Nazi Fascism and the Modern Totalitarian State

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The government of Nazi Germany was a fascist, totalitarian state. Totalitarian regimes, in contrast to a dictatorship, establish complete political, social, and cultural control over their subjects, and are usually headed by a charismatic leader. Fascism is a form of right-wing totalitarianism which emphasizes the subordination of the individual to advance the interests of the state. Nazi fascism’s ideology included a racial theory which denigrated “non-Aryans,” extreme nationalism which called for the unification of all German-speaking peoples, the use of private paramilitary organizations to stifle dissent and terrorize opposition, and the centralization of decision-making by, and loyalty to, a single leader.


Students will learn:

1. The principal characteristics of totalitarianism.

2. The ways in which a totalitarian regime differs from a dictatorship.

3. The ways in which right-wing totalitarian regimes differ from left-wing totalitarian regimes.

4. The principal features of Fascism.

5. The principal features of Nazism.




Totalitarianism is a form of government in which all societal resources are monopolized by the state in an effort to penetrate and control all aspects of public and private life, through the state’s use of propaganda, terror, and technology. Totalitarian ideologies reject the existing society as corrupt, immoral, and beyond reform, project an alternative society in which these wrongs are to be redressed, and provide plans and programs for realizing the alternative order. These ideologies, supported by propaganda campaigns, demand total conformity on the part of the people.

Totalitarian forms of organization enforce this demand for conformity. Totalitarian societies are hierarchies dominated by one political party and usually by a single leader. The party penetrates the entire country through regional, provincial, local and “primary” (party-cell) organization. Youth, professional, cultural, and sports groups supplement the party’s political control. A paramilitary secret police ensures compliance. Information and ideas are effectively organized through the control of television, radio, the press, and education at all levels.

Totalitarian Regime vs. Dictatorship

Totalitarian regimes differ from older concepts of dictatorship or tyranny. Totalitarian regimes seek to establish complete political, social and cultural control, whereas dictatorships seek limited, typically political, control. Two types of totalitarianism can sometimes be distinguished: Nazism and Fascism which evolved from “right-wing” extremism, and Communism, which evolved from “left-wing” extremism. Traditionally, each is supported by different social classes. Right-wing totalitarian movements have generally drawn their popular support primarily from middle classes seeking to maintain the economic and social status quo. Left-wing totalitarianism has often developed from working class movements seeking, in theory, to eliminate, not preserve, class distinctions. Right-wing totalitarianism has typically supported and enforced the private ownership of industrial wealth. A distinguishing feature of Communism, by contrast, is the collective ownership of such capital.

Totalitarian regimes mobilize and make use of mass political participation, and often are led by charismatic cult figures. Examples of such cult figures in modern history are Mao Tse-tung (China) and Josef Stalin (Soviet Union), who led left-wing regimes, and Adolf Hitler (Germany) and Benito Mussolini (Italy), who led right-wing regimes.

Right-wing totalitarian regimes (particularly the Nazis) have arisen in relatively advanced societies, relying on the support of traditional economic elites to attain power. In contrast, left-wing totalitarian regimes have arisen in relatively undeveloped countries through the unleashing of revolutionary violence and terror. Such violence and terror are also the primary tools of right-wing totalitarian regimes to maintain compliance with authority.


Fascism was an authoritarian political movement that developed in Italy and several other European countries after 1919 as a reaction against the profound political and social changes brought about by World War I and the spread of socialism and Communism. Its name was derived from the fasces, an ancient Roman symbol of authority consisting of a bundle of rods and an ax. Italian fascism was founded in Milan on March 23, 1919, by Benito Mussolini, a former revolutionary socialist leader. His followers, mostly war veterans, were organized along paramilitary lines and wore black shirts as uniforms. The early Fascist program was a mixture of left- and right-wing ideas that emphasized intense Nationalism, productivism, anti-socialism, elitism, and the need for a strong leader. Mussolini’s oratorical skills, the post-war economic crisis, a widespread lack of confidence in the traditional political system, and a growing fear of socialism, all helped the Fascist party to grow to 300,000 registered members by 1921. In that year it elected 35 members to parliament.

