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Napoleon and Hitler

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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.

Nor is there much use in seeking parallels in specific battles or campaigns. It is true that, making allowance for the difference between the speeds of horses and of motor-driven vehicles, the French overran Prussia after Jena in 1806 just about as fast and as easily as the Germans overran France after Sedan in 1940. This indisputable parallel should have a certain use in combating the widespread and unfortunate notion that the recent "collapse" of France was something shockingly unique, and therefore peculiarly disgraceful to the French. But it would be rash to conclude that the parallels to the reforms of Stein and Hardenberg, the reawakening of Prussian patriotism in the poems of Arndt, the preaching of Fichte, the teachings of thousands of obscure leaders of public opinion, the Freiheitskrieg itself, are now preparing in France. We may hope they are preparing in France, but the coming War of Liberation may have another theater.

No, the most useful comparison is not of particular events and personalities, of narrative history, but of more general uniformities, of what we must call, a bit apologetically, sociological history. This does not mean that we shall prefer theories to facts, that we shall deal with the abstract and neglect the concrete. Quite the contrary, we shall never dare take more than a single step in generalization without going back to facts. But it does mean that, like the workers in the Hippocratic school of medicine, we are engaged primarily in the search for recognizable, verifiable uniformities in a mass of phenomena which obviously is not wholly uniform -- nor wholly disparate.


The World War of 1792-1815 broke out three years after the great French Revolution. Though recent French participation in the successful War of the American Revolution against Great Britain had probably done something to restore the pride of the French ruling classes, the French had been beaten, and badly beaten, in the Second Hundred Years' War with Britain. They had lost an empire in India and in North America. Their government was in 1789 bankrupt, inefficient, and unpopular among all classes. Their intellectual leaders had for over a generation been almost unanimous in calling for a complete reconstruction of political, economic and religious institutions -- in short, for a revolution. The States General of 1789, summoned by Louis XVI as a last resort before bankruptcy, at once took in hand the revolutionary reconstruction of France. After a brief period of apparent unanimity and hopefulness in the possibility of a peaceful regeneration of the country, the revolution took on violent forms -- overthrow of the monarchy, transfers of power to more and more radical groups, purges, prescriptions, confiscations, religious quarrels, the attainment of power by a well-organized, fanatical minority known as the Jacobins. During the Reign of Terror the Jacobin minority government was centered in the Committee of Public Safety. It ruled by suspending all ordinary civil rights and by welding together a hastily centralized governmental machinery -- in other words by those means which are still brought home to us in the phrase "the Reign of Terror."

By 1793 the Terror was directed not only at enemies within France, but at enemies without. The war which broke out between France and the Austro-Prussian alliance in April 1792 soon became the war of the First Coalition, in which practically all Europe, save Russia and Turkey, was ranged against republican France. Almost from the first, Frenchmen who fought in this and the ensuing wars seemed to be inspired by two aims regarded by their enemies as contradictory: they wanted to "free" other countries from oppression, and they wanted to make other countries as French as possible, even to the point of annexing them to France. To good French revolutionists, and possibly even to Bonaparte, these aims were not contradictory, since they believed that to be French, to be part of the French "system," was to be free, indeed that it was the only way to be free.

In 1792 and again in 1793 the war went badly for the French. For a while Paris was threatened. But the famous levée en masse decreed in 1793 provided great resources in men; the best elements of the old armies, including many experienced and ambitious non-commissioned and junior officers, were amalgamated with the new conscripts into the first effective mass-armies; services of supply were improved; the talents of scientists, inventors and industrialists were enlisted and used effectively. Finally, a group of extremely able generals, of whom Bonaparte was only the greatest, rose to leadership through the revolutionary "career open to talents."

