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Describe the rise and goals of totalitarianism in Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union, and analyze the policies and main ideas of Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin.


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Topics on the page

Rise of Totalitarianism
Totalitarian vs, Authoritarian
Tools of Totalitarian Leaders
Policies and Ideas of Totalitarian Leaders
  • Mussolini
  • Hitler
  • Lenin
  • Stalin
Uses of Propaganda to Sway Public Opinion





rotating gif.gifSee also United States History II.15 for more on Fascism in Germany and Italy



Focus Question: What is totalitarianism and how did it rise in Europe?

Moloch of Totalitarianism Memorial
Moloch of Totalitarianism Memorial

Rise of Totalitarianism


external image 200px-Hebrew_timeline.svg.pngTotalitarianism Time Line


1) Totalitarianism is a form of government where the state in the form of a single leader controls all aspects of social, economic and political life.
      • It is a 20th century development, typically associated with the rise of a series of dictators including Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin.

Totalitarian government theoretically permits no individual freedom and seeks to subordinate all aspects of the individual's life to the authority of the government.
  • As Mussolini said: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state." (quoted from Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. Anne Applebaum (2012, p. xxi).
    • As Applebaum further noted, "a totalitarian regime is one that bans all institutions apart from those it has officially approved. A totalitarian regime thus has one political party, one educational system, one artistic creed, one centrally planned economy, one unified media, and one moral code" (2012, p. xxi).

2) In the years immediately following the WWI (1914-1918), a promising new era of democracy seemed to be unfolding.
  • The autocratic regimes in Russia, Germany, and Austria were all overthrown and replaced by republics.
    • These newly-created states in Europe all adopted a republican form of government, similar to that of the current U.S. government.
  • Democracy seemed to win out in the post-war world. Within two decades, however, many democratic countries in Europe were taken over by some kind of dictatorship.
    • Russia became a Communist state while Italy and Germany became Fascist states.

3) Between the two World Wars, Britain and France could be regarded as democratic-like states.
  • Within these two states, the individuals had freedom of speech and of the press, of petition and of assembly, and freedom from arrest for political opinions.
    • They could form political parties and elect the party or the parties they liked to rule. In short, the individual was an end in himself.
      • The government helped to provide for the fullest development and security of all individuals.

Russia (1917-1939), Italy (1922-1939), and Germany (1933-1939) might be regarded as totalitarian states.
  • Within these states, the individuals had no right of free speech, free publications, or free associations.
    • Individual citizens had no right to form political parties; there was only one governmental party which imposed its dictatorial rule on the people.
      • This one-party regime was concerned with the 'total' activities of its people, including the peoples' work, leisure, religion, and even their private lives.[1]

Totalitarian vs. Authoritarian


Authoritarian: Desire to control behavior

Totalitarian: Desire to control thought

During the Cold War, the United States distinguished between undemocratic regimes:
  • Authoritarian and U.S. supported: Pincohet;s Chile; Shah's Iran)
    • Totalitarian and U.S. opposed: China, USSR

Source: Russia's Gay Demons, Robert Cottrell. The New York Review of Books (December 7, 2017)
Memorial for WWII bomb victims, Hamburg, Germany.Image by San Andreas
Memorial for WWII bomb victims, Hamburg, Germany.Image by San Andreas


Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 11.31.08 AM.pngCheck out Mr. B for his online lesson of totalitarianism rule that develops the differences between fascism and communism. While also highlighting the significant totalitarianism leaders.

Image to the left includes the words "The dead command us: never again totalitarianism, never again war."

Tools of Totalitarian Leaders


Tools totalitarian leaders used to gain and maintain power:
  • Propaganda: One sided biased information intended to persuade the people.
  • Police Terror and Fear: Dictators create a police force that helps to keep them in power.
    • When people are afraid of the police, they cannot act out against the government.
  • Religious and Ethnic Persecution: Blaming and discriminating against a minority group for their religious beliefs and ethnicity.
    • Totalitarian rulers tend to blame minority groups for the country's problems to take away the attention from their mistakes and actions.
  • Progress and improvements: Sometimes dictators are able to improve peoples' daily lives, which makes people loyal to the dictator.
  • Ideology Indoctrination: Dictators put in place a new type of government or new ideas and then persuade people to believe in the new way of thinking by controlling the media and what is taught in schools.
    • Censorship: Controlling what people can say and what people can hear.
  • Cult of Personality: Dictators often have charismatic personalities. They are good at giving speeches and getting people to believe in them and follow them.






Focus Question: What were the policies and ideas of Mussolini, Hitler, Lenin and Stalin?


external image Essener_Feder_01.pngBenito Mussolini

mussolini.mug.jpgFrom the beginning, Mussolini aimed to be the ruler of a one-party totalitarian state.
  • From 1922 to 1929, slowly but gradually, he destroyed all effective opposition at home. From 1922 to 1923, Mussolini steadily built up his own power in the government.
  • He placed loyal Fascists in key government positions, created the Voluntary Fascist Militia for National Security, and promoted the Grand Council of Fascism (the highest authority of the Fascist Party) into an organ of state.
  • From 1929 to 1939, Mussolini completed the building-up of the totalitarian state.[2] In 1938, the Fascist Grand Council abolished the Parliament, and set up in its place an Assembly of Corporations which consisted of representatives from twenty-two industrial and professional corporations.
  • In other words, the parliamentary system in Italy came to an end. In 1939, though Italy remained, in name, a monarchy, Mussolini, as the Duce of the Fascist Party, became the uncrowned King of Italy. At this point, nobody dared to oppose him.