The Philosophy of Fascism

The intellectual roots of Fascism can be traced to the voluntaristic philosophers who argued that the will is prior to and superior to the intellect or reason.

Arthur Schopenhauer

(1788-1860) was a German philosopher who held that the will is the underlying and ultimate reality and that the whole phenomenal world is the only expression of will. Human beings have free will only in the sense that everyone is the free expression of a will and that we therefore are not the authors of our own destinies, characters, or behavior, he wrote. He theorized that space, time, and causality were not absolute principles but only a function of the brain, concepts parallel to the scientific discoveries of relativistic physics two generations later.

Friedrich Nietzsche

(1844-1900) was a German philosopher and poet best known for “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” He theorized that there were two moral codes: that of the ruling class (master morality) and that of the oppressed class (slave morality). The ancient empires grew out of a master morality, and the religions of the day out of the slave morality (which denigrates the rich and powerful, rationalism, and sexuality). He developed the concept of the “overman” (superman) which symbolized man at his most creative and highest intellectual capacity.

Henri Bergson

(1859-1941) was a French philosopher of Jewish parents who was the leading rejectionist of the concept that scientific principles can explain all of existence. He asserted that metaphysical principles also apply. He found credence in applying the biological theories of Darwin (which pointed to the “survival of the fittest” in biological systems) to social theory.

George Sorel

(1847-1922) was a French social philosopher who had a major influence upon Mussolini. Sorel believed that societies naturally became decadent and disorganized, and this inevitable decay could only be delayed by the leadership of idealists who were willing to use violence to obtain power. His anti-democratic, anti-liberal views and pessimistic view about the natural life-cycle of a society were antithetical to most of his contemporaries.

Gabriele D’Annunzio

(1863-1938) was an Italian politician, poet, dramatist, novelist and war hero who was a supporter of Mussolini.

Fascist Ideology

Fascist ideology was largely the work of the neo-idealist philosopher, Giovanni Gentile. It emphasized the subordination of the individual to a “totalitarian” state that was to control all aspects of national life. Violence as a creative force was an important characteristic of the Fascist philosophy. A special feature of Italian Fascism was the attempt to eliminate the class struggle from history through nationalism and the corporate state. Mussolini organized the economy and all “producers” – from peasants and factory workers to intellectuals and industrialists – into 22 corporations as a means of improving productivity and avoiding industrial disputes. Contrary to the regime’s propaganda claims, the system ran poorly. Mussolini was forced into compromises with big business and the Roman Catholic Church. The corporate state was never fully implemented. The inherently expansionist, militaristic nature of Fascism contributed to imperialistic adventures in Ethiopia and the Balkans and ultimately to World War II.


Nazism refers to the totalitarian Fascist ideology and policies espoused and practiced by Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Worker’s Party from 1920-1945. Nazism stressed the superiority of the Aryan, its destiny as the Master Race to rule the world over other races, and a violent hatred of Jews, which it blamed for all of the problems of Germany. Nazism also provided for extreme nationalism which called for the unification of all German-speaking peoples into a single empire. The economy envisioned for the state was a form of corporative state socialism, although members of the party who were leftists (and would generally support such an economic system over private enterprise) were purged from the party in 1934.

Paramilitary Organizations

Nazism made use of paramilitary organizations to maintain control within the party, and to squelch opposition to the party. Violence and terror fostered compliance. Among these organizations were the:

S.A. (Sturmabteilung)

: Stormtroopers (also known as “brown-shirts”) were the Nazi paramilitary arm under Ernst Rîhm. It was active in the battle for the streets against other German political parties.

S.D. (Sicherheitsdiest)

: the Security Service under Reinhard Heydrich.

S.S. (Schutzstaffel)

: Defense Corps, was an elite guard unit formed out of the S.A. It was under the command of Heinrich Himmler.

Gestapo (Geheime Staatpolizeil)

: the Secret State Police, which was formed in 1933.

Nazism also placed an emphasis on sports and paramilitary activities for youth, the massive use of propaganda (controlled by Joseph Goebbels) to glorify the state, and the submission of all decisions to the supreme leader (FÅhrer) Adolf Hitler.


