Which world leader do you think the following remarks describe?
“He was a liar, a rowdy, an egoist; brutal, sensual, shameless; his whole bearing had something magnificently vulgar, parvenu-like.”
“He gave offense in society by his uncouth barrack-manners, he delighted in malicious indiscretions and mean gossip, he permitted himself unseemly jokes about women and boasted like a commercial traveler of his successes in love — although in fact he had no genuine success with women, who admired, but did not love, the upstart.”
He said of himself, “My greatest talent consists in my clear insight into everything.”
“He brought the whole world into confusion.”
Here’s a hint: Talleyrand once said to his face: “Good taste is your personal enemy. If you could have got rid of it by bombardment it would long since have been conquered.” Here’s another hint: “Able was I ere I saw Elba.”
The man in question was Napoleon Bonaparte—arriviste, man of war, self-crowned emperor, world-conqueror, world-wrecker, and, ultimately, reviled exile—who “vanished one day as suddenly as he had emerged, went off in smoke like an explosion of gunpowder, leaving nothing behind but startled people and a smell of burning.” To some he was a superhero; to others a scourge—a widowmaker, a destroyer, a catastrophe.
Reading these descriptions by Napoleon’s contemporaries, you might notice that they echo common assessments of the character of the current occupant of the American White House, Donald J. Trump. But Trump’s detractors do not have the habit of name-checking Napoleon when they mention world leaders past whose excesses and mafia capo style remind them of Trump’s. More often, they compare him to the murderous dictator Adolf Hitler. This is imprudent for three reasons. First: regardless of the validity of any connections that may be drawn between Trump and the Führer, the comparison is so inflammatory that it makes discussion impossible; any debate it might provoke comes down to trading jibes. Second: the Hitler parallel has been a cliché for more than 75 years. Pol Pot was compared to Hitler, so was Fidel Castro, Manuel Noriega, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Un, and so on. The Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte has even likened himself to Hitler. Where is the sting in that? A cliché is a cliché, however resoundingly deployed; even if the casing is solid and sure, the shell is spent before the shot is fired.
But third, and more important: the Trump-Hitler comparison is too narrow. History offers a packed gallery of dictators and demagogues whose actions, if remembered, can be held up for impactful contrast. The remove of centuries, or millennia, allows a level of detachment that makes productive argument easier. One could go back to Frederick the Great or Henry the VIII; to Ivan the Terrible and Genghis Khan; or on to Caesar, or to Crassus, the Roman real estate tycoon who quashed Spartacus’s slave rebellion and crucified thousands of rebels. But Napoleon provides nearer material for contrast. For his example to be useful, however, it first must be remembered.
The descriptions of Napoleon quoted above come from a book (books, actually) that most people don’t read anymore, the three-volume Cultural History of the Modern Age, written by the Austrian philosopher, historian and cabaret performer Egon Friedell. Barely recalled today, Friedell was a fixture in Vienna’s Café Society in the early part of the 20th century, until Hitler’s Anschluss brought banter to a halt. Friedell’s digressions on Napoleon fill only a few pages of his doorstopper—“Napoleon and Destiny;” “Napoleon and Strategy;” Napoleon as an “anti-ideological ideologue”—but the vivid, opinionated details they contain make Napoleon come alive in three dimensions. He emerges not as a stern oil painting, hand-in-vest; or as a dwarfish cartoon, mocked by Bugs Bunny, but as a wayward and dominating ego, swollen with vanity and charisma, radiating id.
Over time, the dent that an influential personality like Napoleon carves into the earth in his own age gets filled in, paved over, forgotten. But when you read books about great or wicked men (and women—Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth I, Joan of Arc, Marie Antoinette, Evita Perón) written closer to the time in which they lived, the effect they had on those around them becomes shareable. Reading the liveliest passages, you feel you’ve cracked a code—like a kid with a spy kit who squeezes lemon juice on a blank page, and exults to see the secret content made legible.
During three decades in the 18th and 19th centuries, Napoleon held sway over the French and much of the western world (the Syrians and Egyptians managed to repel him), aided by a cult of personality that endured even after he was removed from power and sent into exile. Donald Trump profits from a similar cult of personality, which enthralls his adherents, who, despite their obstreperous fervor, represent only about a third of voters. The chance that the fealty of Trump’s base will endure after the November election (whatever its outcome), and jeopardize the American experiment, agitates those citizens (the majority) who are immune to the Trump cult.
