What is totalitarianism? The question of defining the word is best answered with another question: what is totalitarianism in relation to the forms of dictatorship synonymously associated with it?
Dictatorships are characterised by the omnipotent leadership of one man – as far as history dictates there have been no female dictators – with this man's authority being absolute and insurmountable on his account. Under this rule there is an unlimited use of arbitrary and immodest force to consolidate the dictator's stranglehold on a country.
There is not so much a difference between the concepts of a dictatorship and a totalitarian state as there is a process of development from one to the next. While it is not wrong to call Hitler or Stalin dictators, it is, however, inaccurate to solely denote their respective national experiments as dictatorships. In the long-term, both the aims of the Nazi party in Germany and the Bolshevik party in Russia were to expand the absolute control they had cultivated in their original countries of conquest to convey and replicate them in foreign countries. Essentially, the key difference between a dictatorship and a totalitarian state is the impact it intends to have on the external sphere of international activity outside of its immediate control. To be totalitarian in action is to represent an agenda that transcends the geographical constraints of a single, autonomous nation. The conclusion to this agenda is presumably the collective autonomy of the globe as a framework of externalised dictatorial control.
Hitler and Stalin rose to dominance in countries still withering in the shadows of their past defeats and failures. Faced with reparations designated in the Versailles Treaty, Germany was reduced from an ominous shaker and mover on the world stage to a sickly state burdened by mass unemployment and crippling inflation. Russia, backward and beleaguered after the Romanov dynasty's oppressive autocracy, was undergoing significant social rehabilitation through the communist revolution. Both nations, in terms of vulnerability, were brimming with potential sympathisers for radical new movements that offered salvation from despair. In terms of productivity, much emphasis on economic recovery was required, and neither was ready for harvesting without labour-intensive policy.
The dictators, Hitler and Stalin, were demanding when they arrived, but in the countries they were to annex they observed populations that, despite presenting potential, were suffering from major loss of morale and absence of camaraderie. As Hannah Arendt states, it was not the classes who shared separately in their suffering, but individuals who shared in feelings of disillusionment and had grown to recognise their existence as futile. These people were in a position to be made selfless by a cause that could bring about mass creation and recovery.
Arendt assiduously remarks that mob organisations before the twentieth century had failed to involve their members "to the point of complete loss of individual claims and ambition", and never "realised that an organisation could succeed in extinguishing individual identity permanently and not just for the moment of collective heroic action".
This notion of a classless society stemmed from the dissolution of traditional class structure in the aftermath of economic breakdown and material deprivation, which conceded to the subsequent homogenised mass of individuals a unifying platform for improvement in the form of a dictatorship in both countries.
Arendt says: "the masses, contrary to prediction, did not result from growing equality of condition, from the spread of general education and its inevitable lowering of standards and popularisation of content." In the absence of class organisation, the mass, dreaded by the intellectuals, was born into uniform self-deprecation.
With the propriety of class representation and its electoral obligations out of the way, the totalitarian movements could get underway. What occurred next was a reaction to the question of how to indoctrinate the masses at hand. The cult of the individual was carefully crafted in both case scenarios, whilst unflappable loyalty to the umbrella party and its system was imposed upon the populations of both countries with no other option provided. The purpose of emphasising Hitler and Stalin at the heads of the Nazi and Bolshevik parties alike was to provide the state government with a face that those under its umbrella would associate with pleasing, as well as disappointing. Without the personification of the party, any repercussions from not obeying the party line in the form of violence would most likely be met with adverse confusion and resentment, like when a child is punished by someone who is not its parent.
Arendt says: "totalitarian movements are mass organisations of atomised, isolated individuals". The individuals in question were ordered to act on the will of their leader and achieve for the glory of the party and state. Psychological warfare, which featured monstrously in both cases, was employed to varying lengths under the two dictators. In Nazi Germany the presence of propaganda was pervasive and exercised to a degree of justification that rendered all aspects of a German's life responsible for encouraging and preserving party doctrine. Under Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, everything from posters to military rallies became symbols for the new totalitarian movement. In Soviet Russia there was less indoctrination and more intimidation. While notions of privilege and safety were stamped out as Stalin ordered the liquidation of suspected traitors through mass purges on costly whims on all levels of society, further intimidation came in the paranoid prospect of denunciation. Friends and family members of alleged traitors to the party became denouncers in the hopes that they would be spared, making Soviet society a realm of self-preservation and strict deference to Stalin's organisation. Ultimately, both societies became possessions of the dictators, a pool of pawn resources.
