imperial regime became the father of totalitarianism, Fouché's police force the inspiration for the Gestapo, Napoleon's policy of Jewish integration the template for the holocaust. French conquests became the precursor to Nazi Germany's territorial gains and in the figure of Napoleon can be seen the model for the Führer.
This comparison had previously been made on occasions but, it should be said, in more circumspect and homeopathic doses.
Even during World War Two, British authorities were already comparing Operation Sea Lion to the Boulogne camps. Stalin called on his fellow citizens to withstand the invasion in 1941 just as their ancestors had done in 1812. And in the 15th May 1942 issue of La France libre – published in London since November 1940 – we even find an article comparing the Russian campaigns of Napoleon and Hitler, concluding that Hitler's army would get its comeuppance just as the Grande Armée did.2
Up to this point, however, such comparisons had been carefully judged, used for illustrative – and not comparative – purposes. Their authors were careful not to push the comparison too far, even warning their readers that in history such comparisons can be misleading. They knew all too well that to formulate a comparison over an interval of one-hundred-and-twenty years made little sense.
But with so little care going into these new comparative biographies, such prudence was subsequently deemed unnecessary.
The Napoleon-Hitler comparison reached its apex with the publication in 1988 of Desmond Seward's Napoleon and Hitler. A comparative biography,3 well-known amongst Anglophone historians.
In this little book slickly produced and written with enough references to appear serious at first glance, the author shows no caution beyond the introduction. And even there, although he initially reminds the reader that Churchill (in his memoirs) and Pieter Geyl (in Napoleon: for and against) dismissed any possible comparisons between the emperor and the Führer, it is only to make brushing aside their reluctance that much easier later on. Seward attributes their caution to political motives in the former (best not upset the French) and a clearly defined hierarchy of hatred in the latter: Geyl certainly hated Napoleon, but he hated Hitler even more and it is essentially this that drove him to separate the two in terms of their regimes and their ambitions.
Seward clearly feels no need for such restraint. And although he himself admits that his hypothesis may appear at times slightly exaggerated, it is justified by his own primary research, his life's work, the study of political megalomania.
What follow are the central elements for his comparison:
– Poor background and youthful ambition;
– Continued thirst for power;
– A coup d'état to achieve power;
– The goal of, in the one case, creating a new France and, in the other, a new Germany;
– The use of war to expand their influence;
– A desire to conquer Europe;
– A shared failure to conquer Russia;
– Attempts to defeat Britain with a continental blockade;
– Resistance to the regime: in Spain for Napoleon, in all the occupied territories for Hitler;
– Downfall follows defeat by a coalition of countries;
– The story comes to an end with their respective countries in ruins.
Any normally constituted historian would, upon reading this book, be shocked at the shortcuts taken, the absence of discussion, and the author's lack of objectivity. This is without even taking into account the complete lack of understanding of the nature of the two periods being studied.
You too would probably be shocked if you read this shrewdly written text with its combination of Manichaean themes, penchant for the spectacular, and abundance of smoke and mirrors.
As much can be said for a more recent work published in France: Le crime de Napoléon.4
The murky hypothesis, in basic terms, is as follows: during the Saint-Domingue expedition, Napoleon attempted to organise the mass-genocide of the island's black population and even put in place the first gas chambers in his bid to carry out this extermination.
Those interested in the details should read Pierre Branda's in-depth breakdown, published just after the release of this virulent tract.5
It should nevertheless be noted that this work, published just a few days before the bicentenary of the Battle of Austerlitz, garnered a lot of attention, thus affording its author the opportunity to boast of having driven the government to cancel its commemorative events. The truth is far more boring: the French government, as we are all aware, had planned nothing to mark the event. There was never anything to cancel.
If we were to analyse, point by point, the elements behind the Napoleon-Hitler comparison offered by Seward and Ribbe, it would soon become apparent that their theories are built on nothing but historiographical sand.
But we know all too well that when it comes to this sort of book, a point by point dissection means nothing. Far easier to amass counter-truth upon counter-truth, offering the faintest of ideas but nevertheless leaving the reader with a vague conviction that soon becomes very hard to shake.
You might say that true historians would never fall into such a trap.
The study of history is an apprenticeship in complexity, providing us with the tools to rationalise, to think objectively, and to avoid rigid conclusions which only result in shortcuts being taken.
You might think such books as Napoleon and Hitler and Crime de Napoléon would be quickly forgotten; after all, they could hardly figure in any academically-inclined historical approach to the subject.
You would be wrong.
These works from Seward and Ribbe frequently crop up in the bibliographies of otherwise well established authors with a healthy respect for an academic approach to history. They subsequently find themselves occupying a place within the historiography of the Napoleonic period they in no way deserve.
Controversial they may be, but in being cited, these books gain an aura of respectability.
