Using the crisis of stage 4 as an excuse, the totalitarian government now seizes absolute control over the lives of its citizens. The regime overcomes the enemies of stages 3 and 4. It begins brutally enforcing its “utopia” and ideology on the populace. This stage also sees the greatest atrocities committed against the populace because resistance to the totalitarian regime has been crushed. The people are defenseless and demoralized. Nothing stands between the regime and its victims. This stage involves mass killings as the regime liquidates any remaining enemies while seeking to control every detail of citizens’ lives.
During the latter stages of the French Revolution, the Committee of Public Safety received dictatorial powers to defeat anyone who opposed the revolutionary government. During 1793–94, the CPS eliminated rival revolutionary groups before passing a law that suspended citizens’ rights to a public trial or legal assistance and gave the jury only two options, acquittal or death. The result was horrifying: throughout France, three hundred thousand suspects were arrested, seventeen thousand were executed, and about ten thousand died in prison or without trial.
But it was nothing compared to the Red Terror and Joseph Stalin’s purges. The party used the attempted assassination of Lenin as justification for intense persecution of its enemies. Tens of thousands of people became victims, as discussed in Richard Pipes’s The Russian Revolution. But Lenin’s handiwork was only a precursor to Stalin’s “purges” of political enemies. Historians are divided on just how many people Stalin killed, but estimates reach as high as sixty million.
Estimates of the people killed by Hitler and his Nazi Party vary as well. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the figure stands at seventeen million, but only God knows for certain.
In addition to carrying out mass killings, established totalitarian regimes seek to control everyday life through measures like censorship, propaganda, gun control, and internal passports.
After identifying and appealing to the people’s discontent, the totalitarian presents himself as a savior. In stage 2, the revolutionary totalitarian enacts a dramatic change to “solve” the problems and discontent of stage 1.
To find a solution for its debt crisis, the French government called the Estates General assembly to advise the king on what to do. The Third Estate quickly claimed full governmental authority as the “National Assembly.” The National Assembly wanted to draw up a new constitution that would change the nature of the government to deal with injustices. After the storming of the Bastille, peasants in rural areas revolted against their lords. The National Assembly declared feudalism abolished and introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. With the execution of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793, the first stage of the revolution was over. The regicide left a massive power vacuum. Various groups struggled to fill this hole, but in the end, the Jacobins—the radicals—dominated the new revolutionary government.
In the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks took advantage of the food riots that began early in 1917. When the military began siding with the rioting workers, rather than restoring law and order, Tsar Nicholas knew all was lost. He abdicated on March 2, 1917 (and was later shot). The Bolshevik-run Petrograd Soviet quickly took control of post-tsarist Russia. Their slogan—Peace, Land, and Bread—attracted many frightened and angry people to them as to a savior. On November 6–7, they staged a coup that finally overturned the provisional government.
The initial rise of Nazism in Germany was less bloody but similarly based on messianic promises. Capitalizing on the resentment in Germany due to the Versailles Treaty and global economic downturn in 1929, the Nazi Party grew in size and influence. The Nazis had attempted a violent coup in November 1923 but had failed, and they turned to legal means of gaining control of the government. Due to Hitler’s skill with propaganda, the Nazi Party won more and more of the vote by the early 1930s. Eventually, it was the second-biggest political party in the country. At this point, Hitler was demanded that President Paul von Hindenburg appoint him chancellor, which Hindenburg agreed to in 1933. This was not a violent revolution, but the failed 1923 attempt shows the party’s violent tendencies.
Stage 4 prepares the way for the totalitarian government to grasp total control over those under its rule. It consists of a crisis moment, which may be either a real threat or a false flag that seems to threaten the nation.
By 1793, the French Revolution was at a crisis point. Defenders of the old order rose up on all sides to crush the new order. Austrian and Prussian armies encircled France, while the Vendéean peasants revolted against the revolutionary government and army. And so, in the name of “public safety,” the government decided to take harsh measures against all enemies of the revolution. And so, of course, they needed more control. This was the task of the Committee of Public Safety, and it suffered from no scruple in its methods.
On August 3, 1918, Lenin was shot after giving a speech at a factory. While recovering in the hospital, he wrote to a subordinate, “It is necessary secretly—and urgently—to prepare the terror.” This initiated a campaign of mass killings and detentions by the government, known to history as the Red Terror. As always, the justification for these acts was the “emergency” indicated by the attempted assassination. The “radicals” and “counterrevolutionaries” were allegedly “at the gate,” and it was necessary to use extreme measures to deal with this imminent “threat.” So the rhetoric went. And so it always goes.
Hitler also used a “state of emergency” to justify his clampdown. On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag went up in flames. In response, Herman Gorrin, minister of the interior, ordered a raid on Communist headquarters, allegedly for evidence of sedition and a Communist plot to attack public buildings. This, in Hitler’s mind, was the signal for seizing complete control. On February 28, the cabinet abolished freedom of speech, assembly, privacy, and the press. Around four thousand people were arrested that night. This “crisis,” with the usual language about safety and countering threats, ushered in totalitarianism in Germany.
In stage 3, the initial upheaval of stage 2 has passed. The old order has been fundamentally changed, and now various forces begin to react. The rising totalitarian government faces many enemies, often dubbed “counterrevolutionaries” or “extremists.” Here in its infancy, the new order must struggle to gain more power and maintain that which has been acquired. For this reason, it sets about combatting its enemies through censorship and persecution.
As soon as they had gained sway over their countries, the first move of totalitarians like Hitler and Vladimir Lenin was to censor opposition and put out propaganda. Each of these totalitarian leaders also gained control of education and had secret police forces to monitor and even kill anyone designated as an enemy. Another strategy was to establish youth organizations to indoctrinate citizens in the state’s propaganda from an early age and tear their loyalties away from family or religion. Religion was almost universally persecuted once these regimes came to power.
Finally, Hitler and Lenin outlawed (either de jure or de facto) all political parties and views besides their own after coming to power.1 Totalitarians create a one-party system that often maintains a façade of democracy.
Those who would establish a new regime must tap into or generate dissatisfaction with the status quo. However much those desiring a reset may despise the old order, they can’t accomplish much without harnessing or fabricating a similar attitude in the public. Then the revolutionary totalitarian appears as the solution to these problems.
The Reign of Terror in Revolutionary France, for example, didn’t begin with blood but with bread. Between 1715 and 1800, the population of Europe doubled, creating food shortages among the French people. Many of the French people resented the King’s growing centralized authority. In addition, the ideas of the “Enlightenment” thinkers were stirring up revolutionary feeling. Finally, the French government was massively in debt due to the many wars of the eighteenth century, and it increased taxation even on nobles.
It was these sufferings and fears, combined with the machinations of the secret societies (admitted by the Marquis de Rosanbo at the Chamber of Deputies session of July 1, 1904) that led the to the revolution and the totalitarian Jacobin government. The Reign of Terror came after the fall of the king and the ancien régime, which the revolutionaries accomplished in part because of the problems and suffering in French society prerevolution.
Fears of a growing totalitarian tendency in the US have swelled during 2020–22. But how close are we really to a totalitarian state? How have such regimes come about historically and what are the warning signs?
This article will answer these questions by examining totalitarian regimes in the eighteenth and twentieth centuries and the pattern by which they came to power.