Some questions to guide your reading for our class on totalitarianism during the twentieth century


What is totalitarianism? Why did this kind of regime flourish during the twentieth century more than any other? How, if at all, do authoritarian 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?


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?