The rise and growth of totalitarian movements depends on several inextricably linked key factors. The first and most important of these factors is the presence of what noted political theorist Hannah Arendt calls a "classless society," in which social groups within a society break down and individuals become unmoored and isolated from other members of society as the result of a kind of necessary self-centeredness. Historically, classless society is most oftentimes the result of terrible economic hardship in which hyperinflation and other harmful forces are at play, leading to a disillusioned populace that is tired of the status quo and seeking change. The focus on the poorly-performing economy draws the focus of the average citizen away from the political game and they begin to search for an alternative that will provide them with a new identity, purpose, and vision for the future.

This situation leads to the second important factor in bringing about totalitarianism: a new, totalitarian ideology. Oftentimes introduced by a persuasive, engaging, and charismatic leader around whom the public can rally, totalitarian ideology seeks to unify and mobilize the totality of the classless masses against some outside, antagonistic enemy. The charismatic leader offers the population a new nationalist identity; citizens no longer belong to a certain class, or other subgroup, and focus on defining themselves against the evils of the external world. This policy necessarily also distinguishes "the other"-- either a foreign, antagonistic force or a part of society within the nation presented as somehow inferior and antagonistic-- as the scapegoat for all internal problems. The leader has one main task: to rally support from the citizens by exalting nationalist views and offering a vision of the future in which the citizens are better off than in the current situation because of the elimination or expulsion of 'the other'.

It is necessary at this point to make the distinction between traditional nationalism and its role within totalitarianism. Nationalism itself does not, of course, necessarily lead to totalitarianism. However, when intense nationalism is coupled with other factors, such as mass mobilization, a disillusioned population, economic depression, a strong propaganda machine, and a charismatic leader, conditions are ripe for a totalitarian regime. Also, it is important to note that while traditional nationalism focuses upon bolstering pride within a given nation, totalitarianism must include the creation or identification of a scapegoat that the bulk of the frenzied nationalist population can define itself against. As such, totalitarian ideology oftentimes takes on an internationalist character in defining a foreign "other," against which the state is to rally.


In post-World War One Germany, the German people and economy were devastated. Their country had to pay harsh punitive damages as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, leading to great economic hardship and hyperinflation within the country. Furthermore, for a country that had always maintained a strong nationalist pride, the treaty clause that shouldered them with the entire burden of guilt for WWI was a blow to the nationalist ego that rivaled the economic hardship in importance. In the eyes of the Germans, it appeared that they were worth little more to the rest of the world than the money they could pay in reparations for a war that had already devastated the nation. Unemployment and crime was rampant and the class structures that had defined German society for so long were disintegrating. Germany had become a classless society.

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Figures 1 & 2: Scenes of economic depression in post-WWI Germany

Out of the hard times of the 1920s and 1930s raised a new, charismatic leader who promised radical change. Adolf Hitler embodied the nation's hope for a better future and promised that brighter days were ahead for the depressed and hopeless nation. He began by unifying German society around himself, destroying class lines and other barriers to create a nation united around and dependent upon him as its leader.
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Figures 3 & 4: A charismatic Hitler leads the mobilized, adoring masses

In his ideological manifesto Mien Kampf, Hitler presented to Germans his own totalitarian ideology offering them a compelling ideology and vision of the future. This ideology played heavily upon German nationalistic themes, arousing the sense of pride that the German people had lost. However, Hitler's ideology was not mere nationalism; it also set up outside targets for the German people to rally and identify themselves against. To create this "other," Hitler played upon the fears and frustrations of Germans towards groups both within and outside German borders. Domestically, Hitler achieved this unification of society by identifying a scapegoat, namely the Jews, as the cause of all hardship in the nation and called for their annihilation. Jewish Germans were easy targets because they were the group least affected by the country's economic hardship and there was already a great deal of envy and animosity towards them. Although German Jews were initially targeted, by no means was this a solely domestic "other." Hitler targeted not just German Jews, but the entire Jewish race as a force attempting to undermine the German people from their rightful glory through underhanded means, as is evident in his speeches:

