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Totalitarianism is a form of government control that swept across Europe in the early 20th century. It eventually spread to other parts of the globe but is generally characterized by the major personalities that helped to define totalitarianism. Leaders like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini became synonymous with the control they held over their nations and people.

Definition of Totalitarianism

The essence of totalitarianism can be found in its very name; it is a form of rule in which the government attempts to maintain ‘total’ control over society, including all aspects of the public and private lives of its citizens.There are several characteristics that are common to totalitarian regimes, including:

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  • Rule by a single party
  • Total control of the military
  • Total control over means of communication (such as newspapers, propaganda, etc…)
  • Police control with the use of terror as a control tactic
  • Control of the economy

However, even though there were common characteristics of the different totalitarian regimes, it didn’t look the same in all countries in which it was employed. So how did totalitarianism look? Let’s go over a couple of examples below.

East German state police force
East German State Police

Nazi Germany

Perhaps the most famous example of totalitarianism is Nazi Germany under the rule of Adolf Hitler. Hitler came to power in 1933 after being elected by the German people. However, he illegally assumed more power than was granted under German law. By doing so, he held complete control of the government, both national and local.

Hitler saluting at a Nazi rally
Hitler saluting at a rally

Under Hitler’s regime, if a citizen spoke against the government then they would be arrested and often sent to a concentration camp. Concentration camps were part of a system used for the imprisonment and murder of people the Nazis deemed undesirable. The concentration camps were used in the Holocaust and held millions of Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals, mentally handicapped, and any other person the Nazis deemed undesirable before they were sent or worked to their deaths.

The Nazis also made stipulations as to what people were allowed to do in their daily lives. For example, artists had to create paintings portraying Nazi values, jazz music was banned, and books written by people deemed undesirable under the Hitler regime were burned. Youth organizations indoctrinated girls and boys with Nazi ideology from a young age, and the Nazi police organization, known as the SS, intimidated and terrorized people in an attempt to control them.The final quality of Hitler’s regime that signaled the Nazi government held total control was the extensive use of propaganda. Hitler’s picture was everywhere, newspapers were censored, and radio broadcasts were controlled by the government.

Stalinist Soviet Union

Another famed example of a totalitarian regime is the leadership of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. Stalin came to power following the death of Vladimir Lenin.

Stalin gained control by blackmailing many of the leaders in the communist government and eventually murdered his main rival, Leon Trotsky.Artists painted pictures and authors wrote novels that glorified Stalin, and people were expected to have a picture of him in their homes, often replacing former pictures of Jesus and other religious figures. He took on the nickname ‘Uncle Joe’ in an effort to give off a kind and friendly personality. In reality, Stalin ran a country in which he held total, oppressive control.

Portrait of Stalin
Soviet leader Stalin

Education was strictly controlled by the state, and children were expected to join age-appropriate organizations in which they were indoctrinated with the Stalinist brand of communist ideology. Stalin placed restrictions on what families were allowed to do, for example, on divorces and abortions. If citizens spoke against Stalin or the government, they were often sent to Soviet work camps called gulags.

The State forced the process of collectivization (when the production of agricultural goods and livestock was taken by the state and redistributed amongst all citizens) but it resulted in mass famine, killing millions. There was also a secret police force that used terror and intimidation to control the Soviet citizens, and often neighbors would spy on and report one another.Finally, during the 1930s, Stalin carried out his famous ‘purges’ in which any person who was suspected of disloyalty was either murdered or sent to the gulags, where they would most likely perish anyways. The Communist leadership, the armed forces, the Communist party, and ordinary people were all subject to the terror of the purges. Because of the way he ruled, Stalin was able to create a country in which he held total control.

Lesson Summary

Totalitarianism is a form of rule in which the government attempts to maintain ‘total’ control over society, including all aspects of the public and private lives of its citizens. It became a popular subject following World War II and during the peak years of the Cold War.Although totalitarian regimes have existed in other nations including China, North Korea, and Iraq, they began in Europe and were characterized by leaders with strong personalities, such as Hitler in Nazi Germany and Stalin in the Soviet Union.

Common qualities existed among all the regimes which defined them as totalitarian, but the implementation of control appeared differently in each country. In Western cultures, where freedom and individuality are valued as guiding principles of governments, totalitarianism is generally seen as a negative and oppressive form of control.

Learning Outcomes

Once you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Explain what totalitarianism is
  • List the characteristics of a totalitarian regime
  • Describe some of the prominent totalitarian regimes in history

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