Modern Dictators: Third World Coupmakers, Strongmen, and Populist Tyrants » Chapter 2-The Lessons of European Totalitarianism
The Lessons of European Totalitarianism
Precisely at 1:00 P.m. on August 22, 1939, two huge German Focke-Wulf Condor planes
landed at Moscow airport. Berlin’s Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop came down the
stairs to he greeted by five Nazi flags outside the terminal and a Soviet military band’s
rendition of the Nazi anthem. Members of the German Embassy staff clicked their heels and
gave the Hitler salute; the Soviet welcoming delegation preferred a simple handshake with
Ribbentrop. That afternoon Ribbentrop and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov
initiated a nonaggression pact. Molotov commented shortly thereafter, “Fascism is a matter of
Secretly the two governments planned for the division of Europe and the Middle East
between themselves. No wonder that Ribbentrop could barely suppress a triumphant smile
when he climbed back aboard his plane. As a first step in joint aggression Germany invaded
western Poland barely a week later; the Soviets took over eastern Poland. Would Hitler have
dared start World War II without Stalin’s neutrality and cooperation?
The moment marked the apex of a new kind of dictatorship that conquered country
after country, creating a nightmare of murder and repression while graphically demonstrating
techniques for rule that were as politically effective as they were horrible.
News of this unexpected alliance shocked the world. After all, Soviet communism and
German fascism were considered, by each other and by most observers, polar opposites.
Their cooperation did not demonstrate that they were identical, but it did show that there were
some very important common threads in these new forms of dictatorship. In some respects
their organizational and psychological techniques were more important than the differences
in their proclaimed goals.
Although dictatorship is a very old form of government, these new regimes, with their
regimented parties, mass rallies, concentration camps, and passionate promotion of hatred,
represented something quite different from the forms of government of most states since the
first civilizations were established by the empires of kings and generals.
Historically rulers gained legitimacy from conquest, inheritance, and religious
authority. Egypt’s pharaohs, South America’s Inca and Aztec rulers, Persia’s shahs, China’s
emperors, and many others followed this pattern. Absolute monarchy, as the only type of
government, did not have to defend its propriety. Since it had no democratic pretensions or
literate citizenry, there was no effort to appeal to the masses; their loyalty could be taken for
Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome added a new twist by granting some nonaristocrats
political rights as “citizens,” an invention giving those states a broader popular base than any
previous regimes. Even this limited degree of democracy proved impermanent. Rome became
an empire, and after its collapse, feudal systems arose based on a compact for protection and
military service between serfs and nobles, nobles and kings.
As power was concentrated in the monarch’s hands, the nobility and church were
subjugated, but aristocrats and cities (or, more correctly, their merchant classes) gradually
gained rights in addition to their obligations. Again, legitimacy and stability were ensured by
a social contract; kings did not have to convince their subjects to vote or fight for them.
Dispersion of power gradually made room for more open political debate and the
emergence of parliaments representing the landed gentry and growing middle class.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries political and electoral rights were granted
to larger groups that challenged the legitimacy of absolute monarchy and demanded a greater
voice and role in government.
Advocates of democracy questioned the rule of a small closed elite as nationalism
emerged to challenge the definition of existing states. The English, American, French, and
Dutch revolutions developed the remarkable idea that government should depend on the
consent of the governed and that monarchy was not necessary for a stable political order.
They limited authority by constitutions, guarantees for citizens’ rights, and balancing of the
executive’s powers against those of an elected legislature. The pluralism and flexibility of
democratic societies encouraged progress. Capitalism sought to reduce political authority in
favor of a productive private economic sector; intellectuals argued for social and economic
This greatly simplified history applies to a relatively small number of countries.
Empires centered in the Middle East, Russia, and China provided a different model of
powerful centralization, uneroded religious legitimacy, and philosophical traditions stressing
the primacy of state over citizen. For whatever reasons, parliamentary democracy developed
independently only in Western Europe and North America. Since European imperialism
smashed the existing systems in the rest of the world, it is impossible to know how they
would have developed if left undisturbed, nor is it easy to separate the legacy of colonialism
from that of the previous, indigenous tradition.