"Europe will not have peace until the Jewish question has been disposed of. The world has sufficient capacity for settlement, but we must finally break away from the notion that a certain percentage of the Jewish people are intended, by our dear God, to be the parasitic beneficiary of the body, and of the productive work, of other peoples. Jewry must adapt itself to respectable constructive work, as other peoples do, or it will sooner succumb to a crisis of unimaginable proportions. If the international finance-Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations into a world war yet again, then the outcome will not be the victory of the Jewry, but rather the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!" (Slow-loading Audio clip: Hitler's speech to the Reichstag, 1/30/1939)

external image mein_kampf.jpgFigure 5:The cover page of Hitler's ideological manifesto, Mein Kampf

By providing the Jews as scapegoats, Hitler gave the Germans a common enemy and a cause to rally behind. Another international "other" was the Allied countries that had opposed Germany in WWI. Hitler was able to effectively convert frustrations towards these international powers and the crippling sanctions they had placed upon Germany into a mobilization for German identity, united against the efforts of "inferior" outside powers to suppress it. Given Germany's economic crisis and increasingly classless society, as well as the introduction of a charismatic leader in Hitler and his totalitarian ideology, Germany was ripe to develop into a totalitarian state.

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Figures 6 & 7: Anti-Jewish Propaganda


Totalitarian movements purposefully and methodically execute a concentration of power in their charismatic leader, resulting in several policies that completely alter the social landscape of totalitarian countries. This concentration of power creates a society of dependence upon the leader as well as a state of general confusion as to power roles outside the leader, leading to distrust and paranoia. This distrust is essential in sustaining a totalitarian regime because it discourages the formation of any group outside of the totalitarian society as a whole.

This climate of fear and paranoia leads inevitably to a general symptom of subservience to government in totalitarian states. Having placed all power within the central government, citizens possess none themselves, leading to a surrender of autonomy and dehumanizing of citizens. Individuality disappears and is replaced by only a group identity mandating that the primacy of the state overrules any individual citizens' needs or desires. This dependency is propagated through the mechanisms of censorship of news and entertainment media and social conditioning. Censorship of news reports allows the government to force its citizens to become dependent upon the state for truth itself. Through government censorship and altering of news reports, the government is able to control how the public perceives events and history and the people must become dependent upon the government version of what has happened. Social conditioning carried out through massive propaganda campaigns, the establishment of a culture of impunity, and the creation of self-patrolling civil organizations suppress individuality into the mold of the totalitarian ideology driving the state. Through these mechanisms citizens are pushed not only to accept and even revere the ever-growing strength of the government, but to willingly surrender their autonomy and individuality to further the state.

Another prominent symptom of totalitarian regimes is a society rife with physical intimidation. Most often this physical intimidation comes through the mechanism of a police state ensuring citizen compliance with governmental policies through threats and acts of violence. It generally utilizes a secret police force that has authority over all aspects of citizens' lives. The state uses this police force to perpetrate arbitrary and indiscriminate arrests based on the suspicion of possibility of committing a crime. These practices instill a permanent sense of suspicion among the citizens that often leads to citizens spying on and turning one another in as supporters of the scapegoat or otherwise opposing the totalitarian regime, discouraging the formation of smaller groups within society and ensuring the exclusivity of citizens identifying themselves in terms of the totalitarian movement.

Another prominent trend of totalitarianism is rule by emergency. Whether coming from an outside power or an inside terrorist force, totalitarian governments point to some event as prompting a state of emergency, creating an environment where citizens are more willing to cede their political freedoms and autonomy to the government. Accordingly, this constant need for an "emergency" substantially affects the neighbors of the countries in which they originate. Totalitarian leaders are always seeking new scapegoats, but as they diminish the population of their own country, they begin to seek out new lands and people to conquer to fuel the movement. This constant need for expansion often leaves countries that share a border with those ruled by totalitarian movements in fear of invasion.


