The notion of totalitarianism as a "total" political power by state was formulated in 1923 by Giovanni Amendola, who described Italian Fascism as a system fundamentally different from conventional dictatorships. The term was later assigned a positive meaning in the writings of Giovanni Gentile, Italy’s most prominent philosopher and leading theorist of fascism. He used the term “totalitario” to refer to the structure and goals of the new state, which were to provide the “total representation of the nation and total guidance of national goals.” He described totalitarianism as a society in which the ideology of the state had influence, if not power, over most of its citizens. According to Benito Mussolini, this system politicizes everything spiritual and human: "Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state."
One of the first to use the term "totalitarianism" in the English language was the Austrian writer Franz Borkenau in his 1938 book The Communist International, in which he commented that it united the Soviet and German dictatorships more than it divided them. The label "totalitarian" was twice affixed to the Hitler regime during Winston Churchill's speech of October 5, 1938 before the House of Commons in opposition to the Munich Agreement, by which France and Great Britain consented to Nazi Germany's annexation of the Sudetenland. Churchill was then a backbencher MP representing the Epping constituency. In a radio address two weeks later Churchill again employed the term, this time applying the concept to "a Communist or a Nazi tyranny."
The leader of the historic Spanish reactionary conservative party called the Spanish Confederation of the Autonomous Right declared his intention to "give Spain a true unity, a new spirit, a totalitarian polity..." and went on to say "Democracy is not an end but a means to the conquest of the new state. When the time comes, either parliament submits or we will eliminate it."
The British author George Orwell made frequent use of word totalitarian and its cognates in multiple essays published in 1940, 1941 and 1942, seeing fit to insert the expression into essays whose principal subject was Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, Henry Miller or twopenny color postcards. It should come as no surprise that by the time he published the famous essay Why I Write in mid-1946, opposition to totalitarian thought and government had come to play such a prominent role in Orwell's political identity that he was able to say:
The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.
During a 1945 lecture series entitled The Soviet Impact on the Western World (published as a book in 1946), the pro-Soviet British historian E. H. Carr claimed that "The trend away from individualism and towards totalitarianism is everywhere unmistakable", and that Marxism–Leninism was by far the most successful type of totalitarianism, as proved by Soviet industrial growth and the Red Army's role in defeating Germany. Only the "blind and incurable" could ignore the trend towards totalitarianism, said Carr.
Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and The Poverty of Historicism (1961), articulated an influential critique of totalitarianism: in both works, he contrasted the "open society" of liberal democracy with totalitarianism, and argued that the latter is grounded in the belief that history moves toward an immutable future in accordance with knowable laws.
Syngman Rhee who would later become the first President of South Korea, used the term "totalitarianism" in his book Japan Inside Out (1941) to categorize the Japanese rule over many Asian nations against the democratic world, where individuals are of greater importance than the society itself. The description would also be seen as ironic by many in South Korea, considering the nation was plagued by instability and riots against its own dictatorial and totalitarian governments starting with Rhee's rule. Isabel Paterson, in The God of the Machine (1943), used the term in connection with the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt argued that Nazi and State communist regimes were new forms of government, and not merely updated versions of the old tyrannies. According to Arendt, the source of the mass appeal of totalitarian regimes is their ideology, which provides a comforting, single answer to the mysteries of the past, present, and future. For Nazism, all history is the history of race struggle; and, for Marxism, all history is the history of class struggle. Once that premise is accepted, all actions of the state can be justified by appeal to Nature or the Law of History, justifying their establishment of authoritarian state apparatus.
In addition to Arendt, many scholars from a variety of academic backgrounds and ideological positions have closely examined totalitarianism. Among the most noted commentators on totalitarianism are Raymond Aron, Lawrence Aronsen, Franz Borkenau, Karl Dietrich Bracher, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Conquest, Carl Joachim Friedrich, Eckhard Jesse, Leopold Labedz, Walter Laqueur, Claude Lefort, Juan Linz, Richard Löwenthal, Karl Popper, Richard Pipes, Leonard Schapiro, and Adam Ulam. Each one of these describes totalitarianism in slightly different ways. They all agree, however, that totalitarianism seeks to mobilize entire populations in support of an official state ideology, and is intolerant of activities which are not directed towards the goals of the state, entailing repression or state control of business, labour unions, churches or political parties.
Differences between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes
The term "authoritarian regime" denotes a state in which the single power holder – an individual "dictator", a committee or a junta or an otherwise small group of political elite – monopolizes political power. "[T]he authoritarian state ... is only concerned with political power and as long as that is not contested it gives society a certain degree of liberty." Authoritarianism "does not attempt to change the world and human nature."
In contrast, a totalitarian regime attempts to control virtually all aspects of the social life, including the economy, education, art, science, private life, and morals of citizens. "The officially proclaimed ideology penetrates into the deepest reaches of societal structure and the totalitarian government seeks to completely control the thoughts and actions of its citizens." It also mobilizes the whole population in pursuit of its goals. Carl Joachim Friedrich writes that "a totalist ideology, a party reinforced by a secret police, and monopoly control of [...] industrial mass society" are the three features of totalitarian regimes that distinguish them from other autocracies.