Even Europe only partly followed a pattern of democratic development, becoming the
testing ground for new forms of dictatorship just when the form seemed headed for
extinction. The Communist regime of the USSR and the fascist regimes of Germany and Italy
proclaimed themselves superior to decadent parliamentary systems. Their ideologies fueled a
wave of imperialist aggression and served as the rulers’ tools for regimenting society.
There has been a bitter, politicized debate over whether communism and fascism are
siblings or even twins. The tragedies of World War II make pressing the point seem
repugnant, but it is not necessary to enter that debate to see that the systems have much in
common. To Third World observers seeking hints for their own politics, the similarities were
usually more important than the differences.
Communism and fascism both used and perverted some of the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries’ most advanced ideas. Extolling management, organization, science,
and economic development, they celebrated the power of humankind over nature, society,
and other people. Using military discipline and mass production as models for ordering the
masses, they glorified repression against critics or opponents and demanded the populace’s
enthusiastic support. They built a single hierarchical party in authority over government and a
comprehensive ideology to direct all aspects of culture and education.
The fascists explicitly extolled the cult of the leader as infallible demigod; the
Communists condemned it in words but deified Stalin in practice. The Fascists were fanatic
nationalists; Stalin spoke of internationalism but pursued Soviet interests over the bodies of
foreign Communists and neighboring countries. To eliminate real or imagined opponents, a
system of concentration camps, surveillance, secret police, informers, and torture was
established on a scale hitherto unknown in history.
While the resulting regimes were horrendous dictatorships with torturers, death
camps, and megalomaniacal rulers who wasted their people’s lives and their nation’s
resources, these systems clearly had effective ways to obtain and keep power. Both Hitler and
Stalin were popular at home except among political or ethnic minorities that soon became
their prisoners or victims. Through organization and central planning the two leaders
accelerated economic development and built strong armies. Russia and Germany, the
countries most devastated and humiliated by World War I, emerged in the 1930s as proud and
powerful world powers.
Charismatic leaders, made to seem just and attractive by the concentrated power of
modern public relations techniques (as political propaganda), proved able to win mass
adulation. Parliamentary democracy was portrayed from both left and right as decadent,
anarchic and outdated. Foreigners were enemies; rivals were demons; the old ruling classes
were finished. The people could be stirred to revolutionary action, then manipulated into
officially approved activity and acquiescence. The army must be politicized. At the same
time it must come under the party’s control to guarantee its loyalty.
These new, totalitarian modern dictatorships were not extensions of the past patterns
of monarchy and empire. Those historic regimes were constrained by tradition but also did
not need to make populist appeals or encourage mass mobilization. instead, the modern
dictatorship was a counterdemocracy, providing an alternative way to deal with the mass
politics of the twentieth century.
Third World politicians and militants-reading propaganda, visiting Berlin or Moscow,
or picking up Marxism during studies at French or British universities-were impressed by the
apparent ability of communism and fascism to revitalize previously declining nations while
Western democracies were helpless in the face of the Depression of the 1930s. German and
Soviet political unity, military might, economic strength, ideological identity, and
nationalistic revival were appealing for people seeking these same things. The facts that
neither Germany after 1918 nor the USSR was a colonial power and that they condemned
imperialism and were enemies of the British and French empires made them more attractive
to downtrodden peoples.
Latin American military officers were impressed by Mussolini’s corporate society.
Some independence fighters in India and elsewhere in Asia became sympathetic to a
resurgent, militaristic Japan challenging the European colonial powers. Arab nationalists
thought Germany’s unification and renaissance a model for emulation. Before World War II
fascism seemed to inspire far more interest than Marxism in the Third World.
Few Arabs, Africans, Latin Americans, or Asians became Communists or Fascists.
Such parties were usually fringe movements whose identification with foreign powers
brought subsidies but also made them seem unpatriotic. In addition, explicit fascism was
discredited by the Axis defeat in World War II, while Marxism was unacceptably atheistic,
insufficiently nationalist, and often effectively repressed by colonial authorities or local
Future Third World leaders were seeking not a total philosophy of life-they already
had their own cultures and histories-but a blueprint able to win them political power and to
guide economic development. The idea that politics could he studied and practiced as a
science was particularly appealing to intellectuals. The parallels between revolutionary
strategy and the fundamentals of military organization and tactics fascinated young officers.
