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AskUs: Before Hitler and the Nazi’s, who was the go-to historical “worst person ever?”

So one of our readers asked us this question the other day. Before Hitler and the Nazi’s, was there another go-to historical “worst person ever”? I mean in the way that comparing someone to Hitler is one of our strongest condemnations, and the way that everyone uses Hitler as a standard example of an evil person that the world would have been better off without (e.g. stories of going back in time to kill Hitler).

Judas Iscariot

Judas Iscariot, Atilla, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Mongols were probably the most hated people.

I apologize in advance if using Biblical figures does not count as ‘historical.’ However, prior to the 19th Century, European culture was especially steeped in Judeo-Christian and Hellenistic theology. All of the characters from the Bible were well known to the intellectual elite (and likely the lower classes as well). In fact, allusions to the Machabees and Israelites were very common, so much so that kings such as Karl XII, Richard the Lionheart, or Oliver Cromwell preferred to see themselves compared to such figures instead of ‘lesser’ known figures from their own national histories. It is interesting to note that while figures such as Darius, Xerxes, Pilate and Atilla were remembered throughout Europe, none were particularly hated, with the arguable exception of Atilla, who was considered both barbarous and cruel.

The Bible, as is well known, is populated by many notorious figures, but the blackest of all were traditionally Pharaoh and Judas Iscariot. Both of these figures, especially the latter, were featured in allegories such as the Divine Comedy. Genocide was not particularly the blackest sin of that era; instead, treachery was. Judas’ crime against his Lord and God were seen as particularly heinous.

Mongols

Because of the costs of their conquest, the Mongols were hated and despised by most of the intelligentsia of Imperial China. Even the Qing elite, foreign conquerors themselves, considered the Mongol Yuan to have been a cruel dynasty (Source: Chinese Revolutions, Fairbank). I do not know about the Muslim world, but it is very likely the Mongols were as much hated as they were in early Muscovite Russia. Due to the characteristics of the era however, Genghis Khan was not particularly well-known by name in places such as Iran or China. The Mongols were hated as a race demonic in the Islamic-Christian theology; their individual leaders were not accurately remembered.

Napoleon Bonaparte

After the Treaty of Vienna in the early 19th CE, I think that in most of the British and European world, Napoleon Bonaparte was remembered harshly as a tyrant. Many of the characteristics of Hitler, such as vanity, selfishness, despotism, callousness, cruelty, were subscribed to Napoleon, albeit with far less merit. However, memories of Napoleon as the archetypal villain were erased in both the Soviet and English Commonwealth by Hitler’s actions.


Tamerlane

Timur-e-Lang, known as Tamerlane out West, was also largely vilified in the Near East from Georgia to Delhi for his brutality, sacking of major cities like Baghdad and Delhi, and frequent use of genocidal massacres. W.D. Rubinstein’s Genocide recounts how he razed the Christian city of Tikrit and killed every Christian inside (though he also killed many Jews, Shi’ites, non-Abrahamic peoples, etc.). In fact, his campaigns are the primary reason the Nestorian Church of the East was nearly eradicated. As such, he is fairly universally hated in much of the Middle East by people of all religious and cultural backgrounds, with the exception of his native Uzbekistan, where he is the national hero. There are accounts of how he would destroy cities and kill everyone except the artists, who he would send back to his capital Samarkand to improve its aesthetic appearance.

Hannibal

For the Romans, Hannibal was the ultimate evil. He was often used as a bogeyman for children. People would claim he ate children, massacred people etc. Whenever there was some danger threatening the Roman Republic in the years following the 2nd Punic War, senators would often say “Hannibal ad portas!”, Hannibal is at the Gates!, in their rhetoric.

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great, similarly, was much despised by some people in the Middle East. In middle Persian documents, he is often referred to as “the accursed.” He is still viewed with negative connotations even in modern Iran.

