In the 1930s there was a rise of totalitarianism whether fascism or communism such as Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and Stalin's Soviet Union

What would've been the allure of totalitarianism for the people of 1930s?

Did they simply hate the system of "parliamentarianism", or did they think communism or fascism would give them something new, or improve the country? Overall, I am wondering what were the reasons why the idea of totalitarianism became so popular?

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    If you look at the political landscape of the 1930's, parliamentary democracies weren't doing that good either. We easily fall into the trap of thinking "well, of course democracy is the way to go, d'uh", because it has worked rather well for 70 years (more recent events nonwithstanding). But back then, it was seen by many as just another option that might bring stability and prosperity (e.g. USA), or not (e.g. France), just like any other system. Also, communism was perceived as a definite threat, and democracy was considered more suspectible to that threat than other systems.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 8:15
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    -1. Feel a bit mean, but you haven't explicated why it is surprising people would not be against authoritarianism. There's also the point that totalitarianism isn't usually introduced with popular support. The Bolsheviks lost their election... the Nazis could only manage 33% in a fair election, and 45% in one conducted in an atmosphere of intimidation. So asking why people support the baddies may not explain why they sometimes win.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 9:01
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    People, when in trouble, support a strong leader not any -ism. They learn about -ism many years later. You cannot understand the past if you try to sort everything according to today's labels (today's model). To understand the past means to find a model under which the past actions seem completely normal and sane.
    – kubanczyk
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 11:09
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    As for me, I am against closing - it is a really interesting question.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 12:04
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    @vpekar While Bolshevism & fascism have some common qualities, including that they are both very evil, it's a mistake to think they are the same or even similar. The people who voted Communist were not the same kind of people who voted Nazi; Nazi voters were scared because they had something to lose, and Communist voters were scared because they had nothing to lose. It's a mistake to think that (particularly) every Communist voter was voting against democracy. In Russia if some SR politicians wanted to join the winning side, that doesn't necessarily mean their voters were against democracy.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 14:12

2 Answers 2


Short answer: the destruction and deprivation of World War I. In these circumstances, a decisive, confident leader with a quick and radical solution has much more chances for popular support.

  • +1 though it's a bit too short. Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 4:54
  • But Italy was much less damaged by the WWI than, say, France. And the last had not became a totalitarian country. But it was very deprived and much destructed. Austria was totally destructed, but much less totalitarian than Germany.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 10:12
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    I think the Great Depression is a better proximate cause, at least for Germany. WWI ended in 1918. In Germany Hitler and the Communists only had major gains in elections in the 1930 elections. The Great Depression hit Germany hard, and hit hardest in 1929 to 1932. Note that the Russian case was NOT a replacement of democracy with an authoritarian state. It was a replacement of an absolute monarch with an authoritarian state. Under Nicolas II it was also in a very bad economic state at the time of the revolution.
    – AlaskaRon
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 20:19
  • @AlaskaRon But in Italy the totalitarians came to power not in the Great Depression time. On the contrary, it happened in times of a boom.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 9:13
  • I'll agree with the WWI theory in Italy's case. Even though they were on the winning side, there was a powerful economic collapse in Italy just after WWI. They had a lot of debt from the war. Also, much of Italy never industrialized well, much of South and Northeast Italy was relatively poor even before WWI.
    – AlaskaRon
    Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 3:31

I agree with @vpekar that the source of totalitarianism was the war. For the countries that were left out of it got no totalitarian regimes. But I don't think it had to be namely WWI.

After some war, especially a great war or/and a civil war, millions of people are prepared to kill for some idea - they already did it in the war. And they readily accept that easy method of problems solving. But that is only one reason of the two needed.

We should difference authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. In the latter, the people themselves massively participated in the oppressing system and it resulted in much more deaths. Without that mass participation, Hitler or Stalin would be merely authoritarian dictators, maybe even effective ones. As for authoritarian style, yes, it could be useful by itself, in some societies it could be more effective than democratic or liberal style. The autocratic regime is not so terrible by itself. But when it meets with masses ready to kill, it creates a totalitarian regime.

On the other hand, the masses in France were not better. The ideas of nazism were liked there and there were French parts in SS. But the French society didn't require an autocratic regime. And the totalitarian process was not launched.

It was not Hitler or Stalin or Mao who killed tens of millions. They were savaged masses that did that. But it was a dictator who called them to do it. So, the second reason is - an attempt to build an authoritarian society. That fails and the society happens to become totalitarian.

The old societies had raised a pair of generations so that they were ready to solve problems by methods unacceptable in these old societies. These methods were only for outer use - with enemies of for colonies. The old societies failed to work and the situations demanded authoritarian methods to raise the states...

And that mix exploded! Called to action by new dictators, these generations totally destroyed these societies. With about 100-200 millions of people by the way. Nobody knows the whole number.

What is interesting, we can't say what dictator was crueler personally. Because we don't see into their heads, we see only the results. And the results are mostly the consequences of the state of the nation. And what can divide the personality of a dictator from the enthusiasm of masses? The texts of laws? The Stalin's constitution was the most liberal one in the world.

Edit. I would like to underline that not only an outer war could be the reason of totality state. A failed state could lead to unresolvable contradictions in the society, then to the civil war and that - to the lowering morals of people. The same failed state can call for autocracy - and the same combination is turned on. But the example of Spain rather says that this way does not lead to so great levels of violence, and consequently, of the totality as the way with the war. China was very total, but it had also the greatest war at all - no one state had so many victims as China in the WWII, only it had a different name there.

I apologize for certain primitivization. I only tried to set the frame, pointing to the main issue, that the reason was the combination of two conditions. Of course, very many very interesting points remain open. Should we look at the person of the dictator, or should we consider him and his surrounding as some collective dictator? How that group works?

And how happened the Cambodia terror? IMHO, it is a different case, it had a special level of totality - they had for everyone what other totalitarian states had in camps. And I hadn't ever read about somebody trying to understand that case.

And I hope very-very much that I was right using the past tense here...

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    Spain was neutral in World War I and wound up with one of the nastier totalitarian regimes.
    – Spencer
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 15:13
  • @Spencer 1. Please, read attentively. After WWi OR A CIVIL WAR.Spain had very harsh and cruel civil war, with mass participation of soldiers from the totalitarian states. 2. "one of the nastier totalitarian regimes"??? How had you counted this? Were there millions of killed purely due to some idea? Did Spanish Frankists persecute people for thinking, or only for doing? How many people were killed after the civil war? I am not sure about where to place Frankist Spain exactly. But it is a very interesting question.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 15:36
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    I think the point of Spencer is that in Spain many people flocked to either extreme right or left before the Civil War (and that eventually led to the war). There was no previous war responsible for that polarization, it was rather the outcome (among other things) of widerspread hardship among the salaried classes as a consequence of the Great Depression.
    – F. Tusell
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 15:43
  • @F.Tusell Polarization or even the civil war is not a totalitarian regime.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 16:10
  • @Gangnus: so I should have said "...(and that eventually led to the war and the ensuing dictatorship)." to make the point clear. Really, I think your answer was quite convincing and would subscribe it almost fully. You just made your explanation sound too "single cause" --and in life seldom, if ever, anything has a single cause. I think that prompted Spencer's comment pointing out that participation in WW1 is perhaps not the only and exclusive factor to explain the rise of totalitarian states.
    – F. Tusell
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 8:37

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