Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War

Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War

Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War

Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War


For more than six decades, the term "totalitarian" was applied to everything from Franco's Spain to Stalin's Soviet Union. One of the most enigmatic and yet compelling ideas of our time, it has been both an almost meaningless political catcall and an indispensable concept for understanding the dictatorships that have marred the history of this century. Now historian Abbott Gleason provides a fascinating account of the life of this idea. Totalitarianism offers a penetrating chronicle of the central concept of our era--an era shaped by our conflict first with fascism and then with communism. Interweaving the story of intellectual debates with the international history of the twentieth century, Gleason traces the birth of the term to Italy in the first years of Mussolini's rule. Created by Mussolini's enemies, the word was appropriated by the Fascists themselves to describe their program in what turned out to be one of the less totalitarian of the European dictatorships. He follows the growth and expansion of the concept as it was picked up in the West and applied to Hitler's Germany and the Soviet Union. Gleason's account takes us through the debates of the early postwar years, as academics in turn adopted the term--notably Hannah Arendt. The idea of totalitarianism came to possess novelists such as Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon) and George Orwell (whose Nineteen Eighty-Four was interpreted by conservatives as an attack on socialism in general, and subsequently suffered criticism from left-leaning critics). The concept fully entered the public consciousness with the opening of the Cold War, as Truman used the rhetoric of totalitarianism to sell the Truman Doctrine to Congress. Gleason takes a fascinating look at the notorious brainwashing episodes of the Korean War, which convinced Americans that Communist China too was a totalitarian state. As he takes his account through to the 1990s, he offers an inner history of the Cold War, revealing the political charge the term carried for writers on both the left and right. He also explores the intellectual struggles that swirled around the idea in France, Germany, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. When the Cold War drew to a close in the late 1980s, Gleason writes, the concept lost much of its importance in the West even as it flourished in Russia, where writers began to describe their own collapsing state as totalitarian--though left-wing Western thinkers had long resisted doing so. Abbott Gleason is a leading scholar of Soviet and Russian history and a contributor to periodicals ranging from The Russian Review to The Atlantic Monthly. In this stimulating intellectual history, he offers a revealing look at one of the central concepts of modern times.


Amongst democratic nations, each generation is a new people. Alexis de Tocqueville Every historical event begins with a struggle centered on naming. Milan Kundera

TOTALITARIANISM was the great mobilizing and unifying concept of the Cold War. It described the unparalleled threat that faced the European and American democracies from a new kind of insatiably aggressive and invasive state; it provided a typology of that state, based centrally on Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union; and it channeled the anti-Nazi energy of the wartime period into the postwar struggle with the Soviet Union. Above all, it provided a plausible and frightening vision of a Manichaean, radically bifurcated world in which the leaders of the free world would have to struggle (until victory was won) or perish. The history of the Cold War cannot be well understood without taking account of this vital idea.

Perhaps I understand the evolution of the concept of totalitarianism in strongly generational terms because of the meanings it has had for me, an American growing up after World War II, whose father was a fervent member of the Cold War elite. Like many another academic, my father left the professoriat for army intelligence after the attack on Pearl Harbor and ultimately found himself in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Washington. There his internationalism deepened during the struggle against Germany, and he came to believe that the worst thing that could happen on the postwar international scene would be for the United States to return to its prewar isolationism. His experience on the National Security Council under Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both reflected and strengthened his belief in a bipolar world and in the mission of the United States to preserve that world from Soviet domination.

Although my father never read much of the theoretical or speculative literature on totalitarianism, he passionately subscribed to a serviceable, workaday version of it. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, his genera-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.