There have been many totalitarian nations throughout history, such as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Stalin's rule, China under Mao Zedong, Italy under Benito Mussolini, and the modern-day North Korea.

However, there have also been many authoritarian nations throughout history, such as the monarchies and empires of Europe, or the many corrupt nations in today's world. And yet, most of these have not been described as totalitarian.

When does it become in an authoritarian ruler's best interest to make the country totalitarian? What is the main "driving force"?

  • I might point out, that all your examples of totalitarianism are from the 20th Century, while your examples of non-totalitarian authoritarian nations are all pre-20th Century. Naively, I might suspect that totalitarianism is just a modern innovation in authoritarianism. Are there older totalitarian states or modern authoritarian states that don't trend towards totalitarianism?
    – divibisan
    Oct 20, 2020 at 1:23
  • 1
    @divibisan According to the Corruption Perceptions Index (transparency.org/en/cpi) there are many countries that are basically on par with countries such as North Korea in places such as Africa or the Middle East in terms of corruption, and yet they have not been described as totalitarian. In addition, the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiping_Heavenly_Kingdom), established within Qing China during the 19th century, has been described as totalitarian.
    – yeah22
    Oct 20, 2020 at 1:27
  • Thanks! I figured there were some examples, but I couldn't think of any
    – divibisan
    Oct 20, 2020 at 2:07

2 Answers 2


Totalitarianism is a specific feature of modern authoritarian regimes, one that not all authoritarians use. The intent is to create a system in which the behavior, beliefs, and even the very thought patterns of citizens are controlled by the government: through propaganda, elimination of opposition, and vast surveillance. Totalitarianism is extremely time and effort consuming; it implies degrees of Machiavellianism and paranoia that not every potential leader shares.

Most authoritarian leaders (kings, emperors, dictators, and such) are content to rest on institutions. They anticipate that average citizens will naturally fall in line with establish rule, respecting the institution of authority, and they are not usually disappointed. People have a (fortunate or unfortunate) tendency to go along with the status quo; I'm reminded of the case of Emperor Norton, who declared himself King of the US (and Protector of Mexico), and was thoroughly indulged in that pretense by the people of San Francisco for a short time. A typical king doesn't think twice about whether his citizens are loyal, because he is the king and citizens are loyal to kings. There is simply no question to it.

A totalitarian, by contrast, is disconcerted by the concept of disloyalty. He sees everyone as a potential threat, everyone as a potential enemy, and thus goes to excessive lengths to discover, identify, and root out anyone who might be disloyal. It is an intrinsically consuming, paranoid worldview that calls for ever-increasing, every-paranoid monitoring of practicality everyone.

Most dictators are not totalitarians because:

  • they lack the bureaucratic technology to truly surveil the population as a whole, and...
  • they implicitly assume that the typical citizen loves them and loves their rule, so that there is no need to fear the populace as a whole

Most dictators lack that paranoid strain in which everyone is a potential threat, and thus everyone must be monitored, so they lack any effective reason to engage in the complex, resource-intensive, and extremely difficult task of watching everyone. Better to spend time and money acquiring new weapons than building large databases of more-or-less uninteresting citizens.


Another aspect concerns the leader's goals/vision.

When you look at modern banana republics and corrupt nations, you are usually dealing with kleptocrats. As Ted Wrigley mentioned, implementing totalitarianism is difficult and time/resource-consuming, the primary goal of a kleptocrat however is only to enrich himself and his cronies, for which you really don't need to bother with that trouble.

Contrast that with Hitler/Mussolini/Stalin/Mao/etc:
All of these men had not just some petty goals but grand visions whose realization required the mobilization of their whole nation.
All of these men had grand visions that placed enormous burdens on their nation which it would uncapable/unwilling to bear unless it were almost fanatically united and devoted to their respective leader and his vision.
Totalitarianism therefore was not merely a tool to secure their power but an unavoidable requirement for their respective visions.

  • Looking back on this answer, I have changed it to my accepted one. The other answer relies completely on psychology, which I don't think is totally plausible in this context.
    – yeah22
    Nov 5, 2020 at 5:54

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