Communism – A social, political, and economic system characterized by the revolutionary struggle to create a society which has an absence of classes, and the common ownership of the means of production and subsistence and centralized governmental control over the economy.


– A ruler having absolute authority and supreme jurisdiction over the government of a state; especially one who is considered tyrannical or oppressive.


– Philosophy that a narrow clique of the “best” or “most skilled” members of a given social group should have the power.


– A philosophy or system of government that advocates or exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with an ideology of belligerent nationalism.


– A body of persons organized or classified according to rank, capacity, or authority.


– The body of ideas reflecting the social needs and aspirations of an individual, group, class, or culture.


– As used in this chapter, individuals and groups who desire to reform or overthrow the established order and advocate change in the name of greater freedom or well-being of the common man.


– The ideology and policies of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist German Worker’s Party from 1921 to 1945.


– The systematic spreading of a given doctrine or of allegations reflecting its views and interests.


– As used in this chapter, individuals or groups who profess opposition to change in the established order and who favor traditional attitudes and practices, and who sometimes advocate the forced establishment of an authoritarian political order.


– A form of government in which all societal resources are monopolized by the state in an effort to penetrate and control all aspects of public and private life, through the state’s use of propaganda, terror, and technology.


  • In the United States, the president is also the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Research how this is different from other countries. Discuss the issue of civilian control of the military.
  • Obtain a report from Amnesty International on human rights violations around the world. Also obtain the parallel report from the State Department. What are the factors which lead to human rights violations, such as age of the government, type of government, geographical location of the country, size of the country?
  • List the countries of the world by type of government. Find the democracies, right-wing dictatorships, left-wing dictatorships, monarchies, left- and right-wing totalitarian regimes, and categorize them by the number of years they have had that form of government. How many of these governments are headed by civilians, and how many are headed by the military? Which countries receive foreign aid from the United States? Which receive foreign aid from the Soviet Union?


  • Could an avowed racist or anti-Semite be elected President of the United States? If not, why not? If so, how might such an election come about?
  • When Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, comparisons were made between Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. Discuss the differences in the world situations and the world’s responses to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland and Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait.
  • If you were a citizen in 1933 Germany, how would you feel about your government? What options did you feel you had for expressing opposition to this government or to participate in it? How do these options differ from the options you have today in the United States?


1. Define the following:

  1. dictator
  2. totalitarianism
  3. elitism
  4. left-wing
  5. right-wing
  6. propaganda
  7. Fascism
  8. hierachy

2. What are two differences between a dictatorship and a totalitarian regime?

3. What are three differences between right-wing and left-wing totalitarian regimes?

4. Who was Benito Mussolini, and what type of government did he lead?

5. What were three aspects of Nazi ideology?

6. How do totalitarian regimes foster compliance by those who disagree with the objectives of the regime?

7. Discuss two of the paramilitary organizations formed by the Nazi party.

8. How does a totalitarian regime control access to ideas?

9. Name two right-wing and two left-wing leaders of totalitarian regimes.

10. What developments in a society encourage a totalitarian regime to take power?


  • Lead the class in a discussion about the relationship between the historical events described in this chapter and those which took place in Eastern Europe in 1989-90.
  • In 1990, East and West Germany agreed to reunite. Let the class debate the advisability of approving a reunification plan, with various students taking the point of view of the heads of the government of East and West Germany, a Holocaust survivor, the Chairman of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the President of the United States, a “man on the street” from East Germany, a “woman on the street” from West Germany, and a former member of the Nazi S.S. who lives in seclusion in a small town in East Germany.
  • Create a mock debate of students, each representing various constituencies, on whether it was appropriate for President George Bush to secretly send an emissary to China soon after the massacre at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. These constituencies could include a representative of the Chinese government, a staffer at the U.S. State Department, a Chinese national who is studying at a university in the United States, a representative from Amnesty International, a member of the clergy, Senator Ted Kennedy, and Senator Jesse Helms. Lead the class in a discussion about how other nations deal with totalitarian regimes and the impact of these diplomatic contacts on the stability of such regimes.

Copyright 1990 Gary M. Grobman

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