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Should Totalitarianism Relation to Nazism and Stalinism?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 2851 words Published: 18th Mar 2021

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Historians and political scientists used the term “totalitarianism” to refer the Stalinist USSR and Nazi Germany. Do you agree with this assessment? Was there a difference between Nazism and Stalinism?

Totalitarianism is a fairly new term, coined in the 1920s by Mussolini and has since been used to describe states such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. But there are distinct characteristics that stand out when trying to understand the workings of a totalitarian state. Firstly, the state must have a single party and a single leader. They must also have total control and unlimited power and along with this, they must be unopposed. In this essay, I will be examining to what extent both Nazi Germany and Stalinist USSR meet these criteria. From this, I will also be exploring whether there is a difference between both Nazism and Stalinism as they have continuously been joint together under the notion of totalitarianism.

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The most essential criteria of totalitarianism are to have total control and unlimited power. This encompasses control over the economy, media, and military. Stalin achieved this through his censorship and economic plans. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin rose and became the supreme leader of the Soviet Union, this undoubtedly plunged the USSR into a totalitarian state, this was largely down to Stalin’s tactics in using his power to control every aspect of Russian life. He forced writers and artists to emphasises and over glorify his and Soviet accomplishment or they would be persecuted. But the main way which Stalin maintained complete control was his intense economic goals. Stalin created the 5 Year Plan which set targets for workers and guaranteed that every aspect of their lives was set on meeting these goals or they would be punished. He had managed to create a way of life for citizens that they genuinely believed what they were doing was for the good of the country. However, it can be said that Stalinist USSR was not entirely totalitarian as Stalin had some struggles in controlling citizens who were devoted to keeping traditional structures and values. When his idea of collectivization was first introduced, many peasants had questioned his policy and refused to give their land. As a form of protests “sold their cattle or slaughtered and ate it”[1] as a way “of sabotage”[2] This defiance from the peasants illustrated how Stalin’s policy of collectivization was not a popular regime and because of it he was forced to change his policy and in turn allowed peasants keep their livestock. From this, it is clear that was an opposition that Stalin had to fall to and accept, therefore not remaining totally in control.

Censorship was also a key feature in total Nazi control over Germany. Joseph Goebbels played a key role in controlling every form of communication in Germany. A key example of their censorship is the book burning in 1933. After Nazi student organizations, professors, and librarians created a list of books they thought should not be read by Germans the Nazis raided the libraries and bookstores all over Germany and marched in parades while throwing books into enormous bonfires. Hoffman’s photograph[3] displays the scene during the book burning ceremony in 1933. The turnout is humongous, that much is clear from the image. But the impression this photo is instilling is the masses of support Hitler’s censorship had. Nazi flags and Nazi salutes are being shown but what we must understand is the bias a photograph holds. What it fails to capture is the destruction in the library’s that these books were taken from and the mental manipulation removing this type of literature was having. Anders Rydell explains these book burnings were “manifested as celebratory events”[4] where communities would “sign up speakers”[5] and join together for the events, truly showing how large communities believed the burning of this type of literature to be just because of Hitler’s manipulation and use of propaganda. Hitler Youth and the League of German Girls was created that trained children to be faithful to the Nazi party. This was essential in Hitler gaining total control because the ideology became a part of young people’s identity and he would remain unchallenged. Like Stalin, he had encompassed every aspect of German life to maintain the prosperity of his ideology. Which is why the assessment holds truth in whether the use of the term totalitarianism to refer to Stalinist USSR and Nazi Germany is correct because, in terms of total control, both leaders obtained and preserved it.

