Rise of the Totalitarian States

With the onset of the age of anxiety, political dictatorships grew as people searched for stability and solution to the economic difficulties of the Great Depression. The end result was a combination of the resurgence of authoritarian rule coupled with a new type of ruthless and dynamic tyranny which reached its zenith in Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. It was Hitler’s aggression toward Poland that triggered World War II. The horrors of this time period are a disturbing chapter in history, which many would like to believe were an aberration and will not happen again. One would do well to learn the lessons of history, lest they be repeated in our own day.

The typical form of anti-democratic government in Europe was conservative authoritarianism. Leaders of these governments, like Metternich and Catherine the Great who preceded them, attempted to prevent major changes which might undermine the existing social order. They did so by relying on an obedient bureaucracy, secret police, and armies who were loyal to them. Popular participation in government was either forbidden or severely limited to natural allies. Liberals, democrats, and socialists were persecuted, jailed, or exiled, if not executed.

Such authoritarian governments did not have modern technology or means of communication, and as a result did not have the capacity to control many aspects of the lives of their citizens; however they apparently had no desire to do so, as they were preoccupied with their own survival. Their demands upon their own people largely consisted of taxes, army recruits and passive acceptance of government policy. As long as people did not attempt to change the system, they enjoyed a great degree of personal independence.

After the First World War, the parliamentary governments of Eastern Europe founded on the wreckage of the war foundered and collapsed one at a time. By early 1938, only Czechoslovakia remained loyal to democratic liberal ideals. Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, as well as Portugal, and Spain all fell to conservative dictators. There were several reasons for this:

Totalitarian regimes, with the possible exception of Nazi Germany, which was concerned with territorial expansion, largely sought to preserve the status quo, rather than forcing rapid change on society. War was certainly not on their card. Examples include:

Although conservative authoritarianism predominated the smaller states of central and Eastern Europe, radical dictatorships appeared in Germany, the Soviet Union, and Italy (to a somewhat lesser extent.) They exercised unprecedented control over the masses and violently rejected any form of parliamentary rule. Three approaches are helpful in understanding these radical dictatorships:

Antidemocratic totalitarian movements succeeded only in Italy and Germany and to a lesser extent in Spain. There may have been common elements, but there is no common explanation. The problem of Europe’s radical dictatorships is complex and there are no easy answers to explain it.