The ability of the Communists and fascists to grow from small, ridiculed fringe
groups to become masters of their societies made their techniques seem undeniably
successful. Third World thinkers in the nineteenth century had attributed the secrets of the
West’s success to constitutions, secularism, and technology. Now they found the dynamism
of these new movements worthy of emulation.
Communism and fascism had a number of theoretical views and practical politics in
common. Both condemned capitalism as inefficient, weak, divisive, and oppressive. They
ridiculed electoral democracy as biased, ineffective, and slow. They pinned responsibility for
national problems on scapegoats who could he made unpopular: foreigners, classes, or ethnic
groups. For the remaining citizens, the two systems urged unity and demanded obedience.
They also shared a parallel system of incentives and punishments for winning loyalty
and destroying opposition. The Fascists did not abolish private business corporations but felt
it sufficient to secure political control over their operations. The Communists seized an
economic monopoly to eliminate any alternative centers of authority and, for this reason,
gave control of these enterprises to the state rather than to the workers.
Both systems, then, were sophisticated efforts to combine the centralized authority
and repressive power of dictatorship with the mass support and popular cooperation enjoyed
Karl Marx, of course, thought of himself as a new Prometheus rather than as a new
Machiavelli. Although he gave relatively little thought to the nature of a socialist
government, he was naïvely sure it could easily solve the economic and political problems it
would face in suppressing the bourgeoisie and allowing the proletariat to enjoy true control of
society and individual freedom. With almost deterministic confidence, he believed that such a
state, possessing economic, political, and military power, would produce a utopia. Marx said
that in capitalism the proletariat was victimized by “false consciousness, a failure to
understand its “true” interests, but he did not see how regimes calling themselves Marxist
would extend such manipulation to heights previously undreamed.
But the very idea of a “scientific” theory of rule and revolution was intolerant of any
alternative views. The idea that all political thought and practice was class-based laid the
basis for destroying pluralism as a bourgeois ploy. If opposition to Marxism was false
consciousness, then those with a true understanding were justified in imposing their views on
The Leninist view was a natural outcome of this philosophy. In the words of Fidel
Castro, “Whoever stops to wait for ideas to triumph among the majority of the masses before
initiating revolutionary action will never he a revolutionary …. Humanity will, of course,
change …. But this is not a revolutionary attitude.” Electoral democracy, then, had three
major problems: It was a tool of the bourgeoisie, prevented revolutionary change, and
intensified an erroneous view of the world held even by the working class. Violent revolution
followed by an enlightened dictatorship was the necessary alternative.
Marx thought this new system would involve true mass participation-a democracy for
the majority and suppression of the old ruling class-rather than a dictatorship of a single
leader and the top party officials. When Marx did consider the problem of charismatic
dictatorship, he saw it as a flimsy, unworkable system. Marx compared Louis Napoleon, the
populist dictator of France from 1852 to 1870, to his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte and
concluded that while the latter’s rule had been a tragedy, Louis’s regime was only a “farce.”
Marx failed to grasp how men like Louis, or even Napoleon Bonaparte for that matter,
could seize the reins of power, subordinate the state to their egos, and use the masses’ real
desires and loyalty for their own ends. He could not fit his view of class rule and class
struggle into these real situations except by viewing such dictatorships as merely a front for
capitalists rather than as a new type of political system. Marxists committed the same error in
the 1930s, when they could envision fascism only as a dictatorship of the capitalists. They
had a similar difficulty in understanding Stalinism since such a terroristic dictatorship, by
definition, could not happen under a Marxist “workers’” regime.
By defining the raw material of history as the economic productive forces, Marx left
out the raw power of human psychology, nationalism, and xenophobia, the life experiences of
individuals and the historical experience of societies, and a host of other factors. Like a
scientist combining benign chemicals to form a compound explosively different from what he
expected, Marx thought his theory of action would bring a perfected society; instead, his
ideas of class struggle, scientific socialism, the fraudulence of “bourgeois” democracy and
rights, and the false consciousness of the masses all helped create a formula for
Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevsky provided a view at odds with Marx in The
Brothers Karamazov. The nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia was painfully aware of
czarist injustices: Peasants were brutalized and tied to the land; the autocracy was slow to
industrialize and even slower to democratize. Most of the country’s best thinkers realized that
a violent revolution was inevitable; many of them believed it to be desirable.
