Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | November 25, 2014

Napoleon =/= Hitler

Execution of the duke d Enghien

Jean-Paul Laurens, L’exécution du duc d’Enghien dans les fossés de Vincennes, 1873.

At on point on his show this past Sunday, Fareed Zakaria interviewed Andrew Roberts, who recently wrote a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. At one point during their conversation, Roberts touches on a point that I thought worth noting (emphasis added):

ZAKARIA: Of course, many, many people regard him as a monster …


ZAKARIA: And they regard him as an evil dictator, instituted a coup, murdered his opponents. What do you say to them?

ROBERTS: Well, first of all, he murdered one opponent.

ZAKARIA: Duke Enghien.

ROBERTS: The Duke Enghien, yes. And you can actually name the people who he killed for political reasons on the fingers of one hand. So the idea that he was some kind of an Adolf Hitler who killed millions of people for political and racial reasons is completely absurd as far as I’m concerned. This isn’t hagiography. I don’t for a moment deny that he did do some totally ruthless things, including a massacre in Jaffa in Israel which was a war crime to all intents and purposes. So, I don’t deny that. What I do deny though is that he was anything like Adolf Hitler. He didn’t see things in racial terms. He was not an exterminationist or a genocidal maniac. And he also had a positive vision which is something people tend to forget.

From time to time, I will hear someone say words to the effect of “If Henry VIII [or Napoleon, or Bismarck] had possessed the same technology as Hitler, he would have been just as deadly.” Aside from being unprovable and unfalsifiable, such statements strike me as lazy and misguided thinking. Not all dictators are alike. Napoleon was no saint, but he also was no Hitler.

Today, Hitler serves as a stand-in for authoritarian evil. At one point in the 19th Century, Napoleon also served as a similar stand-in (especially for the British), although other stand-ins – especially Biblical ones, like Herod and particularly the Pharaoh of the Exodus – were more popular (emphasis added):

Before World War II, who was the rhetorical worst person in history?

The Pharoah. In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, many Americans and Europeans had a firmer grasp of the bible than of the history of genocidal dictators. Orators in search of a universal symbol for evil typically turned to figures like Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, or, most frequently, the Pharaoh of Exodus, who chose to endure 10 plagues rather than let the Hebrew people go. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote: “No man was a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself, before the fatal nineteenth of April, 1775 [the date of the Lexington massacre], but the moment the event of that day was made known, I rejected the hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of England for ever.” In the run-up to the Civil War, abolitionists regularly referred to slaveholders as modern-day Pharaohs. Even after VE Day, Pharaoh continued to pop up in the speeches of social reformers like Martin Luther King Jr.

Generally speaking, hatred was more local and short-lived before World War II. Nineteenth-century polemicists occasionally used Napoleon Bonaparte as shorthand for an evil ruler — they sometimes referred to “the little tyrant” rather than name the diminutive conqueror — but those references were rare. There is little record of oratorical comparisons of political leaders to Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, or Ivan the Terrible. …

Another point worth remembering: as Alistair Horne writes (The Fall of Paris, p. 291): “To the denizens of the otherwise tranquil nineteenth century, any threat to the established order of things was instinctively regarded as a far more pernicious heresy than it would be to our world, its sensibilities long dulled by custom.”*

Incidentally, the killing of the Duke of Enghien is the principal subject of conversation at the dinner party that opens Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

* Horne writes this in the course of discussing why the Paris Commune of 1871 was so terrifying to so many people at the time.


  1. The difference between those two is that Napoleon was not a genocidal maniac. He took over countries and made them vassal states. Hitler’s agenda was to take the countries, kill their native populations, and use the land and its resources for the German population. The need to destroy Hitler and put an end to his plans was far more urgent and ethically needed than was the need to put an end to Napoleon.

  2. I’ve started the Roberts bio, partly because the recent spate of Napoleon bios have been so negative. (And because I liked his Salisbury bio.)

    N is not someone whose bad side is hard to spot, and I agree that treating him as if he were Hitler is silly. The comparison is deeply unflattering to Hitler, whose positive legacy amounts to very little (autobahns?).

    Look how the Allies treated Napoleon, even after Waterloo. He was their enemy, but evidently not a monster. Imagine had Hitler been sent to St Helena!

    • Funny that you mention St. Helena. As you probably know, Robert Taft was a critic of the Nuremberg Trials after WWII. At a debate at Kenyon College in late 1946 (I believe), a student in the audience asked Sen. Taft what he would have done with the leading Nazis, if not put them on trial. His suggestion: exile, same as Napoleon.

    • Did not know that. The BBC could get a sitcom out of Goering & co. stuck together on St Helena.

    • Ha! “Real Life: St Helena.” (I wonder if they would have gone with subtitles or dubbed translations.)

    • I was thinking more John Cleese as Ribbentrop, but the reality angle works too.

  3. Interesting post.

    Of course I agree Napoleon was not Hitler, for reasons already mentioned. Would point out, however, that Napoleon was profligate with the lives of his soldiers. So were other generals, but the Fr. Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars marked a change here. David Bell’s description of Napoleon’s Russian campaign and the retreat from Moscow (in ‘The First Total War’) does not put Napoleon in a good light. Ditto his expedition to Egypt, ditto the war in Spain (see Goya, ‘The Disasters of War’). Of course the cruelties were not all directly attributable to N., but still.

    My impression of Andrew Roberts, tho haven’t read his bks, is that he’s a rt-wing Tory and fan of unbridled market capitalism. Thinks Thatcher was the greatest. Writes bks about the alleged superiority of ‘the West’ to other civs. etc etc. In a word, yuk.

    • I had not heard of Roberts before this interview. I am given to understand that Anderson is reading the N bio, and I will await his review.

      Oh, and I had intended to mention that I liked your review of Bell’s book back in September.

  4. thanks

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