Totalitarianism: A Comparison

Ian Kershaw’s Totalitarianism Revisited: Nazism and Stalinism in Comparative Perspective applies the modern definition of totalitarianism to Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism. On the surface level, these three governments appear to be similar in their nature. A powerful figurehead dominating the governments ideologies and fueling the motives at large, while controlling their state with force and surveillance. Kershaw does a good job in pointing out while the term authoritarianism needs to be adjusted based on the evolution of Nazism and Stalinism, the term can be applied to Italy’s, Russia’s, and Germany’s governments spanning from a pre-WWII era to the transition the USSR endured following Stalin’s death, but emphasizes the importance of not losing track of their singularities.

Modernity is the reason why these government systems are so similarly equated under the scope of totalitarianism. The organized bureaucracy and structure share similar characteristics while the overall motive of the state differs greatly. Both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR were surveillance states, but with different purposes. Stalin wanted surveillance to be used as a tool of repression; to weed out counter-revolutionaries and stabilize politics. In contrast, Nazi Germany used surveillance to concentrate its power in the State and to promote its ultimately racist motives and to strengthen expansion. Italy had a more similar goal to Germany than the USSR. Mussolini also desired to expand and strengthen the Italian empire to return it to its former glory.

What can historians potentially gain by comparing these three forms of government? How are they similar to the British and American governments during the same period?