10 Real-Life Totalitarianism Examples

totalitarianism examples and characteristics

Totalitarianism is a form of government in which the state holds total control over society and seeks to regulate every aspect of public and private life (Gregor, 2012; Gregor, 2008; Siegel, 1998; Guilhot, 2005).

Several things are typically considered characteristics of totalitarianism. Examples of totalitarianism characteristics include:

  • strict censorship
  • suppression of dissent, and
  • a high degree of control and regulation of all aspects of the state.

The term entered mainstream Western political discourse after the Second World War.

Totalitarianism Definition

Totalitarianism is typically defined as a form of government in which the state holds total control over society and seeks to regulate every aspect of public and private life.

Totalitarian regimes are characterized by their use of propaganda, censorship, and violence to maintain control over the population (Linz & Linz, 2000; Conquest et al., 2000).

The origins of totalitarianism are a matter of controversy. The Austrian-British philosopher and social commentator Karl Popper, for example, traced the roots of totalitarianism to Plato’s Republic (Brown, 2017).

In the first volume of The Open Society and its Enemies (Popper, 1962), he argued that the ideal polis described by Plato is totalitarian. The application of this term is conditional: whether Plato’s Kallipolis is or is not totalitarian depends on the definition of totalitarianism.

Common Characteristics of Totalitarian Regimes

1. A Charismatic Leader

Totalitarian regimes often have a single, all-powerful charismatic authority who is revered as a deity or hero, and they often have a utopian ideology that is used to justify their actions and to mobilize the population.

2. Absolute Control

These regimes seek to control every aspect of society, including the economy, culture, education, and media, and they use propaganda and censorship to shape public opinion (Pipes, 1993) and control the flow of information.

3. Violence and Intimidation

Totalitarian regimes are also known for their use of violence and intimidation to suppress dissent and maintain control over the population.

They often use secret police (Cinpoes, 2010) and other repressive measures to suppress opposition and punish those who challenge their power. Totalitarian regimes are also known for their persecution of minority groups and individuals who are deemed to be a threat to their power.

See Also: Total Institutions

10 Real Life Totalitarianism Examples

1. WWII Germany

The German regime in WWII was a totalitarian regime that came to power in 1933.

The regime implemented policies of extermination, leading to the deaths of millions of marginalized people.

The regime also sought to control every aspect of society, including the economy, culture, education, and media. It used propaganda and censorship to shape public opinion and control the flow of information.

The regime was also driven by a utopian ideology, National Socialism, which sought to create a “new order” in which the German people would be restored to their “former greatness.”

The Nazi regime was willing to use extreme violence and repression to achieve its goals, and it is one of the most notorious examples of a totalitarian regime in history.

2. The Soviet Union

The Soviet Union, a federal communist state in Eastern Europe and northern Asia, was ruled by a single party, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Dewdney et al., 2022).

The regime exercised strict control over the media and suppressed dissent, leading to widespread human rights abuses and the persecution of political opponents.

The Soviet Union also sought to control every aspect of society, including the economy, culture, education, and media. The regime used propaganda and censorship to shape public opinion and control the flow of information.

The Soviet Union is one of the most well-known examples of a totalitarian regime.

3. North Korea

North Korea is a one-party state that has been ruled by the Kim dynasty since 1948.

The regime is known for its strict control over the media and its use of propaganda to maintain power (Yu et al., 2022). The government also heavily restricts the movement of citizens within the country.

The North Korean regime is also known for its use of violence and intimidation to suppress dissent and maintain control over the population.

It has a network of labor camps in which political prisoners and other perceived enemies of the state are imprisoned and subjected to harsh conditions. The regime is also known for its persecution of minority groups and individuals.

4. China under Mao Zedong

During the rule of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party, China was a totalitarian regime.

Totalitarian regimes are characterized by their use of propaganda, censorship, and violence to maintain control over the population, and the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong exhibited all of these characteristics.

5. Fascist Italy

Fascist Italy was led by Benito Mussolini and the National Fascist Party, which came to power in 1922.

During World War II, fascist Italy was one of the main Axis powers and was known for its brutal treatment of prisoners of war and civilians in the territories it occupied. It is one of the most famous examples of a totalitarian regime.

The term ‘totalitarian’ was first adopted by Italian Fascists as a self-description (Gregor, 2009).