Thomas Jefferson felt similarly agitated in 1816, six months after the Gallic despot’s rout at Waterloo, about Americans who continued to be caught up in Napoleon worship. “I have grieved to see even good republicans so infatuated as to this man, as to consider his downfall as calamitous to the cause of liberty,” Jefferson wrote. He added, “To whine after this exorcised demon is a disgrace to republicans, and must have arisen either from want of reflection, or the indulgence of passion against principle.”
It was on October 15 of 1815, 205 years ago today, that Napoleon disembarked on Saint Helena, a wind-blasted volcanic isle in the South Atlantic, some 2,000 miles from the African mainland, where his burning drive for power could strike no flame. He would die there five years later, on May 5, 1821, surrounded by a cultish coterie who’d followed their hero into exile. Two centuries ago, it was possible to extract a tyrant like Napoleon from society, to maroon him in a place where he could influence no opinions and wreak no destruction. Today, Napoleon would have to be sent to the moon to be kept out of the mediatized political fray. Modern communications and transportation technologies have eroded the efficacy of exile.
Friedell published his cultural history (Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit, in German) between 1927 and 1931, before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, and before the Reichstag burned. His intent had been to convey (in several thousand consecutive pages) the chain reactions of thought, social patterns, and political shifts that had produced the western culture he knew. That culture was changing convulsively as the volumes went to press. When Friedell started writing, Hitler was still just a nuisance in Munich, building foam and followers. So he looked back farther to seek out the influencers who had shaped his era; and naturally, noticed Napoleon. Friedell was fascinated by the Corsican tyro. He acknowledged Napoleon’s flaws and excesses, but praised his military acumen, his work ethic, his command of data, and above all, his “power of translating his conceptions into actuality.”
Napoleon concurred; some of his own self-assessments sound Twitter-ready, such as: “One must indeed be ignorant of the methods of genius to suppose that it allows itself to be cramped by forms. Forms are for mediocrity;” and “Great ambition is the passion of a great character. He who is endowed with it, may perform either very great actions, or very bad ones; all depends upon the principles which direct him.” Contrast those with two tweets posted by the current American president: “…throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart,” and “I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star… to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that.” What Trump’s tweets lack in imperial eloquence, they make up for in imperious self-aggrandizement. Would Napoleon have tweeted, if that weapon had lain within his grasp? What do you think? The army of ideas advancing daily across the internet extends farther, and less removably, than Napoleon’s Grande Armée.
Two centuries ago, without benefit of microchips or satellites, or even air travel, Napoleon went viral. The idea he represented—asserting the concentration of all human powers in one man—was so contagious that it traversed the globe, leaping from body to body, from continent to continent. He was a meme before memes had a name. And so, if you think about it, was, and is, American democracy. The power of the American message, magnified by the voices of its people through their advocacy of their own rights, tore down antiquated structures of power that had exalted the rights of one man over the rights of entire populations for millennia.
Technology now exists that can amplify both the voices that empower the people and the voices that disempower them. Napoleon is not a meme, in the second decade of the 21st century; but Hitler is—along with Pepe the Frog, Pajama Boy, and the Confederate Flag—the symbols recycled and repasted in offensive tweets, landing with a shock then fading to nothing like a dummy flashbang. But Napoleon retains latent meme power; confined mostly to history books, military annals, and fact-crammed documentaries, his powder is still dry.
If blogging had existed in his heyday, Friedell probably would have created a Tumblr about Napoleon. If Twitter had existed, he might have tweeted about him. Lacking social media as an outlet, Friedell wrote, and wrote. But he did not only write and write; he also talked and talked, as did his glittering circle of Austrian intellectual friends, who flourished in Vienna during the interwar period. Before the Second World War, before television chat shows, before Facebook and Twitter, 4chan and TikTok, ideas circulated mostly on paper and through conversation. But Friedell was in his prime not only before the Second World War, but before the First World War. Born in 1878, he was 26 when Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, setting off World War I. He was 30 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, taking down with it the pre-war social order and its associated certainties. His study of the modern age was written from the first with retrospect in mind.What Trump’s tweets lack in imperial eloquence, they make up for in imperious self-aggrandizement.
The form of government Friedell grew up with, in common with most people on the globe in his epoch, was monarchy. America was exceptional then as a country with no king or queen or emperor. American children today who dress up like Disney princesses don’t understand how recently it was that real-life princesses—and princes, and kings, and queens—existed outside of fairytale, asserting actual powers over their citizens’ fates. In 1900, the United States was the world’s only true democracy (though not everyone would grant it that status.) The rest of the world was monarchical, or aristocratic, or oligarchic. But over the last hundred years, after two world wars, democracy as a form of government became more popular.