On January 30, 1933, Adolph Hitler was legally appointed Chancellor of Germany by German President Paul von Hindenberg. From that point on Hitler sought to concentrate power within himself by urging the German Reichstag to vote to activate the powers of the Enabling Act. When these efforts proved unsuccessful, Hitler orchestrated the burning of the Reichstag building through Nazi Party followers. Although the crime was committed by the Nazis, Hitler blamed the burning of the Reichstag on Communist revolutionaries. This, Hitler claimed, was only the beginning of a mass attempt by the Communist to overtake all of Germany. Fearful and incensed, the members of the Reichstag voted to put the Enabling Act into effect, essentially concentrating all power into Hitler's hands, as long as he could continue to show them every four years that Germany remained in some state of emergency. From that point on, Hitler engages in centralizing Germany's rather de-centralized government by consolidating and closing departments, creating a new government called the Third Reich.

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Figures 8 & 9: The Reichstag Burning and Propaganda Poster advocating emergency powers for Hitler

As Hitler consolidated his power, the people of Germany gradually fell into a period of subservience to government. By 1936 the Third Reich government was in full swing and had already taken control of the press. Censorship was rampant, as all modern art was removed from museums and labeled "degenerate art" where it was publicly mocked and scorned. Social conditioning was in full effect through massive propaganda campaigns aimed at rallying pride in the German identity and in the Fuhrer. Hitler's use of propaganda is foreshadowed in Mein Kampf when we wrote:

"The chief function of propaganda is to convince the masses, who slowness of understanding needs to be given time in order that they may absorb information; and only constant repetition will finally succeed in imprinting an idea on their mind.........the slogan must of course be illustrated in many ways and from several angles, but in the end one must always return to the assertion of the same formula. The one will be rewarded by the surprising and almost incredible results that such a personal policy secures." (Adolf Hitler from Mein Kampf)

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Figure 10: "One People, One Nation, One Leader!" (Poster of Hitler, 1938) &
Figure 11: "The seed of peace, not dragon's teeth" (Kladderadatsch Magazine 1936)

A culture of fierce nationalism, pride, and impunity had been imprinted in the minds of the Germans through these propaganda campaigns. This culture was solidified and sustained through the creation and public involvement of self-patrolling civil institutions, like the HitlerYouth Movement Swept up in the propaganda movements and programs of the state, the German people became subservient and dehumanized and the development of German children became centralized and controlled by the state. Individuality meant nothing, because all children were presented the following image of how a German must grow to be:

"The weak must be chiseled away. I want young men and women who can suffer pain. A young German must be as swift as a greyhound, as tough as leather, and as hard as Krupp's steel." (Adolf Hitler)

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Figure 12: "Every girl belongs to us." (League of German Maidens Poster) &
Figure 13: "Fight the Danger! Harm Prevention is a Duty!"

A culture of physical intimidation developed in Nazi Germany, fostered mostly by the creation of a massive police state. The Nazi Party established its own elite army to compliment the German Army and carry out Nazi policies. This force, called the Schutzstaffel or SS, was the unit largely responsible for the administration of Nazi concentration camps.

"We have always selected the highest and abandoned the lowest. As long as we maintain this principle, the Order (the SS) will remain healthy. After the war, we shall really build up our Order... it will provide Germany with an elite. This elite will provide leaders to industry, agriculture and politics and the activities of the mind." (1943: Heinrich Himmler, head of SS)

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Figures 14 & 15: The fearsome insignia of the Schutzstaffel and a unit of SS Troopers on the march

In regular German society, massive police forces extended through all areas of public private life, the foremost of which were the dreaded German secret police, the Gestapo. Originally a mere federal police force not unlike the American F.B.I., the Gestapo's power was infinitely increased with the introduction of the Gestapo Law on February 10, 1936, which stated that "neither the instructions nor the affairs of the Gestapo will be open to review by the administrative courts." It was ruled by Nazi jurist Fr. Werner Best that "as long as the [Gestapo]... carries out the will of the leadership, it is acting legally." As a result, the Gestapo were able to arrest and seize citizens without any cause and were universally feared.