Their ideas certainly have a habit of reappearing where you least expect them.
Although unreferenced, Seward's hypothesis can be found between the lines of a book many historians across the globe – myself included – consider to be a masterpiece, the magnificent The Transformation of European Politics 1763-1848 by Paul W. Schroeder.6 In it, this great historian writes:
“In the history of international politics, Napoleon does not really resemble Charles V, Philip II, Louis XIV, William II, Stalin, or other real or supposed aspirants to European empire or hegemony. The only one to whom he can be compared is Adolf Hitler […]. Hitler did it for the sake of an unbelievably horrible ideal; Napoleon for no underlying purpose at all.”7
With this short extract, Schroeder kills two birds with one stone, if you will pardon the expression. Not only does he compare Napoleon to the most hated of all conquerors, but he also denies him any sort of vision or affiliation to the Revolution. Quite an achievement. Although easy to disprove – even without trying to paint Napoleon as some sort of angel utterly lacking in ambition – remarks like those above, given weight by the author's authority on the subject, continue to encourage a simplistic and reductionist view of European history between 1800 and 1815. One such example, presented with no small verve it must be said (although not enough to excuse it its faults), is David Bell's The First Total War.8
With such godfathers, the equation Napoleon equals Hitler still has room to run. Arguments to the contrary, such as those presented by Steven Englund in his article for the Revue des Deux Mondes, or the few pages I have written refuting the opinions held by Seward and Schroeder, count for little, particularly in the Anglophone world.9
Just as it would never cross the mind of a musicologist to suggest Beethoven was inspired by The Rolling Stones, any historian or normal reader knows that it would be impossible to attribute any sort of “Hitlerism” to Napoleon, and with just cause. All you need do is examine the chronology in order to dismiss this fallacious enigma: you cannot compare two individuals, let alone two phenomena, whose histories are located two centuries apart. The hypothesis Napoleon equals Hitler is simply impossible. I hardly need point out that, by definition, an individual cannot be inspired by someone whose rise to power came one hundred and twenty years later.
And as far as Napoleon as a source of reference for Hitler goes, an argument often used by certain historiographical schools to reduce the French emperor to little more than a murdering autocrat and annihilator of so-called European liberties, this can also be challenged.
It is true that, in addition to Bismarck, Hitler admired Napoleon. He paid a short visit to Les Invalides in 1940 and appeared profoundly moved before the emperor's tomb. And in his diary, Goebbels often compares Hitler to Napoleon… although only to rank him above the French emperor. In his heart, Hitler believed himself unique and German. Any reference to what he considered to be the decadent ideas of the Enlightenment was to be rejected; France, in his eyes, was the arch enemy of the German nation. The pages of Mein Kampf are littered with such references: the war of 1806 forms the basis for the two countries' rivalry, the war of 1870 the first taste of revenge. After his invasion of the Soviet Union, he considered any comparison to the emperor to be entirely inappropriate. It's not hard to understand why. All the biographies of the Führer underline these aspects of his character; anyone still sceptical should read the section dedicated to this topic in Ian Kershaw's monumental work on Hitler.10
Even attempted in the right direction chronologically-speaking, the comparison is hardly convincing. There is no shared historical basis for it. Moreover, such comparison could only be made in specific and extremely localised circumstances, circumstances quite unlike those at the beginning of the 19th century.
If we attempt to analyse Seward's hypothesis – something we accept to do only with great reluctance – we come to realise that he has quite deliberately fiddled with the historical facts.
The two men's origins, both social and – I would argue – sociological, are fundamentally different. Their education and upbringing were not the same. The circumstances surrounding their development differ fundamentally. Their political agendas share nothing in common. Napoleon created the French Empire and conquered a large part of Europe before being defeated. Hitler founded the Third Reich, also came to dominate the continent and, like Napoleon, saw his career end in catastrophe. But Napoleon did not destroy France. Nor did he destroy Europe. His legacy was subsequently celebrated, embraced and expanded on. His life's work continued after his exile and death: administration, education, legal codes and institutions left by him still abide in form. No moral stain could ever make him as abject, scorned or diabolical a figure as Hitler. We can dispute his achievements, debate his motivations, even challenge the “White Legend” version of his life, but Europeans today do not feel the same violent contempt for him as they do for the memory of Hitler.
Need I emphasise any further just how different in nature their respective legacies are? Hitler left behind him nothing but an immense “moral trauma” (Kershaw's words) which could only ever inspire condemnation.
Analysing in turn each detail of the comparison would be effectively acquiescing to an impossible discussion. It would be a virtual acknowledgement that the wars of 1792-1815 can only be seen as ideological wars, thus reducing their importance and separating them from a complex history of events, ideas, economic factors and, above all, age-old geopolitical concerns.