A single part and single leadership is crucial in a totalitarian state. This essentially means that there is no other party ruling or in competition with the state. It is effectively a single-party dictatorship. Most historians agree that both Stalinist USSR and Nazi Germany are similar in encompassing this way of ruling. After Lenin’s funeral, Stalin was made to share power the power with other Soviet leaders, Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev. But he was determined to be the sole leader. He began by joining forces with Zinoviev and Kamenev to get rid of Trotsky. While he joined the two and began to plot against Trotsky, Stalin changed sides and in turn exposed both men in attempting to involve him in a conspiracy against Trotsky and publicly denounced them. This only left Stalin and Trotsky as rivals for the role. Between the two, Stalin was the one who gained more support within the party because he was an advocate for ‘Socialism in One Country’ whereas Trotsky was the opposite. After Stalin’s rise in support Trotsky organised public protests against Stalin’s growing control of the Party. But unity in the Party was a law passed by Lenin that essentially forbids party members from creating their opposition party. Stalin used this to his advantage and claimed Trotsky was trying to split the party and eventually forced him into exile. After which there was a speech given by the Pravda at a meeting of the Joint Plenum of the Central Committee and the Central Control Commission which entirely pulled apart the Trotsky lead opposition. The speech begins by attacking Trotsky’s loyalty to Lenin by claiming he had called him a “professional exploiter”[6]. They then used this to flip the narrative and question whether listening to a person who wrote such “ill-mannered”[7] things about “the great Lenin”[8] is wise and therefore challenged the entire opposition's criticisms towards Stalin. This source is incredibly useful in illustrating how even though Stalin did not physically present the speech, his supporters’ manipulation and twisting of words worked in his favour. The source is a testament to the influenceable skill of Stalin. Their challenge of Trotsky’s loyalty was a key element in removing him as an opposition. It is abundantly clear how bias the source is in favour Stalin, but in this case, this is useful for us to understand the techniques Stalin used to essentially become the sole leader of the only party that was allowed to rule the USSR.

Similarly, one of the main ways in which the assessment of Nazi Germany being a totalitarian state is correct is Hitler’s creation of the Enabling act. Just like Stalin, Hitler was very tactical in how he used the law to his advantage. Article 48 was a law which stated that “If public security and order are seriously disturbed or endangered”[9] the President can declare a state of emergency and rule as a dictator for short periods to restore the country. So, when in 1933 the Reichstag building burned down the Nazi leadership used the fire to claim that Communists were planning a violent uprising and Hitler, who was chancellor at the time, convinced President Hindenburg to declare a state of emergency and trigger Article 48. After this, Hitler created the Enabling act, which allowed the Reich government to issue laws without the consent of Germany’s parliament. This is where Hitler began his journey for a sole party dictatorship. When President Hindenburg died in 1934 Hitler used his Enabling act power to merge the presidency and the chancellorship. This would also give Hitler the position of Army Commander too. On August 19 there was an election held and after intimidating voters the Nazi party won a 90% majority and had gained power. From this, Hitler was essentially the undisputed President, Chancellor, and Army commander, giving him total control over Germany. Both Hitler and Stalin’s rise to power and their use of law in ensuring their sole leadership of the state highlights how, in this aspect, were totalitarian leaders. 

Remaining unchallenged and getting rid of opposition is a key aspect of maintaining a totalitarian rule. Both Hitler and Stalin had established a state that refused political opposition, Stalin through removing Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev and Hitler through his Enabling act. But this did not stop against public opposition and both leaders similarly dealt with uprisings. Through the use of terror. Stalin was famous for his use of terror; citizens could be murdered for simply speaking out against him or the regime along with political leaders being completely wiped out from history through his doctored photos. He used terror as a political weapon with one of the most significant uses of terror against the public being the Doctors Plot. The Cold War had bred an intense fear of foreigners, a soviet citizen could be arrested for simply having contact with a foreigner. Stalin became particularly suspicious of the 2 million Soviet Jews. He had hoped that after backing the new Jewish state Israel that he could gain an ally but after it turned pro-American, Stalin feared that the Soviet Jews would adopt the Israeli mindset and become anti-Soviet. In 1952, Stalin announced that there was a conspiracy by the Kremlin doctors to murder him and other Soviet leaders. The common view is that announcement had a “clear anti-Jewish bias”[10] because most of the doctors were Jewish and after this, hundreds of Jews were arrested, tortured, and forced to confess. After that, thousands of ordinary Jews were arrested and deported to labour camps in the country.

