Totalitarianism is merely a word, but behind this word is eras marked with terror and death. The plague of fear that coursed through the veins of the people living under these regimes was brought on by individuals who, through outside circumstances or their own abilities, were able to rise to the position of dictator, leaving citizens with the choice of compliance, or death.
But what is it that characterizes a totalitarian dictatorship? Surely there are many similarities between the various totalitarian regimes we have seen in the past, but it is generally agreed upon that the six major likenesses include elaborate ideologies, a single mass party, a system of terror imposed upon the people, a centrally directed economy, a weapons monopoly, and effective mass communication.1 It is these characteristics that will be used to compare and contrast two of history’s most infamous totalitarian dictators: Hitler and Mussolini.
As mentioned previously, an elaborate ideology is essential to a totalitarian regime, and it is of no question that both of these men had extreme ideologies that any rational human being would deem unreasonable. Expansionism was, without a doubt, a major focal point for both Hitler and Mussolini, and despite their close proximity, they did not compete for the same land.
Hitler’s had his gaze set strongly upon Eastern Europe and Russia, in his never-ending quest to obtain Lebensraum, whereas Mussolini was in a pursuit to annex Abyssinia and great amounts of the Mediterranean. A significant difference in their ideologies, however, was that Hitler had a deep-rooted hatred for the Jews, speaking of them as the germs of society,2 and wanting to exterminate them altogether, rebuilding a population consisting solely of the Aryan race. By taking over Russia, he would seemingly be killing two birds with one stone—eliminating Jewish Bolshevism, and expanding his territory. Mussolini made no attempt to rid the world of any particular race.
In fact, one of his main goals was to revert back to the ways of the old Roman Empire, which he did through expansionism, dictatorship, and tight control over the military, as well as simpler things such as incorporating long abolished Roman symbols into society. So it is not hard to see that each man had an extraordinary vision, but what is also blatantly obvious is that neither were able to hold on to their accomplishments for long, perhaps down to sheer greed— to always wanting more than what was already in their grasp.
Both Germany and Italy were headed by a single party, parties that demanded loyalty from the people and punished opposition. In Germany, it was the notorious Nazi party, also known as the NSDAP, that formed in 1919 as a result of the occurrences that took place during the First World War.3 What is not widely known is that Hitler did not create the Nazi Party.
He was merely a political spy for the army, sent to Munich to monitor their meeting, but joined that very day.4 It was his charisma and his public speaking ability, among other things, that saw his rise to the top. Never was it Hitler’s intention to become the leader of the party, and prior to his acceptance of responsibility in 1923, it was his belief that he was simply paving the way for the coming dictator.5 Unlike the German leader, Mussolini was responsible for the creation of his political party: the National Fascists.
Also unlike Hitler, his initial intentions were not based on transforming Italy into a dictatorship, and it wasn’t until three years after he came into power that the idea of establishing a one-man, one-party state even crossed his mind. In fact, even after creating fascism, he remained loyal to the idea of establishing a parliament based on a majority vote. There is one other fundamental difference between the German and Italian governments that is worth noting.
In most totalitarian regimes the dictator is responsible for nobody but himself,6 which holds true in Hitler’s case, however, in the case of Mussolini, a higher power still remained. King Victor was king of Italy throughout the era of the Fascist regime, meaning that perhaps Mussolini was not a true dictator, for he still had to answer to the monarchy during his time as ruler.
Obtaining total control and loyalty to a single party would be a difficult task without the added dimension of fear. If people are given something to fear, they will often obey, and those that don’t often set the example to the rest of society that dire consequences are the result of opposition to the regime. Hitler’s Gestapo was formed in 1934 under SS leader Heinrich Himmler, its primary goal being to abolish oppositionists, Catholics, Protestants, sects, Freemasons, Jews, and many other minority groups.
All these people, young or old were to feel the wrath of the Gestapo, often paying the price of death for merely living life the way they chose. Furthermore, any group suspected of planning a coup against the government, as seen in the case of numerous Sturmabteilung leaders, was immediately shot by SS officers. On a lesser scale was Mussolini’s OVRA, the Organization for Vigilance and Repression of Anti-Fascism, put forth in 1927.7 As the name suggests, they were also a form of the political police, set out to monitor those suspected of anti-Fascist activity.8
Though the OVRA’s tactics were far less extreme, often punishing oppositionists with exile rather than death, their intentions were very much the same as the Gestapo’s, crushing any force that may put loyalty to the dictator at risk.
A centrally directed economy is another criterion for a totalitarian regime, and though it was neither man’s greatest priority, Hitler and Mussolini both took steps to mould Germany and Italy’s economy to suit their ideologies. The success of the changes implemented by Hitler are questionable, because they were put forth in a time shortly after the Great Depression—It was unlikely that things were going to get much worse. In the late 1920s, the Twenty-Five Point Program was put in place, which outlined the abolition of incomes unearned by work, the confiscation of war profits, profit sharing, and land reform.
