Uniquely a twentieth-century phenomenon, students will encounter the concept of totalitarianism in many courses on the period. Care should be taken to distinguish the concept from autocracy, dictatorship and single-party rule.
The history of the concept of totalitarianism
A simple definition of totalitarianism can be taken to be ‘a system of rule, driven by an ideology, that seeks direction of all aspects of public activity, political, economic and social, and uses to that end, at least to a degree, propaganda and terror’. This definition, through brevity, is incomplete. To move toward a more complete understanding, a look at the history of its use can be helpful. This will indicate that initially it was not used as a critical judgement on a government. The word was probably first used by the Italian philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, in 1925, during the earlier years of Italian Fascist rule, to describe a comprehensive socio-political system. Mussolini happily used the word, and while in general it usefully describes Nazism and Stalinism, Hitler avoided its use and Stalin saw it as applicable to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany but not to Russia. The concept gained wider currency and became prominent in schoolbooks during the post-1945 Cold War period. It was at that time that it was defined more fully, notably by US historians Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski in Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956). Friedrich and Brzezinski‘s theoretical model, derived from the history of the twentieth century, had six key features.
An official ideology to which general adherence was demanded, the ideology intended to achieve a ‘perfect final stage of mankind‘.
A single mass party, hierarchically organised, closely interwoven with the state bureaucracy and typically led by one man.
Monopolistic control of the armed forces.
A similar monopoly of the means of effective mass communication.
A system of terroristic police control.
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