What Caused the Rise of Authoritarian Governments?

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party would exemplify the rise of authoritarian governments.
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Though authoritarianism differs from country to country, and from era era, it shares common causes such as postwar upheaval, economic turmoil and nationalism. The rise of Nazism -- one of the most well-known authoritarian governments -- in response to the economic and political environment left in the wake of World War I exemplifies these more general causes of the rise of authoritarianism.

1 Postwar Upheaval

World War I left in its wake over 16 million dead and an entire continent spiritually and economically devastated. Germany, one of the war's losers, suffered immense economic and social unrest as a result of the Treaty of Versailles, which directly contributed to the rise of Nazism. Across the world, such postwar or post-colonial upheaval has similarly seen the rise of other forms of authoritarianism.

2 Economic Turmoil

Such authoritarianism has also developed in response to economic turmoil, as it did in Germany. The treaty forced Germany to pay substantial reparations to the victors and prevented a successful economic recovery. John Maynard Keynes, a British economist and delegate at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, warned against taking such punitive measures against Germany, arguing that by preventing German recovery, the Allies might risk a resentful German public that would turn to authoritarianism.

3 Discontent and Entitlement

Keynes' prediction came true. Germany's substantial economic problems throughout the 1920s led the Nazi Party to win substantial seats in the German legislature; by 1933 they had consolidated their power and their leader Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. Nazism was thus ushered in on a wave of popular discontent with Germany's economic situation. Likewise, fear, anger and vengeance -- for poverty or suspicions of discrimination or exclusion -- have been exploited across the world by political movements that have become authoritarian governments.

4 Nationalism

Nationalism is also a major cause of authoritarianism, as it was in Germany. In his rhetoric, Hitler emphasized a concept of German superiority, building upon the resentment Germans felt from the punitive measures of the Treaty. In this case, such nationalism would lead to the deaths of millions of Jewish people. Similar forms of nationalism have helped bring other dictators to power. In some cases, nationalism has led to racism, genocide and thus equally vicious cycles of revenge, in which a once-oppressed group comes to power only to crack down on their oppressors.

  • 1 A History of the Modern World; R. R. Palmer, Joel Colton and Lloyd Kramer
  • 2 The Twentieth-Century World and Beyond: An International History since 1900; William R. Keylor

Aatif Rashid writes on international politics and culture. His articles have appeared in magazines such as "The Oxonian Globalist" and online at Future Foreign Policy and ThinkPolitic. He holds Bachelor's degrees in English and history from U.C. Berkeley and a Masters degree from the University of Oxford.