To mark the centenary of Adolf Hitler’s birth in April 1989, Desmond Seward has had the interesting idea of comparing his career with that of another ‘world-historic’ figure, Napoleon Bonaparte. Parallel lives à la Plutarch are difficult to bring off, but Seward has avoided most of the pitfalls. His chief problem is that Hitler is so unspeakable that anybody else, even the unappealing Napoleon, is by comparison bound to seem a thoroughly civilised human being. Yet there are striking points of resemblance.
Both came as outsiders to the countries – in each case shaken by war, revolution and economic failure – which they used as springboards for their ambitions. As young men both were on the bread-line, though Napoleon, unlike Hitler, until 1914 submerged in Vienna’s underclass, at least had threadbare aristocratic