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Figures 16 & 17: The terrifying insignia of the Gestapo and a Gestapo unit on the job

A culture of fear and force was everywhere. German civilians were encouraged to spy on each other in order to fulfill their duty to the state. Paranoia reigned as everyone faced the possibility of indiscriminate arrest or arrest on the mere suspicion of possibly committing a crime. Between the state's police involvement in private life and the private assumption of spy duties for the state, there became no distinction between public and private life. Keeping tensions high, the SS orchestrated terror raids on German Jews and rounded them up into horrific concentration camps, along with any other group of people considered a "fringe group" by the government.

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Figure 18: 'Freedom through Work': Doorway to Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany &
Figure 19: Picture from an Einsatzgruppen soldier's personal album, labeled "Last Jew of Vinnitsa."

The need in Hitler's totalitarian Third Reich for a constant threat in order to run a government by emergency was satisfied through ever-expanding conquests into neighboring territories, aggressively threatening neighboring nations. As territories were seized, those considered dissidents in the new territories were either eliminated immediately or sent to work in the concentration camps. Germany's military advancement would eventually lead to World War Two and at its height its empire stretched throughout virtually all of continental Europe.

Figure 20: German expansion through 1939


The downward spiral of totalitarianism makes it impossible for society to survive unscathed, and at the very least, it takes an extensive amount of time for a society to emerge from beneath the iron fist of a totalitarian leader. Because totalitarianism breeds a culture of total and unconditional dependence on the leader, it is necessary that the leader must either die or be removed from power in order for there to be any kind of governmental change. The government's essentially unchallenged control of the media and invasive surveillance presence from both its police forces and loyal citizens makes internal rebellion extremely unlikely because the state is designed to detect and suppress any such rebellion before it can grow large enough to successfully topple the state. Any attempt to communicate thoughts of a rebellion to another in order to spread the rebellion force is a tremendous risk since one can never be sure if the one spreading or receiving the rebellious information is actually working for the state. Only a rebellion kept superlatively secret or a rebellion within an already established branch of the armed forces or government has a reasonable chance of success, but in a totalitarian state even this is very rare because the state generally has multiple, competing armies and governmental branches that are completely dependent upon the leader.
Therefore, any kind of resistance will necessarily come from external forces. Ironically, this resistance can sometimes only serve to further the totalitarian state, as totalitarianism thrives on "external threats." Because a "successful" totalitarian regime is constantly seeking additional resources, just as Germany did, it will eventually threaten the sovereignty of neighboring nations who will then interfere in the internal affairs of the totalitarian nation. Furthermore, the totalitarian threat to these outside nations is uniform across borders: there are no nations who would accept a government intent on eventual world domination. Therefore, the totalitarian regime is far more likely to be toppled from powers without than within. For a totalitarian government to be deposed, it is likely that the situation within the country will need to affect other nations in a significant enough way to actually spur them into action.

The culture of dependence created by the leader of the regime makes it likely that his or her death would also lead to the destruction of the state. As Arendt points out, totalitarianism leads to a culture in which each citizen is directly connected to the leader, and while there may be substantial institutions in place, each is essentially micro-managed by the leader, and his or her death would likely lead to the crumbling of these totalitarian mechanisms. Furthermore, and perhaps most simply, the leader came to power embodying the possibility of change for the nation. With the death of the leader comes the symbolic death of the ideals, and the elaborate propaganda machine that has had as its sole purpose the glorification of this embodiment of ideals no longer has a face for the message and the link between the people and totalitarian state becomes severed.

Perhaps most unsettling about the end of a totalitarian regime, however, is that the end of the political regime does not signal the end of the ideas it promoted. Because of the extensive propaganda mechanisms that essentially brainwashed the general public, societal change will necessarily be gradual even if the change in political leadership is sharp and sudden. The prejudices that have been encouraged and fueled throughout the regime will not disappear the instance that the political regime does. Furthermore, because change in government almost always leads to some kind of economic recession, a recession that will be compounded in this case by the length of the regime's tenure, it is likely that the scapegoats who had been blamed for economic hardship when the regime came into power will also be blamed when the leadership leads and the hardship returns.


