Two hundred years ago on Sunday, Napoleon crossed the Memel River into Russian territory with 600,000 men, the biggest army ever assembled. Only 16,000 came back to the Memel on the following December 16 after a terrible retreat, joined later by a few thousand stragglers. A million soldiers on both sides perished during those six months, a slaughter hitherto unimagined, along with up to half a million Russian civilians left to starve by the foraging of two enormous armies.

The anniversary of Napoleon’s march into Russia should be an occasion for democracies to take stock of their own vulnerability. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the affair is that so many followed Napoleon into Russia in the first place, and that even more followed him after the Russian catastrophe. The young men of Europe fought for him until there weren’t enough young men left to fight. What is it that motivates a generation to commit collective suicide in the service of a malicious leader?

There is an important parallel to the case of Hitler, and a vital consideration for America’s strategic position today. Americans relish the memory of democratic armies fighting for their homes and the principle of freedom. But they should not forget that some of the world’s most effective and courageous soldiers fought for the hope of advancement in an evil cause, and that the ultimate victory of the democracies was in part a matter luck or providence, as the case may be. Luck is good to have, but bad to rely on.

Directly or indirectly, Napoleon controlled the whole European continent from the Spanish-Portuguese border to Poland, from Naples to Copenhagen. The malcontents of Europe flocked to his banner, with (as Napoleon said) field-marshal’s batons in their rucksacks. Frenchmen comprised only half of the Grande Armee that marched to Russia. Many foreign units fought with notable heroism.

Why did Napoleon risk it all on Russia, for strategic objectives that historians are still hard put to identify? The best answer is that Napoleon was the creature of his army as much as the army was his creation. The Corsican lieutenant became Emperor of Europe by dissolving the bands that held traditional society together and reaching directly into its depths, summoning the ambition and energies of millions whom the old regime had left in humiliation. To maintain his power, Napoleon had to use it, and the Russian campaign was the only available channel for the uncontrollable forces that the Emperor had unleashed.

It all had been done a century and half before, when the Bohemian nobleman Albrecht von Wallenstein raised 60,000 volunteers for the Austrian Empire during the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, an army of adventurers and freebooters whose foraging caused widespread starvation, and whose power threatened the existence of civil society itself. Imperial agents assassinated Wallenstein in 1634 after the general tried to negotiate a separate peace with the Protestant enemies of the empire (see Europe’s tragedy and Europe’s tragedian, Asia Times Online, November 17, 2009). In 1812, Napoleon came a great deal closer to remaking the world.

One of the stranger things about the aftermath of the Russian campaign is how much popularity Napoleon retained despite his catastrophic blunder. By 1813 the Emperor commanded another 350,000 troops. His erstwhile satellites formed a coalition against him and crushed him in the Battle of Leipzig, and in 1814 Napoleon was exiled to Elba. Yet by 1815 he was back on French soil to cries of “Vive L’Empereur!” and had raised yet another 200,000 soldiers. Wellington and Blucher finally beat him at Waterloo.

After Waterloo there probably weren’t enough adult Frenchmen left to form another Napoleonic army. The wars had cost France between 1.4-1.7 military deaths as well as a very large number of civilians, out of a total population of 29 million. We don’t have precise data, but a rule of thumb for pre-industrial societies is that men aged 17 to 49 comprised about one-fifth of the population. The total military manpower pool of Napoleonic France was less than six million men, so civilian and military casualties together exceeded 30% of the total – a staggering number. The exsanguinated French still were not done with their delusions of empire, though. Two generations later they bled once again for Napoleon’s nephew.

Thirty percent is an important benchmark for total casualties. Exactly the same proportion of military-age men of the American South died in the Civil War. Once casualties approach a third of the notional manpower pool, armies implode. Like the Confederacy of 1865, France was bled dry by 1815 after absorbing losses on this staggering scale. It takes sustained heroism and resilience to slaughter a whole generation, and this heroism feeds on the hopes and dreams of ambitious young men. Napoleon offered his recruits the opportunity to rise above the ruins of Europe’s old aristocratic order. The men of the South fought – as Professor Robert May argued persuasively in his 1973 study The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire – for the chance to get land and slaves, even if only a tenth of them already owned slaves when the war erupted.