Mussolini was concerned with the total activities of his people.
  • There was much state regulation to control the economic and social activities of the Italians.
  • Besides the system of corporations, Mussolini helped the industries with financial subsidies. The state would buy the national products even though their prices were higher than the foreign products. There were also the improvement of transport and the development of hydro-electricity in the North so as to help the industrial progress of Italy.
  • In agriculture, the most famous reform was the 'Battle of Wheat' : — this was an attempt to make Italy self-sufficient in food. There was also the big land reclamation project in the Pontine Marshes near Rome to provide more farm-land for the peasants.

Multimedia.pngMussolini Documentary

primary_sources.PNGThe Doctrine of Fascism, Benito Mussolini (1932)


Common Characteristics of Fascism
  • Absolute Power of the State (strong central government; individuals give up private rights to serve the state)
  • Rule by a Dictator (single leader who uses charisma and personality to gain support)
  • Corporatism (state controls the economy; unions, strikes, and labor rights are illegal)
  • Extreme Nationalism (emphasis on national glory and resistance of outside threats)
  • Superiority of the Nation's People (a country's people are seen as superior to others; persecution of minorities)
  • Militarism and Imperialism (conquering and ruling weaker nations; military superiority is proven through war)
Taken from Constitutional Rights Foundation, "Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism," Bill of Rights in Action, 25(4), p. 5.

primary_sources.PNGMussolini on Fascism (What is Fascism? 1932)


Adolf Hitler


For background, see The Age of Dictatorship (Hitler), a lecture by Richard Evans, Wolfson College, University of Cambridge on the destruction of the Weimar Republic and Hitler's rise to power.

hitler.jpgGerman Nazism to a large extent resembled Italian Fascism. Both were evolved by ambitious leaders of strong national outlook in the difficult years of the post-war period. Once these ambitious leaders gained power they quickly extended government control over the political, economic, and social systems of their country until it became a totalitarian state.[4] In foreign affairs, both the Fascists and Nazis advocated an expansionist policy. The main difference was that Nazism was based on racism. Nazis believed that they existed to dominate the world and cleanse the world from corrupted races. Hitler himself hated all Jews, and this led directly to the Holocaust.[5]

Hitler believed in German nationalism and hated democracy, Marxism, and Jews. His ultimate interest was with political power, for Hitler believed that economics would take care of itself. He also applied his views to creating a new kind of state based on race and would include all Germans living outside the Reich's frontiers. This new nation would establish an absolute dictatorship under a leader, Hitler. Mein Kampf (My Struggle) outlines the future German state, the means by which it would be achieved, and a new view of life.

The goal of the re-organization of the economy was to achieve German self-sufficiency (Autarky). In September 1936, a Four-Year Plan was launched. It was intended to make Germany self-sufficient in coal, iron, steel and other basic raw materials and improve the economy by initiating public works and financial aid to industry and agriculture. After 1935, Hitler also implemented a massive rearmament program.

"The fate of the Reich depends on me. As long as I live I shall think only of victory. I shall annihilate everyone who is opposed to me" - Adolf Hitler

Hitler documentary.


Click here for The Rise of Adolf Hitler, a short essay from the BBC.

Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler, Bad Godesberg, Sept. 1938.
Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler, Bad Godesberg, Sept. 1938.

primary_sources.PNGA Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust from the University of South Florida offers an extensive collection of documents related to Nazi Germany.
Multimedia.pngFor an overview of different views on Hitler, see the Portrayals of Hitler Project created by Harold Marcuse at the University of California Santa Barbara.
primary_sources.PNGNazi and East German Propaganda Guide Page from a web page maintained by a professor of communication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Michigan.

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Click here to listen to one of Hitler's speeches with English subtitles.


Psychological approach to Hitler and his followers - the idea of "the banality of evil" by Hannah Arendt. Some interesting quotes to think about with students:
"The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions, but to destroy the capacity to form any" - Hannah Arendt
"The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgement, this normality was much more terrifying that all the atrocities put together" - Hannah Arendt

external image Essener_Feder_01.pngVladimir Lenin
lenin.jpg
An overview of Lenin's rise to power and political life can be found in a book review of historian Robert Service's well-known study, Lenin: A Biography. Lenin rose to a position of power in the Social Democratic party. In 1917, the revolution happened in Russia. In March, steelworkers in St. Petersburg went on strike, with thousands of people lining the streets. The Tsar's power collapsed and the Duma, led by Alexander Kerensky, took power. Vladimir Lenin came to power after a coup. Vladimir Lenin was named president of the Society of People's Commissars (Communist Party). Land was redistributed, some as collective farms, and factories, mines, banks and utilities were taken over by the state.[6] In May, 1922, Vladimir Lenin suffered the first of a series of strokes. In his two remaining years, Vladimir Lenin tried to ensure that Trotsky, not Stalin, succeeded him, but failed. Vladimir Lenin died of a cerebral hemorrhage on January 21, 1924.

