I don’t think it is a great idea to use historical parallels as a guide to present day actions. Just because things played out a particular way back then there’s no reason they should do so again in the same way. And worse than that, historical parallels can be very bad guides to action. For example, the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden described Egyptian president Nasser as another Hitler to justify invading Egypt to take control of the Suez canal.
Nasser wasn’t Hitler. The Suez Crisis was not World War II. Eden ended up resigning after creating the UK’s biggest foreign policy disaster since the Stuarts were in power.
And today a lot of people are comparing Donald Trump to Hitler. There are a few parallels I’ll concede. But overall there is simply nothing in common between where the US is as a country and DT is as a leader and Germany and Hitler in the thirties. Germany was a beaten country that felt hard done by in the settlement following the first world war. The US has its problems, but it certainly is not humiliated and defeated. Hitler didn’t start out as a violent idealogue, but he became one pretty early in life and that was pretty much all he did. He had a strong vision of the kind of Germany he wanted to create and was completely ruthless in his pursuit of it. Trump has only recently come into politics and to say his ideas are not completely coherent is a polite way of putting it.
But there is a comparison that is in some ways more worrying than Trump being a new Hitler. I think his approach has a lot more in common with that of Augustus. The Roman Republic was never all that democratic at the best of times, but had become pretty disfunctional by the time of Augustus. The power had fallen into the hands of a set of strong men, the last of whom was Julius Caesar who had successfully positioned himself as the champion of the populace against the elite. Caesar himself was a member of the elite and although he didn’t live to prove it was hardly likely to hand power back to popular institutions.
His successor was careful to keep the outward forms of the republic. As Gibbon put it –
“The masters of the Roman world surrounded their throne with darkness, concealed their irresistible strength, and humbly professed themselves the accountable ministers of the senate, whose supreme decrees they dictated and obeyed.”
It is worth remembering that at no point was the Roman republic formally abolished. The emperors simply took over. If they had announced that they were founding an empire to last a thousand years – which it did – they would have had a lot more opposition. Hitler’s tools were intimidation, violence and propaganda. His project was an authoritarian Germany that could stand tall among the other nations. Augustus operated by stealth. He had Virgil creating fake news – the Romans now were supposed to be descendants of Trojans. He played the conscientious part of a candidate soliciting votes for the years he ran as consul. The Senate was reformed and careful control kept of its members, but it was allowed to continue to exist. Popular assemblies were allowed to continue to meet. Augustus took himself the role of the tribune of the people, charged with protecting their rights.
Of course there are plenty of differences as well. But I think if you had to pick a parallel the artful autocrat Augustus looks a lot more like our gold tower loving ginger friend than Hitler does. And there is one big difference between Hitler and Augustus. The Roman’s approach worked.