Totalitarianism - The Concept and the Controversies Underlying It

Seminar Paper, 2003

10 Pages, Grade: A- (82)


Table Of Contents


1. Characteristics of Totalitarian Organizations

2. The Age of the Masses

3. Criticism and Controversies


Works Cited


Since its coinage in the 1920’s the term ‘totalitarianism’ has adopted various connotations and has lead to highly controversial discussions in a multitude of scientific texts. Created by the opposition of Italian fascism, it is soon taken up by Mussolini himself. After the end of the Second World War, Hannah Arendt and Carl J. Friedrich write two standard works, that classify both Nazism and Stalinism as totalitarian regimes. In the following cold war period the term develops into an ideological catchword of the Right, which culminates in the equation of the crimes of Communism with the Holocaust in the ‘Historikerstreit’ in 1986. Recently, after the collapse of soviet Communism, the term is rediscovered as a useful tool to classify and compare political systems.

In the following pages, I will therefore discuss the general concept of totalitarianism and the socio-historic causes for the rise of totalitarian regimes in the 20th century with the help of the classic theories of Hannah Arendt, Carl J. Friedrich and Karl D. Bracher. Further on I will deal with some of the criticism that the theory of totalitarianism was confronted with and show the benefit of the concept for scientific discourse. In view of the flood of theories and criticism, it is not possible for me, to comment on the debate on totalitarianism as a whole. Instead I will concentrate on some of the crucial arguments of the debate, being aware that certain aspects will be left out in my discussion.

1. Characteristics of Totalitarian Organizations

As one of the basic discussions on totalitarianism, Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism offers an open and philosophical description of the phenomenon of totalitarianism. Arendt’s reflections are influenced by her own biographical experiences and refer mainly to the terror regimes under Hitler and Stalin. Her argumentation is based on the assumption that both regimes exercise comparable forms of control, which differ fundamentally from earlier dictatorial governments in that they are a specific phenomenon of the ‘age of the masses’. This does however not mean that the two regimes could be equated, into which I will go in more detail in the last chapter of my paper.

In short, Arendt describes totalitarianism as ‘a form of government whose essence is terror and whose principle of action is the logicality of ideological thinking. That such a combination was never used before in the varied forms of political domination is obvious’ (Arendt: 1951, 474), she concludes. Accordingly, basic features of totalitarianism are: ‘the law of movement’ as legitimization of government, the use of terror, which abolishes all forms of private and public freedom and creates an ‘organized loneliness’ and an ideology with claims for sole and absolute truth.

What makes totalitarian regimes so basically different from former dictatorships is the way they make use of terror and the total subordination of public and private affairs to one ideology. As Arendt points out, it was exclusively Stalin’s and Hitler’s work, that they themselves took charge of the realization of the ‘law of history’ and the ‘law of nature’ with ‘ice-cold reasoning’ and the ‘irresistible force of logic’ (cf. Arendt: 1951, 472). Furthermore totalitarian rule abolishes even the prerequisites for freedom by replacing any space for private or public life with ‘the iron band of total terror’ (Arendt: 1951, 474).

The significance of Arendt’s argument is, that it explains, how ideologies, through their pseudo-scientific character, become slowly established as objective truth in totalitarian regimes. At the same time the absurdity of an ideology with claims towards universality becomes clear:

Ideologies are known for their scientific character: they combine the scientific approach with results of philosophical relevance and pretend to be scientific philosophy. (...) Ideologies pretend to know the mysteries o fthe whole historical process - the secrets of the past, the intricacies of the present, the uncertainties of the future - because of the logic inherent in their respective ideas. (Arendt: 1951, 468f)


Excerpt out of 10 pages


Totalitarianism - The Concept and the Controversies Underlying It
University of British Columbia  (Dept. of Sociology)
Seminar 'Political Sociology'
A- (82)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
543 KB
Totalitarianism, Concept, Controversies, Underlying, Seminar, Political, Sociology
Quote paper
Peter Brüstle (Author), 2003, Totalitarianism - The Concept and the Controversies Underlying It, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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