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Hitler and Napoleon. But Which One?

Any number of historians, philosophers and others have raised the question as to w hether Napoleon w as in some sense a precursor of Adolf Hitler. Certainly the disastrous Russian campaigns of both men invite comparison, as do their overw eaning ambitions to master Europe and further afield. Some w ould even go so far as to assert that Napoleon's treatment of black slaves in Haiti anticipates Hitler's genocidal persecution of the Jew s and other minorities. Surely this is overstepping the mark of meaningful comparison. In any case one might consider draw ing parallels betw een Hitler's politcal career and that of a person other than Napoleon I At least as far as the Machiavellian art of manipulating constitutional and democratic procedures is concerned, a w ider basis of comparison emerges w hen one focusses on the political careers of Hitler and Napoleon III, Napoleon I's nephew . (For biographical details consult an encyclopedia or w ork of historical reference, e.g. click:http://en.w iki/Napoleon_III_of_France ). Strangelly enough, Napoleon III and Adolf Hitler share April 20th as their day of birth. As in similar instances in history, this quirk of circumstance might prompt one to reflect on parallels that cannot be readily dismissed as mere coincidences. (For a survey of odd coincidences in history click :http://w w w .w _item/item_id/273832 . Of course, Napoleon III, as in the case already considered, displayed nothing of Hitler 's malignancy and desire to glorify w ar. For all his faults Napoleon w as little better or w orse than many another autocratic rulers in recent history and arguably possessed qualities that could even arouse sympathy and admiration. How ever, certain parallels betw een Napoleon and Hitler remain. These may be listed as follow s: Both w ere despotic rulers w ho gained supreme pow er despite immense obstacles presented to them by their social and family origins (but so, one may object, w ere quite a number of others w ho fought their w ay to the top despite similar handicaps, men such as Oliver Cromw ell, Napoleon I, Franco or Lenin). What marks Napoleon III and Hitler out from the others is the ability they evinced in gaining their initial political leverage by exploiting established constitutional instruments and procedures and then abolishing them in order to gain absolute pow er. This they achieved, unlike Cromw ell or Napoleon I, w ithout being military leaders or conquerors. The latter did legitimise his authority by a plebiscite, as indeed did Napoleon IIIand Hitler, but plebiscites legitimise political actions retro-actively rather by means of the due process of standing law s. The ability of Napoleon III and Hitler to exploit and then pervert or abolish the legal procedures devised to regulate the continuation of political authority demands the kind of personality that is bold and audacious enough to seize every opportunity conducive to their aims, that is perspicacious enough to recognize the desires and fears of the respective populace and that is shrew d enough to promise that they can fulfill such desires and allay such fears. Both possessed histrionic skills that allow ed them to sw ay popular feelings, though Hitler's gestures and postures w ere held to ridicule by Charlie Chaplin, w ho used his histrionic genius to entertain and educate mass audiences instead of deluding them Napoleon III pionered use of propaganda to foster a personality cult. Goebels perfected it in Hitler's cause. Napoleon III and Hitler had careers that reveal significant points of resemblance. Both began their political activism by staging abortive putsches. Both learned from this experience that the w ay to political pow er led through accepted legal channels Both became political prisoners in a "romantic" castle setting. Both w ere beguiled by initial military success into believing that they w ere infallible military geniuses. Both experienced their final political demise by attempting to make a heroic last stand against overw helming odds, either in Sedan or Berlin Both shrew dly exploited the sense of national shame and humiliation occasioned by terms agreed at an international conference, be this the Congress of Vienna or the Conference of Versailles. In fairness to Napoleon III it should be stressed that his ambitions, though inspired by a thirst for gloire and aggrandizeiment ,betray little of the lunatic quality of Hitler's passions. it w as his goal to promote France as a leading w orld pow er in concert w ith the w ider interests of w hat he believed to be he Latin w orld , a w orld uniting all w ho spoke a romance language. He evinced caution w hen not pushing Austria into the arms of Prussia after the battle Solverino, doubtless aw are that his Italian campaign might be construed as a case for the German Conferation to take up according to agreements on mutual defence. He retracted his support for Maximilian's claim to be emperor of Mexico w hen the United States w as in a position to maintain the Monroe doctrine once the Civil w ar w as over. True,

he allow ed himself to be provoked into w aging a w ar against Prussia at Bismarck's instigation. The German chancellor shrew dly anticipated that the claim of a Hohenzollern prince to the Spanish throne w ould be seen by Napoleon as a gross affront to French claims to hegenomy in Spain and the Latin w orld. What explains the parallels so far considered? We must problably view the careers of these men w ithin a w ide historical context, taking account of the breakdow n of a belief in the divine right of kings and its replacement by the notion that political authority is vested in the national or popular w ill. This understanding provides the basis of democratic government, but also of deviant theories and practices realized by those w ho have laid claim to personifying the popular w ill and acting as its defender and agent. For such men as they, democratic procedures may prove useful as a means to achieving "a greater end." Such men have also sough to overcome the void left by the demise of divine authorty by appealing to the need to restablish a lost empire. Napoleon III felt himself predestined to fulfil this role on the strength of his very name, and by defeating Napoleon and celebrating the inauguration the Second German Empire in Versailles, Bismarck regained the mantle of the Holy Roman Empire w hich Napoleon I had impiously snatched from the House of Hapsburg.