The philosophy of totalitarianism: What is it and how does it affect our understanding of the past Essay
Initially having the aim of analysing Hitler’s rise to power, this paper now addresses the reality of totalitarianism and what it takes for any given state to be defined as totalitarian and the effects it has on the perception of such regimes throughout history; with a focus on Nazi Germany.A general conclusion had to be reached through comparison between the philosophies of both Zbigniew Brzezinski and Carl Friedrich, as set out in their book ‘Totalitarian dictatorship and autocracy’ published 1956 and revised in 1965, and Hannah Arendt, in her book The ‘Origins of Totalitarianism’ published 1952, with support from source material describing the realities of life under Hitler. This paper highlights that it is of utmost importance that a totalitarian state be studied without automatically applying outdated stereotypical, ineffective, biased criteria; exactly what Arendt and Brzezinski have provided us with.It is through the use of a range of sources that the inadequacies in the definitions posed by Brzezinki and Arendt are unveiled and consequently identified.
It follows that these inadequacies are inherent in every generic description of the qualities of any given political system and as such the usefulness of these definitions as comparative terms is extremely limited. This fact does not however deter people from using these terms in writing history to categorise leaders and regimes; it does not deter historians from allowing biases creeping into their work through the use of these words.This paper has been formed through analysis of a broad spectrum of sources, mainly secondary sources. The references were carefully chosen with emphasis being given to the use of memoirs as well as revisionist histories from recent times and closer to the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Such sources were included simply because it is important that histories come from different times and as such suffer from different contextual influences. The Essay Totalitarianism was never defined in the past because it could not exist.This is simply because totalitarianism implies total control, and in the past it was simply not possible to gain total control given the technological and cultural limitations.It has only been as recently as the 20th century that totalitarianism has become a real political option, as shown particularly by the Nazis.
With such examples in mind political theorists have, over past fifty years, debated the real meaning of totalitarianism but it has still eluded concise definition.Read an essay about “The Step Not Taken”Zbigniew Brzezinski and Carl Friedrich attempted to define it in their book ‘Totalitarian Autocracy and Dictatorship’ but attached a certain Cold-war, anti-Communist bias to it which created a model of totalitarianism that was not only damning but obviously represented the Communist regime of Russia; it is clearly propaganda. Hannah Arendt suffered at the hands of the Nazis, as she was a Jewish emigrant to America. While her book – and in turn her definition – is far fairer she does on some points let her experiences taint her understanding of totalitarianism.What totalitarianism is perceived to be taints how the past is viewed and how certain regimes from the past are thought of; thus what historians understand totalitarianism to be taints the meaning that they attach to the importance and reliability of sources relating to such regimes.
The first part of the commonly accepted definition of totalitarianism relates to a state ideology. Now, a totalitarian state does not need to follow or believe in any sort of ideology despite Friedrich and Brzezinski’s claim that a totalitarian state requires “an official ideology to which general adherence [is] demanded… ntended to achieve a ‘perfect final stage of mankind.
“Totalitarian states are, insofar as we have seen, revolutionary and as such the ideology put forward is one which offers to right the wrongs of the current political system and help the people out of troubled times. An ideology is an extremely important preliminary requirement for totalitarianism as it is a revolutionary or reactionary movement, but as time passes the significance of the ideology diminishes proportionally with the need for an ideology.While Hitler may have fanatically believed in the destruction of the Jews within German borders it is doubtful that he, at least initially, intended to reach the extremities to which the Nazis eventually did.In support of Brzezinski’s first criteria, Hannah Arendt makes the point that the totalitarian ideology “singles out the foes of mankind against whom terror is let loose and no free action of either opposition or sympathy can be permitted to interfere with the elimination of the objective enemy”. Arendt’s point is a result of her experiences under Hitler, and as such she seems to be describing more how she felt about him by restricting the ideology to be racially based, rather than the diverse ideological positions totalitarian leaders are able to take.
It is in the best interests of the infant revolutionary totalitarian state to attempt to quash an “objective enemy” only so far as to unite the people under a common cause, but it is not necessarily a sustained effort rather it is just necessary to establish control.Control over the party is just as important as control over the people. Brzezinski believes that totalitarianism demands “a single mass party, hierarchically organised, closely interwoven with the state bureaucracy and typically led by one man”Once Hitler passed the Enabling Act in 1933, he set his mind on systematically destroying all possibilities of opposition to his rule to achieve this, Hitler banned all rival political parties and ordered that no further political parties be formed. It is necessary that the party or the leader ensure that there is no opposition to the rule of the party through whatever means possible. Hitler “[gave] power to those below him but [encouraged] them to compete among themselves for power and influence” and thus ensured that Hitler’s subordinates fought amongst themselves too much to offer any real threat to his leadership, however a totalitarian system requires that total power rest in a single place; in Nazi Germany, too much power was allocated to too few people and thus the organised hierarchy required for a totalitarian state was undermined.The leader of a totalitarian government is thus either a figurehead or the bearer of total power, there is no grey area.
