The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Global Security Studies

Living Edition
| Editors: Scott Romaniuk, Manish Thapa, Péter Marton


  • Trevor Kline
  • Francis GriceEmail author
Living reference work entry


Totalitarianism Charismatic leaders Popular mobilization Religious suppression Internal security The Khmer Rouge The Incan Empire 


Totalitarian governments have ruled over a variety of countries and civilizations throughout history. The populations under their rule were often subjected to rigid moral, social, and economic restrictions and yet, despite these challenges, many of these societies rose to prominence and left indelible marks upon history. This entry begins by discussing the concept of totalitarianism, including the way that it has been defined by some of the foremost scholars in the field. This is important because operationalizing a comprehensive definition of totalitarianism can help to support a better understanding of these regimes in the past, the present, and potentially the future. In order to provide a robust appraisal of the term, the entry examines first the theoretical tenants of the ideology before going on to analyze the internal security dimensions of the term that are so integral to its operation. It finishes by examining one recent and one historical example of totalitarian states: the Khmer Rouge and the Incan Empire.

Totalitarianism as a Concept

The term “totalitarian” first emerged in Europe during the 1930s–1940s, although some earlier examples that have subsequently been labeled as potentially part totalitarian, such as ancient Sparta, the Mauryan empire, and Revolutionary France. The term was coined to describe the absolutist dictatorial control that belonged to Benito Mussolini in Fascist Italy, Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, and Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union, although many later examples have also been associated with the concept (Tucker 1965). Totalitarian rule can often be identified through the presence of several key principles, although it should be noted that governments can abide by one or two of these factors yet not be fully totalitarian. It is ultimately the presence of multiple traits reaching a critical mass together that denotes a totalitarian regime. Carl J. Friedrich, a renowned scholar in the field, characterizes totalitarian regimes in what has become a seminal definition:

The features which distinguish totalitarian regimes from other and older autocracies, as well as from Western-type democracies, are six in number: (1) a totalist ideology; (2) a single party committed to this ideology and usually led by one man, the dictator; (3) a fully developed secret police; and three kinds of monopoly or, more precisely, monopolistic control: namely that of (a) mass communications; (b) operational weapons; (c) all organizations, including economic ones. (1969, p. 7)

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a colleague and contemporary of Friedrich, presents an alternative definition:

Totalitarianism is a new form of government falling into the general classification of dictatorship . . . a system in which technologically advanced instruments of political power are wielded without restraint by centralized leadership of an elite movement, for the purpose of effecting a total social revolution, including the conditioning of man on the basis of certain arbitrary ideological assumptions proclaimed by the leadership, in an atmosphere of coerced unanimity of the entire population. (1967, pp. 46–47)

These scholars provided some of the major frameworks for studying totalitarian governments, during the early Cold War, but their definitions were both shaped and limited by the historical period in which they lived. By unpacking their interpretations of totalitarianism and supplementing them with additional evidence, this article offers an updated account of these phenomena.

One hallmark of a totalitarian regime is the emergence of a charismatic leader, such as Hitler or Mussolini, from within the government or an insurgent political organization. Max Weber describes a charismatic leader as one who is “endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specific exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as not to be accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary” (Weber 1997, pp. 358–359). The individual may be endowed with these virtues, or they may successfully dupe the population into believing in their possession of these qualities. The leader employs techniques of mass manipulation to earn the trust and adulation of the populace. It is crucial to note some of the ways that totalitarian leaders differ from other conventional heads of state. While both leaders may rise to power through legal means, the totalitarian dictator will ultimately seek to subjugate the party and organs of the state that facilitated his election, including the military. The destruction or distortion of these institutions allows the leader to cultivate and install a new elite that will serve obediently (Schapiro 1972, p. 24). Once the leader has insulated himself with political loyalists, his insidious control will begin to infiltrate the population and its organizations.

