Before Hitler, Who Was the Worst Person in History?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 4 2011 5:51 PM

Before Hitler, Who Was the Stand-In for Pure Evil?

The Egyptian Pharaoh, of course.

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Adolf Hitler

Photograph by AFP/Getty Images.

ESPN dropped singer Hank Williams Jr. from its Monday Night Football telecast after he publicly compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler on Monday. Today, the Führer is universally recognized as the embodiment of evil and the most convenient example of a truly terrible human being. 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.

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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. Even Adolf Hitler himself once commented on history’s tendency to forget the sins of bloody dictators. In 1939, the Führer asked rhetorically, “Who still talks nowadays of the extermination of the Armenians?” (The authenticity of this quote is disputed.)

In the absence of a universal boogeyman, different regions latched on to a particular person as the personification of evil at different historical moments. Yet genocide and murder were less likely to earn a man universal revilement than treason or other forms of disloyalty. During the Civil War, for example, some Southerners spoke of Abraham Lincoln in vaguely Hitler-like terms. Upon Lincoln’s assassination, for example, the editor of the Texas Republican wrote, “the world is happily rid of a monster that disgraced the form of humanity.” (Some Confederates called Lincoln a “modern Pharaoh.”) Part of this scorn was based on their view of Lincoln as a traitor—both of his parents were Virginians, and Lincoln was born on slaveholding soil. Northerners, for their part, focused their ire on the traitorous assassin John Wilkes Booth. In fact, 52 years after Lincoln’s assassination, some Americans compared Woodrow Wilson to Booth, because he betrayed his country by leading the United States into war.

King George III was also a major whipping boy for American rhetoricians for decades after the Revolution. A good example is Walt Whitman’s “A Boston Ballad,” in which he argued that the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northern States to return escaped slaves to their owners, represented a return of the ghost of King George.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks David Blight and Jay Winter of Yale University; Brandon Inabinet of Furman University; Stephen Kantrowitz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Michele Kennerly of Northeastern University; Ned O’Gorman of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Christopher Swift of Texas A&M University; Dave Tell of the University of Kansas; and Michael Turner of Appalachian State University.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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