Sunday, 31 August 2008

Reading Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony

It occurs to me that we don’t take this man – a dictator, and the author of literally millions of deaths – seriously. But then, neither do we really take Hitler seriously, with his bizarrely oxymoronic mixture of Chaplainesque psychopathy. This in turn leads me to wonder which dictators we do take seriously.

Is the ur-fascist leader an 18th invention? Frederick of Prussia may not count, not because he wasn’t warlike or autocratic, but because he was not able practically speaking to involve the whole world in his ambitions. On that criterion we have one nineteenth-century example (Napoleon), and two twentieth-century ones (Hitler, Stalin). This is a disturbing progression, assuming that its not too small a sample from which to extrapolate … which is to say, we’ll be looking at three twenty-first century dictators capable of shaking the world. This may be possible nevertheless, since the other progression here is of a technological advancement. For Napoleon to shake the world required him to assemble a machine of destruction as old as the pharaohs—his Grand Armée, a million men. By the twentieth-century Hitler and Stalin had much more efficiently destructive technologies of mass destruction at their disposal, which (although they also assembled enormous armies) enabled them to magnify the per-capita destructive power. By the twenty-first century we are soon arriving at a situation where technologies of mass-destruction are so powerful, and so concentrated, that a world-shaking dictator may be able to achieve Napoleonic destructiveness with an army no larger than an C18th-century minor state.

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