A totalitarian leadership is a type of government system designed to prohibit any potential opposition parties, resulting in a very high degree of control over all aspects of the citizens’ life.

Despite totalitarian-style dictatorships being around for thousands of years, this utopian style of leadership was experienced by many countries with the ideas of fascism, Nazism, and Communism, all based on the principles of totalitarianism.

In this article, we will take a closer look at totalitarianism by examining both the philosophical and political perspectives of totalitarian leadership throughout history.

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An overview of totalitarianism

  • Totalitarianism is a form of government control that, in theory, allows no individual freedom, with all choices falling under the control of the state.
  • This form of political ideology has historical roots; however, the term totalitarianism is relatively modern, with the Italian dictator Mussolini first using the phrase ‘totalitario’ in the 1920s to describe the new fascist state.
  • Most totalitarian regimes are ruled by autocrats, dictators, or absolute monarchs, who aim to control the citizens completely.
  • Totalitarianism typically removes the everyday freedoms of citizens by violating basic human rights.

What is the definition of totalitarianism?

Totalitarianism is the most extreme form, often described as using a central power to preserve the government’s social, political, military, and religious ideals. The leaders use propaganda-style campaigns throughout controlled media publications to influence and control citizens, instigating unquestioned loyalty and complete control.

An example of a totalitarian style of leadership can be found in George Orwell’s 1949 political novel ‘1984’, which aims to warn Western readers about the dangers of totalitarian leadership. Orwell was deeply disturbed by the oppression experienced in communist countries such as Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. His work helped inform many Western leaders about the dangers of repression, mass surveillance, and regimentation. Despite the book now being more than 70 years old, the idea of a ‘Big Brother’ style control is still relevant today.

What are the differences between totalitarianism and authoritarianism?

Although authoritarianism and totalitarianism discourage individual freedom, there are some key differences between totalitarian and authoritarian leadership. Citizens often characterize authoritarianism as being led by a single dictator, a small committee, or a group of select political elites which aim to monopolize political decisions and power. The citizens are offered a degree of liberty if the state can gain the political power it desires without being contested. Although authoritarianism often uses propaganda and passive influencing to sway citizens towards supporting the regime’s agenda, the leadership’s power is limited compared to totalitarianism.

A totalitarian leadership style uses harsh laws and punishments, such as imprisonment, to control the lives of the citizens. This compliance and loyalty are often geared towards a single ideology, with all forms of individual freedom and choices wholly quashed. The control extends to all aspects of life, including the economy, education, science, and the morals of the citizens, by forcing the ideology upon the population. This extreme political repression often violates human rights to a far greater extent than the oppressive authoritarian leadership style.

What are the differences between fascism and totalitarianism?

Fascism is another term used to describe a type of government control that combines many extreme aspects of totalitarianism and authoritarianism. Many of the characteristics of fascism, such as state control, dictatorial power, the suppression of opposition parties, and the citizens themselves, are based on totalitarian and authoritarian leadership styles. The desire to obtain power and control citizens is similar within both totalitarianism and fascism, with suppression and coercion used to gain complete control over the citizens.

However, within a fascist government, extreme aspects are also visible within authoritarianism, such as the use of propaganda to gain unquestionable loyalty. Fascism is more extreme than authoritarianism, but it still demands complete loyalty to a nation or race of people. The citizens are encouraged to support the government to overcome an enemy and protect the population’s identity, who are often influenced to believe that the interests of the nation are more important than individual welfare issues.

Within fascist regimes, control over citizens is often achieved through the use of secret police forces and spies, which are hidden within groups of society, such as schools, businesses, and sports teams. This control aims to deter individuals from listening to ideas other than those of the regime, with violence used to punish citizens who stray from the regime’s beliefs. Sadly, the regime often encourages the genocide of hostile races, with ethnic cleansing encouraged to maintain the purity of the leadership race.

Fascism often views violence as a necessary route to achieve national rejuvenation and imperialism, which is one of the key differences between fascist and totalitarian regimes. Within a totalitarian leadership, geographical boundaries often dictate the regimes and level of control. However, it is the imperialistic ambitions of fascism that led to the emergence of fascist movements throughout Europe during World War I and beyond.

What are the main features of a totalitarian regime?

The term ‘totalitarian’ describes leaders who have gained total control over a society, with the following key features being found within a totalitarian society.

Dictatorship and a single-party rule

A single, powerful political party is often led by a single dictator, with all aspects of life centered around the regime’s interests. There are no organizational activities or systems outside this central authority, as everything is geared toward political interests. The ruling party will enforce mandatory voting, despite only one possible leadership, and the party will control all aspects and functions of their government.

State control of society

The citizens are used for the agenda of the leading party, and although individuals may feel empowered, everything is centered around the leader, the ideology, and the political system itself. Society is pushed into thinking that personal sacrifice and total obedience will benefit the state, and this loyalty to the state is demanded. This includes using secret police, spies, and harsh enforcers who will use brutality to suppress anyone who strays. This new ideology requires complete loyalty and obedience from citizens, with misdemeanors and uprisings controlled through physical violence and harsh prison regimes.


The leadership glorifies the aims of the state by promising a future utopia, with the goals laid out and used to justify the government’s actions. The regime aims to remold and transform society so that everyone fits their imagery of ideology by controlling the thoughts and attitudes of all citizens. The ideology often centers around the defeat of a corrupt leader, with the new utopian society forced to renounce their previous political beliefs and follow the harsh demands of the new racially pure, religious, and devoted leader.

A dynamic leader

A leader is chosen who has the skills needed to unite citizens in a way that leads to unconditional and uncritical support. This person becomes the symbol of the powerful government.

