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most infamous totalitarian rulers and how they earned that reputation.


The term “totalitarianism” dates to the fascist era of the 1920s and 1930s, and it was first used and popularised by Italian fascist theorists, including Giovanni Gentile. It progressively came to be extended to include not just extreme utopian dictatorships of the far right, but also Communist regimes, especially that of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. It is still frequently associated with Cold War thought of the 1940s and 1950s, a period during which it was most widely utilised as a governing concept, although its philosophical implications transcend that era’s political fears and rhetoric. As used in this article, “totalitarianism” will refer to the most extreme modern dictatorships possessing perfectionistic and utopian conceptions of humanity and society.

Totalitarianism’s appeal is linked to a variety of perennial values and intellectual commitments. Although a distinctly modern problem, proto-totalitarian notions may be found in a variety of philosophical and political systems. In particular, Plato’s utopian society discussed in the Republic featured a caste-based society in which both social and moral order are to be maintained and fostered through strict political control and eugenics.

In the seventeenth century, absolutists and royalists such as Thomas Hobbes and Jacques Bossuet advocated, in various ways, a strong centralized state as a guarantor against chaos in conformity with natural law and biblical precedent. However, it was only in the early twentieth century that totalitarianism, properly understood, became a conceptual and political reality. Thinkers as diverse as Carl Schmitt in Germany and Giovanni Gentile in Italy helped to lay the foundations of fascist ideology, stressing the defensive and unifying advantages of dictatorship. In the nascent USSR, Vladimir Lenin developed Marx’s ideas from a potentially totalitarian base into a full blown communist ideology, in which Marx’s own phrase “the dictatorship of the proletariat” was interpreted explicitly to mean the dictatorship of the Soviet Communist Party.