Dostoevsky, a former revolutionary turned conservative, writes about a sixteenthcentury
Spanish Inquisitor whose philosophy is similar to that of later advocates for populist
dictatorship. “People are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they
have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet,” he explains. In exchange, the
rulers will give them material benefits, ideas to believe in, and leaders to worship.
“Humanity will proclaim … that there is no crime … there is only hunger,” says the
Inquisitor on the primacy of living standards over liberty. As for ideology, he adds that only
those “who can appease their conscience can take over their freedom…. For who can rule men
if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands?”
Dostoevsky’s characters argue, however, that the Inquisitor really believes that his
way is necessary to help humanity. The author understood that the dictator who believes his
own ideology is more dangerous than a cynical manipulator because he embraces crimes as a
necessary foundation for progress. The pro-Stalin playwright Bertolt Brecht makes this point
in The Good Woman of Szechuan: that it is “necessary to be cruel to he kind” to humanity.
With confidence that the righteousness of his cause obviates the demands of conscience, the
modern dictatorship can tell followers, in Dostoevsky’s words, “Every sin will be expiated, if
it is done with our permission.”
Twentieth-century history mirrored the preoccupations of both Marx and Dostoevsky.
Marx predicted and advocated the right and power of the economically and nationally
deprived to make revolutions. Dostoevsky was right to warn that these movements might
produce only new kinds of problems and oppressions.
Oppression and imperialism were the midwives of the twentieth century’s revolts, as
Marx predicted, and tragedy and horror were often the result, as Dostoevsky warned.
National disaster in World War I, with its terrible loss of human life, incompetent leadership,
economic hardship, and intellectual disillusionment, planted the seeds of totalitarian
revolution in Russia and Germany. The war undermined the idea of progress, showed the
hypocrisies of democracy, subverted the old order, and brought centuries-old monarchies
While Marx had said little about the conduct of socialist regimes, Vladimir Ilyich
Lenin, the Russian socialist who extended Marx’s theory and led the first successful Marxist
revolution, developed the strategy and tactics for seizing and holding power. For him, only
the destruction of all competing ideologies, parties, factions, and leaders could guarantee a
revolution’s success. When czarist Russia collapsed, Lenin’s brilliant, ruthless leadership
brought the Bolsheviks to power in 1917. The Russian Revolution was indeed a turning point
in world history, not as a new phase in human freedom but as a landmark in the development
of modern dictatorship.
Lenin’s single greatest contribution was his creation of a disciplined revolutionary
party as a powerful weapon in taking and holding power. The party was like an army engaged
in warfare: it needed authoritarian leadership and could not afford internal democracy.
Besides, Lenin argued, democracy was only a mask for the rule of the bourgeoisie:
“‘Freedom of criticism,’ means freedom for an opportunist trend” and would debilitate the
revolutionary struggle’s necessary discipline and unity. “We are marching in a compact
group along a precipitous and difficult path…. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies,
and we have to advance almost constantly under their fire.”
Even the working class was a barrier to revolution because it preferred to seek better
wages and conditions through trade unions and reforms. “Class political consciousness can he
brought to the workers only from without” by a Communist party led by professional
revolutionaries. The party was the general staff of the revolution, its leader was commander
As he had predicted, Lenin exercised control over the party, and the party ruled over
Russia. He had a keen sense of the proper timing and interim stages of action needed to
achieve victory. Alliances with other groups or promises to the masses were only tactics, to
be abandoned, if need be, at the opportune time. In theory, Lenin was suspicious of
charismatic leadership. “Demagogues are the worst enemies of the working class … because
they arouse base instincts among the masses,” he wrote. But he also appreciated this
shortcut’s value and never hesitated to use it. The ideal leader should be a “tribune of the
people.” Besides, for Lenin terms like “demagogue,” opportunist,” or “traitor” had no
intrinsic meaning but merely defined anyone who disagreed with his political line of the
Just as Lenin saw no need for democracy within the party, so he felt no need for
guaranteeing the rights or participation of citizens in his socialist state. Capitalist democracy
was a sham: “The oppressed were allowed, once every few years, to decide which particular
representatives of the oppressing class should be in parliament to represent and repress
them!” The proletariat needed the state “not in the interests of freedom, but for the purpose of
crushing its antagonists.” When there was no one left to be suppressed, the state would wither
away, but of course, there is always someone to be suppressed. Lenin’s system eliminated not
only the old rulers’ “monopoly” on freedom but also the right to assemble, speak freely,
control the trade unions, read uncensored news, decide where to live within the country or to
travel abroad, vote, practice religion, etc. of the workers, peasants, professionals, and
intellectuals who made up the total population of the Soviet state.