And yet, as late as 1976, America’s bicentennial year, the majority of world governments, 62 percent, were still autocracies. Since then, the balance has tipped; in 2018, an Oxford University research group counted 99 democracies and 80 autocracies. But the balance can tip again; where those numbers stand now, and whether they will change after this November, remains to be seen. There is no guarantee, as Friedell saw in his own life, that the culture you are born into will remain constant; which makes the matter of leaving a record of how it once was, and what that represented, all the more urgent.
Americans at this moment find themselves in much the same position as Friedell found himself a century ago. They are witnessing, during the Trump presidency, the dismantling of the style of government they had known throughout their lifetimes. Some welcome this disruption, hailing the bluster and pageantry of an alpha male they admire; others deplore Trump’s unbridled brand of leadership, believing it sabotages the democratic principles that founded this country. To some, he is a superhero, to others a scourge: echoes of Napoleon. Today’s commentators, whether or not they publish books and essays, regularly dispense their outrage and dismay in defiant posts, links and photographs on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms. Sometimes they get guff for this from activists who complain that such protests are ineffectual.
But are they ineffectual? When history-changing events unfold so quickly and dramatically that a book can be out of date before it is even printed, the value of ephemeral discussion increases. Besides, once posted on the internet, even a casual comment becomes ineradicable. In Friedell’s Vienna, ephemeral discussion abounded. Arthur Schnitzler and Hugo von Hofmannsthal traded aperçus at the Café Griensteidl; Robert Musil, Franz Werfel and Joseph Roth held court at the Herrenhof; and Friedell favored Café Central, as did his friends Karl Kraus and Alfred Polgar. Every word they said vanished after they spoke it like Schlag in hot coffee. But not all the insights they exchanged in their back-and-forth were lost: some resurfaced in novels, plays, articles, poems, and, later, chronicles of their circle.
One such chronicle, Clive James’s 2007 book Cultural Amnesia, resurrects some of those melted conversations, and explains why more of them were not turned into printed material: the café habitués were talkers, not listeners: “Everyone was Johnson and nobody was Boswell,” James writes. But he defends their right to have aired what was on their minds without keeping a transcript—call it freedom of extemporaneous speech. “In the whole culture right through until the Nazis turned out the lights, talk was a way of being, and it was universally understood that the best talkers had the right to talk it all away,” he writes.There’s no way to see around the bend in the road to the next catastrophe, the next tyrant. But it’s possible, if you consult the map of history, to correct course.
But those lights did go out, and with them, the time to write weighty works in which the lightness could have been infused. Friedell was 53 when all his books were published; 57 when the Nazis banned them; and 58 when the Nazis marched into Austria in 1938. But by the time World War II officially began, a year later, putting a leaden bookend on his painstaking project, Friedell was dead. Late at night on March 16, 1938, four days into the Anschluss, Hitler’s Sturmabteilung came knocking at Friedell’s door to arrest him, and he jumped out his window, exercising the only liberty that remained to him in the Third Reich: the liberty of choosing the manner of his own death.
It’s odd to think that seven years before, as the final volume of his cultural compendium was being printed, Friedell still had the luxury of not thinking about Hitler. He still had the luxury of focusing on an earlier historical figure to interpret the ethos of his age. Reading Friedell now, James observes, “gives the comforting illusion that the historical accumulation of knowledge makes some kind of steadily increasing, and therefore irreversible sense.” As James knows and Friedell saw, the path toward enlightenment could be blocked, its bridges blown up. In Friedell’s books, however, that path could be refound and retraced, like a map you follow backwards when you get lost, to point the way to a future beyond 1815; beyond 1938; beyond 1945; beyond 2020. It is always helpful, before setting out where you mean to go, to take stock of where you’re coming from, and to remind yourself of spectacularly wrong roads taken in the past. Napoleon ended in exile on a rock; Europe revived. Hitler ended in ashes; Europe revived. There’s no way to see around the bend in the road to the next catastrophe, the next tyrant. But it’s possible, if you consult the map of history, to correct course.
And what of this country, the United States of America, now singed by political conflagration, and led by a man whose pattern has appeared before (choose for yourself whose pattern that may be)? What is the next chapter of our cultural history? Who will remember what preceded it? Who can write it back into life?