What is Totalitarianism? Cue: It Led to the Two World Wars

What is Totalitarianism?
Totalitarianism refers to a political system that relates to a governance by an absolute power. In a totalitarian government, an individual or political entity regulates every aspect of public life. The regime in the 20th century was primarily responsible for the two World Wars.
OpinionFront Staff
Last Updated: Jun 3, 2018
Totalitarianism is a form of government. It refers to an enforced or imposed political diktat exercised by an official, on the basis of an ideology. The concept thrives on the dictates of disseminated propaganda, state-controlled media, and personality cults. In this political system, the ruling power exercises complete control over the nation's economy, and law and order. Restrictions on the freedom of speech and assembly, and the extensive use of mass surveillance aides the political power, mostly self-proclaimed, to unleash state-terrorism.

Totalitarianism : A Brief History

The term 'totalitarianism' was coined in 1923 by Giovanni Amendola to describe the political system in Italy under the dictator Benito Mussolini. It was used as a form of criticism against the policies of the government. Fascists, in turn, used the term to promote their ideology and it gained prominence in Italy. Benito Mussolini's address in 1925 suggested,

"Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."

Fascism was adopted by the dictators of other European states such as Germany and Hungary. Although the term was not used widely then, it came to signify the autocratic, dictatorial, and communist governments in the world. Some of the countries which have had totalitarian regimes are,
  • Italy under Benito Mussolini (1925 - 1943)
  • Germany under Adolf Hitler (1933 -1945)
  • Soviet Union under Joesph Stalin (1925 - 1953)
  • Hungary under Gyula Gömbös (1932 - 1936)
  • Spain under Francisco Franco (1939 - 1975)
  • China under Mao Zedong (1949 - 1970)
The governments mentioned above had different types of ideologies - Fascism, National Socialism, Bolshevism, Communism among others, the reason historians and political scientists broadly categorize these states as totalitarian is because of the similarity in the way the subjects are governed. The characteristics mentioned below will outline the functioning of a totalitarian state,
  • Complete control over every facet of an individual's life, be it religion, politics, economy, education etc.
  • Use of secret police to arrest or execute dissidents. Criticism of the government is considered traitorous and the punishment is often death.
  • Belief on the survival of the fittest theory. Expansion of the territory to gain control over other countries. The totalitarian states believe in the superiority of their race and use it as a justification to suppress other races.
  • Use of media as a source of propaganda. Indoctrination of citizens is a key strategy as it helps the leader in assuming a god-like status which is outside the purview of accountability.
  • Censorship of media which is critical of the government. By keeping their subjects in the dark, the totalitarian states deny their people the right to information and because of this, not many are able to get a real insight into the effect of policies of the government.
  • Promotes an ideology that appeals to the sentiments of the people - such as a promise to revenge the defeat of a nation in the distant past. The totalitarian state beguiles its citizens into believing that if they subscribe to their ideologies, they will be certain of a safe and secure future.
  • Only one party is allowed to exist, but in real sense, the party is a puppet in the hands of the leader or the dictator. The party acts as a cheerleader for the policies and diktats of the dictator, and acts as a harbinger of the future plans of the dictator.
Totalitarianism and the State
Italian fascists and the Nazis not only completely destroyed the social structures in the respective countries, but also ensured that the breakdown of organized life was progressive and rapid. They brazenly censored the media, silenced dissenters, and condemned foreigners. Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler each developed a private sphere with an immutable future. These dictators or totalitarian regimes were tyrannies in imposed ideology. Fascism and Nazism redefined world history in the 20th century, triggering the Second World War. These regimes assimilated power against the progress and goals of the state via repression. They elaborated the guiding ideology to conceal a system of terror that thrived on irreversible command and physical force. Stacking of arms and indiscriminate territorial expansion were common to both regimes. The ultimate goal of these totalitarian governments was to consolidate power under the pretense of a common political and social identity.