How Hitler and Stalin Used Power to Institutionalize Totalitarianism

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Great Revolutions of Modern History

By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University

The German political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote: “The forms of totalitarian organization… are designed to translate the propaganda lies of the movement, woven around a central fiction… into a functioning reality.” That is exactly what Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin sought to do. They used the complete power of the state and its people to institute a totalitarian system.

An image of a group of workers sitting idle.
Unemployment in Germany rose from 1929 through 1932, peaking at 43% in the summer of 1932. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin did not come to power through a conventional revolution. Stalin was a leader within the Bolshevik Party at the time of the 1917 October Revolution, but he didn’t assume dictatorial power until a decade later.

As general secretary of the Communist Party in the one-party Soviet state, Stalin was well-positioned to seize power after Vladimir Lenin died in 1924.

Over the next few years, he made alliances to push other members of the ruling Politburo from power; with one faction gone, he turned against the next. Through this Machiavellian process, Stalin dispatched rivals until he stood alone. These tactics, and the results, were also decisive in his ability to institute a totalitarian system.

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Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler, meanwhile, was a beneficiary of the economic disaster that gripped the world in 1929. He’d joined the National Socialist German Workers Party a decade earlier in a Germany demoralized by defeat in the First World War. In short order, he assumed leadership of the party, and promoted devout, practically rabid, devotion among party members.

A failed attempt to seize power in 1923 was followed by a nine-month stint in prison. And Hitler’s political fortunes looked poor before the Great Depression. But as unemployment rose from 1929 through 1932, the Nazi Party’s popularity soared.

An image of President Hindenburg.
Paul Hindenburg, the German president, agreed to name Hitler the chancellor in 1933. (Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild/CC BY SA 3.0/Public domain)

Exploiting Public Disillusionment

Hitler exploited public disillusionment with promises of economic, political, and military salvation. As the German economy deteriorated, and as Hitler’s extremist views became increasingly known, his popular appeal increased.

In the summer of 1932, German unemployment peaked at 43%, and the Nazis secured 37% of the vote in national elections for the Reichstag.

By early 1933, with many German elites enamored by Hitler’s promises of restored German greatness, the German president, Paul Hindenburg, agreed to name the Nazi leader chancellor.

The Enabling Act

Within a month of his appointment, Hitler used a fire of suspicious origin at the Reichstag to abolish free speech and freedom of assembly. In a decree known as the Enabling Act, he assumed dictatorial control to deal with what he deemed a national emergency.

These dictatorial powers were supposed to be temporary but remained in place for the next dozen years. Hitler made his antipathy towards constitutional government and multi-party systems clear from the start.

Hegemony for the Aryan Race and Anti-Semitic Policies

As chancellor, he spread his ideology of world hegemony for the Aryan race to a national audience. And to facilitate its implementation, he cobbled together a one-party, hierarchical state that demanded total and unconditional loyalty of the people.

Hitler exploited fears of Bolshevism to eradicate the country’s communist and socialist political parties. And he turned on non-Nazi nationalists who were his allies. Finally, he focused on his remaining opposition in the country’s liberal and republican parties.

By July 14, 1933, the National Socialist Workers Party was the only legal political party in Germany. Hitler wasted no time implementing anti-Semitic policies once in power. In 1933, he banned all Jews and all ‘politically unreliable’ people from serving as civil servants.

And in 1935, he implemented the Nuremberg Laws, which explicitly deprived German Jews of citizenship.

Stalin’s Dictatorship

In the Soviet Union, Stalin didn’t have to waste his time focusing on formal opposition parties because non-communist organizations and parties had been outlawed under Lenin. During the early 1920s, Soviet Communist Party members could debate policy until ruling bodies reached a decision. But under Stalin, even preliminary discussions disappeared. The party line became whatever he said it was.

As Stalin solidified his personal dictatorship, he manufactured opposition figures and groups.

In the early 1930s, it was hard to identify real organized opposition in the Soviet Union. Still, this didn’t stop Stalin from ordering purges that killed a million people over the next decade. Stalin encouraged his fellow citizens to identify culprits, even in the face of evidence of their innocence. Political enemies were manufactured, and confessions coerced.

This reflects not a revolutionary system eliminating threats but instead an anti-revolutionary inclination toward continual disruption and instability to establish total, centralized control.

The Brownshirts

In Germany, Adolf Hitler’s progress toward establishing a single-party regime under his personal authority continued, as well. Hitler saw his greatest potential threat as emanating from within. And the face of this threat was the Nazi paramilitary arm, the SA, known as the Brownshirts.

The Brownshirts’ members had been among the Nazi Party’s most ardent early supporters. But when their hopes for substantive economic and social change weren’t realized, SA leader, Ernst Rohm, stressed a need for the Nazi revolution to progress more forcefully. Hitler rejected this call.

The Night of the Long Knives

By the summer of 1934, the SA and its leadership were a liability for Hitler. And on June 30, 1934, his elite guards, the SS, under Heinrich Himmler, pounced in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives. SA leadership, including Rohm, were arrested and executed.

Hitler also used the occasion to settle grudges against other prominent figures. Then, he retroactively legalized this ‘blood purge’ by alleging that it was a necessary act to defend the German state.

In August 1934, the old-line president Hindenburg died, and Hitler announced that the positions of president and chancellor would be combined into the position of führer (a title he had already been using). To mark the occasion, public officials and members of the military were compelled to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler himself. For Germany, there was no turning back on the path to totalitarian rule.

Common Questions about How Hitler and Stalin Used Power to Institutionalize Totalitarianism

Q: How did Joseph Stalin dispatch his rivals?

Joseph Stalin made alliances to push other members of the ruling Politburo from power; with one faction gone, he turned against the next. Through this Machiavellian process, Stalin dispatched rivals until he stood alone.

Q: What was the Enabling Act?

The Enabling Act was a decree under which Adolf Hitler assumed dictatorial control to deal with what he deemed a national emergency.

Q: What announcement did Adolf Hitler make after the death of President Paul Hindenburg?

In August 1934, when President Hindenburg died, Adolf Hitler announced that the positions of president and chancellor would be combined into the position of führer (a title he had already been using).

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