Totalitarianism is a political system in which the government controls every aspect of its citizens’ public and private lives. An example of totalitarianism can be seen in a government that does not permit individual freedoms of any kind. Although the term was originally meant to be a positive thing, by the time World War II began, reality had linked the term “totalitarian” with an absolute, oppressive, one-party government. To explore this concept, consider the following totalitarianism definition.

Definition of Totalitarianism


  1. The practices of a totalitarian government.
  2. Absolute control by a centralized government.
  3. The character or quality of an authority figure or government.


1927     Carl Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political”

What is Totalitarianism

Totalitarianism refers to the type of government that controls all aspects of its citizens’ lives by oppressing their rights, and ruling through fear. Examples of totalitarianism can be seen throughout history, in governments like those that functioned under Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, as well as that which was ruled by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union from 1924 to 1953. Those two governments were actually the first examples of totalitarianism that were actually supported by their citizens, due to being fronted by leaders who were more charming than most. These kinds of governments are known as “popular” or “decentralized” governments.

Totalitarian Government

Totalitarian governments may sound similar to other forms of government, such as dictatorships or tyranny, but the main difference in totalitarian governments is that they typically have a goal in mind, such as industrialization, or the conquering of other lands. Totalitarian governments tend to dedicate all of their resources to pursuing that goal. Citizens’ objections to a totalitarian government’s methods are considered by the government to be sinful, and no one within the government is permitted to disagree with how the ruler decides to act.

Political scientists Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski came up with six core elements by which every totalitarian government can be classified:

  1. An elaborate belief system, used to guide the government’s actions
  2. A single party, which is typically ruled by a dictator
  3. A monopoly on weapons
  4. A monopoly on its citizens’ methods of communication
  5. The control over its citizens by creating laws that control their lives
  6. The use of secret police and violence, to control its citizens with fear

Totalitarian Governments vs. Authoritarian Governments

While authoritarian governments and totalitarian governments may seem interchangeable at first glance, they are actually very different. An authoritarian government cares solely about political power. So long as no one tries to get in the way of the government enjoying such power, the government is generally less harsh on its citizens. In a totalitarian regime, however, the government tries to control any and all aspects of its citizens’ lives, including education, the arts, science, the economy, and the private lives and morals of its citizens.

Totalitarianism Examples in Leadership

Totalitarian governments are typically remembered best for those who rule them. This is mainly because of the shocking things that they had ordered others to do, as well as the things that they allowed to happen under their leadership. While their followers did not have a choice in whether or not to obey orders, that does not make the crimes they committed any less awful or memorable.

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin ruled the Soviet Union from 1929 to 1953. Under his rule, the Soviet Union went from a nation of peasants, to a powerful government of incomparable industrial and military strength. However, as the result of Stalin’s brutal tactics, millions of citizens died during his reign. Specifically, he ordered his government to take control of the nations’ farms in a process known as “collectivization.”

Collectivization forced peasants to give up their farms in order to join larger, collective farms. Stalin’s plan here was to industrialize as quickly as possible, and those farmers who refused to cooperate – of which there were millions – were either executed or exiled.

Stalin himself was born into poverty, however even at a young age he was attracted to revolutionary politics and criminal activities. One of those activities was bank robbery, and he used the funds he stole to fund the Bolshevik Party – the dominant political power at that time. Once Stalin rose to power, he had anyone who even had the potential to become an enemy either executed or sent to a labor camp.

Stalin’s regime was an ally to United States and Britain during World War II. However, once the war was over, his relationship with the West became more stressed. This strife eventually led to the Cold War, which lasted from 1946 until 1991, even though Stalin died in March of 1953. Some estimate that he was personally responsible for the deaths of about 20 million people during his reign of terror.

Adolf Hitler

Perhaps the most infamous and powerful dictator of the 20th century was Adolf Hitler. Hitler gained control over the German government after World War I, bent on creating an all-powerful government, to rule over the pure race of people he hoped to restore (the “Aryan race”). Hitler created concentration camps to imprison anyone he felt did not meet the standard of the Aryan race, which he envisioned as becoming the superior race in the land through his efforts.

In addition to Jews, Hitler interred gypsies, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Out of this list, however, Jews were the only group that were specifically targeted by the Nazis to be murdered. The remaining groups were forced to work under brutal conditions in the forced labor camps. Over six million people died as a result of the genocide that was the Holocaust. Hitler believed that Germany would be guaranteed victory in World War II if he could just establish a dictatorship and eliminate the Jewish race altogether.

Hitler started World War II by attacking Poland in 1939, and in less than two years, Germany had gone on to occupy most of Europe, and North Africa. Once the Russians and the Americans became involved in the war, however, Germany’s power quickly slipped, and Hitler committed suicide shortly before he could be captured, and Germany was ultimately defeated.

Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini became prime minister of Italy in 1922, after the conclusion of World War I. He started out as a Socialist, but eventually went on to become one of the leading advocates of Fascism. Mussolini eventually promoted Fascists to leadership roles, and he became so captivated by his own wishful thinking and adoration of Fascist ideals, that he allowed his desire for military glory to overcome his common sense. As a result, he made decisions that were not the best choices for his country, when it came to politics, strategy, and the law.

Mussolini established a strong military presence in several areas in the Mediterranean, which made Italy a force to be reckoned with in that region. However, in doing so, Mussolini used up most of his military forces by the end of the 1930s. As a result, Mussolini allied with Hitler, hoping that the latter could help bolster his leadership.

This turned out to be more of a disaster than it was worth, as Mussolini and Hitler butted heads on several fronts. However, Hitler would eventually save Mussolini from being overthrown, although the threatened overthrow was the result of Hitler’s actions. Mussolini was killed shortly after Hitler’s death, and the Germans’ surrender in 1945.

Kim Jong-un

Kim Jong-un is a present-day totalitarian leader. His early life is mostly a mystery to Western media, though it is assumed that he was born in North Korea, the country over which he has ruled since his father’s death in 2011. Kim Jong-un has been credited with implementing both economic and agricultural reforms, however there have also been reports of brutality during his reign. He has been accused of violating human rights, and cruelly overpowering anyone who opposes him. Additionally, despite the fact that several countries have expressed their disapproval over North Korea’s nuclear testing and potential development of long-range missiles, Kim Jong-un continues with both activities.

Insofar as his cruelty is concerned, once Kim Jong-un took over as the ruler of North Korea, following the death of his father – Kim Jong-il – he reportedly executed, or forced the removal of, several senior officials who had worked with his father. One of those senior officials was his own uncle, who is believed to have been significantly important during Kim Jong-il’s rule, and who was also among Kim Jong-un’s top advisors. Until, that is, he had his uncle arrested and executed as a traitor in December 2013. Kim Jong-un is believed to have had more members of his uncle’s family executed as well.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Fascism – A totalitarian, right-wing system of government that believes in militarism and nationalism.
  • Industrialization – The transformation of a society from a farming culture into a manufacturing one.
  • Secret Police – A police force working in secret for the government against those who oppose the government.
  • Socialism – A political theory in which the government controls production (factories) and the distribution of the goods that those factories produce.