Both totalitarianism and authoritarianism are forms of government that demand the submission of a nation’s citizens to a strong central authority. In contrast with democracy, totalitarianism and authoritarianism both strictly limit the political freedoms of citizens, and aim to exert control over a nation’s economic, social and political processes. The degree of that control, and the methods used to achieve it, are among the differences between a totalitarian regime and one that is authoritarian.

What Is Totalitarianism?

As indicated in the name, a totalitarian regime is characterized by unlimited state power. The totalitarian government, or state, asserts total control over the public and private lives of its citizens. It enforces that control through mechanisms such as suppression of political opposition, prohibition of certain religious or political groups, press censorship (or total control of the press), and armed law enforcement by the military and/or secret police forces.

The origins of the term totalitarianism can be traced to the social, economic and political upheaval that followed the end of World War I in Europe. In 1923, a year after Benito Mussolini became prime minister of Italy, the Italian journalist and politician Giovanni Amendola coined the term totalitario (totalitarian) to describe how the electoral process had unfolded in one Italian town under the control of Mussolini’s Fascist Party. The term caught on, and by the end of the 1920s, fascist supporters like the philosopher Giovanni Gentile had adopted totalitario and its noun form, totalitarismo (totalitarianism), to describe their ideal form of government. Even Mussolini himself adopted the term, famously claiming that totalitarianism meant a regime of “all within the state, none outside the state, none against the state.”

Despite its origins in Mussolini’s Italy, the concept of totalitarianism was soon appropriated by the critics of the absolute and oppressive single-party governments of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. For Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish intellectual who published the influential 1951 text The Origins of Totalitarianism, these two totalitarian regimes represented an entirely new political phenomenon, which differed “essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship.”

Most notably, Arendt pointed to both regimes’ use of concentration and extermination camps, which she said, “serve as laboratories in which the fundamental belief of totalitarianism that everything is possible is being verified.”

“Totalitarianism as an idea is conventionally associated with regimes that involve death camps, the herding up of political opponents and…groups of people that are considered to be, in some sense, reactionary or dangerous or polluting,” says Jeffrey C. Isaac, professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington, who has written extensively about Arendt’s work. “[This can include] mass imprisonments, mass starvation as a political tactic, the use of the secret police to engender terror and the effort to suffocate or eliminate all political opposition. Most of the authoritarian regimes in the world today are not properly described as totalitarian in this sense, however oppressive they may be.”

What Is Authoritarianism?

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first use of the term “authoritarian” back to the 1850s. By the mid-20th century, the noun form of “authoritarianism” was being used to describe states that, while not democratic, did not involve the same degree of repression and control as a truly totalitarian regime. 

In an essay published in 1964, the political scientist Juán Linz offered a definition of authoritarian political systems that contrasted them both with democratic governments and totalitarian regimes. According to Linz, authoritarian systems retain control of political processes, including limiting or prohibiting the right to create opposing political parties that might compete for power with the ruling group.

Because of the limited political freedom they allow citizens, authoritarian governments or leaders are not typically subject to constitutional limitations, free and fair popular elections or other constraints. As a result, authoritarian leaders can exercise power arbitrarily without the accountability built into democratic political systems.

Key Differences

Like totalitarianism, authoritarianism requires citizens to submit to the authority of the state, whether to a single dictator or to a group. However, authoritarian regimes typically allow citizens a certain degree of individual or corporate freedom that is lacking under a totalitarian regime.

According to Linz, a totalitarian system also typically has a more elaborate guiding ideology than authoritarian systems, which he argued “are based more on distinctive mentalities which are difficult to define.” Beyond ideological coherence, totalitarian systems have the political mobilization to ensure absolute enforcement of the ruling doctrine—including through the most repressive of means.

While authoritarian governments usually allow some diversity in social organization, totalitarian regimes aim to suppress and eliminate all existing political and social institutions and traditional structures with new ones under their complete control. “In a simplistic way,” Isaac says, “totalitarianism is an extreme form of authoritarianism that involves an effort to practice total domination.”

Examples of Totalitarianism

ullstein bild/Getty Images
Adolf Hitler arriving at the Berlin Sportpalast, being greeted by Nazi salutes, circa 1940.

While historians and political philosophers often differ over which governments can be properly classified as totalitarian, the two most generally accepted examples of totalitarian states are Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler (1933–45) and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (1924–53).

Despite Italy’s role in the origin story of the term, scholars including Hannah Arendt have argued that Mussolini’s regime did not achieve its goal of becoming a totalitarian state, as it took control without drastically changing the country’s existing power structure. “While there was mass repression exercised by [Francisco] Franco's Spain and by Mussolini's Italy, I don’t think they rose to the level of the totalitarian regimes,” Isaac agrees.

Among other regimes that have been called totalitarian are the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong (1949–76), Iraq under Saddam Hussein (1979–2003) and North Korea under the leadership of the Kim dynasty (1948 to the present).

Examples of Authoritarianism

Authoritarian regimes are more numerous, both historically and today. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2023, a total of 59 nations were classified as having authoritarian governments, meaning that nearly 40 percent of the world’s population was living under authoritarian rule.

For Isaac, the exact classification of any particular regime is less important than learning from the lessons of the past.

“I don't think in most contemporary political science or most policy intellectual discussion, the term totalitarianism is very relevant,” he says. “To describe something as not totalitarianism is not to say there’s anything good about it.”

At the same time, he warns, authoritarianism, as well as the authoritarian aspirations of leaders of nominally democratic systems—most recently including India, Turkey and Hungary—remain a pressing contemporary threat to liberal democracy.

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