Totalitarianism: Can a definition be reached?

Friedrich and Brzezinski define totalitarianism in a way that is often disagreed upon by others. They state it is an autocracy that is adapted to an industrial society. The ruler has ultimate power and none can challenge his decrees or rulings. Also, that it is only with modern technology and mass democracy that these regimes were able to come about. Totalitarian regimes can undergo changes, but never disappears. The only instance that causes it to crumble is war with outside powers.
“Totalitarian Revisited: Nazism and Stalinism in Comparative Perspective” by Ian Kershaw, disagrees with the definition of totalitarianism by Friedrich and Brzezinski. Kershaw states the term itself is dynamic and a transitional event, defining only one part of an authoritarian dictatorship. It can lead to the collapse of a system, as with Nazi Germany, or can lead to a systematic government, as was adopted by Soviet Russia. The author makes sure to note it is not a system in itself, and is not “compatible with the stabilization of a political system” (32). Once a system is stabilized, it is no longer totalitarian. In his conclusion, Kershaw reiterates that totalitarianism is a revolutionary, violent, and transitional period not the regime itself.
Friedrich and Brzezinski state fascist and communist dictatorships are almost one in the same. Kershaw argues that Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany are completely different, and can only be compared during Stalin’s reign, if at all because after Stalin’s death the government gained relative stability, and the revolutionary goals became less of a motivation and more rhetoric. Even Nazi Germany can only be compared in its beginnings to other fascist movements, beyond 1933 it is a whole new radical branch of fascism.
Walter Laqeur, in his article, “Is There Now, or Has There Ever Been, Such a Thing as Totalitarianism?” demonstrates another view on totalitarianism. In his article, he states the differences between a totalitarian regime and a dictatorship are the use of propaganda and social control, mobilization of the masses, ideology, and a monopolistic state-party. There is an agreement with Friedrich and Brzezinski in regards to the leader having unchallenged rule, however, according to Laqeur, the leader himself does not always make the decisions, but all are made by the center, and none without the approval of the leader. The article has a statement that helps explain why it is so difficult to define totalitarianism; “all democracies are alike, while tyrannies are tyrannies in different ways.” Each is unique, and thus is difficult to find one all encompassing definition.

3 thoughts on “Totalitarianism: Can a definition be reached?

  1. I do agree that one can only compare Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union during the years of Stalin. However can it not also be argued that despite the Soviet government loosing its toleration ideals after the death of Stalin it was still a toleration government with its leaders looking to not only expand its own boarders but also destroy another way of life?

  2. Noah, can that be defined as Totalitarian though? That’s something that a lot of world powers have participated in. Couldn’t the idea of expanding one’s borders be defined as colonialism in a sense? After all, colonialism entails expanding one’s land and “civilizing” another way of life (though it can certainly be seen as destroying).

    • The expanding of land boarders and changing ways of life can be termed as colonialism. However during that time the Soviet government was still controlled by a totalitarian political party that aimed to defeat america in the cold war. Although I do understand that simply wanting to expand your ideals to others may not always be totalitarian.

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