With the spring semester just in the rearview, I had a look at some of my former students’ comments about my performance as their professor. While largely positive, there was one that stuck out: Grading Nazi.
Guilty. Sue me. The teachers from which I learned the most were narrow in their tolerances. I guess we could treat college like t-ball — everybody could get a little trophy with their diploma.
Teacher angst aside, I kept thinking about the little snit who wrote “Grading Nazi.” As a writer, I regularly fight the urge to compare someone to the Nazis. Then I remembered if you do that more than once per decade, it loses its meaning.
This then made me wonder what verbal shorthand we would use if Hitler and his minion never existed. If you think about it, every time protesters want to portray a person as the worst kind of evil, they draw a Hitler mustache on them. Without Hitler, what alternative symbol might have evolved?
Knowing that the Internet is fecund with lists of all stripe, I searched for inventories of history’s worst people (Note to those who aspire to career in politics: The most recurrent names are heads of state).
As I poured over the lists, I quickly realized most of them were based on a kind of naïve accounting: Number of dead bodies. To begin, both Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung ordered the murder of many more people than Hitler. Both are regarded as really horrible people, but neither quite rise to Hitler status. Nor does Stalin’s mustache.
Further, we might ask whether Vlad Tepes’ (Stoker’s model for Dracula) killing 10,000 people in the 15th century (when the world population was just over 300 million) is equal to or greater in its harm than Idi Amin’s murder of 100,000-300,000 people during the 1970s (when the world population was around 4 billion). Sure, we could do some math to get an exact proportion, but does that really tell us much?
Just speaking of that much loss and suffering as a math problem tends to sterilize the horror. If we see one grieving family, it looks like a tragedy. If we see thousands, it becomes a kind of terrible white noise. As such, I argue this approach doesn’t really get at the true center of the question.
To attack from a different direction, one might ask something far more amorphous: Who in history caused the most enduring trouble for the rest of us? Here again, it depends upon who “us” is. If you’re in the Congo today, most of your troubles go back to Leopold II, king of Belgium. During his reign in the Free State of Congo (1870-1908) half of the Congolese population was murdered (10-15 million people). A century later, the two modern Congo nations are still awash in suffering.
Of course we could also discuss countless other genocidal monsters: Genghis Khan; Hernan Cortez (Aztecs); Théoneste Bagosora (Rwanda); Yahya Khan (Bengal), Pol Pot (Cambodia) … Saddam … bin Laden … The world always seems to make room for one more monster.
A person whose cruelty certainly precedes him is the 15th century inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada. In response to a call for moderation Torquemada wrote, “Better a man to enter heaven with one eye than go to hell with both.”
Torquemada and bin Laden have a lot in common. They each portrayed their deeds as the work of Allah/God. They were merely instruments.
This is perhaps the most insidious fallback for so many monsters. When one can point to some abstract and unverifiable force and claim to be its appointed agent, all sorts of terrible acts can be rationalized. Perhaps paradoxically, the same thing works when trying to vilify someone. Just call them a “Nazi” or a “socialist” and it all comes into focus.
Still though, we don’t have a solid Hitler replacement. If you, dear reader, have any suggestions, I’d like to hear them. One caveat: Modern U. S. presidents are off the table. I generate enough of my own hyperbole.
• • •
Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.