The mobilization of the population toward a theoretically utopian objective is another dimension of totalitarianism. The leader propagates a message that encourages the upheaval of society in pursuit of a new idealistic norm to which total effort must be devoted, which allows the leader to frame those who might oppose this goal as an internal or external enemy. Hitler’s rhetoric about the need for a proud and ethnically pure Germany, for example, helped him to frame the Jews and later the Allied Forces as mortal enemies of Nazi Germany. Hitler channeled this energy into a mass mobilization of Germans for the war effort to achieve these aims. Similarly, in the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin’s single-minded pursuit of communism led to a complete restructuring of society, including through collectivization of agriculture and nationalization of industry. These theoretically utopian projects give totalitarian leadership significant control over the lives of individual citizens, enable them to claim that they are justified in taking direct control over employment, resources, and manpower, and provide them with considerable leverage over their supporters and dissidents alike. This logic has a long history, with Aristotle asserting as early as the fourth century B.C. that the tyrant, “refers to the devices of warmongering, and of impoverishing his subjects so as to keep them so busy earning a pittance that they have no time left to plot” (Politics, Book V). In addition to population mobilization, the totalitarian ruler seeks to cement his legitimacy among the people by holding plebiscites and open elections that put forth the illusion of a mass democracy. In reality, these elections are closely monitored by party officials and staged so that any form of dissent would draw unwanted attention to oneself. These “symbolic” gestures help the government to justify its rule and advance claims that it provides the most responsive form of democracy.

Suppression of religion and other standards of private morality is a further prominent feature of the totalitarian state, because any allegiance to faith or spiritual leaders undermines the leader’s ability to cultivate a pseudo-religious reverence for the state. Emilio Gentile observes the twofold archetypes for managing religion by a totalitarian regime noting, “while dealing with traditional or institutional religion, it either assumes hostile behavior, aiming at their complete elimination, or tries to establish a relation of symbolic coexistence with them in the sense that political religion aims at incorporating a traditional religion in its own system of beliefs and myths, attaching to the latter an instrumental or auxiliary function” (2004, p. 329). The dictator also recognizes that the divided interests of the people interfere with the illusion of a population that is wholly united behind the state, and as a result, he seeks to quash the competing hierarchy of power. These tendencies manifested themselves in both the Soviet and Nazi models of a totalitarian state, as Geffrey Kelly identifies, “In the first five years of the revolution, the Bolsheviks were said to have executed some 28 Russian Orthodox Bishops and over 1200 Russian Orthodox Priests” (2014, p. 48). The remaining religious leaders were forced to operate underground as churches and seminaries were outlawed or were faced with insurmountable persecution. The Soviet permutation of totalitarianism imposed an absolute zero tolerance policy on religion within the state. By contrast, Hitler attempted to co-opt many Christians in Nazi Germany through his skilled rhetoric and his establishment of the Nazified Reich Church, which attracted many pastors and their congregations. Hitler appointed Ludwig Müller, an outspoken Nazi sympathizer, to be the National Bishop of the new church in an attempt to unite the dissident churches and regulate religion through the party (Kelly 2014, p. 52). While these efforts enticed large swaths of German Christians, formal resistance to the Nazified Reich Church emerged when objecting pastors formed the Church of Confession. The new church faced enormous pressure from the Nazi government, which denied it the right to ordain ministers, gather in prayer, and enforced mandatory military service for its ministers (Kelly 2014, p. 60). Outspoken ministers were captured and tortured until they provided confessions regarding the activities of their colleagues.

