Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini: Totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century

By Bruce F. Pauley | Go to book overview
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7 / TOTALITARIAN TERROR

If the treatment of women was an area in which the totalitarian states differed relatively little from the democracies, the use of terror was what most differentiated the two systems. The constant rejection of the status quo for the sake of utopian changes in the lives of ordinary people was bound to create resistance, which could only be overcome with terror, or at least the threat of terror. The more grandiose the changes, the more terror was required. Not surprisingly, therefore, Stalin, who demanded a top­to­bottom change of Soviet society exercised the most terror, whereas Mussolini, with his much more modest program, relied on terror by far the least of the three dictators.

Contrary to expectations, terror increased with time in all three dictatorships. Opponents of the Fascists and Nazis, who were horrified by the use of terror by which both parties gained power, consoled themselves with the belief that once in power the responsibilities of governing would force the dictators to become more moderate and responsible. Although there were periods of consolidation and retrenchment—the New Economic Policy in Russia, the years 1926 to 1935 in Italy, and from the middle of 1934 to the end of 1937 in Germany—in the long run all three of the totalitarian states became more radical and terroristic. The only exception was the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953.

It is easy, especially when reading a brief book such as this one, to imagine that terror in the totalitarian states was constant, that all citizens lay awake at night trembling with fear that a knock on the door from the secret police could come at any moment. Such fears did exist with some people some of the time, but they were by no means uniform or universal. People who did not belong to some pariah group like the kulaks in the Soviet Union or the Jews in Nazi Germany usually learned what not to do and what not to say. Even for them, however, security was by no means certain, especially not in Russia during the late 1930s, or in Germany toward the end of World War II.

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