The great difference between Hitler, Tojo Hideki, or Mussolini and other historical figures is that while the former are hated almost universally, memories of former rulers in their own native lands were almost always more nuanced (quite like a more recent dictator, Stalin’s own ambiguous reputation). Vlad the Impaler, Ivan the Terrible, Atilla the Hun, Napoleon, and Genghis Khan were in hindsight remembered by their own nations as rulers who brought power and strength to their nations. Of course some reputations varied; France in particular held ambivalent feelings towards the Bonapartist political strain. It must be remembered also, that cross-national opinions varied far more in the past than at present. America and Latin America did not view Napoleon half as harshly as did England or Russia. He was often remembered instead for his progressive political position and military talents, instead of the various crimes of his wars. Therefore, there was no true universal villain prior to 1945 (Hitler is less well known in Eastern Asia, although I would challenge the assumption that he is completely forgotten, especially in Japan).

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  • With your second sentence, you display ignorance. No one has ever successfully challenged the historical accuracy of the Bible. It refers to real people and real events.

    Bible critics questioned the existence of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea who handed Jesus over to be impaled. Evidence that Pilate was once ruler of Judea is etched on a stone discovered at the Mediterranean seaport city of Caesarea in 1961.

    Before 1993, there was no proof outside the Bible to support the historicity of David, the brave young shepherd who later became king of Israel. That year, however, archaeologists uncovered in northern Israel a basalt stone, dated to the ninth century B.C.E., that experts say bears the words “House of David” and “king of Israel.”

    Until recently, many scholars doubted the accuracy of the Bible’s account of the nation of Edom battling with Israel in the time of David. Edom, they argued, was a simple pastoral society at the time and did not become sufficiently organized or have the might to threaten Israel until much later. However, recent excavations indicate that “Edom was a complex society centuries earlier (than previously thought), as reflected in the Bible,” states an article in the journal Biblical Archaeology Review.

    There were many rulers on the world stage during the 16 centuries that the Bible was being written. When the Bible refers to a ruler, it always uses the proper title. For example, it correctly refers to Herod Antipas as “district ruler” and Gallio as “proconsul.” Ezra 5:6 refers to Tattenai, the governor of the Persian province “beyond the River,” the Euphrates River. A coin produced in the fourth century B.C.E. contains a similar description, identifying the Persian governor Mazaeus as ruler of the province “Beyond the River.”

    Accuracy in seemingly minor details is no small matter. If we can trust the Bible writers in even small details, should that not bolster our confidence in the other things they wrote? Please research a little more before you make such a sweeping statement next time. Religions have been set up and has been used as the basis for great evil, true, but it does not change the value of this great book.

      • Wrong! I quote from the article’s writer: “I apologize in advance if using Biblical figures does not count as ” historical.” ” Second paragraph, first line.

        • Real events??? Healing people??? God does not exist. In support of this I put forward childhood cancer. This is a facts site. Why would you be on here if you believe what is in the bible? It is all full of tish and pish.

          • Jack what are you talking about? God doesn’t work like that! Your like a gold fish trying to understand the President.

          • Wow we really get polar opposites in here…

            I’m going to go out on a limb and say the author was possibly referring to the “historical” acts of these biblical people. I’m sure these people did in fact exist, but the acts which they carried out may be fabrications. e.g Judas may have wandered around with a guy called Jesus but there is no concrete historical evidence to say he betrayed anyone for any amount of silver pieces, and thus being worthy of his traitorous title

            why can’t people just follow Deism instead of following a book/books,it would be so much easier to accept

          • How can you say that even though there are real world evidence that prove that what is written in the bible is real just like Cam McGregor said?

    • “No one has ever successfully challenged the historical accuracy of the Bible” Just as no one has ever successfully challenged my complete belief that I can fly. There was never a man who lived 600 year. There was never a flood that covered the tallest peak in 20 feet of water. I could go on and on and on and on. Those have been successfully challenged.

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