By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
German political philosopher Hannah Arendt was among the first to use the term totalitarian to describe the systems instituted in both Germany and the Soviet Union during the 1930s. The world had long known autocracies, dictatorships, and authoritarian regimes. But totalitarianism was something new, reflecting a totality of control over society that perhaps could be realized only in the modern world.
In September 1941, the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich premiered his still unfinished Symphony No. 7, known colloquially as the Leningrad symphony, as German forces threatened his beloved city. Created in secrecy, Shostakovich’ musical score gave expression to the pain and anguish felt throughout the Soviet Union.
A surprise German invasion the previous June by some three million of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi forces had caught the Soviet leadership and military off guard. And since September, German troops had besieged the composer’s native city.
Surrounded by the enemy, except for Lake Ladoga to the east, Leningrad was starving. That winter, 200,000 of its inhabitants had succumbed to starvation and disease.
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Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler
Shostakovich described the first movement of Symphony No. 7 as a deeply tragic funeral march. But as he admitted years later, it was as much a reaction to the homegrown terror that gripped the Soviet Union during the great purges of Joseph Stalin in the late 1930s as it was to the horrors unleashed by the more recent Nazi occupation.
Shostakovich found striking similarities in the two leaders—Stalin and Adolf Hitler—who, in one of the saddest coincidences of history, were contemporaries. Shostakovich also knew the fear and desperation that came from watching innocent friends disappear during the middle of a night for alleged crimes against the state.
At the time, the fascist and communist leaders, respectively, tended to be evaluated on an ideological spectrum. As a result, they looked to be polar opposites, and inevitable antagonists. But they had much in common. One of which was totalitarianism.
Totalitarianism was built on the ruins of liberal promises of emancipation, communal bonds, and economic vigor. It fed on disappointment, and it thrived on disillusionment.
Today, it offers something new for the modern age. It promises illiberal rather than liberal reforms, opposing the freedoms of thought and behavior.
In time, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany both came to be viewed as totalitarian societies. Necessarily, that means that totalitarianism could emerge under fascism or socialism.
Yet, totalitarianism is a system unto itself. It has its own characteristics and its own playbook. It aspires to dramatically upend the order that precedes it. And in that sense, it might be tempting to describe totalitarianism as revolutionary.
But no, totalitarianism is counter-revolutionary. It’s a reaction to revolution rather than revolution itself.
Totalitarian systems also centralize control rather than disperse it. Stated another way; while revolutions acknowledge people’s diversity of experience and seek to give voice to at least some elements within those constituencies, totalitarian states demand uniformity. Totalitarianism stresses singleness, conformity, and unity in identity and purpose.
Another way that totalitarianism differs from revolutionary endeavors is in terms of ideals. Revolutions aspire to ideals that appear to be within reach. The ideals of totalitarian regimes promise much but never really deliver.
To balance the promise of a future utopia against the disappointment of daily reality, totalitarian regimes require scapegoats and foils. To maintain legitimacy, they do more than simply find and root out enemies and threats. They must create, or even imagine, scapegoats in the service of gaining and maintaining power.
In this way, totalitarian aims can never be fully satiated because if they are, the whole justification for maintaining a totalitarian system becomes irrelevant.
Strong, Centralized Political Power
And to maintain control, totalitarianism relies upon a strong, centralized political power in which all aspects of life are subordinated to the regime’s interests. In totalitarian systems, everything is political. No organization, activity, or entity is considered independent of the central authority.
Totalitarian systems do not seek to unite the people through anything but the system. They seek to mobilize the masses for their own purposes. In this way, totalitarian systems are not responding to the needs or demands of the masses. Instead, they rely upon an unstructured, atomized group of individuals who find commonality and meaning through the state.
In the totalitarian state, this erodes any possibility for mutual responsibility or accountability. In totalitarian systems, accountability flows upward-only: to the leader, system, and ideology. Though the masses seem to be empowered, it is only to the extent they fall in line.
Coalescing power in the person of the leader is the ultimate form of centralization and key to totalitarianism in practice. If the leader is the personification of policy, the loyalty of subordinates must be directed towards the leader rather than any political program.
Common Questions about the Characteristics of a Totalitarian State
Totalitarianism aspires to dramatically upend the order that precedes it. In that sense, it might be tempting to describe it as revolutionary. However, totalitarianism is counter-revolutionary. It’s a reaction to revolution rather than revolution itself.
To balance the promise of a future utopia against the disappointment of daily reality, totalitarian regimes require scapegoats and foils. They must create, or even imagine, scapegoats in the service of gaining and maintaining power. In this way, totalitarian aims can never be fully satiated because if they are, the whole justification for maintaining a totalitarian system becomes irrelevant.
Totalitarian systems do not seek to unite the people through anything but the system. They seek to mobilize the masses for their own purposes. They rely upon an unstructured, atomized group of individuals who find commonality and meaning through the state.