The political scientists Carl Friedrich and American geostrategist Zbigniew Brzezinski were primarily responsible for expanding the usage of the term in university social science and professional research, reformulating it as a paradigm for the Soviet Union as well as fascist regimes. Friedrich and Brzezinski argue that a totalitarian system has the following six, mutually supportive, defining characteristics:
- Elaborate guiding ideology.
- Single mass party, typically led by a dictator.
- System of terror, using such instruments as violence and secret police.
- Monopoly on weapons.
- Monopoly on the means of communication.
- Central direction and control of the economy through state planning.
Totalitarian regimes in Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union had initial origins in the chaos that followed in the wake of World War I and allowed totalitarian movements to seize control of the government, while the sophistication of modern weapons and communications enabled them to effectively establish what Friedrich and Brzezinski called a totalitarian dictatorship.
The German historian Karl Dietrich Bracher, whose work is primarily concerned with Nazi Germany, argues that the "totalitarian typology" as developed by Friedrich and Brzezinski is an excessively inflexible model, and failed to consider the “revolutionary dynamic” that Bracher asserts is at the heart of totalitarianism. Bracher maintains that the essence of totalitarianism is the total claim to control and remake all aspects of society combined with an all-embracing ideology, the value on authoritarian leadership, and the pretence of the common identity of state and society, which distinguished the totalitarian "closed" understanding of politics from the "open" democratic understanding. Unlike the Friedrich-Brzezinski definition Bracher argued that totalitarian regimes did not require a single leader and could function with a collective leadership, which led the American historian Walter Laqueur to argue that Bracher's definition seemed to fit reality better than the Friedrich-Brzezinski definition.
In his book The True Believer, Eric Hoffer argues that mass movements like Stalinism, fascism, and Nazism had a common trait in picturing Western democracies and their values as decadent, with people "too soft, too pleasure-loving and too selfish" to sacrifice for a higher cause, which for them implies an inner moral and biological decay. He further claims that those movements offered the prospect of a glorious future to frustrated people, enabling them to find a refuge from the lack of personal accomplishments in their individual existence. The individual is then assimilated into a compact collective body and "fact-proof screens from reality" are established.
Some social scientists have criticized the approach of Carl Joachim Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, arguing that the Soviet system, both as a political and as a social entity, was in fact better understood in terms of interest groups, competing elites, or even in class terms (using the concept of the nomenklatura as a vehicle for a new ruling class). These critics pointed to evidence of popular support for the regime and widespread dispersion of power, at least in the implementation of policy, among sectoral and regional authorities. For some followers of this 'pluralist' approach, this was evidence of the ability of the regime to adapt to include new demands. However, proponents of the totalitarian model claimed that the failure of the system to survive showed not only its inability to adapt but the mere formality of supposed popular participation.
Historians of the Nazi period who are inclined towards a functionalist interpretation of the Third Reich, such as Martin Broszat, Hans Mommsen and Ian Kershaw, have been hostile or lukewarm towards the totalitarianism concept, arguing that the Nazi regime was too disorganized to be considered totalitarian.
In the field of Soviet history, the totalitarian concept has been disparaged by the "revisionist" school, some of whose more prominent members are Sheila Fitzpatrick, Jerry F. Hough, William McCagg, Robert W. Thurston, and J. Arch Getty. Though their individual interpretations differ, the revisionists have argued that the Soviet state under Joseph Stalin was institutionally weak, that the level of terror was much exaggerated, and that—to the extent it occurred—it reflected the weaknesses rather than the strengths of the Soviet state. Fitzpatrick argued that since to the extent that there was terror in the Soviet Union, it provided for increased social mobility, and therefore most people in the Soviet Union supported Stalin's purges as a chance for a better life rather than feeling that they were trapped in a terrorized society.
Writing in 1987, Walter Laqueur said that the revisionists in the field of Soviet history were guilty of confusing popularity with morality, and of making highly embarrassing and not very convincing arguments against the concept of the Soviet Union as a totalitarian state. Laqueur argued that the revisionists' arguments with regard to Soviet history were highly similar to the arguments made by Ernst Nolte regarding German history. Laqueur asserted that concepts such as modernization were inadequate tools for explaining Soviet history while totalitarianism was not.
François Furet used the term "totalitarian twins" in an attempt to link Stalinism and Nazism.
Non-political aspects of the culture and motifs of totalitarian countries have themselves often been labeled innately "totalitarian". For example, Theodore Dalrymple, a British author, physician, and political commentator, has written for City Journal that brutalist structures are an expression of totalitarianism given that their grand, concrete-based design involves destroying gentler, more-human places such as gardens. In 1949, author George Orwell described the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four as an "enormous, pyramidal structure of white concrete, soaring up terrace after terrace, three hundred metres into the air". Columnist Ben Macintyre of The Times wrote that it was "a prescient description of the sort of totalitarian architecture that would soon dominate the Communist bloc".
Another example of totalitarianism in architecture is the Panopticon, a type of institutional building designed by English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham in the late eighteenth century. The concept of the design is to allow a watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without their being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. It was invoked by Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, as metaphor for "disciplinary" societies and their pervasive inclination to observe and normalise.