Totalitarianism: Definition, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of Totalitarianism
  • 0:51 Nazi Germany
  • 2:29 Stalinist Soviet Union
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Katie Cote

Katie teaches high school social studies and has a master's degree in history from Providence College.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Totalitarianism is a form of government control that swept across Europe in the early 20th century. It eventually spread to other parts of the globe but is generally characterized by the major personalities that helped to define totalitarianism. Leaders like Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini became synonymous with the control they held over their nations and people.

Definition of Totalitarianism

The essence of totalitarianism can be found in its very name; it is a form of rule in which the government attempts to maintain 'total' control over society, including all aspects of the public and private lives of its citizens.

There are several characteristics that are common to totalitarian regimes, including:

  • Rule by a single party
  • Total control of the military
  • Total control over means of communication (such as newspapers, propaganda, etc…)
  • Police control with the use of terror as a control tactic
  • Control of the economy

However, even though there were common characteristics of the different totalitarian regimes, it didn't look the same in all countries in which it was employed. So how did totalitarianism look? Let's go over a couple of examples below.

East German state police force
East German State Police

Nazi Germany

Perhaps the most famous example of totalitarianism is Nazi Germany under the rule of Adolf Hitler. Hitler came to power in 1933 after being elected by the German people. However, he illegally assumed more power than was granted under German law. By doing so, he held complete control of the government, both national and local.

Hitler saluting at a Nazi rally
Hitler saluting at a rally

Under Hitler's regime, if a citizen spoke against the government then they would be arrested and often sent to a concentration camp. Concentration camps were part of a system used for the imprisonment and murder of people the Nazis deemed undesirable. The concentration camps were used in the Holocaust and held millions of Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals, mentally handicapped, and any other person the Nazis deemed undesirable before they were sent or worked to their deaths.

The Nazis also made stipulations as to what people were allowed to do in their daily lives. For example, artists had to create paintings portraying Nazi values, jazz music was banned, and books written by people deemed undesirable under the Hitler regime were burned. Youth organizations indoctrinated girls and boys with Nazi ideology from a young age, and the Nazi police organization, known as the SS, intimidated and terrorized people in an attempt to control them.

The final quality of Hitler's regime that signaled the Nazi government held total control was the extensive use of propaganda. Hitler's picture was everywhere, newspapers were censored, and radio broadcasts were controlled by the government.

Stalinist Soviet Union

Another famed example of a totalitarian regime is the leadership of the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. Stalin came to power following the death of Vladimir Lenin. Stalin gained control by blackmailing many of the leaders in the communist government and eventually murdered his main rival, Leon Trotsky.

Artists painted pictures and authors wrote novels that glorified Stalin, and people were expected to have a picture of him in their homes, often replacing former pictures of Jesus and other religious figures. He took on the nickname 'Uncle Joe' in an effort to give off a kind and friendly personality. In reality, Stalin ran a country in which he held total, oppressive control.

Portrait of Stalin
Soviet leader Stalin

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Additional Activities

Writing Prompts About Totalitarianism

Poster Prompt 1:

Create a poster that shows the definition of totalitarianism and also features the common characteristics of it.

Guidelines: The definition should be at the top or in the middle where it can be viewed and referenced easily. There are five characteristics given in the lesson, so be sure that the poster contains all five.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay that explains the way totalitarianism was carried out in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, and be sure to compare and contrast totalitarianism in the two regimes.

Guidelines: A good essay will utilize the five characteristics of totalitarianism and explain how Germany and the Soviet Union both used them. A good essay will also address the cultural, social, and religious aspects of totalitarianism in both nations, in addition to exploring the way punishment was used to solidify Hitler's and Stalin's power. Be sure that you understand the definition of "concentration camp" and "gulag" before you begin writing the essay.

Primary Source Analysis Prompt 1:

Write an essay of at least three to five paragraphs that analyzes the photos of Hitler and Stalin presented in this lesson. Since so much of totalitarianism is based on the personalities of the leaders, what can you infer about Hitler and Stalin by examining these photos? Tip: Be sure to explain how Hitler and Stalin are portraying themselves in these photos, and how such presentations might influence people's views of them.


Remember that a good essay always has a strong thesis statement. Therefore, an example of a thesis statement for an essay like this might go something like, "Photos of Hitler depict him as unquestionably authoritarian, while photos of Stalin portray him as inviting yet still in control. Both representations illustrate the different ways totalitarian leaders can showcase their authority."

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