There are a few main breeds of totalitarian regimes that are linked to other governing styles namely, communism, fascism, and theocratic governments, which lends a comparative element to these ideologies. Carlton J. Hayes remarked on the qualities of the communist totalitarian state, noting, “The Communist dictatorship makes much of the ideology of Marxian Socialism; its economic determinism, its atheistic materialism, its ideas of class conflict, and of the victory and supremacy of the so-called proletariat” (1938, p. 220). This totalitarian strain was captured by Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union, which deconstructed religious institutions and appealed to class neutral policies like collectivization. The fascist model incorporates national identity and the struggle to exist among other nations, races, and ethnicities as a core tenant in the party’s ideology. The fascist party seeks unlimited reach for the state using the political elite to mobilize the population into constant participation (Roberts 2002, p. 458). Hitler’s Nazi Germany operated under these pretenses in their demands for the destruction of the Jewish population, the perpetuation of the Aryan race, and in its worldview of Germany as downtrodden and mistreated post-World War I. The theocratic permutation of totalitarianism is by far the most controversial among scholars. Douthat captures the essence of the debate noting, The term “theocracy” describes who rules (the ecclesiastical authorities, standing in for God), whereas the term “totalitarianism” describes how the state rules (by seeking “to subordinate all aspects of the individual’s life to the authority of the government”) (2007). Under this presumption, there could exist theocracies that behave in a totalitarian manner, but theocracies in themselves are not inherently totalitarian. The empire of the Inca and Geneva under John Calvin constitute totalitarian leaning theocracies.

Internal Security

The primary internal security concern of the totalitarian state is the maintenance of order. The government achieves this through various mechanisms of social control, including censorship of the media, propaganda campaigns, the use of secret police, and the suppression of independent thought. State engagement in this behavior serves the totalitarian leadership in two ways. First, it eliminates any rival discourse to the party-state’s ideology. The suppression of academic and media outlets prevents the germination and diffusion of any ideology that could supplant party sponsored doctrine. Furthermore, this control allows the state to shape the information that reaches the public. This distortion of data is instrumental in maintaining the state’s illusion among the people. These factors are also intended to confuse and destabilize the population and direct their suspicions onto one another. Hannah Arendt asserts that the scare tactics practiced by totalitarian governments are unique in that, “[it] destroys not only actual political opponents but great numbers of wholly harmless people in purges, mass liquidations, and concentration camps” (Tucker 1965, p. 561). Many of the scholars who came to define the field, such as Arendt, Friedrich, and Brzezenski, concur that terror is the essence of the totalitarian regime. Identifying these trends in historic and contemporary states will provide a workable model for future manifestations of this governing style.

Censoring the media and public dissent is also vital for a repressive single-party state and the endurance of a totalitarian regime is based in large measure on its ability to impose standards of conformity on its citizens. Strict regulation of media statements and expressions of disapproval help the state to project this image. As Kecskemeti notes, “[government] controlled flow of material…is intended to enhance respect for the totalitarian government, to generate approval for its policies, and to silence doubts as to the power, benevolence, wisdom, and cohesion of the ruling clique” (1950). The regime relies on a combination of omission and modification of facts, rather than outright fabrication of information, to achieve these objectives. Despite their efforts to suppress and distort public sentiment, totalitarian regimes have a vested interest in monitoring and even responding to mass opinion. In Nazi Germany, for example, the Propaganda Ministry and Secret Police deployed field agents who were responsible for gauging the opinion of the average German on matters of public importance. Later, captured Nazi documents would reveal that private citizens of high stature, such as business leaders and wives of prominent party members, drew the government’s attention to certain social or administrative grievances (Kecskemeti 1950). Notably, these instances occurred as a private interaction between the citizen and the state, which kept any potentially unpopular speech outside of mainstream discourse.

