Sunday, March 6, 2016

Hittila the Hun

(Another in our series of “Analogs and Anticipations” -- parallels from History.)

Both Hitler and Attila have so passed into proverb  as no longer to be generally perceived in their actual variety.   The name of “Hitler” is now just the conversation-stopper -- the argumentum ad Hitler, the Nazi-Keule, signalling that reasoned discussion is at an end.   Attila figures mostly in unanalytical snarky put-downs of ultra-conservatives -- “to the right of Attila the Hun”.  (I myself  stooped to such sport, in a satirical trifle,  Attila versus Trump.)

And yet the two figures of actual history, as opposed to the straw-filled bugbears  that are flourished for rhetorical purposes, do share a trait, quite apart from their extremism and violence.   Namely, a knack for diplomacy, and a keen eye for the geopolitical field of force.   That might surprise anyone who was lazily raised as I was in the primary schools of the ‘fifties, where we were taught that the little man with the funny moustache had been a “house-painter”, who had jumped-up beyond his proper station, and improbably become a dictator  quite unrelated to any qualities he might possess.  And yet more surprising in the case of Attila, who, with his Hun-horde, was typically depicted  (to the nodding pupils) as essentially a plague of locusts, without politics or policy or personal characteristics of any sort.

Consider, then, this:

The facility with which Attila had penetrated into the heart of Gaul  may be ascribed to his insidious policy  as well as to the terror of his arms.  His public declarations were skilfully mitigated by his private assurances;  he alternately soothed and threatened the Romans and the Goths;  and the courts of Ravenna and Toulouse, muturally suspicious of each other’s intentions, beheld with supine indifference  the approach of their common enemy.
-- Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788)

For Gaul and the Romans  substitute France and the French;  for the Goths, the English; for Ravenna et alia, the Slavic nations,  and you pretty much have a picture of European diplomacy in the 1930s.


There are other parallels;  these we mention, only because they run counter to the brainless-bulldog stereotypes of both men.  Gibbon, referring to the forces of Aëtius and Theodoric, writes:

On their approach, the king of the Huns  immediately raised the siege, and sounded a retreat  to recall the foremost of his troops  from the pillage of a city which they had already entered.   The valour of Attila was always guided by his prudence;  and as he foresaw the fatal consequences of a defeat in the heart of Gaul, he repassed the Seine, and expected the enemy in the plains of Châlons, where smooth and level surface was adapted to the operations of his Scythian cavalry.

Though never more than a corporal in the war, Hitler does seem to have possessed a sound military-political instinct at times, especially in the early stages of his career, before conquest went to his head.  William Shirer’s accounts repeatedly emphasize how Hitler had secretly been prepared to climb down (e.g. in the re-occupation of the Ruhr), had the French and the British called his bluff.   They did not;  he took their measure;  the rest is history.

[Auxiliary sub-footnote:
Gibbon likewise proceeds to adduce a surprising incident involving Attila and the princess  Honoria, which illustrates the Bluebeard motif  in feminine psychology.  We alluded to that briefly here.    The subject may well be beyond the depth of our plumb-line; and at any rate deserves, not a note, but a book.  And as that book may well already have been written -- possibly twelve-times over -- we here fall silent.]


  1. Nitpick that reinforces your point: Hitler's WW1 rank of Gefreiter, often translated as Corporal or Lance Corporal, is more akin to a senior private than a junior non-commissioned officer rating. In modern terms, more like a US Army Specialist than a Corporal, both of which have the same paygrade (E4). His job as a runner could be extremely dangerous, since runners were in high demand during bombardments to carry messages between the front and HQs when phone lines were cut. He reportedly refused promotion to a higher rank because he didn't want to leave his unit.
    Wartime propaganda is fine as long as policymakers don't start to take their own propaganda too seriously. Contrast the propaganda image of the robotic German squarehead soldier versus the US Army's realistic professional assessment of its German counterpart during WW2.
    I salute you for getting through Gibbon's The Rise and Fall...... Tried to do so as a college freshman and failed.