It will not do, however, to overemphasize French strength at this point. Their enemies proved weak, not only because of their military conservatism, their unwillingness to meet French technical advances by similar advances of their own, but even more strikingly because of their failure to unite against the French. Historians commonly list four or five coalitions formed against France between 1792 and 1815. But until the "Grand Coalition" of 1813 not one mustered the whole strength of Europe, and not one held together against the temptation of a separate peace with France, or an apparently advantageous alliance with France. Any epitome or textbook of European history will provide a profitable exercise. List, for each of these years, the Powers at war with France, the Powers at peace with her, and the Powers which were her allies. The record will be complicated and confusing, but one fact will be most illuminating. Only Britain will be seen consistently at war with France; and even Britain signed the illusory Peace of Amiens with Bonaparte in 1802.

By the time Bonaparte took power as First Consul in 1799 and consolidated in an efficiently governed French state many of the reforms begun in 1789, French armies had long since overrun the Low Countries, and had invaded Germany and Italy. With a well-organized France behind him, Bonaparte made himself the Emperor Napoleon and the master of Europe. At the height of his power, just before the expedition to Moscow, he had done things to the map of Europe -- and not only to the map -- that still seem fantastic. Let us look at the map.

The core of his "system" was France itself, under his direct rule. This France included not only old France, but also Belgium, Holland, the German coast as far as that good French city, Hambourg, chef-lieu du département des Bouches de l'Elbe, parts of Northern Italy, including Turin, Genoa and Parma, and two detached territories, the States of the Church with Tuscany, and the Illyrian provinces. Then came the "client kingdoms," ruled by members of the Bonaparte family. In 1812 they were: the Kingdom of Italy, those parts of Northern and Central Italy not directly annexed to France, over which Napoleon as King ruled through a Viceroy, his step-son Eugène de Beauharnais; the Kingdom of Naples, ruled over by his brother-in-law Murat; the Kingdom of Spain, ruled over by his brother Joseph; the Confederation of the Rhine, composed of most of Western and Central Germany, and in which his brother Jerome was King of Westphalia; and the Duchy of Warsaw, a partially restored Poland, for which apparently no Bonaparte was available. Switzerland, though technically free, was actually a client state. Then came the allied states, Austria and Prussia, reduced in territory and pretty well cowed; the Scandinavian states, of which Sweden looked especially secure, since the French Marshal Bernadotte had been adopted by the childless old King as his Crown Prince; and finally Russia, still bound to Napoleon by the Treaty of Tilsit. You will have to look closely at the map of Europe to discern anything outside the "system" -- the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, protected by the British fleet, and Portugal, protected by the small British army of Wellington.

Great Britain kept free of the system. Early in his career as a ruler, Napoleon had threatened an invasion of England. Twice he had assembled an "army of England" on the Channel coast. There is a curious French print of 1804, entitled "The Invasion of England," which shows a cloud of balloons filled with soldiers sweeping from the French coast towards an England defended most inadequately by sharpshooters suspended from kites, while the French fleet crosses the Channel and French soldiers drag cannon triumphantly through a Channel tunnel. But after Trafalgar not even the threat of a French invasion could be very real. Napoleon gave up a direct attempt, and by the self-blockade or "Continental system" tried to close all Europe to British trade, and thus produce such economic dislocation as to wear Britain into submission. He did not, of course, aim to starve her out, since she continued in command of the seas and was not yet industrialized beyond the point of self-sufficiency in foodstuffs.

The French had not gained their mastery of Europe wholly through their own military power. Napoleon was everywhere able to rely on some help from citizens of the lands he conquered. Pro-French groups were apparently everywhere in a minority, but especially in Northern Italy and in the Rhineland they were by no means a negligible minority. Moreover, Napoleonic rule in the annexed and in the client states brought useful reforms which for a while did much to reconcile large numbers to his system. In his later wars, he even used Italian, Polish, German and other non-French troops; they were not as reliable as French troops, but they could be used. Yet a generous number of Frenchmen had always to be employed in administering and policing these countries, and from the first there were signs of trouble and unrest among the natives. In Spain the population was never got in hand.