Arendt rightly contests Brzezinski’s second point in saying that a “lack of or ignoring of a party program is by itself not necessarily a sign of totalitarianism”. In theory totalitarianism can be made to exist in any form of government, from democracy to communism to a dictatorial state.Should a democratic candidate be elected into an office which has been given total power over the state he/she will rule with the support of the party they are affiliated with; then they are a totalitarian ruler in a democratic system, despite the existence of other political parties. 10 Hitler earned his power through the Enabling Act of 1933, a move that was apparently approved via plebiscite11 and thus he was a dictator with totalitarian tendencies under what was still a democratic system.However, Arendt goes on to suggest that Hitler was nothing more than a “functionary of the masses” and “without the masses, the leader is a non-entity”.
In a matured totalitarian system Arendt’s point carries no relevance as the leader should never have to worry about the support of the masses since the masses will always support him given the fact that they will have been indoctrinated with pro-totalitarian ideas throughout their education. Hitler derived majority support from the bourgeois and less so from the rich, and little from the proletariat.If, however, his support faltered there was a real chance that he would be killed or he would be forced out of office. 13 This is simply because Hitler’s totalitarian state was still young, in time Hitler -or the Nazi party- would have gained the political security totalitarianism demands. Along with the stability of political thought comes prevention of any possible avenues to threaten the ruling party. To ensure this Hitler oversaw a “monopolistic control of the armed forces”; a preliminary but ongoing procedure which is necessary to control a totalitarian state or indeed any state.
The government must be able to regulate the actions of the armed forces and the munitions industry as a factor in the total control of a nation. Such a concept is technically outdated since currently all developed nations control the armed forces of their respective states. In the aftermath, Hitler had the German Army swear an oath of allegiance to him personally, and thus he became the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Germany. It should be noted that “Germany was not compelled to prepare on such a scale for war – that was a deliberate decision taken by Hitler”, and as such the role of the army is determined by the leader and predetermined by the totalitarian ideology.Arendt supports the requirement for the “monopolistic control of the armed forces” but distinguishes the need as only preliminary and part of the totalitarian process rather than lasting criteria. In her opinion, as a totalitarian movement gains power and finally get into power, little is changed; The system remains democratic until such time as “all government positions are held by party members”, and thus “the power of the party rests on a monopoly guaranteed by the state”.
This monopoly must, by implication, include the armed forces and since controlling the army ensures continued power and since control must be obtained immediately and retained thereafter, it is not a preliminary requirement but a constant factor for the upkeep of the state.Hitler retained this power; he ensured that he was the final authority on all military matters and thus cemented his authority through German military successes. Military successes are admittedly important, but not as important as economic success It is essential that a totalitarian state play a direct role in every aspect of the operation of the state but with respect to the economy there only needs to state direction, with only so much control as to ensure effectiveness. When Hitler allocated someone a role, he tended to allocate a contradicting role to another person or persons.
This ensured that policy -especially economic policy- was applied ineffectively as conflicting interests limited the effectiveness of certain strategies.Put simply, the point of a centralised economy is to eradicate private competition and establish a state-run economy similar to communist economic systems and this is what the four-year plan was geared to do; it would transform Germany into a ‘war economy’ and as such aimed to prepare for war, reduce unemployment and to demand obedience of the population through the accelerated growth in armed forces.The economy of the totalitarian state must be effectively directed with only so much control that the system can be directed effectively; it must obtain growth and combat economic problems to the best of its ability so as to ensure political, social and economic stability.Conversely, Arendt argues that “the totalitarian dictator regards the natural and industrial riches of each country .
.. as a source of loot and a means of preparing the next step of aggressive expansion”.Arendt thus labels the totalitarian economy as a war economy, but it is not necessary for a totalitarian leader to adopt such an economy as such economies finance expansionistic foreign policies and totalitarianism does not have to have an international focus; rather it must have a national focus.
Arendt is too specific on this point and is once again directly attacking Hitler rather than discussing the realities of totalitarianism.Totalitarianism does not require “state ownership of all the means of production and distribution but, rather, a central control and direction of the economy”; with only so much control so as to ensure central direction. A totalitarian state refers to the structure of the state, and not necessarily the aspirations of the leader. Similarly, the economy does need to be centrally directed, but it does not have to be directed so as to be a war economy.
