Totalitarianism – Definition, History, Features & Examples

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Totalitarianism – Definition, History, Features & Examples

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini

Definition of Totalitarianism

Totalitarianism is a form of government in which the state claims total control of all the activities of the people. The government controls both the public and private realms.

In totalitarian system of government, any act can be considered ‘political’ if the government so desires. The former Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, and Germany under Adolf Hitler were typical examples of totalitarian governments.

Many people tend to erroneously equate totalitarianism with communism, but this is empirically incorrect true as communism represents the highest level of political development which should be the goal of every political system. Conversely, totalitarianism is an abbreviation.

Historical Development of Totalitarianism

This system of government is believed to have developed during the 1920s in the former Soviet Union and Italy. The factors that encouraged the growth of totalitarianism our progress in science, the World Wars and the emerging new political theories. These three factors are now discussed in turn.

  • Scientific Progress
    The development of Science and technology, especially in developed countries, has made it possible for governments to decide to control the means of communication, propaganda, production and distribution. Governments can also use these techniques to silence any opposition to its suzerainty.
  • The World Wars
    Both the first World War (1914 – 1918) and the Second World War (1939 – 1945) had great effects on the people as the European countries that engaged in the war had to divert the resources of the state for the purpose of waging in the wars.
    Similarly, the political and civil liberties of the people were restricted or suspended, propaganda techniques were used and the power of government increased tremendously as it gradually assumed control of basic industries and the communication system geared towards the war efforts.
  • Political Theories
    Certain political theories such as romanticism, idealism and militarism also provided justification for totalitarianism. These theories and ideologies hold and maintain ideas such as force or violence, the success of the state, racism, elitism, achievement or socialism.
    A totalitarian state is likely to be authoritarian rather than democratic since human nature and human experience result in people having different interests, aims and opinions.
    It is important that these diverse interests are welded together by the state.

When a state is both totalitarian and authoritarian, the system is likely to be a closed one. Those in government in such a political system are likely to use the state machinery to suppress genuine expression of opposing views. The mass media will be tightly controlled and individual liberties will be curtailed.

Moreover, information outlets and cultural activities such as literature, art and music maybe censored and youth organisations will mobilise support for the government and propagate the state ideology.

In the same vein, membership of the only party will be restricted to those who are ready to work actively for it.

Features of Totalitarianism System of Government

The main characteristics of totalitarianism may therefore be summarised as follows:

  • Absence of constitution: There is no limit to the powers of the government because there is no constitution.
  • Dictatorship: The government is headed by a dictator, e.g. Adolf Htler of Germany.
  • lndividual freedom and liberties: Where totalitarianism operates, people are given little or no attention.
  • Suppression: The government uses force to suppress those who oppose any of its policies.
  • The mass media: There is absolute control of the mass media.
  • Economy: It has a highly centralized economy. The government determines what is to be produced.
  • Terrorism and Oppression: There is the use of force and terror to impose the will of the leaders on the people. For example, secret police and concentration camps are used to detain and torture political opponents.
  • One-party system: The system is usually practised in a one party state.
  • Monopoly of means of information and education: The government controls virtually all the means of information and education.
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