The Spanish adventure, begun in 1807 to "protect Spain from the English," seemed on the surface successful when Joseph, with the support of a French army of occupation, was crowned in Madrid. But the rising of the people of Madrid, though put down bloodily, was the first great popular outbreak against French rule. What the Dos de Mayo began was not ended until Napoleon had fallen. Anchored in the British Army, which was never quite dislodged from the peninsula, popular resistance held some of Napoleon's best troops in Spain, and gradually wore them down. When in 1812 the Emperor broke with Tsar Alexander over the latter's reluctance to enforce the blockade against British trade and marched his Grand Army into Russia, the end was near. With the French Army destroyed in the famous retreat from Moscow, the governments of Europe finally mustered the courage and determination to unite against the Emperor. Their union was indeed far from easy and spontaneous. So great was Napoleon's prestige, so completely invincible was he regarded as being, even after Moscow, that it took all the skill of British statesmen, of Alexander, of Napoleon's bitter nemesis Metternich, of the leaders of new Prussia, to form the Grand Coalition and make it work. But slowly through 1813 and the spring of 1814 Napoleon was forced back through Germany and eastern France to his abdication at Fontainebleau. After that, the Hundred Days and Waterloo, however heroic, however essential to what we call the Napoleonic Legend, were in fact mere anticlimax.


That all this sounds not altogether unlike recent events is obvious. The parallels could be made more explicit, though not more real, by a few tricks of phrasing. The Jacobins might be called "the Party," the French revolutionary police the Gestapo, the pro-French groups in Italy and Germany might appear as Fifth Columnists or Quislings, the campaign of Jena as a Blitzkrieg, and Napoleon might be described as working for a "New Order." One might make an interesting study of the Peace of Amiens as the Munich of 1802, a British attempt to "appease" Napoleon. But such tricks are irritating, misleading, and unnecessary. Using the disciplined energies unleashed by great revolutionary movements, both Napoleon and Hitler led their peoples to the military conquest of most of Continental Europe, and were faced with the problem of organizing their conquests into some sort of supernational state in which these conquests would be preserved. Napoleon failed to conquer one very important country, Great Britain, and he failed in the long run to devise a satisfactory supernational state under French domination on the Continent. If the parallel holds, Hitler too will fail in the long run. The long run, in the time of the French Revolution and Napoleon, was nearly a quarter of a century.

The parallel may not hold. There may be decisive and significant factors present today which were not present then, factors which make it impossible to generalize soundly on matters regarding which we are attempting to generalize. That new factors exist is evident at once; the important question is whether they are of a kind to alter our tentative conclusion that Hitler will fail.

Only a year ago, it looked as though there might be a very important new factor. It looked as though the British Isles might be successfully invaded by Hitler's forces and the last European military opponent of Hitler be put out of action. We should not let ourselves be lulled into overconfidence; such an invasion is by no means impossible today. As yet, however, the twenty-one miles of the Channel have baulked Hitler's armies as effectively as they baulked Napoleon's. The war against British commerce is today far more menacing than in Napoleon's time. Britain is no longer self-sufficient in foodstuffs. Where Napoleon's blockade could aim at no more than crippling British business, Hitler's active sea war can aim at starving the islands out. But at this writing the "Battle of the Atlantic," if not won, is at any rate much more favorable to Britain than it was last year. In the United States, moreover, Hitler has an opponent Napoleon did not have, and one that, in spite of the American isolationists, seems ready and able to play a rôle historically analogous to that played by Great Britain against Napoleon. If the worst came, and Great Britain and Northern Ireland were counted out of the struggle, the United States would remain, a great Power committed against any settlement which would leave Hitler free to organize Europe; and the British Commonwealth of Nations also would remain. No matter how badly we are prepared at this time to fight Hitler on land -- and England was at least as badly prepared to fight Napoleon on land all the way from 1799 to 1812 -- we present in our total position and resources, spiritual as well as physical, an obstacle to Hitler as ultimately insuperable as England was to Napoleon. We might conceivably make our mistaken attempt to appease the aggressor in a new Peace of Amiens. But for such a peace to last, Hitler's Germany and our United States and the British Commonwealth would have to change -- millions of human beings would have to change -- in a way for which there is no precedent in human experience on this planet.

