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Thinking Out Loud

Just Definitions - Totalitarian

by Michael Jinkins | Mar 10, 2017

Editor’s Note: Occasionally, “Thinking Out Loud” addresses subjects of a very specific nature. In this special series, “Thinking Out Loud” readers are asked to consider the true meanings of certain terms that have recently found prevalence in the current public discourse. What are your thoughts? E-mail us.

This week we continue our exploration of the meaning of some words that are being used, misused and sometimes abused in current cultural, religious and political comments by investigating the meaning of totalitarian.
TotalitarianConfusion about the term totalitarian and its derivatives often has to do with the way it is used in relation to the words "dictator," "dictatorship," "fascist" and "fascism." Probably most of the people confusing the terms have in mind the most notorious example of a political leader who could be described using a combination of all three terms: Adolf Hitler, was a totalitarian, a fascist, and a dictator.

It is possible, however, to be both a fascist and a dictator and not to be a totalitarian. Benito Mussolini, ruler of Italy from 1922 to 1943, fits that bill. There have been, of course, dictators who weren't fascists, but who were totalitarian. Pol Pot, for example, the Cambodian Communist leader of the Khmer Rouge, and Joseph Stalin, the Communist ruler of the Soviet Union who succeeded Lenin, were Communist totalitarian dictators. While we often think of fascism as a European political phenomenon, in fact, one of the more recent examples of fascism is the Ba'th Party, also known as the Arab Socialist Ba'th Party which held power in Iraq from 1968 till 2003, and which rules over Syria to this day.

Fascism refers to a political philosophy, ideology and/or movement particularly of the far right in which a nation or a race is given priority over the individual. A fascist state is characterized by a centralized autocratic government ruled by a dictatorial leader, and is typified by severe economic, social and cultural regimentation and the suppression of opposition. Under many, if not most forms of fascism, militarism is equated with patriotism, and an extreme version of nationalism is enforced through persuasive or manipulative propaganda and intimidation.

Dictatorship describes the concentration of absolute political power either in an individual or a small group. It is one form of authoritarian government. Often dictatorships actively silence or suppress political opposition and the press, attempting to ensure that rival perspectives are degraded or discredited in an attempt to dominate the population. In Ancient Rome, the word was a synonym for the magistrate of the Republic (for example, Julius Caesar), and, like the Greek term, tyrant, originally did not necessarily convey negative connotations. However, by the modern era, the term was indelibly stained by characteristics such as: legislating without the benefit of assemblies representing the voices of the governed; the suspension of elections or manipulation of the voting process; rule without appropriate legislative consultation or judicial review; repression of political opponents; and extraordinary use of personal power that sometimes leads to the emergence of a full-blown cult of personality. Dictatorships also tend to have a real problem with civil liberties.

The word totalitarian carries a comprehensiveness of rule that other forms of government do not. It represents a kind of state rule that seeks to bring every aspect of human activity, behavior and thought, private as well as public, under central control. Whereas an authoritarian government may only be concerned with the regulation of public policy and political activities, a totalitarian regime seeks to regulate every aspect of a society: political, social, cultural, religious, artistic and intellectual.

Perhaps no one has contributed more to the understanding of totalitarianism than the philosopher, Hannah Arendt. Totalitarianism, according to Arendt, attempts to control the lives of those under its power in accordance with its ideology which demands to take the place of all other understandings of the world. In her analysis of totalitarianism, she distinguished: (1) between governments of law and totalitarian governments of arbitrary power; (2) between the traditional concept of laws as expressions of human values and ideals, and the totalitarian vision of law as an instrument to impose ideology upon a people and to shape them according to this ideology; and (3) between traditional sources of authority that serve to stabilize legal institutions and that, therefore, accommodate a variety of human activities and perspectives (an example might be the balance of power in the United States in which the legislative, judicial and executive branches all have countervailing powers as well as complementary functions guaranteeing that no single ideology prevails) and the ideologically determined totalitarian system of laws meant to enforce the will of the state and to channel the out-working of its ideology throughout every institution of the society and in the lives of individuals. (Summarized from "The Inversion of Politics" by Jerome Kohn, director of the Hannah Arendt Center.)

It was this totalizing control of every aspect of human life and thought in Nazism that was especially troubling to church leaders in Germany like Martin Niemoller, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and which was countered by our confessional document, "The Theological Declaration of Barmen" (1934). The "Declaration" perceived in the Nazi system a state which intended to take the place of God, thus Barmen's focus on the Lordship of Jesus Christ in contrast to an idolatrous racist and nationalistic ideology.*

Arendt observes the role of the masses in the formation of totalitarian movements, noting that such movements are possible wherever large groups of people become available in a society. Such masses most often are not held together by shared interests, and may even have members who are totally uninterested in the common good.

Looking to European history in the 1930s, Arendt writes:

“It was characteristic of the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany and of the Communist movements in Europe after 1930 that they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene.” [Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism: Part Three of The Origins of Totalitarianism, (Harcourt, Brace, 1951/1968 edition), 9-11.]

She also observes the ways in which resentment was stoked among these masses against institutions that had guaranteed the rule of law and against individuals (such as intellectuals, spiritual leaders and artists) who were identified as dangerous to the ideology of the totalitarian movement and the will of its leader. (p. 36-38).

* In addition to the "Theological Declaration of Barmen" itself, a resource that may be of interest is Karl Barth’s Church and State (Smyth and Helwys Publishing, 1991).

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