Philip Jenkins




One of the most characteristic themes of world history during the twentieth century has been that of totalitarianism, and nowhere has that been so true as in Europe. Arguably, if a “mainstream” set of values can be deduced from the last 150 years or so of European history, they would be authoritarian, military and hyper-nationalist, rather than pluralist and liberal. In this class, we will begin by discussing the nature of totalitarianism; and then proceed to discuss the issues raised specifically in Tear Off the Masks.


To begin, some questions to guide your reading for our class


What is totalitarianism? Why did this kind of regime flourish during the twentieth century more than any other? How, if at all, do authoritarian or dictatorial regimes differ from totalitarian, and why does this distinction matter?


How were totalitarian regimes linked to theories of modernism? How were they grounded in contemporary ideas of science, biology, and racial theory?


How did (and do) totalitarian regimes use media and propaganda? How (if at all) did this usage differ from patterns in democratic regimes?


How much did the personality of individual leaders shape particular manifestations of totalitarianism? Was Stalinism a deformation of the Russian revolution or an inevitable consequence? What was the difference between Leninism and Stalinism?


When people think of totalitarian regimes, three obvious examples come to mind – Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Russia, though lesser regimes flourished in literally dozens of countries worldwide. How far are these “big three” representative, and how far can we extrapolate from what we find here to other countries?


A critical and controversial question – how different were dictatorships/totalitarian states from democracies?


How widely popular were totalitarian regimes? How can we tell?


How do these regimes use terror? Who benefits from the exercise of terror? How were terror and violence justified?


How did (and do) totalitarian regimes use religious and pseudo-religious imagery and concepts, including millenarianism and apocalyptic? What is the religious content of fascism and/or communism? How did they use mythological narratives to explain and justify their existence? Tell me about the uses of ritual and pageantry. How well did these regimes cope with the mainstream religious impulses of their people?


Tell me about the rhetoric(s) of totalitarianism. What were major themes in this discourse (eg modernity, science, authority, society as organic body, nationalism, unity against outside threats)? Again, how (if at all) did this usage differ from patterns in democratic regimes? How was totalitarian rhetoric shaped by the available technologies?


Tell me about the use and manipulation of history and memory under totalitarian regimes? How did memory (shaped, reshaped, and imagined) provide a basis for political action and cultural change? How did popular history form and sustain widely-credited myths that shaped the conduct of nations and groups?


Tell me about the uses of paranoia.


Tell me about the functions of gender and family under totalitarian regimes.


British anti-fascists of the 1930s used a chant,

“Mosley and fascism, what are they for?

Thuggery, buggery, hunger and war”

Tell me about the sexual or sado-masochistic elements of totalitarian movements and regimes.


What was the appeal of totalitarianism in Western democratic regimes? Tell me about the psychology of fellow-traveling? How have these ideas shaped the later interpretation of variants of totalitarianism, eg the greater sympathy for the Soviet or Chinese experiments rather than their German counterpart?


Do totalitarian regimes of Left and Right resemble each other more than they differ? What are the commonalities and differences between Fascism and Communism?


Did the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s and 1940s represent a decisive break with the traditions of particular societies, or a logical conclusion?


Tell me about the aesthetics of totalitarianism, in art, architecture, literature, cinema – yet again, how (if at all) did this usage differ from patterns in democratic regimes?


How far did totalitarian regimes in specific countries build on patterns distinctive to those particular cultures, ie what are the differences between totalitarian realities in China, Russia, Germany, Italy, Cuba, etc?


On its surface, the Chinese experience seems radically different from that of other lands, especially with the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. What do these events have in common with comparable trends in Russia or Germany? Is this an example of historical realities being conditioned by the individual psychopathology of one man, or a tiny clique of leaders?


How have views of Communism been affected by new documents that became available after the fall of the Soviet regime and its satellites? What do these changes mean for understanding US history and politics? How have these new perceptions affected our view of European history, especially in the case of the Spanish conflict of the 1930s, and the second world war?


Studies of totalitarianism face what we might cal; the German Dilemma, namely that Americans in particular are so focused on the experience of Nazi Germany, and of its anti-Semitism. If we change our focus somewhat, is it possible to say how typical Germany was, especially in the centrality of its racism?


How well did totalitarian regimes work with the economic context of the early and mid-twentieth century, the age of heavy industry and the megalopolis? Tell me about the totalitarian cityscape.


How did Communist and socialist regimes deal with the issue of ethnicity and nationalities within their territories?


What impact did totalitarianism have on everyday life of ordinary citizens of town and country? Who benefited?


Produce a definition of fascism that covers all the movements that claimed that label. It’s harder than you think!


Try to define the term “police state” in such a way that does not cover virtually all the normal criminal justice systems of modern Europe.


What overlap if any was there between totalitarian regimes of the 1930s and the political trends in the contemporary USA, especially the New Deal? Tell me about totalitarian movements within the US of that period. Did the US have fascism? Was/is the Ku Klux Klan fascist?


Why did European Communism collapse?