In agriculture, the policy of confiscation of peasant produce was discontinued. The peasants could sell their produce in the market after they had paid a tax on their produce. They were given security of land tenure, permitted to sell or lease their own land, and even hire laborers to work on their own land. The main industries such as banking, mining, and transport were industrial and still controlled by the Soviets or Workers' Councils. They employed about 80% of the total industrial labor force in 1923 and accounted for 90-95% of the total production by value. Small industrial enterprises were allowed to be in private hands. The private manufacturers were allowed to introduce piece-work rates, preferential rations, and bonuses to stimulate the incentives of the workers.

Multimedia.pngLenin Documentary
primary_sources.PNGWhat Is To Be Done?(1902) is Lenin's statement that a strictly controlled party of dedicated revolutionaries as a basic necessity for a revolution.

Joseph Stalin


For more, see Joseph Stalin Historical Biography page

stalin.jpg
Multimedia.pngThe Stalin Project is an interactive resource about Stalin and the Soviet people. This site includes text written by the top scholars in the field, a database of over 500 images, primary source documents, videos, lesson plans, and other materials.

Joseph Stalin supported Socialist doctrines and studied Karl Marx. He became a leader of the secret Marxist band in the seminary. Later, Stalin found a job as a minor clerk in the Tiflis observatory. He turned to Bolshevism, and by 1903 Stalin gained recognition as a key component in the communist movement. Stalin was repeatedly imprisoned for revolutionary activities while working with Lenin.

With the success of Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Stalin resumed editorship of the Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda. Both Stalin and Trotsky were vying for power even while Lenin remained alive. With Lenin’s death, Trotsky was exiled (and later killed), and Stalin took over as leader of the Communist party of the Soviet Union. Stalin was extremely oppressive and paranoid and killed as many as 20 million of his own citizens. During WWII, Stalin led his people to victory over the Nazis. He died in 1953 of natural causes.[7]

Stalin's plans
(a) By developing heavy industries, Russia hoped that she could first free herself from dependence on capitalist states for machinery and manufactured goods, and finally rival with the industrial production of the United States and Germany.
(b) If Russia was economically strong, she could have the financial resources to produce more powerful armaments that could defend Russia from any possible attacks by the capitalist powers.
(c) Industrialization put all of the national resources under the government and thus enabled the government to impose a stricter hold on the workers.
(d) Finally, Stalin wanted to prove that the socialist system, in comparison to the capitalist system, could be more successful in modernizing a nation.

Like other totalitarian leaders, Stalin imposed rule by keeping the Soviet populace in a constant state of fear. He sowed this fear, in large part, with the creation of large scale forced labor camps called Gulags. Any person who Stalin perceived to be a threat to his absolute power would be sent to the Gulags, which were often located in brutally cold regions of Siberia.



primary_sources.PNGTo view an online exhibit on Stalin's Gulags, complete with personal testimonies from Gulag survivors, visit Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives.
external image Red_apple.jpgTotalitarian PowerPoint

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Uses of Propaganda to sway the Public Opinion


Image to the right is a 1939 Soviet propaganda poster depicting the Red Army killing an oppressive Polish eagle

For background, see Propaganda 101: What You Need to Know and Why See also, Propaganda: What's the Message? from iCivics.

See Nazi Propaganda from the United States Holocaust Museum.

The Rise of Totalitarianism in Europe from the Core Knowledge Foundation.

external image Beautiful_red_apple.jpgWinning Over Hearts and Minds: Analyzing WWII Propaganda Posters.

Use of Propaganda During World War II from NebraskaStudies.org

















Works Cited:
[1] Grobman, G (1990). Nazi Fascism and the Modern Totalitarian State. Retrieved March 7, 2007, Web site: http://www.remember.org/guide/Facts.root.nazi.html
[2] Smith, D Benito Mussolini. Retrieved March 7, 2007, Web site: http://www.grolier.com/wwii/wwii_mussolini.html
[3] Poon, HW (1979). Fascist Italy. Retrieved March 7, 2007, Web site: http://www.thecorner.org/hist/total/f-italy.htm
[4] Poon, HW (1979). Nazi Germany. Retrieved March 7, 2007, Web site: http://www.thecorner.org/hist/total/n-german.htm#hitler-president
[5] Adolf Hitler. Retrieved March 7, 2007, from Spartacus Educational Web site: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/GERhitler.htm
[6] Dunder, J Vladimir Lenin Biography. Retrieved March 7, 2007, from Free Info Society Web site: http://www.freeinfosociety.com/site.php?postnum=76
[7] (1999). Biography: Joseph Stalin. Retrieved March 7, 2007, from Red Files Web site:
http://www.pbs.org/redfiles/bios/all_bio_joseph_stalin.htm