After Lenin’s death in 1924 Stalin tightened his control over the party and state
apparatus by placing his followers in key positions. Stalin’s rival, Leon Trotsky, correctly
predicted that the dictatorship of the proletariat would become the party’s dictatorship, the
party’s dictatorship would he the central committee’s dictatorship, and even that would he
reduced to the rule of Central Committee Chairman Stalin. Yet Trotsky produced no
alternative; as a Communist he could only defend the party’s collective dictatorship.
In the late 1920s Stalin purged Trotsky and his supporters; throughout the 1930s he
murdered even subservient political and military leaders whose stature might make them
competitors. Close comrades of Lenin were tortured or psychologically browbeaten into
confessing fabricated crimes as traitors, spies, and foreign agents. Millions of party members,
peasants, and others were sent to slave labor camps or shot. Ferocious repression of dissent
was a basic principle of men who, themselves having seized power, were aware that others
might follow their example. In this context the political insanity of Stalin and Hitler was not
their massive atrocities but a pathological, counterproductive fixation on killing people who
posed no real threat to them.
Despite their brutality, these regimes were able to suppress truth at home and fill the
void with propaganda. The system made the repression acceptable to many of their people
and frightened the rest into silence. Germans who turned against Hitler did so mainly because
he was losing the war; Stalin has been rehabilitated by his successors. The point is that
modern dictatorship cannot be based on repression and fear alone, although it uses those tools
with previously undreamed-of efficiency. To succeed, it must also give material benefits,
pride in national strength, and a sense of legitimacy to a sizable proportion of the population.
In short, it must give its people reasons for being loyal.
In Soviet communism the promise of a better life was coupled with a leadership cult,
patriotism, party control over all parts of society, central direction of the media and economy,
a paranoid fear of internal and external enemies, and an extremely effective secret police.
Stalin wrote quite frankly about this mixture of indoctrination, intimidation, and organization.
Everything must be “directed according to a single plan…. The seizure of power is only the
beginning…. The whole point is to retain power.”
All the property of the old ruling classes must be expropriated, and their individual
members exiled, killed, or politically neutralized. Even this was not sufficient, wrote Stalin,
because the old order’s strength was deeply rooted in its “connections, habits of organization
and management, knowledge of all the ‘secrets’ (customs, methods, means and possibilities)
of management, superior education … technical personnel and (cultural) force of habit.” Such
a dangerous and well-entrenched foe could be overcome only by the state’s total control over
wealth, means of communication, education, and information.
Force is justified against the “bourgeoisie” and anyone who sides with it, meaning, by
definition, anybody who criticizes the government or new rulers, deeds and decisions. By
weakening a revolution already besieged by foreign plotters and by traditional patterns, they
are “objectively” in the enemy camp. Stalin wrote, “The dictatorship of the proletariat cannot
be … democracy for all” but is still better than capitalism, under which “there are no real
‘liberties’ for the exploited.”
One must always remember that a Third World intellectual, politician, or military
officer, reading this material or observing Soviet practice, need not believe in communism.
Substitute Arab nationalism, African socialism, Islamic fundamentalism, or the personally
tailored ideologies of different dictators, and the modern dictatorships’ rules of power still
hold good, just as Machiavelli’s strictures served the prince-politicians of his day.
The Marxist literature instructs revolutionary forces to proceed covertly and by stages
but always to be guided by a small disciplined minority capable of outmaneuvering and outorganizing
enemies and allies until the day it can destroy them. The keys to success are
determination and a consistent strategy able to “concentrate the main forces of the revolution
at the enemy’s most vulnerable spot at the decisive moment.” Lenin explained: “Certainly,
almost everyone now realizes that the Bolsheviks could not have maintained themselves in
power for two and a half months … without the strictest, truly iron discipline in our Party.”