There was something distinctly Napoleonic about southern ambitions. If the Corsican artillery officer could become the emperor of Europe, then every corporal could entertain dreams of a field commission and entry into Napoleon’s nobility. The poor Scots-Irish farmers who fought for the Confederacy hoped to join the pseudo-aristocracy of slaveholders. And for these ambitions, both fought with nearly suicidal tenacity.

Germany provides another case in point. In his new World War II history The Storm of War, Andrew Roberts examines German thinking more closely than Anglo-Saxon historians are accustomed to do. The Germans not only fought heroically for Hitler, but efficiently: it took three Allied soldiers on the Western front to kill two Germans, and three Russians to kill one German on the Eastern Front. The efficiency of the French army during the Napoleonic Wars was comparable; except for the half-million casualties sustained due to cold and starvation in Russia, French battle casualties were roughly half of the killed-in-action numbers for the anti-French coalition.

By the normal logic of things, Napoleon and Hitler should have won. They enjoyed the fanatical loyalty of the best armies of their times. They foundered on their own megalomania. Andrew Roberts offers the unpleasant observation that Germany lost the war only because Hitler made a series of gigantic blunders, without each of which the Axis likely would have triumphed. The most obvious and most-discussed is Hitler’s order to hold back form annihilating the trapped British army at Dunkirk.

If Hitler had repudiated Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Roberts observes, America never would have entered the war in Europe:

Hitler should have studiously ignored all provocations from Franklin Roosevelt, especially in the Atlantic, in the knowledge that the president did not have the political power to declare war against a Germany that was professing friendship and sympathy towards the United States. In the absence of a declaration of war against America under Pearl Harbor, something Hitler was under no treaty obligation to furnish, it would have been well-nigh impossible for Roosevelt to have committed the United States to invading North Africa in 1941. With Britain effectively neutralized and America fully committed in the Pacific fighting Japan, only then should Operation Barbarossa have been put into effect, with Germany fighting on one front rather than the traditionally suicidal two.

Hitler wasn’t insane to attack Russia, in Robert’s cold reckoning, just insane to allow America into the war. He could have conquered Russia, Roberts calculates, as long as the United States remained on the sidelines. Roberts catalogues dozens of other Nazi errors (bombing British cities rather than RAF [Royal Air Force] airfields during the Battle of Britain, delaying the V-2 rocket program, building battleships rather than submarines prior to the outbreak of the war, and so forth). By documenting the extent of Hitler’s mistakes, Roberts instructs the West in humility. Not just our own cleverness and heroism, but our enemy’s stupidity, brought victory in World War II.

Democracies do not necessarily field the most efficient or enthusiastic armies. The French under Napoleon and the Germans under Hitler were the best soldiers of their day. Democracies have one important advantage, namely the capacity to correct errors. Democracies do not necessarily make better decisions than dictatorships in each case, but they are less like to perpetuate errors. It is easy to replace an elected leader who goes mad; not so a charismatic tyrant. This makes the ultimate victory of democracies more probable, but hardly inevitable. It may be likely that a charismatic tyrant will make decisive errors, but it is far from assured that such error will be made soon enough to make it possible to defeat the tyrant at the right moment. I like to think that providence was at work during the Second World War, but that sort of question is above my pay grade.

The victory of democracy is anything but inevitable. If democracies become complacent and weak, enthusiastic followers of tyrannies yet may overwhelm them. The supposedly inevitable collapse of China is a recurrent theme in the American conservative narrative. Success is unimaginable for a country that is ruled by a Communist Party and often violates human rights. Yet China today bubbles with energy and enthusiasm. Never in history have so many people had so much opportunity; tens of millions of young Chinese whose grandparents lived poorly and accepted what fate dealt out to them now have a chance to make their own destiny. Nothing like the present generation of young university-educated Chinese has ever burst onto the world, and we barely can imagine its full capacities.

It is true that dictatorships sometimes fail of their own errors. But the more we examine the dictatorships that have failed, the less we should assume that this failure was preordained by fate. To assume that China will fail because it is not a democracy is complacency stretched to the extreme of folly. China, to be sure, is neither Napoleonic France nor Nazi Germany. It has no need to invade anyone. But unless America and its allies maintain an unchallengeable technological edge, China well may surpass us, and the world will be a worse place.