Harsh enforcement of laws

Spies, police, and undercover gangs are used to inflict terror upon the population, with force used to crush any potential opposition. By targeting enemy groups such as minority races and political enemies, totalitarian leaders can remain in control. An excellent example is the behavior of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who claimed that ideas are more powerful than guns. If enemies are not permitted to have guns, why should they be given the freedom of ideas? This quote supports the regime’s ideology, with citizens forced into thinking that any free ideas would turn them into an enemy of the state.

Technology and propaganda

The use of modern technology often plays a key role in the control of society, especially when dictators are focused on spreading mass communications and propaganda via television, radio, and social media. Alongside these communications, citizens are told that they are being constantly watched, with the ‘big brother’ style surveillance, which monitors citizens for signs of free speech and organized assemblies.

This behavior is designed to gaslight citizens. With the state’s ideologies pushed in front of citizens throughout everything from art and literature to television and films, the constant propaganda prevents society from realizing the harsh situation they are living in. A famous example of this level of government control is the dystopian book 1984 by George Orwell, which includes the infamous quote, “War is peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

Within the novel, the government party controls what people read, say, and do, with the threat of punishment in Room 101 used to control every aspect of the citizens’ lives. Orwell brilliantly explores many aspects of how technology is used within a totalitarian society to eliminate any possibility of a rebellion, with free thoughts described as ‘thoughtcrimes’ and a political rebellion.

Weapons and war

Totalitarian governments invest heavily in advanced military weapons to scare potential enemies and show the citizens that they are committed to protecting the country. The citizens are taught to idolize and support those involved in the military, with the party wearing intelligent uniforms and described using terms such as ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘stormtroopers’. The aim is to gain support for the strict totalitarian regimes and to convince citizens that they play a key role in the constant war against potential enemies of the state.

Economic control

Totalitarian states rely on complete control of the economy to provide the capital needed to fund the regimes, such as building a military, developing weapons, and using technology to control the citizens. This means that personal economic goals, which are an important part of a capitalist society, are impossible, with the individual citizens’ sole economic focus centered on the leaders’ goals for the state.

The economy is ultimately controlled completely by totalitarian leaders, and as seen in the German and Italian economies, once economic control is gained, it spreads rapidly and becomes all-consuming.

A history of totalitarianism

There are many examples of totalitarianism throughout history, where a robust central government attempted to control all aspects of the citizens’ lives through repression and coercion. The following are the most notable examples:

  • The ancient Grecian state of Sparta – 430 BCE
  • The Mauryan dynasty of India – 321-C.185 BCE
  • The Qin dynasty of China – 221-207 BCE
  • The reign of the Zulu chief Shake – 1816-28
  • Nazi Germany – 1933-45
  • The Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule – 1924-53

Within each of these examples, the state was able to achieve full support for its ideologies, with a charismatic and dynamic leader being the key player when gaining the required support.

Modern examples of totalitarianism

Many historians consider Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, to be the first modern example of a leader with control over a totalitarian state. However, some do not agree with this because of the relatively small population and the leader’s inability to subdue the Catholic church completely. Although, by the time the Second World War had begun, the idea of totalitarianism was recognizable within some modern governments.

The most notable modern examples include the Nazi rule over Germany by Adolf Hitler, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin’s rule, the Kim Dynasty of North Korea, and the People’s Republic of China under the role of Mao Zedong. Many of these examples were formed during and within the immediate aftermath, although many quickly failed, with less restrictive governments taking the place of these totalitarian leaders.

Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union

Joseph Stalin came into power in 1928, and his secret police force eliminated all opponents by 1934. This led to the period known as the Great Terror between 1937 and 1938, when millions of Soviet citizens were arrested, sent to strict labor camps, or executed. These harsh punishments quickly made the citizens fall in line, with the once-poor society committed to helping Stalin achieve his vision of turning the Soviet Union into an industrial and military superpower.

Stalin remained the dictator throughout World War II, and when Germany broke the Nazi-Soviet pact by invading the USSR in 1941, he aligned his interests with America and the UK. However, by 1949 Stalin had led the soviets into the nuclear age when he exploded an atomic bomb, with his reign eventually ending upon his death in 1953.

Adolf Hitler and Germany

Adolf Hitler ruled over Germany as a dictator between 1933 and 1945, and his government, the Third Reich, controlled almost every aspect of life. This totalitarian regime relied upon mass murder and genocide to control the citizens, with the ideology of becoming a racially pure economic and military superpower used to control the state. This horrific dictatorship was responsible for murdering up to 300,000 citizens with disabilities, with the Einsatzgruppen killing squad murdering 6 million Jews during the Holocaust of 1941-1945.

Current totalitarian states

There are still totalitarian states operating today, with Eritrea in East Africa and North Korea both examples of nations with totalitarian leaders. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was formed in 1948, and under the rule of Kim Jong-un, it has become the world’s longest-surviving totalitarian state. The citizens live under a very repressive rule, with intimidation, violence, and propaganda used to control the citizens into supporting the Juche ideology. Despite the promise of freedom, self-expression, and human rights, the citizens are closely monitored, with the political Workers’ Party currently benefiting from complete leadership supremacy.

Similarly, Eritrea falls under President Isaias Afwerki, with the citizens led to believe the nation is always on the brink of war with neighboring Ethiopia. The government controls the citizens through indefinite military and civil service, with many spending their entire working lives serving the government. This complete removal of freedom of choice is a feature in many totalitarian societies. Unfortunately, these are two examples of states worldwide where citizens live under heavy dictatorship-style control.