Hitler was no different. Through his use of violence on Jewish citizens during his rule he had instilled fear into non-Jewish German citizens so much so that neighbours began exposing who was Jewish in fear that they may be caught and accused of hiding a known Jew. Germany had effectively become an anti-Jewish state and by the end of Hitler's rule, almost 6 Million Jews had been murdered. No one was going to oppose him after seeing how he ruined Jewish business, branded Jewish families, and worst of all brutally murdered them in concentration camps. From a letter from a Jew in Warsaw[11], it is clear the true level of destruction Nazism had on their life’s. The letter explains how they are in a state of “despair and powerlessness”[12] and that the abuse is so bad that people are either “taking their own lives or converting away from Judaism”[13]. The source continues to state how even those Jews who were rich were struggling to “maintain the necessary connections outside the ghetto”[14] which is a testament to the fear the Nazi regime had instilled into the citizens that they refused to even maintain a friendship with Jewish people. This source is incredibly useful in illustrating the raw and unaltered experience of the Jews and helps contextualise the true effects of Nazi policies. This helps conclude that in the aspect of removing opposition it is undeniable that both Hitler and Stalin were totalitarian.

Although it is clear that both Stalin and Hitler were similar in terms of their totalitarianism, some aspects greatly differentiate the two. The main difference between the two lies in their ideologies. Stalinism essentially encompasses communism which focused on social justice with a classless society. But Nazism is the opposite. Nazism goes hand in hand with a fascist ideology. They strive to create a master race and is designed to remove all other races, whereas communism is unaffected by the colour of someone’s skin. Another stark difference between the two is their difference in the way they rose to power. According to Kershaw, Stalin was "a committee man"[15] and a "creature of his party,"[16] who rose to power because of the structures put in place for him to easily manipulate the system. Hitler, however, rose because of his natural charisma and appeal to the public. Kershaw states that Stalin was a “highly interventionist dictator”[17] in his way of ruling while Hitler was  "was a non-interventionist dictator"[18]. Additionally, it is common to join Hitler and Stalin together because of their personality cults but even in this, they differed. Stalin developed a cult because of his strong stance on the Communist ideology but he could potentially be replaced by another leader with the same views. However, Hitler’s cult was based on him as a person. Essentially, Stalinism could exist without a Stalin, but Nazism could without Hitler.

To conclude, because of Hitler and Stalin’s sole party leadership, their removal of opposition, and total control over their country the statement of using “totalitarianism” to refer to them is correct. However, there are aspects in which the two differ. For instance, their ideologies, their ways of ruling, and their irreplaceability. Concluding that although the two encompass totalitarianism, they both are not interchangeable.


Primary Sources:

  1. Anonymous, December 1942, in On the Danger of Forced Conversion, edited by the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw. https://perspectives.ushmm.org/item/on-the-danger-of-forced-conversion
  2. Decree of The Reich President for The Protection of The People and State. 1933. GHI.http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/sub_document.cfm?document_id=2325
  3. Hoffmann, Heinrich. 1933. Against the Un-German Spirit: Book-Burning Ceremony in Berlin. Image. http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/sub_image.cfm?image_id=2070.
  4. "The Trotskyist Opposition Before and Now". 1927. Moscow, , 1927. https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1927/10/23.htm#1

Secondary Sources:

  1. Kershaw, Ian. 1997. Stalinism And Nazism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Lʹvovich Rapoport, I͡Akov, Yakov Rapoport, and Jakov Lʹvovič Rapoport. 1991. The Doctor's Plot Of 1953. Harvard University Press.
  3. Rydell, Anders. 2017. Book Thieves, the: The Nazi Looting of Europe's Libraries and The Race to Return A Literary Inheritance. Penguin.
  4. Solonevich, Ivan. 1935. "COLLECTIVISATION IN PRACTICE". The Slavonic And East European Review 14 (40): 88. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4203086.

[1] (Solonevich 1935, Page 88)

[2] (Solonevich 1935, Page 88)

[3] (Hoffmann 1933)

[4] (Rydell 2017, Page 4)

[5] (Rydell 2017, Page 4)

[6] ("The Trotskyist Opposition Before and Now" 1927)

[7] ("The Trotskyist Opposition Before and Now" 1927)

[8] ("The Trotskyist Opposition Before and Now" 1927)

[9] (Decree of The Reich President for The Protection of The People and State 1933)

[10] (Lʹvovich Rapoport, Rapoport and Lʹvovič Rapoport 1991, Page 24)

[11] (Anonymous, December 1942)

[12] (Anonymous, December 1942)

[13] (Anonymous, December 1942)

[14] (Anonymous, December 1942)

[15] (Kershaw 1997, Page 90)

[16] (Kershaw 1997, Page 90)

[17] (Kershaw 1997, Page 91)

[18] (Kershaw 1997, Page 91)


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