A factor even more obviously new is the very great change which industrial and scientific progress has made in warfare and in the methods of holding down conquered populations. Indeed, those who deny the validity of the parallel between Napoleon and Hitler are likely to rest their case largely on this factor. They maintain, first, that the airplane, the tank, the machine gun and other inventions have so changed conditions that a tiny group of Germans in possession of these weapons can hold down a conquered country indefinitely. The resistance of Spaniards, Germans, and other conquered peoples which broke down Napoleon, they say, is literally impossible now. Civilian and guerrilla opposition, no matter how heroic, is futile, for modern arms cannot be improvised, and the victorious Germans have a monopoly on such arms. They maintain, second, that improvements in the techniques of controlling public opinion, partly a matter of increased command of the mechanics of influencing people through radio, cheap printing, universal education and the like, partly a matter of increased knowledge of mass psychology, have given the Germans a means of preventing the growth of anything like the kind of popular opposition that made Napoleon's system unworkable. Both these statements must be examined closely, for if they are valid they impair very seriously, if they do not destroy, the analogy between Napoleon and Hitler.

It is true that the kind of widespread civilian resistance that Napoleon met in Spain, for instance, would be very difficult today. It is true that tanks cannot be made and distributed secretly, as can be done with small arms. But even in Napoleon's time civilian resistance unsupported by regular troops was almost useless, as witness Andreas Hofer's heroic stand in the Tyrol. Only when supported by an army like Wellington's in the Iberian Peninsula, and only after the retreat from Moscow had weakened the idea that Napoleon was invincible, did the conquered peoples rise effectively. Today the Russians are still in the fight, and, given local air-superiority, a British foothold on the Continent is by no means an impossibility. Moreover, all kinds of sabotage by civilians is as easy now as then; and because of the elaborateness of the structure of control, both as to industry and as to government, such sabotage is even more effective. Finally, the notion that a company of Germans equipped with modern arms can hold down a city indefinitely neglects the fact that the Germans, in spite of legend to the contrary, are most probably human beings.

Since they are human beings, they are likely to be occasionally careless, likely to lose the fine edge of their discipline, likely to let up a bit, even to make friends among the people they are holding down. Not even the Germans can garrison Europe effectively for a very long time. Their youthful élite may indeed be almost supermen in single-minded fanaticism and discipline. But such an élite cannot be spared for garrison duty in conquered countries. Even if they were so used, it is most unlikely that they could withstand pressures that have always weakened occupying armies in the past. To go a long way back for an analogy: the Spartans who tried to hold down Greece after the Peloponnesian War were an élite, trained, through many more generations than the Nazis have been trained, to an almost inhuman sense of duty and discipline. Yet the morale of their Theban garrison was so weakened by a few years' occupation of the city that they fell easy victims to the rather unsavory plot hatched by Theban patriots, and were driven out. Those who argue that modern weapons make Germans in occupation of conquered countries invincible against risings neglect at least one important fact: even modern weapons must be used by men. And men change very slowly indeed. The difference between machine guns, tanks and divebombers on the one hand and pikes and muskets on the other is so great that one may fairly consider it a difference of kind rather than of degree. Can anyone really believe that the difference between French soldiers of 1810 and German soldiers of 1941 is of a like order? To do so would be to believe in magic.

Yet the second great German tool for keeping the conquered in subjection -- propaganda -- seems to be considered a kind of magic by those who deny the validity of the Napoleonic parallel. Modern weapons in German hands, they say, will destroy the means of uprisings among conquered peoples; modern propaganda in German hands will destroy even the will to uprisings.

