A totalitarian regime, as we have witnessed in Naz

i Germany and theSoviet Union in the 1930’s and 40’s, was totally different from any other
political regime. It developed entirely new political institutions after
having destroyed all political and social traditions of a country. The
population living under such a regime ultimately conformed to this isolated
and enslaved way of living, and the totalitarian rulers such as Stalin and
Hitler gained absolute control over the masses. These masses followed the
movement until it collapsed, but the question remains if they acted this
way by fear or because they were loyal and willing to live under such a

In order to answer that question, it is important to be aware of the
radical differences of the regime. In Hannah Arendt’s masterpiece “The
Origins of Totalitarianism”, we can distinguish the most important
characteristics of a totalitarian state. Firstly, there is a fundamental
difference in the interconnection of people. Instead of having classes
where people communicate ideas and thoughts, the population has now become
a big mass of people who are isolated from others to avoid opposition to
the regime. Secondly, the political party rules as a mass movement with a
strong ideology, and new notions of what is right and wrong. All people
share a similar idea, which gives a strong sense of unity to the mass
movement. Furthermore, a totalitarian regime seeks world domination as an
important goal, and power shifts from the army to the police. What is also
important is that totalitarian movements seek “to provide the forces of
Nature and History with an incomparable instrument to accelerate their
movement”. Some of their ideologies were based on science: Nazis explained
the massacre of Jews and the evolution of the superior German race on
Darwin’s theories; Stalin justified his massacres with Marx’s theory of
historical progression and the so-called “dying classes”. Totalitarian
movements considered these goals more important than anything else.

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These characteristics illustrate that totalitarianism is a totally
different kind of government, which seems unbearable when compared to
modern western societies. However, under totalitarian rule we see a certain
loyalty and following among the population, unlike tyranny. Although
totalitarianism is often regarded as a form of tyranny, there are some
important differences. In a tyranny, the ruler or tyrant lives in isolation
from the people, without any legal communication. Moreover, as Arendt
claims, tyranny has a “moving principle of mutual fear”. This means that on
one side the tyrant fears the population, and on the other side the people
fear the tyrant. This is a fundamental difference between a tyrannical and
totalitarian regime. Influenced by the writings of Montesqieu, Arendt also
claims that a tyranny is an ineffective form of government that corrupts
itself and will eventually destroy itself: a “political desert”. And even
though the movement could be cruel to its own people, it represents no
threat to the outside world. Thus, it can be said that tyranny is largely
based on fear.

Totalitarianism is based on fear, but only to a little extent. When a
totalitarian movement rises to power and the population is not completely
subdued, the regime has to use terror to gain absolute control. In Germany,
for example, the Nazis killed small socialist functionaries and other
influential members of the opposition during their rise to power. These
murders were meant to show to the population that the Nazis were more
powerful than other parties and the possible risks if one dares to join the
opposition. Unsurprisingly, most people fearing for their lives joined the
totalitarian movement. Once he is a member of the opposition, he fears more
leaving the movement than participating in crimes for the movement.

Apart from terror, that could only be used to a limited extent, there
was a more subtle and probably more effective way to gain control and
especially to rule over the populace: propaganda, a way to accumulate power
without using violence. When the movement was in power, propaganda was very
effective to change the way in which people understand an issue or
situation and what they expect from the government. It was a very useful
tool to mislead and confuse the population by giving false information.

Hitler’s speeches, for instance, were renowned for being models of
propaganda. Arendt cites the example of Hitler telling his generals in 1942
about “kicking even the last Jew out of Europe and resettling them in
Siberia, Africa or Madagascar”, while he already decided exterminating the
Jews by building gas ovens in 1941. But propaganda was particularly used to
mislead the population for illegal and cruel actions by the government.

When the Nazis exterminated the polish intellectuals, they managed to
convince the population that they should be killed not because they oppose
the movement but because according to the Nazi doctrine, the Poles have no
intellect. And by making prophecies before acting, the government is more
credible to the population.

Propaganda and indoctrination really substitute the fear of the
population, and both are especially effective under totalitarianism because
the masses are relatively easy to deceive. As Arendt quotes: “the ideal
subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced
Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction
(i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and
false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exists” (p. 474). The
masses are confused because their society has been totally annihilated, and
they want to have a consistent and predictable environment. Therefore, the
masses want to believe the “lying world of consistency” of totalitarian
rulers and are willing to conform to the movement as isolated individuals
as long as there is some political organisation. Masses could believe the
most fantastic things, and even if the contrary is proven, they still
wouldn’t believe it or take a cynical view on the matter. Thus, fear plays
only a small role in the indoctrination of the masses. In a tyranny, there
is a mutual fear between the leader and the population, because unlike
totalitarianism there is still a private life where people can experience,
create and think. In a totalitarian movement, people stop thinking because
they have no private and public life and are constantly indoctrinated.

Instead of fear, masses have shown a fanatical form of loyalty to the
totalitarian rule. As Arendt writes, “the fanaticism of members of
totalitarian movements, so clearly different in quality from the greatest
loyalty of members of ordinary powers, is produced by the lack of self-
interest of masses that are quite prepared to sacrifice themselves”. This
is a surprising way of thinking considering the atrocities perpetrated
under totalitarianism. Arendts claims that the masses are attracted to
violence and crime, which facilitates the task of the totalitarian
movement. But what does even more astonish -apart from accepting the
persecution of Jews and opposition- is that the masses are even willing to
accept their own prosecution. Especially in the former Soviet Union, people
were willing to become the victims of their own movement, e.g. being sent
to concentration camps and even being executed, as long as their position
is not in jeopardy. This identification with the movement was justified,
according to Trotsky, because “we can only be right with and by the Party,
for history has provided no other way of being in right. The English have a
saying, ‘My country, right or wrong'”. The masses were even ready to
confess crimes they did not even commit, just for the sake of the movement.

This was largely because they had lost all social relations with family and
friends and belonging to the movement gave them a sense of purpose. This
illustrates that the masses have been indoctrinated to such an extent, that
their loyalty to the movement exceeds any form of fear. The movement is the
only friend of these isolated individuals and hence they will not fear
because they believe it is right.

But there is some fear living within a totalitarian state, because of
the unpredictability of a totalitarian movement. As Arendt puts it “…
not even fear can any longer serve as an advisor on how to behave, because
terror chooses its victims without reference to individual thoughts or
actions, exclusively in accordance with the objectivity of the natural or
historical process”.


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