Autocrats tend to stir up nationalistic fervor as a way to cement their authority. Yet a surprising number in history, including some of the most ruthless, weren’t actually from the main territory of the countries they ended up ruling.
Below are four autocrats—Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Catherine the Great—who reinvented their national identities prior to taking absolute power.
A native of Corsica, Napoleon Bonaparte was born as Napoleone di Buonaparte just months after France took over the Mediterranean island from the Italian city-state of Genoa. Despite living under French rule, the future emperor initially considered France to be a foreign nation.
Napoleone grew up speaking Corsican, and first learned to read and write in Italian. He wasn’t taught French until being sent to school in mainland France at age 9, and he never lost his Corsican accent, much to the amusement of his classmates and, later, the soldiers under his command, who purportedly mocked him for it.
As a teenager, Napoleone craved Corsican independence, writing in 1786 that his fellow countrymen were “bound in chains” and that the French, “not content with having robbed us of everything we held dear, have also corrupted our character.”
Napoleone’s thinking began to shift following the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Yet it wasn’t until 1793, when political infighting forced his family to flee their native island, that he completely turned his back on the Corsican independence movement.
From that point on, the “Little Corporal” deemed himself French, downplaying his Italian lineage and changing his name to the French-sounding Napoleon Bonaparte. Meanwhile, he rose through the military ranks, seizing power in a 1799 coup d’état, and then conquered much of Europe on behalf of his newfound country.
Born in a small Austrian town adjacent to Germany, Adolf Hitler moved around a lot as a youth, spending time on both sides of the border. After several years as a struggling artist in Vienna, he left Austria for good in 1913. Some historians believe Hitler left to avoid serving in the army of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Instead, Hitler served in the German army during World War I. Later, he would state he had never “felt like an Austrian citizen but rather always like a German.”
Joining what would become the Nazi Party, he landed in prison following the failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. While he was behind bars, the German authorities considered deporting him to his home country, but the Austrian government refused to take him back.
In order to forestall any future deportation proceedings, Hitler, now a free man again, applied in 1925 to give up his Austrian citizenship, and the Austrians immediately granted his request. He would remain stateless for the next seven years, officially becoming a German only after announcing his candidacy in the 1932 presidential election. (Non-citizens couldn’t run for office.)
At that point, the virulently anti-Semitic Nazis held power in only one German state, Braunschweig, where they were part of a coalition government. Rather than go through the normal path to citizenship, Hitler was given a Braunschweig civil service job, a position for which he never did any work but which automatically conferred German citizenship upon him.
Hitler hadn’t been a German for even one year when he was named chancellor in January 1933, the beginning of 12 years of Nazi rule that cost tens of millions of lives.
Joseph Stalin was born Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili in 1878, the same year that the last portion of his native Georgia, which borders the Black Sea in the Caucasus region of Eurasia, was incorporated into the Russian Empire.
A poor youth who embraced revolutionary Marxism while enrolled at a seminary, Djugashvili spoke in Georgian. He did not learn Russian until about the same age Napoleon learned French, when the teenage sons of a local priest taught it to him. Just like Napoleon, Stalin never lost his strong accent.
As with most Georgian boys, Djugashvili resented being forced to speak in Russian in school. He took a fondness to Georgian literature, particularly to a novel about a heroic Caucasian bandit named Koba who fights the Russians. “What impressed [him],” a schoolmate later recalled, “were the works of Georgian literature which glorified the Georgians’ struggle for freedom.”
Djugashvili stopped short of backing Georgia’s secession from Russia. Yet he did want an autonomous Georgian Marxist party, a position he repudiated in 1904 so as to stay in the good graces of his Bolshevik superiors.
From that point on, Djugashvili turned more and more to Russia. By 1912, he was using the name Stalin, a conspicuously Russian name based on the Russian word for steel. Around the same time, he authored an essay claiming that Georgia was not a longstanding nation and suggesting it be drawn “into the general channel of a higher culture.”
Then, in 1921, Stalin engineered a violent invasion of Georgia, bringing his homeland under Bolshevik control and ending a short period of Georgian independence. Two years later, he viciously put down an anti-Soviet uprising there.
During Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, Georgians arguably suffered more than those in any other Soviet republic. Thousands of Georgian officials were killed, including 425 of the 644 delegates who attended the Tenth Georgian Party Congress in 1937.
Georgians moreover found themselves among the millions of people forcibly banished by Stalin to remote parts of the Soviet Union. During World War II, for example, some 100,000 Meskhetians were removed from Georgia to central Asia, with thousands dying along the way.
Even as he maintained somewhat of a distinct Georgian identity, Stalin propped up Russian culture within the USSR, calling Russia the “most Soviet and the most revolutionary” of the Soviet republics. He mandated the teaching of Russian in schools (though other languages could be taught as well), promoted mainly Russians to high government posts, and associated himself with the Russian czars Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.
His anti-Georgian actions (and murderous personality) notwithstanding, a 2013 poll found that 45 percent of Georgians said they have a positive attitude toward the dictator.
Catherine the Great
The daughter of a minor German prince, Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst grew up in what was then Prussia (but is now part of Poland). When her distant relative Elizabeth took power in Russia in a 1741 coup, Sophie’s mother struck up a correspondence with the new czarina, and the two hit it off.
They later had a falling out, but not before Elizabeth invited the 14-year-old Sophie to Russia as a potential bride for her nephew and heir apparent, Peter.
Sophie wasted no time ingratiating herself with the Russian court. Immersing herself in Russian culture, she mastered the Russian language quickly, in part by eschewing sleep to practice her vocabulary at night. She also embraced the Russian Orthodox religion, asking to see an Orthodox priest rather than a Lutheran pastor when struck by a near-fatal illness.
In June 1744, Sophie formally converted, against her father’s wishes, from Lutheranism to Orthodox Christianity, and that same day was renamed Catherine (Ekaterina in Russian) after Elizabeth’s late mother. Catherine wed Peter the following year, a relationship that would prove tumultuous.
When Peter assumed the throne in 1762, he quickly alienated church leaders, as well as elements of the military and aristocracy. Sensing an opportunity, Catherine, who feared Peter planned to divorce her, participated in a coup in which her husband was murdered. She would go on to serve as Russia’s longest-ruling female leader, greatly expanding the country’s borders at the expense of Poland and the Ottoman Empire.
Catherine is far from the only monarch to have ruled over an adopted country. Her husband, Peter, for example, grew up in what’s now Germany, as did English kings George I and George II. English king William of Orange, meanwhile, was raised in Holland.