The Rise of Totalitarianism

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Time Line


1921 Mussolini founds Fascist Party in Italy
1922 Mussolini becomes prime minister of Italy
1929 U.S. stock market crashes; beginning of Great Depression
1933 Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany
1936-1939 Spanish Civil War
1939 Francisco Franco establishes dictatorship in Spain


The Rise of Totalitarianism

Certain social and political conditions of the period after World War I gave rise to Fascist dictatorships throughout Europe. The first was the new trend that gave ordinary citizens a voice in their government. The second was dissension among the forces or parties of the political left. The third was the large class of combat veterans who made an enthusiastic audience for nationalist rhetoric.

Widespread participation in government by the citizens was something new in the twentieth century. For the first time, each man had one vote, regardless of his birth or education. Fascist leaders found that propaganda techniques were enormously effective with uneducated voters; simple images and slogans were often repeated, easily remembered, and immediately appealing to a class of people who were accustomed to obeying and accepting authority. Since the uneducated vastly outnumbered the rest of the population, Fascists always made sure to commandeer their support.

Political theorists speak of “the left” when they refer to liberal politicians who look to the future, and of “the right” when they refer to conservatives who look to the past. In the years after the Great War, the forces of the political left found themselves in disagreement. The radicals had become so radical that they alienated the Socialists and liberals, whose political aims were more moderate. Many Socialists reasoned that a conservative government would be more moderate than a radical one; in other words, they believed that fascism (a conservative government) was a better alternative to communism (a radical government).

A high degree of nationalism always exists among the military; this is natural and inevitable among a profession of people who risk their lives in combat for their nation, while regarding other nations as the enemy. Many veterans of World War I, especially the Germans, believed that their sacrifices had been in vain and their nation had been damaged and humiliated. Dictators could give extreme, angry, high-flown patriotic speeches that sounded excessive to any reasonable person, but that veterans could be counted on to applaud enthusiastically. Dictators actively courted the support of veterans because they wanted the personal loyalty of the military. Control of the military made any leader practically invulnerable to opposition because the military had control of the guns.

In practice, as it turned out, fascism and communism amounted to the same thing—totalitarianism. Each dictatorship of the period between the world wars was fiercely nationalist, espousing an extreme form of patriotism that, at least in Germany’s case, developed into active, malevolent racism. Each established government controls over what had been a market economy. Each used the army as an instrument to control the people. Each employed a police force that reported only to the dictator and that was hated and feared by the citizens. None tolerated dissent in any form; none tolerated free speech, free expression in the arts, or a free press.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Rise of Totalitarianism Practice Test
Add your own comment

Ask a Question

Have questions about this article or topic? Ask
150 Characters allowed