In the case of Germany, the Allies did not act because of Germany's systematic extermination of its Jewish and other outsider populations, but rather because it began to expand beyond its borders. This expansion lead to WWII, in which the combined power of the Allied Forces (primarily the outside forces of the United States, United Kingdom, and U.S.S.R.) overwhelmed the German state and caused it to fall. With the death of its leader in 1945 Germany's totalitarian government of the Third Reich had finally crumbled.

Because Hitler was involved in every aspect of the Third Reich regime, and his suicide was the final nail in the coffin of the party's power. For years Hitler had been the sole focus of the nation, the embodiment of the idea that Germany would rise from its post-WWI shame to a new height of pride and power. His death signaled an end to the German dream of global domination, and left the nation without the leader on whom it had come to unconditionally depend. With their leader dead and without a tangible image, an already perpetually confused and fearful public was severed from one person to whom they had truly been connected.

In order to combat the totalitarian ideology of Hitler and to prevent economic hardship from creating a situation ripe for a new totalitarianism to replace the old, the United States executed The Marshall Plan, aimed to aid in the rebuilding of fallen Germany and much of the rest of a war-torn Europe so as to prevent totalitarianism-friendly conditions that had given birth to Hitler's totalitarianism. However, the battle against anti-Semitism in Germany did not end with the death of Hitler, and the fact that the world is still fighting such prejudices today shows that the effects of totalitarianism reverberate through society long after the totalitarian regime is gone.


Hannah Arendt, brilliant German Jewish protégé of the era’s major philosophers, traces the rise and maintenance of totalitarianism to a classless society. As a result of WWII, unemployment, imperialism, and other exogenous factors, individuals were atomized and left without an identity: elites welcomed a chance for chance from bourgeois-dominated moral standards and ideological outlook; the masses longed for an escape from reality and were won over by propaganda; the underclass of respectable society, the mob, were attracted to promises of fame and power and led the masses. Thus Hitler and his Nazi movement were appealing with the promises of an identity, denials of responsibility and explanation in daily life, and most importantly, consistency through ideology. As Arendt notes, “the gullibility of sympathizers makes lies credible to the outside world while at the same time the graduated cynicalism of membership and elite formations eliminate the danger that the Leader will ever be forced by the weigh of his own propaganda to make good his statements and feign respectability.” (82).

Arendt considered totalitarianism to be an anomaly for many reasons, but mostly because “totalitarianism has little to do with a lust for power, but rather a desire for power-generating machine of game of power for power’s sale” (105). Once in power, Hitler took steps towards consolidating his totalitarian regime with the Nazi Party using propaganda, lies, violence, purges, and the Secret Police. Curiously, the chief of police was never in a position to seize wither power or leadership because of Hitler’s vertical organizational relationships to the rest of society. Essentially, the people in Party offices and committees owed their current status and well-being to Hitler’s favor and thus were unlikely to contest his leadership. Also, the shapeless of Hitler’s regime with the multiplication of offices and the swift changes in both domestic and foreign policy created new institutions that heavily depended on Hitler for direction. Thus by forming a ‘cult of personality’ Hitler was indispensable to the Nazi movement as it was bound to him.

One of the main features of Hitler’s regime were the conspiracy theories focused on the Jewish members rallied the fractured German society together while also setting the stage for an atmosphere of distrust since no one was above suspicion. Unless opponents to Hitler were vocal and active, nearly every German was guilty of sympathizing with the Nazi in some way thus producing a culture of impunity. In addition to the conspiracy theories, Hitler spoke of a future in which the Nazis and hence German people would rule the world and have all the Lebensraum that they could ever wish to possess. By aiming at an obscure prophecy, Hitler could never be proven wrong (‘it’s all according to the plan’) nor ever be held accountable for present affairs. Hitler was infallible, but utilized his powers illogically. He discarded “all limited and local interests-economic, national, human, military-in favor of a purely fictitious reality in some indefinite future” (110).

Figure 21: Graphical Representation of Arendt's Theory of Totalitarianism