The deliberate use of terror to generate fear and paranoia has long been used as a population control measure by totalitarian regimes. The process is usually initiated through cycles of violence that are repeated until the administration is satisfied with the results. As Friedrich notes, “the autocratic regimes of the past, lasting over long periods, experienced notable ups and downs in the degree of violence employed for their maintenance” (Friedrich et al. 1969). In Stalinist Russia, for example, frequent purges and pogroms such as the Great Purge of 1936–1938 killed millions of innocent people on the grounds of rooting out rogue agents. In fact, prior to Stalin’s death in March 1953, a paralytic terror had gripped the USSR after he proclaimed that foreign intelligence services had been fomenting Anti-Soviet sentiments in the country with the help of other Russians (Friedrich et al. 1969). These pretenses were claimed to be sufficient to justify a sweeping campaign to unmask potential enemies of the state at any cost. As a second example, in Nazi Germany, Hitler terrified party officials into occupying a disciplined and subservient role. On June 30th, 1934, under allegations of a suspected coup, Hitler ordered the murder of several hundred political officials, academics, and rivals in what would be dubbed “The Night of Long Knives” (Schapiro 1972). In reality, Hitler merely wanted to eliminate the opposition he would have been met with from the Sturmabteilung and other political adversaries. The efficiency of his decree frightened many bureaucrats and party members into a sense of compliance. The institutionalization of a secret police has also been a tactic of totalitarian regimes for spreading fear, with these organizations committed to the whims of supervisors who report directly to the dictator. Hitler’s Gestapo and Stalin’s People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs even mortified citizens who had nothing to hide. Those deemed in violation of party doctrine were typically executed without trial, which further exacerbated the culture of fear that had already gripped these societies.

Examples of Totalitarianism

One manifestation of the totalitarian archetype in the post-World War II era was the tyrannical reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. The Khmer attracted popular support in the country through their claims to be a grassroots movement that protected the interests of peasants from the corrupt government of Lon Nol and the spillover carnage from US bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War. The Khmer Rouge overtook Lon Nol and the country’s capital, Phnom Penh, on April 17th, 1975, and ushered in a period of horrifying totalitarian rule for the next three and a half years. The totalitarian tendencies of Pol Pot were made clear from the outset when he ordered the forced evacuation of Cambodian cities in order to “reeducate” the urban population. Barron and Paul suggest that the intention of these policies, “was to reduce the population to one disoriented, malleable mass” (O’Kane 1993, p. 739). Pol Pot also drew heavily on nationalist rhetoric that harkened back to the height of Cambodian power during the Angkor Empire from 800 to 1444: he promised to restore the country to that former glory and to liberate the ethnic Cambodians that were in foreign territories led by rival nationalities who were framed as mortal antagonists of the regime (O’Kane 1993, p. 738). The Khmer leadership began its ruthless consolidation of power with the help of loyalist military armies within a year of taking control of the government. As O’Kane observes, “Pol Pot began an onslaught against other zonal armies on the pretext of coup attempts by ‘traitorous forces which were Vietnam’s agents’” (1993, p. 736). These purges would continue through 1979, with some areas being purged multiple times. Finally, the Khmer Rouge employed labor camps and interrogation facilities to intimidate the population into complying with party doctrine. Many Cambodians were tortured in centers like Tuol Sleng until they confessed to fraudulent charges, while others were executed in mass shootings in the countryside. Recovered dossiers from Tuol Sleng revealed that of the 14,000 victims detained and executed there, about 80% were sympathizers of the Khmer Rouge (O’Kane 1993, p. 743).

The pervasive nature of qualities which are traditionally ascribed to totalitarian governments has led to fervent debate regarding the appropriateness of applying the totalitarian framework to the Khmer Rouge. Hannah Arendt is among the scholars who assert that the Khmer Rouge implemented a rudimentary totalitarian regime from 1975 to 1979. She cites the mass support and mobilization of the population, the absence of intermediary political institutions between the public and the state, the mystique of the Angkar organization, and the presence of interrogation facilities and forced labor camps used for the purpose of instilling terror as evidence supporting this claim. She notes, “The very absence of intervening political organizations between the masses and the central state, in conditions of an atomized, mass society brought about by the devastation of war, destruction of traditional ties and the break-up of families, attaches the isolated individual to the leader” (O’Kane 1993, p. 741). The isolation of the citizen from his common frame of reference is one of the principal goals of the totalitarian leader. Arendt identifies the Angkar as a “secret organization,” and one that attempts to confuse the populace and government officials alike through a grotesque and shapeless bureaucracy in which cadres cannot be sure what work is being accomplished by any department (O’Kane 1993, p. 742). She concludes her argument by recognizing how terror was wielded by the regime. Arendt contends that the practices of the Khmer Rouge were intended to cultivate fear within communities, xenophobic tendencies toward neighboring states, and generate animus between rural and urban dwellers, all of which lent credibility to the administration’s scare tactics.