A great deal of nonsense has been talked and written about this matter. A year ago, there were those who argued that the Nazis were the agents of a European "revolt of the masses," that in every country the little folk who make up the bulk of the population had been prepared to welcome them as deliverers, that the complex of habits, customs, interests and ideals we call nationalism was moribund. Hardly a newspaper appears nowadays without dispatches that disprove such assertions completely. The will to resist the Germans, a will we may without further ado call nationalistic, grows daily even in countries like Norway, in which until lately it appeared feeble. The simple fact is that propaganda (the term is not here used as one of abuse) is a weapon we can use as well as the Nazis do--indeed, seem nowadays to be using better than they. From the radio to the smuggled leaflet, our propaganda is seeping into occupied territory, and the Germans can no more stop it than the French in Napoleon's time could stop Germans from reciting the poetry of Arndt. If anything is clear, it is that the Germans have not found a magic way to make other peoples accept their rule. Indeed, they seem to have done a job much inferior to that which the French did in the early nineteenth century. French actions may have contradicted their slogan "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," but the slogan remained singularly attractive to other European peoples. German actions towards Czechs, Poles, Serbs and French (and even Italians) seem quite in accordance with their dogmas of Nordic superiority. Neither actions nor dogmas are of a kind to reconcile the conquered to their lot.

Now it is indeed possible that within the next few years the Germans will achieve what Napoleon never quite achieved, real control over the whole Continent of Europe. The Nazis have modern military arms, and they have hitherto apparently practised a systematic, purposeful, ruthlessness towards conquered peoples for which there is hardly historical precedent in European history. They may so far starve conquered peoples that the physical and spiritual power to resist will no longer exist. Their policy of mass executions of leaders of these peoples may finally leave no more than cowed, inert masses, the kind German theorists have been writing about. But human beings are capable of extraordinary feats of resistance, especially when they have long and proud traditions. To use a familiar analogy from medicine: either the Nazi virus may be lethal, or the peoples of Europe may slowly develop within themselves the necessary antitoxic forces. No one can say surely which of these alternatives will hold. Precedent is for the latter.

A third new element often suggested as decisive is the economic. It is frequently maintained that modern economy has made the nation-state as of the Peace of Versailles impossible. Without falling into the naïve economic interpretation, we may grant that modern technology makes some new political forms necessary, just as the new commerce made forms other than the feudalmanorial necessary at the close of the Middle Ages. But in the past such changes have always been very slow, never catastrophic; and so far there is no evidence that Hitler's New Order is the predestined form of economic change. The wild schemes of the German geopolitiker seem doctrinaire and academic, as far from realism as such schemes have always proved to be.

A word may be said here on Herr Rauschning's contention that Hitler cannot stop, that his megalomania must lead him to reach out for ever more conquests until he and his people are exhausted.[i] This may well prove true. Certainly Napoleon did not stop in time. Yet Alexander the Great stopped, for his army made him stop, and his empire did not fall apart until after his death. Even, however, if Hitler or his successors should succeed in stopping at some such point of domination as the Germans have now attained in Europe, it seems impossible that the supernational state they are trying to erect could last. Even were pressure from without such a state removed, which seems well-nigh inconceivable, internal stresses would seem bound to destroy it.

For all government, in the long run, rests on consent. If that statement seems to you academic, sentimental, unrealistic, you may enlarge it to read "rests on consent and habit." But habit has to be built up slowly and under conditions not too intolerable to the governed. It does not look as if the British Empire and the United States would give the Germans time to build up on the Continent of Europe a habit of obedience to their New Order. Certainly Great Britain and Russia did not give Napoleon anything like time enough to build up his New Order, though they gave him fifteen years. In summing up, it will be worth while to dwell a bit further on this point, not only with reference to Napoleon, but with reference to the whole modern history of what German historians themselves call the Europäisches Staatensystem.


