How Americans described evil before Hitler

Eventually, the Nazis’ unprecedented destruction led journalists to abandon historical comparisons for myth. Some invoked Nordic legends, drawing on Richard Wagner’s opera, The Twilight of the Gods, to compare Hitler to the figures of Loki and Wotan who rained destruction down on Valhalla. Others looked to Greek mythology and compared Hitler to the figures of Icarus and Sisyphus. By the war’s end, Hitler was bluntly equated with western culture’s archetypal villain, the devil himself. Whether compared to Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, or the Anti-Christ, Hitler was widely viewed as what the Times of London called the “incarnation of absolute evil.”

Observers even projected Hitler’s name back in time to describe earlier historical villains. Hannibal, for example, was called an “ancient Hitler,” Napoleon Bonaparte was described as “the 18th century Hitler,” and Ivan the Terrible was branded “Russia’s Hitler.” Hitler was also transformed from a proper noun into a verb, with countless commentators referring to the act of “Hitlerizing” political institutions in Germany, Austria, and even the U.S. These rhetorical strategies helped turn the flesh-and-blood Adolf Hitler into the admonitory signifier, “Hitler.”

Thus Hitler became a hegemonic historical analogy. He did not so much join the ranks of earlier historical symbols of evil as render them unusable.