Totalitariansim and Authoritarianism in Brief

June 2, 2010

The trip we are currently on in Germany is at least partially intended to explore two types of government that existed in Germany in the 20th century. The first is totalitarianism, which existed under the national socialist party (Nazi) between 1933 and 1945. The second is authoritarianism, which existed in East Germany between the end of the Second World War and the fall of the Berlin wall. In this blog I will explain each type of government in brief and conclude by explaining why it is important that we understand these types of government today.

We have only seen totalitarian governments in the last century or so and they tend to be rather short lived. The brief lifespan of totalitarian regimes is due to their composition, which is bizarre in comparison to what most of us are used to in terms of what we expect from a government. As their name suggests, totalitarian regimes attempt to control the lives of their citizens completely. Totalitarian regimes regulate every aspect of life in that there are no organizations that are independent of control by the state. The state regulates where people work, pray, sleep, and what they think.

In the particular case of the Nazis this control was established very quickly, and brutally. Brutality is another ear-mark of totalitarian regimes and while there are many levels on which this works two particularly stand out in my mind. The first is that anyone who questioned the regime was publicly humiliated: in a few cases that we looked at today for example a woman that was accused of having an intimate relationship with a Polish man had her head shaved and was paraded in front of a very large crowd; another man was made to wear a sign that suggested something such that he was a useless malcontent and was also paraded in front of a large crowd.

While this may sound simply medieval and therefore perhaps not that awfully bad the second common aspect to authoritarianism under the Nazis was the murder of innocent people. The holocaust may have been the ultimate culmination of the Nazi system in Germany, but the killing of innocent people began much earlier than the death camps and in some sense evolved into them. In order to gain control in the first place in Germany the Nazis used intimidation and murder to keep the population fearful. Anyone that was even accused of disloyalty to the regime could be arrested and killed. For the most part the murder of people in the beginning was entirely public, the political purpose of this was to strike fear into the population in order to keep them under control. These two aspects of totalitarianism do not fairly sum up how the system attempted to exert complete control on the population of Germany, but it is fair to say that they were a rather large part of the control mechanisms in German society. It is also important to note that the Nazis never succeeded in completely controlling the population, however it is true that while there was dissent in Nazi Germany, it never was large enough or well enough organized to call it a true resistance. In other words acts of resistance did occur, but for the most part the people involved were very few and were killed almost immediately.

The second type of government that we are looking at is the authoritarian regime in East Germany between the end of the World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unlike a totalitarian government authoritarian regimes do not seek to completely control the lives of their citizens, but rather they mercilessly enforce laws based usually on an ideology. In the case of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Berlin) the ideology was essentially soviet-style communism. The GDR had a command economy which meant that everything that was produced there was controlled by the government. This meant that all everyday items were manufactured by the government and not the private sector. The film Goodbye Lenin does a great job of portraying the kinds of goods that were available in the GDR. A few examples of how this worked are that while none of the food that was available was particularly good, people always had enough to eat. Another example is that if someone wanted a car there were only two available models that the government manufactured, neither of which were very good and it might take 5 or more years to get one from the government factories. Goodbye Lenin does a good job of illustrating that life in the GDR was not all bad, however the flip side of this is illustrated in another film that we watched in preparation for the trip: The Lives of Others.

The Lives of Others portrays the life of an artist who is put under surveillance by the Stazi (the GDR’s secret police.) The man’s house was equipped with full video and audio surveillance without his knowledge. Anyone in the GDR who even said anything bad about the government could have been put into prison or even killed. In the particular case of the gentleman portrayed in the film, despite the fact that he was under surveillance, he wrote an article that was deeply critical of the GDR and got it published in De Spiegel, a prominent West German newspaper. To find out what happened to him as a result of this I would recommend watching the movie: it is too good to give away the ending. Nonetheless the point is that even a simple criticism of the GDR could have resulted in arrest and imprisonment (potentially indefinitely.)

Both of these explanations despite being perhaps long-winded are somewhat simplistic in understanding these two systems of government. Despite this I will move on to explain why it matters to us today, (and also I have been told that blogs should be short and I do tend to ramble.)

It is important to understand the past in order to build a better future for our species and our planet. As a professor of mine said, in English when we say that something is history we tend to mean that it is not important. In almost every other language on the planet the opposite is the case: to say that something is history is to ascribe importance to it. We have to understand these types of government to make sure that it does not happen again!

The US today is responsible for bombing and killing untold people in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been holding people without trial and have committed torture. It is not fair to say that the US is definitively moving toward a system similar to that of the Nazis or the GDR, we are better than that. But it doesn’t change the fact that it can happen again. It took the Nazis 30 years or more of organizing to get into power and everything they did after that was incremental. Granted from the outset it should have been clear that they wanted to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe, but it doesn’t change the fact that they could and should have been resisted. What this means to me is that whenever and wherever we see morally objectionable behavior we are morally required to react against it.

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil:

God will not hold us guiltless.

Not to speak is to speak.

Not to act is to act.

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was “hanged in a Nazi prison at Flossenburg in Bavaria on April 9, 1945.”



One comment

  1. Hi David, I don’t know if the discipline of regime studies in political science would agree with everything you said, but I believe you made some really thoughtful remarks and this serves as an excellent introduction for your following posts.

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