Surprisingly, Stalin said his regime’s work style should incorporate “American
efficiency,” which he called an “indomitable force which neither knows nor recognizes
obstacles; which with its business-like perseverance brushes aside all obstacles.” While
rejecting Western democracy, modern dictatorships have always been eager to use its
technological and scientific innovations. But dictators reject the view that technology is
socially or politically deterministic, believing it can be adapted for their own purposes.
Communists, Fascists, and Islamic fundamentalists, among others, have paid special attention
to indoctrinating technicians whose expertise might seduce them away from the ruling
ideology. The Chinese Cultural Revolution, for example, aimed to ensure they would he “Red
as well as Expert.” Ayatollah Khomeini purged universities on the same principle.
Similarly, fascism, the system most at odds with bolshevisrn, ironically adopted many
of its methods. World War I was followed by a very severe economic depression and a great
deal of labor (and antilabor) violence. The transformation of rural peasants into urban
workers brought misery and psychological dislocation; the lower middle class and peasantry
felt threatened by economic disaster and political instability. Upper and middle classes feared
Marxist takeovers; workers wanted more power and higher living standards. Intellectuals
sought dramatic solutions to society’s problems and their own malaise.
In Italy ex-socialist Benito Mussolini took power with his militaristic Black Shirts and
with a weak monarch’s acquiescence in 1922. “A revolution is a serious matter,” he said, “not
a court conspiracy, nor a change of Cabinet, nor the rise of one party replacing another.”
While Mussolini’s arrogance and disastrous foreign adventures made him seem clownish in
retrospect, he was popular at home and respected abroad for most of his two decades in
power. In that era’s well-known phrase, he had “made the trains run on time.” His bombast
over building a new Roman empire and conquest of Ethiopia stoked Italian pride.
Mussolini boasted that his “corporate state” conciliated management and labor, but
this was no more real than Soviet talk of proletarian rule. He demanded absolute personal
control. There must be, said Mussolini in a 1933 speech, a “single political party, in order that
political discipline may exist alongside of economic discipline and … unite everyone above
contrasting interests.” The basis for all this was “a totalitarian State … which by absorbing the
energy, interests and aspirations of the people, may transform and uplift them.”
Historian Waiter Laqueur points out that to understand such regimes, it is crucial to
remember that “while not all decisions are actually made in and by the center, no truly
important decision is made without the knowledge, let alone against the wish, of the leader. It
is equally important to realize that while not all decisions are made by the supreme leader, all
could in principle have been made by him.”
The personality of the leader is one pillar of the system; ideology is another. Class
unity would supplant class conflict by promoting nationalism, love of and obedience to the
leader, and hatred of opponents who refused to accept the national consensus. Mussolini and
Hitler tried to deflect natural internal antagonisms outward against foreigners, Jews, liberals,
socialists, and Communists. Similar regimes were established in Spain and Portugal and as
collaborators with Hitler in France, Romania, Hungary, Norway, and parts of Yugoslavia and
Germany’s seeming hypnosis by a fanatical, irrational movement, despite the
country’s noble cultural and intellectual tradition, has long fascinated and mystified the
world. The complex mix of causes included the humiliations and traumas of defeat in World
War I, the high reparations payments, and international subordination, as well as rampant
inflation and unemployment in the Depression of the 1930s, the displacement and disruption
of old classes and ways, traditional intolerance and a yearning for order, and the failure of the
weak Weimar Republic.
Democracy’s shortcomings were a major factor in Hitler’s rise. The compromise
endemic in parliamentary politics was attacked by both right and left. Leftist intellectuals
ridiculed the republic while rightists blamed Germany’s World War I defeat on a leftistliberal
“stab in the back.” The republic was powerless against rising street violence and
In Mein Kampf, written in prison after a failed 1923 coup attempt, Hitler described
parliaments as deadlocked or in the control of selfish interests; majority rule was merely a
“mob thrown together by more or less savory accidents.” Democracy produced cowardly
leaders afraid to displease constituents.
Those chosen to represent the people were ignorant, corrupt, conceited dilettantes.
Electoral democracy can “only please the biggest liars and sneaks … because it is inevitably
hateful to an honorable, straightforward man.” In contrast with this “Jewish” institution was
“truly Germanic democracy characterized by the free election of a leader (to) assume all
responsibility.” Such a system promoted heroism and dynamic action.