The threat also remained that if you were unemployed, you would be sent to a concentration camp. The Twenty-Five Point Program, combined with the Four Year Plan of 1936, ensured that the economy and the armed forces would be prepared for a war in the coming years.9 Other policies such as export promotion, import reduction, the strengthening of the currency, and the establishment of trade agreements, were outlined in the New Plan of 1934. Much like in Germany, Italy was experiencing hardships that made it almost impossible to go downhill from the point where Mussolini took power.
They were the poorest of the major nation-states, and despite his best efforts, nothing he did was able to reverse that to a great degree.10 Due to inflationary pressures, the exchange rate of the lira was drastically affected, thus resulting in Quota 90, a plan to get the lira back up to pre-war value.
The plan backfired, and although the lira gained back some of its lost value, living standards deteriorated as many people lost their jobs. Aside from the battle of the lira, there was also the battle of land and the battle of grain, seeking to make land more useable for farming and to focus mainly on producing grain rather than fruits and vegetables.
It was also in Mussolini’s interest to implement cheap foreign imports, to reconstruct the transport system, and abrogate the trade unions. Unlike Hitler, who is said to have had perhaps some success with his policies, Mussolini was unable to climb out of the economic grave that Italy had seemingly dug for itself.
With their regimes clashing with World War II, Hitler and Mussolini had no choice but to establish weaponry and armed forces to use against their foe. At the time of the war, Germany was engrossed in an arms race with Britain, resulting in the production of advanced weapons, aircraft, and navy ships. At the beginning of World War II, the Luftwaffe, otherwise known as the German air force, was considered the most modern, powerful, and experienced air force in the world, however, the focus was on the creation of advanced aircraft, rather than pilot training, which proved to be their downfall.
In 1938, as a result of Kristallnacht, Hitler passed the Nazi Weapons Act, a law that would allow the Germans to have total control over the public’s possession of guns. Hitler, in his quest for superior weaponry, spent much of his time creating secret weapons that often never came to fruition, time that perhaps may have been better spent focusing on the improvement of existing technology. Some of his creations included the long-range rocket-bomb, the V1 flying bomb, and the V2 rocket.11 Mussolini’s weapons monopoly seemingly began before his reign, which was seen in 1919 upon his arrest for possession of weapons and guns.
Throughout his time as dictator, he also served as the Commander-in-Chief of the Italian Armed Forces, known to supply local Fascist groups with revolvers and grenades, in an attempt to have them violently intimidate the Socialists.12 Unlike Germany’s air force, Italy’s did not live up to the hype that Mussolini surrounded it with, and claims of cutting edge aircraft were backed up with nothing more than obsolete biplanes.
The navy was far better prepared than the air force, hosting four battleships, six cruisers, sixteen destroyers, and sixty-four submarines, all of which were up to the technological standards of that time.13 Although Italy was not as technologically advanced as Germany, both countries made striking advancements with their weaponry and armies, but it was a combination of production problems, skewed priorities, and inferiority to other countries that was ultimately their downfall.
Persuasion of the masses was not an easy task, and could not be done simply by speaking to an audience without an inkling of charisma. In the case of Nazi Germany, it can be said that public allocution was a primary method of propaganda, and was extremely effective in this case due to Hitler being ‘a born popular speaker who through his fanaticism and populist style positively compelled his audience to take note and share his views’.14
It was not only his verbal ability that gave him the edge; it was his strong belief in the Nazi ideology that really brought him to the next level. Public appearances were not the only method of propaganda seen in Germany at this time, however.
Prior to 1933 they also relied heavily on posters and the press, but with technology quickly advancing and the introduction of new media, radio, and film quickly became the primary means used by the Nazis to get their messages across to the public.15 Children were also inoculated with Nazi beliefs through parental encouragement and the introduction of new textbooks into school systems.16
Propaganda in the Fascist regime was strikingly similar, and though Mussolini is not as well-known for his speaking ability as Hitler, he was in-tune with the psychology of crowds, thus making him extremely effective at swaying the masses.17 He too took full advantage of advancing technology, creating the Ministry of Popular Culture and the Experimental center of Cinematography in order to reach the public through radio and film, respectively.
Though the methods of propaganda in Nazi Germany are strikingly similar to those used in Fascist Italy, the message they were trying to get across was not always the same. As one might expect, anti-Semitism and labor were stressed in Germany, whereas a strong emphasis on the gender roles of males and females was portrayed in Italy. Despite their differing messages, both Hitler and Mussolini were effective in swaying the masses through various methods of media until the fall of their empires in the 1940s.
Totalitarian regimes, though not abundant, have certainly made their mark on history, and the eras in which Hitler and Mussolini ruled are no exception. Though there is a lot of similarities and differences when comparing these dictators, there is no doubt that both men, through their radical ideologies, single-party states, terroristic police forces, centrally directed economies, weapon monopolies, and methods of effective mass communication, had a profound impact on the people of the world, gaining infamy in such a short amount of time.
In the grand scheme of things, the few decades that Europe was ruled by these dictators is a mere blip in the course of history, but it is without question that no matter how short-lived their reigns of terror may have been, their notoriety is sure to live on for centuries to come.