Tear Off the Masks


By way of introduction, these are reviews of her previous book, THE CULTURAL FRONT:

“Sheila Fitzpatrick has established herself as one of a small number of prominent historians of the first two decades of Soviet history who have changed the way students of the Soviet Union look at politics, society, and culture. Fitzpatrick’s work certainly deserves the attention, respect, and scrutiny of the broader historical community, and this collection will be an indispensable guide to her understanding of Soviet history.”—Mark von Hagen


“Fitzpatrick is a giant in the field whose work has added excitement to and deepened our understanding of Soviet history in the critical decades before World War II. Historians are taking a fresh look at this period and at the subject Fitzpatrick so ably interrogates in this volume: the relationship between the authorities and the intelligentsia.”—Donald J. Raleigh

On the present book:

"Fitzpatrick gives a vivid, sympathetic, and often entertaining picture of Soviet citizens surviving (barely) the class war (or, conversely, clawing their way up the ladder when circumstances allowed), and engaged in battles for existence of a different kind in the 1930s and 1940s."--Catriona Kelly

Reading Fitzpatrick, we find the great debates that divide scholars of Soviet history. One recurrent theme is the nature of the popular support enjoyed by the regime at different times. How far was Stalinism a dictatorship imposed from on high, and how far was terror supported by ordinary people at the grass roots? Perhaps her best known book is a study of “Everyday Stalinism”. (For a review of this book, see - and note the reference to the importance of masks!)


What contribution has Sheila Fitzpatrick herself made to these debates?


What is her main thesis in Tear Off the Masks? One point I would especially recommend to you. Though the whole book is good, do not get bogged down in the first ninety pages or so, which are quite theoretical. Move on as soon as possible to the rich autobiographical materials later in the book.


Though her book has much to recommend it, I will identify some of the central themes that strike me. In each case, I would like you to find events and passages that illustrate these themes, or perhaps contradict them.


A question I will ask on basically all our texts - what events particularly grabbed you or struck you in this story? Which of the documents quoted had a particular impact on you? Which of the stories?


The book tries to integrate social and political history with psychological approaches. How successful is she in this?


What did the Bolsheviks want? What obstacles did they have to overcome to get there?  What changed over time in their goals and methods? How far did they succeed in creating a new Soviet man (woman)? Note Fitzpatrick’s stress on the mythical quality of the classes that they appear to have as the center of their ideology – the theory produces the classes.


Note how Soviet society is dominated by bureaucracy, by files, by dossiers, and formal required autobiographies. As time goes on, note how these bureaucratic facts become reality, and how “real” selves fade away to nothing, if they ever existed. Society becomes a vast multifaceted novel, in which people survive by writing their own narratives, however true or bogus these may be; life becomes a constant process of self-invention and self-censorship, self-editing and confession. “Person” means mask, prosopon. Note how people constantly fake their identities through self-delusion, that they presumably internalize and believe. The audience for these stories is however not the purchasing public, but bureaucrats and police with the power to end your life. Life really is a Russian novel!


What are the religious analogies to this behavior?


Partly people adopt the language they need to survive, but they also learn the ideologies of the state – how? Through what mechanisms?


Note the distrust of double identities, of nuance and complexity: bureaucracy likes simplicity, preferably written in black and white.


How does sex feature in these stories and confessions?


How does patronage emerge as a theme? Does this not look much like the workings of a court society? Why does a “modern” Communist regime look so much like an old royal court? Do people notice the paradox?


How does political faction affect people at grass roots level?


What kind of masks did people assume?


Obvious question: was not the state’s ideology the most deceptive mask of all?


What questions does Fitzpatrick ask of the documents?


How do patterns of accusation and condemnation spread? Think of the witch-hunt analogy. Why do people denounce each other? What is the benefit for them personally? Ideologically?


Fitzpatrick refers on a couple of occasions to the famous case of Pavlik Morozov. You can read more about him at and . What do we learn from a case like this?


For another famous “masked” (or bogus) individual, see


Tell me about individual cases in the book that seemed particularly telling to you.


How do women feature throughout the book? What do we learn about the Communist attitude to gender?


How do parent-child relations feature throughout the book?


Note how confidence men serve as Trickster figures, perhaps as escape valves for public fears and obsessions.


How do Jews feature in these social arrangements?


How far do people in democratic societies past or present use similar masks? How do people try to pass for what they are not?


If you were writing a book on IDENTITY AND IMPOSTURE IN TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICA, what might it look like? Hey, not a bad idea… begin with Melville’s The Confidence Man for the earlier background; and then work through the cult of the confidence man; The Sting and Paper Moon; Identity theft; how the credit rating became the critical internal passport of American society; racial “passing” (“I passed for white”); people inventing bogus underclass identities to sell books or make rock albums; conspiracy theories; ….


The book offers a case-study in how people learned to “speak Bolshevik”. But think of the other kinds of self-invention in these same years. How did people learn to speak Nazi? To speak American? To speak Israeli? Or to speak in any of the invented identities of the postcolonial world? How were racial and class identities invented elsewhere? How do people learn to speak post-Soviet?


What other criticism would you have of Fitzpatrick’s work? What other questions might you ask of her material? What other interpretations might you offer?


For reviews of Tear Off The Masks! See especially . For some  recent reviews and essays by Fitzpatrick herself, see ; ; and . All are worth reading in their own right, especially the LRB one.