Today, as we of argue over whether it is fair or appropriate to compare current political figures to Hitler, it is instructive to realize that the last century’s version of this parlor game was comparing Hitler to a predecessor, Napoleon. Although he made himself an emperor, Napoleon was a common man who rose to power the hard way, much as Hitler later would.
It might seem a stretch to go back as far as Napoleon, who was not even German (although, neither was Hitler before 1932), but the two men were not that far apart in time. Hitler was born less than seventy years after Napoleon died. Also, neither man was born and raised in the heart of the nation he would one day rule with absolute authority. Napoleon was born an obscure Corsican—almost more Italian than French, and Hitler grew up an Austrian who wished he was a German.
Napoleon set a modern precedent for aggression and autocracy. At the height of his power, like Hitler, he ruled much of continental
Europe. Also, both leaders wound up being beaten by a coalition that included the British, and both combined this with their own self-defeating invasions of . Russia
In the on-going tit for tat between
France and Germany, Napoleon conquered and looted most of the separate German states at the beginning of the nineteenth century; this would be followed by the Prussian-led German states defeating and looting Francein the 1870s; and that was followed by France looting with the 1919 Versailles Treaty. This blood feud played a great role in Hitler’s rise to power. The German people were less moved to support Hitler because of his anti-Semitism than by his anti-Versailles-Treaty position, and Hitler would achieve brutal though short-lived revenge when he conquered Germany in 1940. France
2 Klemens von Metternich
Austrian prince and foreign minister, Metternich organized against Napoleon but then worked feverishly to suppress any moves toward democracy and liberalism, not only in
but throughout the German states. His influence over other German states was so great that he was able to persuade them to pass anti-democratic measures, which were so harshly repressive that they might make one think of the Nazis’ night and fog campaign. Those legislative bodies that were established in some German states during this period were not really independent but merely rubber-stamps for repressive measures. Anyone who so much as spoke up for freedom and democracy was arrested, and their organization, if any, was outlawed. Metternich helped make repression of liberty seem almost like an attribute of being German. Austria
3 Otto von Bismarck
Anyone who knows German history probably anticipated that
would be on this list. Although a petty nobleman, Bismarck, like many modern political strongmen, came to power seemingly out of nowhere. Elected to the Prussian legislature from the frontier of Bismarck , he had a strike against him because he had prematurely tried to interject himself into the affairs of the nation and its royal family at the time of the abortive popular uprisings in 1848. That turmoil was resolved without his help, and his kibitzing offended some of the royals (particularly the future King Friedrich III and his wife). Nevertheless, the force of Prussia ’s personality and his snake-like craftiness in politics led him to hold the offices of Minister-President and Chancellor simultaneously. Essentially, he had the same titles that Hitler would later covet and seize, except that Bismarck was still nominally subordinate to King Wilhelm I of Prussia, whereas Hitler would be subordinate to no one. Bismarck , nevertheless, became a virtual dictator through his uncanny ability to manipulate and even intimidate the king and members of his family. Bismarck
While the last two decades of
’s long tenure were relatively peaceful internationally, domestically he instituted many repressive policies, not only outlawing socialism for a period of time but even throwing himself into a campaign of repression against the Catholic Church. Ameliorating his influence to a small extent was the fact that Bismarck Germanyhad entered into a liberal phase following the revolutions of 1848; however, only accepted this because he saw the way the wind was blowing. As soon as the economy of Bismarck Germany turned sour during the 1870s, Bismarck abandoned ’s two-decade experiment with free trade and returned to protectionism. In connection with this development, the National Liberal Party splintered and never really regained its influence. Germany never supported more liberalization than he had to and turned decisively against liberalism when it no longer suited his aims. The legacy of Metternich was kept alive by Bismarck : liberalism and German nationalism came to seem to be mutually exclusive, and rule by a strongman, a Fuhrer, seemed not only acceptable but desirable to some, perhaps to many. Bismarck
4 Wilhelm II, Emperor of
When Wilhelm I died in 1888, the year before Hitler was born, his son Friedrich became Emperor Friedrich III, but he only lived three more months after his father. His own son thus became Wilhelm II.
Bismarckhad helped shape young Wilhelm by coming between him and his father, but after a couple of years of his reign, Wilhelm II decided to fire the aging . The new emperor was notably aggressive and impolitic. He made many embarrassing remarks in public and generated even more embarrassing rumors. He could be petty and unreasonable with his subordinates. After joining Bismarck Austria-Hungaryin declaring war on much of the rest of Europein 1914, however, Wilhelm found himself increasingly pushed aside by his generals, Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. Nevertheless, Wilhelm II set an example for Hitler as an aggressive and impulsive autocrat.
5 Benito Mussolini
Hitler directly modeled much of his organization, program and aims after Mussolini's Italian Fascist movement. After he joined the German Workers Party and rose to positions of authority within it, he changed the party to reflect the kind of discipline and goals that the Italian Fascists had. When Hitler decided on the disastrous Beer Hall Putsch, it was because he wanted to imitate Mussolini's March on Rome, which had worked for Mussolini far better than Hitler's Putsch did.
The personal as well as the political relationship between the two leaders did not work smoothly when Hitler came to national power. First, Mussolini delighted in snubbing Hitler. Later he resented Hitler's dragging Italy into a world war for which she was not prepared. Then he tried to invade Greece, which annoyed Hitler because it did not help Germany's war aims. Finally, after Italy collapsed under Allied pressure, Hitler had to rescue his old ally.
6 and 7 Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff
The two generals, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, became the “war dictators” of
during the latter part of World War I. They ran the war, and—because this was the world’s first total war—they also determined domestic policies in the service of the war effort. It is ironic, historians have argued, that in World War I the more democratic Allies that were engaged against the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary were, in the end, more efficient war machines than the nominally autocratic states, but that was not how many Germans saw it, with some almost romanticizing the way that Germany was intentionally organized as a collective during the war. Germany
Ludendorff played a more personal role in paving the way for Hitler. For one thing, he permitted Hitler to join the German Workers Party even though soldiers were not supposed to join parties. Moreover, Ludendorff introduced Hitler, a nobody in German high society, to many useful people, from the revolutionary Strasser brothers to the widow of composer Richard Wagner. Ludendorff, himself, marched with Hitler in the botched Beer Hall Putsch of 1923.
Hindenburg, as president of
Weimar , did not care much for Hitler; yet after defeating Hitler in the 1932 presidential election, he was persuaded to appoint "the Little Czech Corporal" as Chancellor of Germany. One observer described the appointment as “unnecessary.” Indeed, Hitler had had no position or power in the government up until then. Why give him the very position that, within the year, when Hindenburg died, Hitler would use to enhance and consolidate power in himself? Whatever Hindenburg was thinking might just have to remain a mystery, but certainly he underestimated Hitler. Everyone who has studied Hitler thinks that was true of most of Hitler’s opponents, and this was why he got the better of a great many of them. Germany
Hitler’s path to power seems to have been made possible by several men who came before him and who accustomed Germans, in particular, and Europeans, in general, to accepting the near inevitability that someone as repressive and brutal as Hitler would one day come to power.