6. The Socialist Republic of Romania

The Socialist Republic of Romania was a communist state led by the Romanian Communist Party and its leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu.

The regime implemented policies of radical social and economic transformation that led to widespread suffering and loss of life.

The Socialist Republic of Romania was a member of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. It was one of the most repressive and authoritarian regimes in the region.

7. Democratic Kampuchea

The regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was totalitarian.

It is one of the most notorious examples of a totalitarian regime in history, and it is estimated that between 1.5 and 2 million people died as a result of its policies (Kiernan, 2003).

8. The Empire of Japan

The Empire of Japan during World War II was a totalitarian regime. It was a military dictatorship led by Emperor Hirohito.

The regime implemented policies of expansion and conquest. It used propaganda and censorship to shape public opinion and control information.

The regime also used violence and intimidation to suppress dissent and maintain control over the population.

9. Mongolian People’s Republic

The Mongolian People’s Republic was a communist state that was led by the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party and its leader, Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal.

The Mongolian People’s Republic was a member of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc during the Cold War and is generally thought of as totalitarian.

10. The Slovak Republic

The Mongolian People’s Republic was a communist state led by the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party and its leader, Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal.

The Mongolian People’s Republic was a member of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.

Conclusion

Totalitarianism is typically defined as a form of government in which the state holds total control over society and seeks to regulate every aspect of public and private life. Common characteristics of totalitarian regimes include:

  • A single, all-powerful leader revered as a deity or hero
  • A utopian ideology that is used to justify the regime’s actions and to mobilize the population
  • The suppression of political opposition and the persecution of minority groups and individuals who are deemed to be a threat to the regime’s power
  • The control of the economy, culture, education, and media to shape public opinion and control the flow of information
  • The use of propaganda and censorship to shape public opinion and control the flow of information

Totalitarian regimes are distinguished from other forms of authoritarian rule because, as the word suggests, they seek total control of society and total suppression of dissent.

References

Brown, E. (2017). Plato’s Ethics and Politics in <em>The Republic</em>. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/plato-ethics-politics/

Cinpoes, R. (2010). Nationalism and Identity in Romania: A History of Extreme Politics from the Birth of the State to EU Accession. Bloomsbury Academic.

Conquest, S. R. F. and S.-C. of the E. E. C. R., Conquest, R., & Weil. (2000). Reflections on a Ravaged Century. Norton.

Dewdney, J. C. , McCauley, . Martin , Conquest, . Robert and Pipes, . Richard E. (2022, October 18). Soviet Union. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/Soviet-Union

Gregor, A. (2012). Totalitarianism and Political Religion: An Intellectual History. Stanford University Press.

Gregor, A. J. (2008). Marxism, Fascism, and Totalitarianism: Chapters in the Intellectual History of Radicalism. Stanford University Press.

Gregor, A. J. (2009). Mussolini’s Intellectuals: Fascist Social and Political Thought. Princeton University Press.

Guilhot, N. (2005). The Democracy Makers: Human Rights and International Order. Columbia University Press.

Kiernan, B. (2003). The Demography of Genocide in Southeast Asia: The Death Tolls in Cambodia, 1975-79, and East Timor, 1975-80. Critical Asian Studies, 35(4), 585–597. https://doi.org/10.1080/1467271032000147041

Linz, J. J., & Linz, P. J. J. (2000). Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes. Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Pipes, B. P. of H. R. (1993). Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. A.A. Knopf.

Popper, K. (1962). The Open Society and its Enemies: Volume I: The Spell of Plato (5th edition). Routledge.

Siegel, A. (1998). The Totalitarian Paradigm After the End of Communism: Towards a Theoretical Reassessment. Rodopi.

Yu, W. , Lee, . Jung Ha , Lew, . Young Ick , Lee, . Chan and Hahn, . Bae-ho (2022, November 6). North Korea. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/North-Korea

Tio Gabunia (B.Arch, M.Arch)
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Tio Gabunia is an academic writer and architect based in Tbilisi. He has studied architecture, design, and urban planning at the Georgian Technical University and the University of Lisbon. He has worked in these fields in Georgia, Portugal, and France. Most of Tio’s writings concern philosophy. Other writings include architecture, sociology, urban planning, and economics.

Chris Drew (PhD)
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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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