Instead of marching decisively forward, parliamentary states went in confused circles.
Dramatic change was needed to solve problems, but democracy was a formula for continuity
with the past. Reform was insufficient; revolution and a total transformation of society were
necessary. Hitler’s distaste for compromise and his belief that democracy was only a mask
for domination and exploitation matched Lenin’s critique of “bourgeois” systems.
“The Leader,” wrote Hitler, knows the “broad masses … can he moved only by the
power of speech (unleashing) volcanic eruptions of human passions … not the lemonade-like
outpourings of literary aesthetes and drawing room heroes.” He inflamed Germany with an
image of a resurrected nation smashing its enemies and fulfilling its potential. His party’s
success depended on “the fanaticism, yes, the intolerance, with which its adherents uphold it
as the sole correct movement, and push it past other formations of a similar sort.”
Hitler wanted the Nazi state to become “a community of physically and psychically
homogeneous creatures,” where strength-undiluted by sympathy for enemies-was more
important than character or education. Racial solidarity and, more important, extreme
nationalism were an ideology aiming to compete with class solidarity. Employers, for
example, should not show “bigheaded short-sightedness” in failing to recognize that
economic development required concessions to the workers for the sake of national
solidarity. While racism and anti-Semitism are the characteristics most remembered about
Nazi Germany, they were secondary elements in Hitler’s ability to gain and hold power. The
German people supported the regime because of its nationalist appeal and viable claim of
It is easy to forget that Germany in the 1920s and 1930s was a country that felt itself
crushed under foreign power, almost as if it had been turned into a colony. The victorious
Allies in the First World War had forced onto it responsibility for the disastrous conflict.
Germany was deprived of its military forces, lost control over some of its most valuable
territory, and was saddled with a measure of economic servitude to pay reparations. Some
foreign observers saw the Hitler regime in its first years as an understandable reaction of an
oppressed and mistreated nation. Certainly his message of angry xenophobia and justification
for Germany was a powerful and effective one.
Yet Hitler’s success was also due to his mastery of the technique and structure of
modern dictatorship. While Stalin’s innovations preceded or paralleled his, Hitler was not
bound by the rhetoric of Marxism-Leninism on the proletariat and democracy. He could
openly express-in the most direct and ruthless manner-the inner secrets of this new political
style.. national chauvinism, militarization of society and fanatical insistence on unity, control
of culture and the media, direction of the economy, organization of almost everyone into
groups supporting the regime, pervasive ideology, linkage of career success with at least lip
service to the government’s goals, effective secret police, and destruction of the opposition.
All this rested on the popular appeal of a leader who could persuade listeners and win
millions of votes, alongside a program that combined nationalism and populism in a new
formula-national socialism-appropriate to the needs and nature of his country.
By 1933 opposition to Hitler was divided as the other left and right parties fought
among themselves. Communists attacked Socialists and claimed, “After Hitler, our turn.”
Some conservatives betrayed the republic to make a deal with the Nazis. Hitler’s passionate
speeches made converts, and his followers built a powerful party, private army, and
propaganda machine. His ideology exalted those who felt themselves exploited, found
scapegoats for their resentments, and stressed German superiority. No matter how much the
content of his ideology differed from Lenin’s, Hitler followed a Leninist strategy far more
effectively than did the German Communists.
While Hitler’s charismatic leadership allowed the Nazis to seize power, destroy all
opposition, and conquer most of Europe between 1939 and 1942, the same personalism
spelled the system’s doom. Neither the party nor any other institution could counter Hitler’s
military errors, obsessions, and increasing isolation from reality. Military defeat destroyed the
expansive fascism and militarism of Germany, Italy, and Japan; the Nazis’ insane crimes
discredited their ideology. Hitler committed suicide, Mussolini was hanged, and their puppets
elsewhere suffered deserved fates. If they had not gone to war against more powerful
opponents, there was no existing force or factor that seemed capable of destroying their
regimes. Future dictators were offered an important lesson: It is far easier to gain total control
of your own country than to attack neighbors, inviting foreign resistance that might
Stalin, of course, ended up on the anti-Nazi side only because Hitler invaded his
hitherto loyal ally. The Soviet dictator continued to unleash more oppression on the USSR
and its new Eastern European empire until his death in 1953. Successors trimmed the extreme
aspects of his repression, though not the monopoly of power.
