Totalitarian Regime


A totalitarian regime, as we have witnessed in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1930’s and 40’s, was totally different from any other political regime. It developed entirely new political institutions after having destroyed all political and social traditions of a country. The population living under such a regime ultimately conformed to this isolated and enslaved way of living, and the totalitarian rulers such as Stalin and Hitler gained absolute control over the masses. These masses followed the movement until it collapsed, but the question remains if they acted this way by fear or because they were loyal and willing to live under such a regime.


In order to answer that question, it is important to be aware of the radical differences of the regime. In Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, we can distinguish the most important characteristics of a totalitarian state. Firstly, there is a fundamental difference in the interconnection of people. Instead of having classes where people communicate ideas and thoughts, the population has now become a big mass of people who are isolated from others to avoid opposition to the regime. Secondly, the political party rules as a mass movement with a strong ideology, and new notions of what is right and wrong. All people share a similar idea, which gives a strong sense of unity to the mass movement. Furthermore, a totalitarian regime seeks world domination as an important goal, and power shifts from the army to the police. What is also important is that totalitarian movements seek “to provide the forces of Nature and History with an incomparable instrument to accelerate their movement”. Some of their ideologies were based on science: Nazis explained the massacre of Jews and the evolution of the superior German race on Darwin’s theories; Stalin justified his massacres with Marx’s theory of historical progression and the so-called “dying classes”. Totalitarian movements considered these goals more important than anything else.


These characteristics illustrate that totalitarianism is a totally different kind of government, which seems unbearable when compared to modern western societies. However, under totalitarian rule we see a certain loyalty and following among the population, unlike tyranny. Although totalitarianism is often regarded as a form of tyranny, there are some important differences. In a tyranny, the ruler or tyrant lives in isolation from the people, without any legal communication. Moreover, as Arendt claims, tyranny has a “moving principle of mutual fear”. This means that on one side the tyrant fears the population, and on the other side the people fear the tyrant. This is a fundamental difference between a tyrannical and totalitarian regime. Influenced by the writings of Montesqieu, Arendt also claims that a tyranny is an ineffective form of government that corrupts itself and will eventually destroy itself: a “political desert”. And even though the movement could be cruel to its own people, it represents no threat to the outside world. Thus, it can be said that tyranny is largely based on fear.


Totalitarianism is based on fear, but only to a little extent. When a totalitarian movement rises to power and the population is not completely subdued, the regime has to use terror to gain absolute control. In Germany, for example, the Nazis killed small socialist functionaries and other influential members of the opposition during their rise to power. These murders were meant to show to the population that the Nazis were more powerful than other parties and the possible risks if one dares to join the opposition. Unsurprisingly, most people fearing for their lives joined the totalitarian movement. Once he is a member of the opposition, he fears more leaving the movement than participating in crimes for the movement.


Apart from terror, that could only be used to a limited extent, there was a more subtle and probably more effective way to gain control and especially to rule over the populace: propaganda, a way to accumulate power without using violence. When the movement was in power, propaganda was very effective to change the way in which people understand an issue or situation and what they expect from the government. It was a very useful tool to mislead and confuse the population by giving false information. Hitler’s speeches, for instance, were renowned for being models of propaganda.