Perhaps more interesting than the conversion of two class systems into a culturally quantifiable masses was the submission of those populations to the rigorous and unchecked violence that were the two party's primary devices for control. In the tradition of Nietzsche, Nazis were convinced that "evil-doing in our time has a morbid force of attraction", with their sympathisers justifying their inaction towards this immorality by supporting "deeds of violence with the admiring remark: it may be mean but it is very clever". If we substitute the word impressive for clever, the notion of evil-doing as an arresting and audacious enterprise gains in credibility as, like Nietzsche posited, to act as one truly desires is healthier and cleverer than acting in conjunction with external forces that insist on obedience. In any case, totalitarian movements do not allow for individual idealism. Instead they monopolise on conformism and guarantee obedience through indoctrination, as well as direct (murder) and indirect (threat) intimidation. Arendt dubs this violent persuasion 'power propaganda', which corresponds with the public admiration of evil-doing.
The most significant evil-doing presented by the Nazis was the infamous attempted extermination of the Jews. Of greater interest to the study of totalitarianism as a concept is not the specifics of how the Nazis intended to wipe out the Jewish population, but why it saw the eradication of other races as eternally imperative. As told by Hitler, those who failed to adhere to the regime were "living against the eternal laws of nature and life". By nature and life, he meant the objectives of the party. Party policy on race dealt in the currency of inflexible scientific value. Arendt floats the notion that "science has become an idol that will magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man" – this idol would not bless the Nazi cause itself, though. It was the priority of the party to use science to elevate the ideal, superior race to the apex of authority.
A delusional cross-pollination of Nietzsche's ubermensch and Darwin's natural selection theories transfigured traditional ethnic cleansing and conceived a cycle of racial dominance that was never fully realised, beginning and ending with the Jews, who, as Arendt elucidates, had diminished in state influence in the European fold as a whole and had the misfortune of being the only non-national population on the continent. While "the House of Rothschild became the chief treasurer of the Holy Alliance" and Jews continued to mistrust the zeitgeist, they were nevertheless the first to be targeted by the discontented masses.
Two of the most crucial reasons for their preordained persecution are as follows: 1) the Jew was no longer considered to be a functioning cog in the European economic machine. Besides spending generations of effort accruing and saving money, Jews were not active in the private bourgeois sectors, which bred resentment because they were seen to be deadweight. 2) Similarly to the former, the Jew was also the most suitable for commencing the cleansing cycle because of its hereditary ties to the state. With a mutual partnership between state finance and Jewish banking credibility that enabled the Jew to live independent of society, it was only too easy for the majority to assume the Jew was responsible for the alleged organised destruction of national identities from behind the guise of businessmen of the state.
Although the Jew was the Nazi's genesis scapegoat and had been religiously persecuted by European and other societies for centuries, they should not be entitled the party's sole target for extermination, as the nature of totalitarianism implies a much broader menace. Rather, we should consider them as the first in a series of stepping stones across the turbulent river of the totalitarian movement, theirs blood-stained but not sunken.
It is what lies on the opposite bank of this river of historical societal abuses that the Nazis and, to a lesser degree, the Soviet elite endeavoured to attain. That is, global domination. The key contention between the Nazi and Soviet plans, at least in theory, was the fact that Nazism dictated racial superiority, whereas Stalinist Marxism espoused class superiority for the proletariat over race. The means by which they would both cross the river were the calling cards of a terror-happy totalitarian movement. Arendt coins the expression "butter through guns", referencing the sanctioned implementation of violence and warfare in securing a brighter future for the Aryans in a Nazi world. It is true that what both examples perpetrated required a degree of insanity – killing was not an issuance of insanity, but believing in the philosophy of the party (how it would ascend beyond morality to envelop the globe through mass murder) was. Arendt states: "the insane mass manufacture of corpses is preceded by the historically and politically intelligible preparation of living corpses". This alludes to the Jewish question, and supports the argument that the Nazis were, before slaughter, encouraging the dissolution of worth in races divisible to them, i.e. living corpses that would no longer be of use to the murder machine's momentum. She refers to the concentration camps as "medieval pictures of hell". As with the gulags in Russia, which albeit were much tougher to survive in due to the persistent cold and infertility of the soil, these gateways to suffering doubled up as open laboratories for satanic experimentation on the human body and mind.
