We had an interesting discussion at college the other day, completely unrelated to college… about who epitomised evil before Hitler. Some said Napoleon, still others Genghis Kahn, while some thought Mary Queen of Scots might get the guernsey.
A Slate article on exactly the same issue, from a couple of days before (that may or may not have prompted my question) reckons the answer is Pharaoh, but also suggests that the use of an extreme historical figure as a rhetorical device is probably a relatively recent invention. Possibly correlating to the rise of the internet.
“The Pharoah. In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, many Americans and Europeans had a firmer grasp of the bible than of the history of genocidal dictators. Orators in search of a universal symbol for evil typically turned to figures like Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, or, most frequently, the Pharaoh of Exodus, who chose to endure 10 plagues rather than let the Hebrew people go.”
“Generally speaking, hatred was more local and short-lived before World War II. Nineteenth-century polemicists occasionally used Napoleon Bonaparte as shorthand for an evil ruler—they sometimes referred to “the little tyrant” rather than name the diminutive conqueror—but those references were rare. There is little record of oratorical comparisons of political leaders to Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, or Ivan the Terrible.”
So there you go.