Since Europe emerged from the Middle Ages, some five hundred years ago, it has been made up governmentally of a certain pattern of units, most of them what we now call nation-states. There are the larger units -- Great Britain, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Russia. In between there are certain zones of fragmentation, containing smaller units, especially one between the Germans and the French, and another between the Germans and the Slavs -- Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Bohemia, Poland, Hungary and the like. The actual boundaries of these units have varied considerably, and some of the smaller ones have disappeared from time to time from the map. But it is arresting to note how generally persistent the pattern has been. It is extremely hard to obliterate one of these units. Even Ireland, which the English absorbed to the point of practically destroying the Irish language, has in our own day reappeared as a self-governing and virtually independent unit for the first time since the twelfth century.

Now these units have fought among themselves for centuries. Occasionally one of them has grown strong enough to bring some of the others under one rule. We have seen that at the height of his power Napoleon actually brought under his direct or indirect rule almost the whole of Continental Europe. But he was by no means the first "aggressor" in modern Europe. Charles V, Louis XIV and William II made attempts, in essentials the same, to break down the European state-system. Hitler is today making a similar attempt and one which at the present writing seems in some ways the most successful yet. Perhaps some day someone will succeed in uniting Europe. There is no ground for belief that the sovereign unit "France," for instance, is immortal, any more than the units "Aquitaine," "Languedoc," or "Burgundy," once independent and now parts of a larger whole, were immortal. As heirs of the liberal tradition, we Americans must hope that the further unification of Europe, which has after all come a long way since Hugh Capet and Henry the Fowler, will be accomplished by the slow, hard way of voluntary federal experiment. It cannot come through force and conquest alone, but it may indeed come through successful imperialism. One of the peoples of Europe may have the wisdom, skill, patience -- and luck -- to unite the Continent as the Romans once united the Mediterranean world. To date, there are no good signs that Hitler's Germans are such a people, that they can make a pax Germanica to stand as an achievement beside the pax Romana.

However the unification or integration of Europe is brought about, it will not be brought about suddenly. That, one may confidently say, is a lesson of history. It will not be brought about suddenly because the habits and sentiments of men, on which all political arrangements rest, simply cannot be changed suddenly -- not in a day, not in a year, not in a generation. The deep, in some sense almost subconscious, habits and sentiments of millions of Europeans are today forced out of their normal courses by everything the Nazis do. With the certainty of a physico-chemical reaction, these habits and sentiments are bound to impel the millions to try to get back to normal courses. The process will not be a pretty one, for such a reaction unleashes hatred and violence in proportion to the injury done to old habits and sentiments. But it has begun. Pierre Laval and Marcel Déat will testify to that.

Such reflections are by no means fatalistic. To point out that history suggests that Hitler can be beaten is in no way to suggest that we in America should stand by and let Nature and History take their course. On the contrary, the belief that forces we can understand are working against Hitler should be a powerful incentive to us to make use of them. It is no real paradox that people who believed that their victory is "predestined" or "determined" should behave as though the active and devoted use of their "free will" to win were essential to the attainment of victory. Belief in Calvinist predestinarianism or in Marxist dialectical materialism, far from making believers relax into fatalistic ease, has demonstrably proved a stimulus to the most intense kind of effort on their part to attain "the inevitable." We should not, then, accept the shallow pseudo-logic of the assertion, often heard, that belief in the likelihood of Hitler's overthrow will lessen our desire to help overthrow him. Indeed, a much more serious problem of morale at present is the existence of a belief among citizens in the democracies that Hitler's victory is inevitable, that irreversible historical tendencies are working for a German dominion over Europe, if not over the world. Such a belief has no more foundation now than had in, 1810, a very similar and perhaps as widespread belief that Napoleon was invincible.

[i]Cf. Hermann Rauschning, "Hitler Could Not Stop," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, October 1939.

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