Brzezinski and Friedrich maintain a contrary stance to Arendt due to discrepancies in how they define totalitarianism. Brzezinski’s definition of the concept includes the use of technologically advanced instruments of political power, and he suggests that the underdeveloped nature of Cambodia at that time precluded the regime from accessing these apparatuses (O’Kane 1993, p. 744). Furthermore, he provides the loosely developed, catch-all role of the Cambodian military as additional evidence that the state lacked most modern totalitarian measures. Friedrich takes issue with Arendt’s observations regarding the Khmer Rouge’s secret police and labor camps. In his definition of totalitarianism, he declares that the regime must have a fully developed secret police that conducts abductions and interrogations of the general population. In Cambodia, the secret police were a small contingent of informants who were members of the military that operated as plainclothes civilians (O’Kane 1993, p. 744). He attributes the lack of industrial infrastructure as the primary reason for the absence of this development, and as a result, Friedrich avows that the Khmer Rouge are missing this key aspect of totalitarian states. Despite these objections, it seems reasonable to define Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge as a rudimentary totalitarian state which had the potential to evolve into a fully totalitarian entity if the regime had lasted longer or sufficiently modernized.

The governing style of the Incan Empire has also attracted vibrant debate regarding the potentially totalitarian tendencies of its society. Many academics insist that the Incans exhibited a proto-totalitarian model of governance for multiple reasons. The state was entirely theocratic, and it was governed by an allegedly divine ruler who controlled both secular affairs and the priesthood (Schapiro 1972, p. 92). The government’s ideology was religious in nature and it was employed to mobilize the population for war, public works projects, and holy days. Labor conscription was an essential regime power that facilitated the creation of terraced fields, irrigation trenches, and a sprawling network of the roads that connected the empire (Kulmar 2003, p. 32). The masses whom were engaged in the massive state works and military endeavors were both state housed and fed. The Incans also refrained from developing a private property-owning class, as Schapiro observes, “The sinecure lands, which the Incas assigned to certain members of the ruling group, created no full-fledged ownership; and professional private enterprises were virtually absent in the sphere of transport and trade, which in other civilizations favored the rise of independent rich merchants” (1972, p. 92). Additionally, the Incan’s legal order was heavily punitive, and in many cases, punishments would be meted out to entire families or communities to make an example of them. The repercussions of protesting government policy were particularly brutal, as Tarmo Kulmar notes, “any social protests and manifestations of dissidence were qualified as sacrilege, for which both the transgressor and his close family were sentenced to death in a cellar crawling with venomous snakes” (2003, p. 33). While the Incans lacked the modern instruments of control that defined Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, they nevertheless demonstrated many features of totalitarianism within the context of an ancient preindustrial society.


Totalitarian regimes typically attract additional scrutiny from the international community due to factors that include the existence of a dominant leadership figure, the government’s stringent penal system, and the austere lifestyle it imposes on its citizenry. The unpredictability and total ideological commitment of these states has often made them prominent, yet notorious, actors on the world stage. An understanding of the qualities, tendencies, and objectives of these regimes can play a crucial role in ascertaining their domestic and foreign policy and identifying the symptoms of a government that is sliding into totalitarianism.



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Further Reading

  1. Gregor, J. A. (2008). Marxism, fascism, and totalitarianism: Chapters in the intellectual history of radicalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
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  3. Taylor, F. F., IV (Ed.). (2011). The great lie: Classic and recent appraisals of ideology and totalitarianism. Wilmington: Intercollege Studies Institute.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Political Science and International StudiesMcDaniel CollegeWestminsterUSA