A Twisted Path or Straight Path?

In Kershaw’s “Hitler and the Holocaust,” the main idea posses the question of interpreting Hitler and his relation to the ‘Final Solution’.  According to Kershaw there are two types of interpretation: ‘intention’ and ‘structure’.  Intentionalists believe Hitler fully intended to eliminate the Jews by created an elaborate plan, known as the Final Solution, in which was the central goal of Hitler’s dictatorship.  In contrast, structuralists believe Hitler played a minimal role in creating the Final Solution, instead it was the bureaucracy who were unable to agree on a single idea on how to eliminate Jews, creating lots of chaos.

Looking further into the ‘structuralist’ interpretation, Yehuda Bauer, an Israeli expert on the Holocaust, argues the bureaucracy caused the twisted path leading to the ‘Final Solution.’  With Hitler playing a minimal role in the planning of the ‘Final Solution,’ it is difficult to argue there was a straight, direct path leading to the annihilation of the Jews.  The bureaucracy was unable to agree on clear objectives and the answer to the ‘Jewish Question,’ therefore creating chaos within the government .

The structuralist interpretation argues Hitler was minimally involved which raises the question as to whether or not Hitler was necessary in organizing and constructing the ‘Final Solution’, or was any individual in a dictator role capable of doing so?  Is the radicalization of the individuals and bureaucracy to blame instead?

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.

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.