The Importance of Totalitarianism

Friedrich and Brzezinski utilized the term totalitarian dictatorship to separate the governments of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia from other autocracies in “Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy.”  In the words of Friedrich and Brzezinski the totalitarian dictatorship “emerges as a system of rule for realizing totalist intentions under modern political and technical conditions”, or put more simply, a system of complete control using modern technology and infrastructure (17).  Published in the 1950s “Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy” lost credibility with its false prophecy that the only way to neutralize a totalitarian state was from an external conflict with the destabilization of the Soviet state in the 1980s.

Totalitarian dictatorship for Laqueur in “Is there now, or has there ever been, such a thing as Totalitarianism?” existed only within a specific time and place: the regime of National Socialism in Germany and the rule of Stalin in Soviet Russia.  Moving beyond Nazi Germany and Stalin’s dictatorship in Soviet Russia, the governments shift away from a totalitarian state and towards a more relaxed authoritarian system.  Kershaw in “Totalitarianism Revisited: Nazism and Stalinism in Comparative Presence,” stipulated that totalitarianism existed as a “phase” in Stalin-ruled Russia and the beginning of Nazi Germany.  Both of these definitions, as opposed to Friedrich and Brzezinski’s, have roughly thirty more years of Stalinist Russia to examine whilst making comparisons with Nazi Germany.  Laqueur and Kershaw, therefore, remain united in challenging the initial definition of totalitarianism as an institution that can only be changed by an external war.

The common thread of all three of the definitions presented by the authors relied on the flexibility and variability of the concept totalitarianism.  Neither of the more modern authors completely disregards totalitarianism, just tweaks the initial concept to gain new meaning.  In this way the word becomes a representation for the continuing study and historiography of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.

1 thought on “The Importance of Totalitarianism

  1. In the other article titled “Totalitarianism Revisited: Nazism and Stalinism in Comparative Perspective”, the author Ian Kershaw discusses your last point about tweaking the definition of totalitarianism in order to gain new meaning. Specifically, Kershaw discusses how with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of Soviet Communism, and the second German Reunification that a need to revisit Stalinism and Nazism with fresh eyes developed. He ultimately comes to several conclusions, but one of the most notable is his belief that some comparisons (such as National Socialism with the state system of the Soviet Union and its satellite states in the Stalin era) have limited potential. Only by highlighting the singularity of each system does Kershaw believe we can gain the most valuable information. How do you think Friedrich and Brzezinski would respond to Kershaw’s assertions?

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