Irrespective of the horrors revolving around the gas chambers, human ovens and [name of bodily residue that acted as fuel] that demonstrated the ruthless efficiency of the Nazi movement specifically, it was the initial dehumanisation of both victim and victor that embodied a much more intimate anguish. The Jew, Nazism's first sufferer in the cycle, was stripped of all pertinence to society and humanity, and reduced to a proverbial host of disgusting features and habits that party folklore engendered. The SS soldiers, guards and officers, Nazism's key instruments of torture, too, were dehumanised, though, this was because they were immersed in practices of evil that taught them to perceive the Jew how the party instructed, meaning they would ritually commit murder, rape and a whole host of other heinous acts without remorse, tending afterwards to their own family affairs with a love and respect for life that was grotesquely hypocritical and blind.
But Nazism and Stalinism were just that, hypocritical and blind. The conduct of crossing the river was, in itself, facilitated through impossible fantasy. Hitler and Stalin held out promises of stability in order to hide their intention of creating a state of permanent instability, which, in accordance with Trotsky's law of permanent revolutions, was the origin of both movements' biggest dilemma: how can you govern what you've got when your policy is fixed on the future? Totalitarianism as a movement has its direction determined by its goal, like most other courses of direction; however, because Hitler and Stalin were so equally entranced and exalted with visions of global grandeur, they neglected the immediate systematic chaos occurring under their noses. Hitler's patriarchal hierarchy obeyed only one protocol – the Fuhrer's will – here the art of the selfless individual contaminates the system, as each cog attempts to turn faster than the rest in the hopes that it will satisfy the unimpeachable will of its leader, thus proving the party to be nothing but just a front. In Stalin's system there was no hierarchy per se, merely a guise of government that fed on the fear of the nation. Stalin's ultimate failure was that he had secured no such obedience as Hitler did; instead, he oversaw the economic fatigue and frustration he had inflicted, mistaking naked fear for concrete obedience.
The leaders had no concern for their faults. They asserted their own infallibility as the reason they were in power, so to have admitted fault would've been suicide. Hitler's dictum explains how the Nazis justified the irresponsibility of national government: "the total state must not know any difference between law and ethics" – if your organisation's ethic inspires the state's law, then the law can never be broken. And because the Nazi and Stalinist ethics were the brainchildren of the party leaders, they as individuals were completely immune to criticism. The populations in Germany and Russia were quantified into giant liability insurances against any infrastructural or even governmental deficiencies. Their lives acted as collateral.
As a consequence of these systems of state irresponsibility and individual obedience, Hitler and Stalin could safely preach about the teleological progress their regimes were to generate. According to Arendt, there was "only the constant going ahead on the road toward ever-new fields". As with the law of permanent revolutions, totalitarianism cannot surrender its cyclical energy until it has fully transformed all the world's former democracies into dictatorships, which once integrated would in all probability have their borders removed and be replaced with a unanimous totalitarian concert. In totalitarian terms there is no room for plurality. In reference to Hegel, totalitarianism relies on a series of major cycles that evolve under the principle of dialectic advancement. The three components of Hegel's dialectic – thesis, antithesis and synthesis – can be shown for the Nazi and Stalinist totalitarian movements as follows:
Nazism: T) Nazi party + AT) Democracy > ST) Totalitarian concert
Stalinism: T) proletariat + AT) bourgeoisie > ST) Communism
The above dialectic equations are too general in element to be instituted, and both also flout realism with an optimism that cannot outweigh the difficulties of conventional society and government. However, they exhibit the necessary concept of the totalitarian dialectic, which Hitler and Stalin embarked upon – Stalin, over Hitler, should have been aware of this pattern, as Hegel was privy to the conception of the Communist Manifesto thanks to his friendship with Karl Marx, and Marx no doubt imbibed some of his friends wisdom in regards to quantum communist theory.
The enormity of evil involved in the custom totalitarianism of the Nazis and Stalinists is only second to its banality, as Hannah Arendt herself describes such phenomena. In retrospect we wonder how the Nazis could have carried out the atrocities they did during their brief but seminal dominance of Europe, and we marvel at how in Russia fear became the most expensive commodity available to a population that was the single most defining force against the Nazis in WWII.
The reality of totalitarianism is itself paradoxical. While, as a movement, it is practically unstoppable, assuming the dissolution of economies and disillusionment of societies in enough external democracies, it is clear that it will always fail because a leader or party cannot guarantee complete system control, unless it becomes scientifically possible to displace humanity entirely (artificial intelligence is an option). Excluding the mammoth predictions of greatness behind the egos of Hitler and Stalin, totalitarianism is as fallible as democracy.