The direct influences of Communist or Fascist ideas on Third World political figures
and the regimes they later led can he traced in some detail. Differences between the two
ideologies made them appeal to different groups. There were Latin American officers like
Juan Perón who admired the corporate state and Pan-Arab nationalists like Gamal Abdel
Nasser who also hated the British and Jews and admired German unification (but who later
allied himself with the Soviets); African students like Sékou Touré and Kwame Nkrumah
learned Marxism in Paris or London, and Chinese, Vietnamese, and others started
Communist parties under the guidance of Stalin’s Third International.
While the theory and practice of European totalitarianism were of central importance
in the history of dictatorship, this in no way implies that later Third World dictators are being
equated with Hitler and Stalin. Equally, there is little to he gained from political theories that
make the Hitler and Stalin systems archetypal “totalitarian” regimes. It is not very useful to
take the two most totally repressive, relentlessly ideological governments in the century as
the baseline for defining a political system, particularly since each required an industrialized
state, a highly structured ideology, advanced technology, and a distinctively pathological
Certainly, these are not very exact models for understanding Third World dictators far
less capable of “successfully” inflicting power and ideas on their own societies. Third World
modern dictatorships have been weaker and generally less ambitious, fanatical, and extreme
than the European totalitarian systems at their peak.
Further, these European examples are only part of the modern dictators’ heritage and
only partly fit into the conditions they face. Local history and tradition are the third and most
immediate source of inspiration for contemporary Third World dictators. The diversity of
Third World cultures and histories means that despite similar techniques of rule, leaders’
ideologies and styles vary enormously from continent to continent and from country to
country. Yet Third World societies still have a great deal in common regarding their social,
economic, and political structures.
For example, in contrast with the Marxist and Fascist emphasis on internal struggle,
Third World regimes have put a greater stress on the country-itself an infant whose survival
cannot be taken for granted-as a community of like-minded people. The village, tribe, and
extended family clan are seen as models for the nation. As in the European dictatorships, the
duty of group solidarity becomes linked with that of patriotism, but the object is the rapid and
lasting achievement of such unity rather than its disruption by internal conflict.
It is easy to see why Third World leaders seeking indigenous ideologies claim
capitalism and communism do divide the people into battling classes and groups. Democracy
and free speech cause factional strife and criticism; Marxism exalts one class and incites it to
hate and suppress the others. These systems are often seen as alien to national needs and
traditions. Unity is highly prized both because it fits with the “homogeneous community”
concept of past history and because it is a basic necessity if the nation and regime are going
to survive. Thus, different dictatorships invent their own “third way,” allegedly better than
capitalism or communism, democracy or “proletarian dictatorship.”
Such political and philosophical positions are complemented by similar foreign policy
views. Each regime is faced with constant demands to take sides in the East-West conflict.
Traditional dictatorships generally prefer strong links with the West. Modern dictatorships’
structure and rhetoric make them more akin to the Soviet Union, but they generally want to
minimize taking sides in the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, professing nonalignment to maximize aid
and play off the big powers.
Just as a modern dictator prefers to be seen as an important figure independent of the
two blocs, so he also wants to be considered father of his country, above faction and
criticism. If the local community parallels the nation, the national leader is equivalent to the
family head or clan chief. Like such a local notable, he does not welcome challenges from
dissidents or journalists. African tribalism, Asian Confucianism, Middle Eastern Islam, and
Latin American paternalism all preach respect for the leader.
The pragmatic value of this approach must be emphasized. Underdeveloped states are
held together by weak bonds. Disunity can easily turn into anarchy. Competing parties often
mirror and reinforce tribal, religious, and regional conflicts; civilian politicians and electoral
systems have repeatedly brought deadlock, corruption, and insolvable conflict. The
predominance of modern dictatorship is as understandable a response as it is a regrettable
Nevertheless, while differences inherent in the wide variety of countries and
individual dictators are extremely important, European totalitarianism formed a foundation
for the Third World modern dictatorships that came later. “Definitions are never absolutely
perfect,” Walter Laqueur has written. “The basic task is not to find ingenious formulas but to
reach a deeper understanding of the essential character of certain political regimes, and the
direction in which they are likely to develop.”