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Waldemar Gurian on Totalitarianism (1953)

The term "totalitarianism," which started its triumphal march through our time in Italy and was taken over in Germany, has never been accepted by the regime which today is regarded as the survival of totalitarianism in its most powerful form. The representatives of the Soviet regime did not care to appear on the side of Fascism and Nazism as belonging to the front of totalitarianism. The ruling Soviet party does not officially pretend to be a ruling elite separated from the masses, destined to lead and dominate them. . . . And even today, after the withering away of the state, announced in Lenin's State and Revolution (1917), has been postponed to a future very far away, beyond all human calculation, and after the strong almighty Soviet state has been accepted as the decisive fact of the present, the belief is not abandoned that the state will disappear. But this belief has become a utopian promise completely overshadowed by the political regime as exist today. Therefore, it can be said that despite the rejection of the name "totalitarianism," the USSR has become the purest embodiment of totalitarianism, for in Germany it did not have time to last long enough. . . .

What is totalitarianism? Totalitarianism is often not distinguished from absolutism. Under absolutism all regimes without parties or elected representative bodies are subsumed. . . . Totalitarianism appears then as a modern despotism. A power-hungry group achieves power -- using demagogic means to maintain and expand its unlimited and unchecked power. These means are particularly terrifying and efficient and our time because of technical progress and inventions which permits swift concentration and application of power and manipulation as well as production of public opinion. There are no truly representative subleaders, there are no independent social groups, no traditional rights, no historical contributions and merits which can check the modern absolute totalitarian rulers; it must be emphasized that the totalitarian system differs from old-fashioned despotism and autocracy in its use of economic and technological pressures and manifestations of so-called public opinion. The totalitarian tyrannies of our time do not appeal to the "divine right," but they claim to represent the true will of the masses and of the people. They like to characterize themselves as representing the "real country" against legalistic fictions of democracies which destroy the unity of the people and paralyze it by parties, the instruments of parasitic and egoistic particular interests. They present themselves as "true" democracies because, for instance, only the communistic party (which allegedly is identical with the working productive masses) exists; whereas all exploiters and their representatives are suppressed. . . .

Therefore it may be said that the various forms of totalitarianism -- Nazism and Soviet Communism -- are politico-social secularized religions, characteristic of our epoch. The totalitarian movements and their power replace God and religious institutions such as the Church; the leaders are deified; the public mass-meetings are regarded and celebrated as sacred actions; the history of the movement becomes a holy history of the advance of salvation, which the enemies and betrayers try to prevent in the same way as the devil tries to undermine and destroy the work of those who are in the service of the City of God. There are not only sacred formulas and rituals, there are also dogmatic beliefs, claims to absolute obedience and damnation of heretics in the name of absolute truth which is authoritatively determined by those leading the movement. The doctrine may impose certain slogans and formulas -- racism for the Nazis; class war, anti-capitalism for the Bolsheviks -- but just the unlimited and uncontrollable right of interpretation and reinterpretation by the leadership gives to totalitarian politics its flexibility. . . .

What is the formal structure of a totalitarian ideocracy or socio-political religion? Essential is the belief; there are laws of necessary social development, economic or biological ones. After many fights the good forces will win out; the right order will be established. The victory of these good forces is dependent upon elites who represent either groups of natural superiority or those by whom the true interest of the masses becomes conscious. The domination of these groups is necessary for the world salvation; indeed it is the world's salvation.

This domination cannot be a limited one; it must embrace the whole of life and society. It must determine all realms of individual and social existence. There can be no private life outside. Passive acceptance is insufficient. Enthusiastic, active acclamation and support are necessary, or man must serve as malleable material in order to show the superiority and the unlimited power of the rulers. . . .

The totalitarian ideology a deification of a power system -- the power system directed by that group which came into being as its creator and claims to act as its realizer. Therefore, it is on the one hand a system which pretends to answer all questions and to solve all problems by its doctrine; on the other hand, it is very flexible, for it can be adapted to all situations according to the decisions and the interests of the ruling elite. Unauthorized criticism of details and rational arguments against the general line are without effect; they appear simply as expressions of evil and ignorant forces unable to see the whole truth. The individual must sacrifice himself to the collective dynamic. The imperfect present is justified by the coming perfect future, that of the classless society or of the Third Reich. Scientific and "ethical" justifications are used to express the necessity of the totalitarian politics and demonstrate its superiority.

The totalitarian ideology becomes at the end a purely formal one. Under Stalin to believe in the withering away of the state is transferred to a realm practically beyond human history, but it continues to be most important. It justifies eternal dynamism, it makes all actions of the totalitarian regime appear as necessary and corresponding to the unity and logic of a system. . . .

The totalitarian society would dissolve into chaos if it could not be kept together by the artificial totalitarian doctrine whose domination corresponds not only to the laws of society and history, but fulfills the mission which it above all challenges. . . . The ideocracy is the ideology for the continuation of the present rule by a group which has established a system of absolute domination by terror, organization, manipulation, and propaganda.

[Source: Waldemar Gurian, "Totalitarianism as Political Religion," in Carl J. Friedrich, ed., Totalitarianism (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964), pp. 120-123, 125-129.]

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