Napoleon and Hitler

HISTORICAL parallels must not be overdrawn. From the simple fact that Napoleon started for Moscow in June 1812 and got there by September and that Hitler started for the same place in June 1941 and did not get there by September almost nothing of any use to us today can be inferred. Such a comparison is essentially between incomparables. But because much loose prophecy is heard, based on crude analogies between the Napoleonic period and our own day, it by no means follows that we can learn nothing by a cautious comparison between the broad aspects of the two periods.

This is not the place to go into the elaborately philosophical implications of the problem of historical uniformities. It should be sufficient to point out that from the point of view of common sense the notion that historical events are wholly unique is simply not tenable. In medical practice, for instance, no case, even of a relatively simple disease like pneumonia, is exactly like any other case; each patient presents to the physician a problem in some way unique. But not wholly unique, or the medical profession could never have achieved the triumphs it undoubtedly has achieved. The physician expects to learn from experience -- that is, from history. The fact is that most "practical" men -- farmers, sailors, engineers -- habitually act on what it is no mere quibble to call a study of historical uniformities. They may make mistakes. If they act as if their experience gave them absolute uniformities, they are certain to make grave mistakes. But they would make even graver ones if they assumed that each problem they faced was wholly unique and unprecedented.

We may legitimately ask, then, what can be learnt from the record of Napoleon's attempt to dominate Europe which will enable us to understand the still unfinished record of Hitler's attempt to dominate Europe. The pursuit of parallels in terms of personalities is not likely to be very fruitful. Napoleon went into violent fits of rage which from the quiet of St. Helena he later claimed were calculated. Hitler too has his neurotic rages, which are sometimes said to be calculated. Both men may be labelled megalomaniacs; but, on the whole, psychiatry can as yet help us little here. On the surface, the two men look very different -- different in social origin, in education, in professional training, in temperament and personality.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis