I remember in Orwell's 1984 it was suggested that constant war was used to benefit the regime in charge. Is this a realistic concept? Does wartime really improve the position of a totalitarian leader / dictator politically? Why or why not and in what ways?
A foreign war:
- Provides a reason for recruitment into the army.
- Provides an outlet for frustrated young men.
- Provides a reason for military control of the means of production.
- Appeals to nationalism can unite the populace.
- Provides a reason why shortages may be temporary (when the war is over, we will have as much as we want to eat, to wear, etc.).
- In general, provides a scapegoat.
It's certainly possible to make a rather long list of dictators whose positions were made materially worse, in the long run, by war. Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, Saddam Hussein...
That's certainly a risk of war. You might lose. But note that none of those examples were deposed domestically. They were strengthened politically, even if they were eventually deposed by the very wars that united their countries domestically.
An example of a failed war by a totalitarian leader would be the Russian intervention in World War I by Tsar Nicholas II. Rather than uniting the country, it gave an opportunity for revolutionaries to eliminate domestic forces. Part of the problem was that it was unclear why they needed to fight. For average Russians, the war seemed unrelated to Russian security. They were fighting for Serbians, et. al. rather than for Russia itself. Even so, it initially united the country, as this theory would suggest.
The problems arose over time. As they were losing the war, it was harder and harder to justify sacrifices that might have been acceptable if they were winning. This culminated in protests that included substantial numbers of women. Many of the military units mutinied rather than attack women.
If Russia had been winning the war, they would have had fewer injured soldiers with more adherence to the current regime. As things were, the military was just as vulnerable as everyone else to claims that the government didn't know what it was doing. So when it came time to choose between shooting women and mutinying, they mutinied.
Orwell's Big Brother was more successful at convincing the populace that they were in danger. They were fighting the war to protect the country from the evil others.
All these examples show one important lesson: if you want to unite your country with a war, you either need to fight on your own territory (consider the United Kingdom in World War II), or you need to offer successes. No one wants to back a loser. Even worse, if a totalitarian leader actually loses the war, the winner will almost certainly replace the totalitarian.
Yes. There's numerous examples but look at Stalin. He was far more popular at the end of WWII than before it, despite him basically needlessly buried Germany under literally millions of Soviets' dead bodies. He's STILL bloody popular over there, seemingly above any reason.
Additionally, a war (aside from reasons Brythan's answer gives) gives an excuse to grab more power. (This isn't limited to totalitarian leaders - Lincoln's actions during Civil War have earned him accusations of dictatorship even though he started the war not as a dictator and arguably didn't end it as one. Ditto USA post-9/11 under both parties' presidents).
Putin grabbed more power (poer vertical was born at that time, as well as elevation of "siloviki" group) under the excuse of war in Chechnya and terrorism threat. Edrogan did the same "because ISIS/Syria/Kurds".