A totalitarian government is a single-party dictatorship that controls all aspects of public and private life. Citizens do not enjoy individual rights such as freedom of expression or assembly. Totalitarian governments usually promote extreme nationalism and employ brutal tactics to silence critics. Not only are residents subject to censorship, but information flow into the country including via the Internet is also severely restricted. Totalitarian government control is not limited to politics but also extends over social, cultural, economic and private aspects of life, as well as the media. Current and recent examples of places under totalitarian government include North Korea, China and Iraq.
Historical Rise of Totalitarianism
Joseph Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler may be the first totalitarian rulers that come to mind. Totalitarianism was regarded by some regimes as a way to restore economic stability to and regain control of their country. Stalin gained control of the Soviet Union in 1924, and forced millions of peasants to relinquish their land and work on large, government-run farms. In Italy, Mussolini founded the Fascist Party and installed himself as prime minister in 1922. Hitler gained control of the nationalistic, anti-communist and anti-Semitic Nazi Party in the 1920s and established perhaps the most notorious regime in modern history.
Kim Il-sung ruled North Korea from 1948 until his death in 1994. While political leadership then passed on to his son, Kim Jong-il, and then in 2011 to his grandson, Kim Jong-un, Kim Il-sung is still considered North Korea’s Great Leader and eternal president. External human rights organizations repeatedly report systematic human rights abuses including torture, slave labor, infanticide and public executions. Foreign aid agencies have estimated that economic mismanagement combined with natural disasters have caused food shortages resulting in the death of up to 2 million people since the mid-1990s. In addition to repressing its own citizens, the North Korean regime does not cooperate with other world powers or adhere to international treaties such as restrictions on the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
On June 4, 1989, Chinese troops and security police fired on students who had gathered in Tiananmen Square, in the center of Beijing, to call for greater democracy, killing hundreds and arresting up to 10,000 people.
Although China in recent years has been making strides to become a world economic power and show the international community that its citizens enjoy social and cultural freedoms, political dissidents continue to face imprisonment and censorship. To protest the lack of religious freedom, at least 122 Tibetan monks, nuns and civilians have committed self-immolation between 2009 and 2013. Over the same time period, at least 53 Chinese across the country have set themselves on fire to protest the government’s demolition of their homes.
While Chairman Mao Zedong was a totalitarian leader, despite current examples of political repression, modern-day China is more accurately described as an authoritarian state, as it does allow its citizens some personal freedoms.
Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a totalitarian government, with characteristic censorship, propaganda and terror tactics. Human rights organizations reported hundreds of thousands of civilian executions during Hussein’s reign, in addition to deaths caused by Hussein’s war with Iran. As Iraq transitions to a democratic regime, human rights abuses continue, especially against opposition activists and journalists. Human Rights Watch has reported the torture of prisoners, secret prisons, and the persecution of women and Shia communities. The international community continues to work with organizations in Iraq to establish a democratic society.
- California Department of Education; Fresno K-12 World History, Culture and Geography: The Modern World, Grade 10: The Rise of Totalitarianism
- Your Dictionary: Examples of Totalitarianism
- BBC News Asia-Pacific: North Korea Profile
- The Economist: Battling the Censors; January 2013
- International Campaign for Tibet: Self-Immolations by Tibetans
- NPR.org: Desperate Chinese Villagers Turn to Self-Immolation
- Stanford University World Association for International Studies: Iraq: Deaths Under Saddam Hussein
- Human Rights Watch: World Report 2012: Iraq
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images