No matter what economic system the state chooses to facilitate, there needs to be a “monopoly of the means of effective mass communication” so as to ensure that economic, social and political goals can be obtained and the people can be informed of such successes. Contrary to Brzezinski’s criterion, a totalitarian state does not need to control every method of mass communication, rather there is only a requirement to strongly regulate, influence or control a majority of all the major methods of mass communication subject to the discretion of the leader.Infant totalitarian states need to control what the public hears to a greater degree than a matured totalitarian state and as such, in Nazi Germany laws were enacted that forbade the public listening to any foreign radio; the national radio station was to be on at all times. To ensure that people listened to the national radio, the Nazis mass produced cheap ‘peoples’ radios, called Volkssempfanger, to such an extent that 70% of all German households contained one.It was written as part of the Reich Press Law that newspaper editors must “keep out of the papers anything which..
. tends to weaken the strength of the German Reich.The cinema was similarly regulated and only allowed movies created or approved by Gobbels and his Ministry and Chamber of Films (MCF), established in 1933. While it was under direct public control, the MCF did not simply produce propaganda.Gobbels avoided this by attaching contextual storylines, ‘Nazified’ storylines, which reinforced the values of the Nazi party and managed to keep overt propaganda films to low levels of approximately 5%.
Perhaps the final primary method of mass communication was the Church, which the Nazis did not censor unless the religion “endangered the German race”.This freedom of religion, as promised in the Nazi’s 25-point plan, was further strengthened when Hitler agreed to grant the Catholic Church autonomy in Germany and in return the Vatican would not involve itself in politics.This agreement did not last long, and by 1937 priests were forced to apply for licenses and religious holidays no longer applied to the German people.It follows that major censorship and government regulation of the methods of mass communication are necessary for a totalitarian state to survive; it is to what extent it is adopted or required that varies. Such censorship was enforced by the law.The law enforcement of Nazi Germany is universally recognised as a “terroristic police force” owing to their brazenly brutal enforcement tactics.
With the establishment of the Gestapo in 1933, Hitler ensured that the public would not oppose him as he had them publicly execute their brutal tactics. This was never more obvious than in 1934 Hitler purged his party with the help of the SS and the Gestapo, who acted under the guise of Article 48 of the German Constitution which stated that the government could legally push civil liberties beyond the usual limits of the constitution for the “protection of the people and the State”. 1 When this order was decreed in 1933, no restrictions were set down on the actions of the state; this was the first time no restrictions were specified.This was extremely dangerous for anyone who was politically against the Nazis, as they could now arrest without warrant, hold suspects indefinitely and refuse legal counsel.”In the background there lurked the terror of the Gestapo and the fear of the concentration camp for those that got out of line or who had been [against Nazism].
Total terror breeds total loneliness; total loneliness enables total power.While a totalitarian state requires simply that dissenters fear being discovered, Arendt approaches the aspect of terror from a totally different angle. She suggests that the system of terror works not singularly through the assumption that dissenters will be killed, but that the entire population sees themselves as superfluous.According to Arendt “totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men, but toward a system to which men are superfluous”. In any such system, the fear of being expendable for the good of the system results in a state of subordination.
Thus the system of terror not only ‘encourages’ near fanatical loyalty and support, but encourages competition among people the entire population to ensure their respective ‘superiors’. This is the very fear that Hitler instilled in the echelons of the party; it is also why many of the policy decisions were undermined, complicated and ineffectual.This system should not be mistaken for as simple a concept as an autocracy, dictatorship or monarchy; it is a far harder stage to reach than any of them. Through analysis of the sources it is obvious that the perception of totalitarianism has changed, or rather it has been complicated and become far too specific.
It is clear that Arendt’s book is a point of reference for Brzezinski and Friedrich’s book but it is not based solely on her work alone, it offers new ideals which are “newly pertinent to the historian’s own time”, and all the biases that go with it.The concepts put forward were obviously carried contextual biases that stand to taint all future histories written on the subject and as such any definition put forward must reflect the versatility and the all pervasive legitimacy of the political spectrum. The use of generic terms to describe political systems means that such terms cannot be used comparatively; rather the usefulness of generic terms is limited to general and extremely basic understanding.Totalitarianism is one such term, as the usefulness of it as a tool for classifying historical and contemporary political systems is undermined by the inability to use it as a comparative term owing to the flexibilities of every political system including totalitarianism itself. If it must be loosely used as a comparative term then, to protect historical objectivity, it must be understood that totalitarianism is not a dirty word; it is a real political option.