Alice C. Linsley
A totalitarian government is a single-party dictatorship that controls all aspects of public and private life. Citizens do not enjoy rights such as freedom of expression or the right to assemble. Totalitarian governments silence critics who speak against the government's policies in public or on the internet. Residents are subject to censorship and arrest, and the media is state controlled.
Totalitarian governments occur where an individual or small group of individuals take power and implement policies designed to enhance their power. Such leaders are usually called "dictators" though some have been called Pharaohs, Emperors or Kings.
Dictators enforce their will by decree or by passing legislation that makes it possible for the leader to be the absolute ruler of a sovereign state; to govern outside the accepted rule of law, and to maintain or increase power through developing a cult of personality.
Totalitarian leaders in history include Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Chairman Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Gaddafi, Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, and Manuel Antonio Noriega.
Stalin gained control of the Soviet Union in 1924, and forced millions of peasants to relinquish their land and work on large, government-run farms. He is responsible for the death of millions of Russians who refused his effort to collectivize.
Hitler gained control of the nationalistic, anti-communist Nazi Party in the 1920s and established perhaps the most notorious regime in modern history. The Nazi ideology viewed Jews as a political and economy disease to be eradicated. The ideology also opposed Christianity. Efforts were made to limit the influence of Christianity on the German people, since, in the words of Martin Bormann to Alfred Rosenberg in an official letter, "the Christian religion and National Socialist doctrines are not compatible."
Kim Il-sung ruled North Korea from 1948 until 1994. The leadership then passed to his son, Kim Jong-il, and then in 2011 to his grandson, Kim Jong-un. Human rights organizations report systematic abuses including torture, religious persecution, slave labor, infanticide, and public executions.
|Hitler Youth 1933|
Indoctrination of the Youth
A prime directive of totalitarian governments is the indoctrination of the youth. As Lenin said, "The best revolutionary is a youth devoid of morals." He insisted, "Give us the child for 8 years and it will be a Bolshevik forever."
Totalitarian Versus Authoritarian: A matter of degree
On June 4, 1989, Chinese troops and security police fired on students who had gathered in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to call for greater democracy. Hundreds of students were killed and at least 10,000 people were arrested. This tragedy gained much world attention and other nations pressured China's leaders to grant greater liberty to their citizens.
Since China became more open to the West and to other Asian nations, it has eased some of the restrictions that were initiated by the Communist Revolution. Today China is more accurately described as an "authoritarian" state, as it does allow its citizens some personal freedoms and absolute power no longer rests with a single individual.
However, government policies are still strictly enforced and political dissidents continue to face imprisonment and censorship. There has been resistance to the government's limit on the number of children a couple can have, and the restriction of religion. To protest the lack of religious freedom, at least 122 Tibetan monks, nuns and civilians have committed self-immolation between 2009 and 2013. During the same period, at least 53 Chinese killed themselves by the same means to protest the government’s demolition of their homes.
For American foreign policy the distinction between totalitarian and authoritarian is significant. If faced with only these options, the United States should support an authoritarian government over a totalitarian government. This is what Jeane Kirkpatrick argued during the Carter Administration. The US often is faced with the choice to either back an authoritarian regime, or destabilize it, giving opportunity for the rise of totalitarianism. Kirkpatrick's distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism was a good one. However, she did not foresee the global thrust of Islamic extremism which is ready to fill every political vacuum. Destabilization has proved to benefit movements like ISIS in Iraq and Syria.