Sempringham eLearning [ - click]

  Articles on concepts. See also Concepts and their importance in History study by Gilbert Pleuger




 Concepts series. Dictatorship

  By Gilbert Pleuger. new perspective [ISSN 1352-6359] Vol 4,  No 3 


The twentieth century will be remembered for the two world wars. It will be remembered, also, as a century when dictators shaped events.

Dictatorship and despotism are concepts which have had currency in the West as long as man has engaged in political thought and Aristotle, The Politics, and Plato, The Republic, identified key elements of these concepts in the fourth century bc. In the Roman Empire dictatorship was established during a time of emergency when the Senate appointed a man to hold absolute power for a period of seven years: on the termination of this period constitutional republican rule was reinstated.

Since the transformation of political expectations after the French Revolution, dictatorship has lost the more benign associations of classical times and currently has a more sinister meaning. In contemporary thought, dictatorship refers to a form of government where one person is so dominant that there is no effective opposition because there are no alternative power centres and in which the personís power is unlimited by the rule of law. The following discussion will indicate, however, that the more complete dictatorships, and there are degrees of dictatorship, also embody another concept, totalitarianism. A list of dictators in the twentieth century would include Stalin, Hitler and Mao Zedong but should it include, also, Mussolini, Franco and Horthy of Hungary?

Legality and de facto power

When discussion moves away from bald categorisation a more complicated picture emerges. There are many differences, as well as similarities, in the two contemporary dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin. Hitlerís power in the 1930s was initiated legally when he was appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg and the extension of his power by the Enabling Act, after the stage-managed Reichstag fire, was achieved constitutionally. The elimination of the SA, an alternative power centre was completed by the ĎNight of the Long Knivesí in 1934 and Hitlerís appointment as President and Commander in Chief was achieved in 1934. Dr Feuchtwanger argues in this issue of new perspective that the radicalisation of German political life was incrementally achieved and Hitler's unrivalled hold on power was furthered by foreign policy successes and the promotion of Nazi thought. Stalinís position as dictator was achieved and sustained in different ways. His position of undisputed power was gained gradually, only after the defeat of his rival, Trotsky, but, above all, by the development of a clientage among party members by careful appointment to party offices throughout the USSR, appointments made through his position as General Secretary of the party. Despite the transformation of the USSR in the late 1920s and 1930s through heroic achievements of collectivisation and the first and second Five Year Plans which could be expected to enhance Stalinís standing, the Red Army, created by Trotsky, remained a potential danger to Stalin until between 1937-8 at least 20 per cent of army officers were eliminated during the purges. While, on the face of it, Stalinís power rested on democratic support for him and his policies in the hierarchy of district, regional, republic and union Soviets, in fact the domination of these bodies by party members, managed by the party apparatus, of which Stalin was the head, provided the core of his power.

Hitler and Stalin achieved their dictatorship after some time in power. Mussolini, like Hitler, was appointed to his first position in the state, Prime Minister, in 1924 by the King but, as Professor Pollard indicated in the last issue of new perspective (December 1998), alternative power centres, the Monarchy and the Church, remained independent from Mussoliniís power structure. Fascist ideology was even more of a ragbag of negatives than Hitlerism and the more innovative feature, corporatism, introduced from 1928, lacked sustained effectiveness. Mussoliniís greatest contribution to Italian life was a style of leadership, marked by activism. The limitations of his power were indicated by his recognised need for an agreement with the Catholic Church (the Lateran Treaty, 1929) and his eventual removal from power by the King in 1943. In Spain, General Francisco Francoís power initially rested on his command of the Nationalist army during the war with the Republican forces. The anti-republican Nationalist ideology was buttressed by the support of Spainís traditional institutions, the Monarchy and the Church. When the Republicans were defeated, in 1939, Franco retained the singular position of authority but he never stepped outside the ideology formed round the Nationalist cause.

Dictatorship and totalitarianism

These examples point to the need to link dictatorship to another concept, totalitarianism, in order to make surer assessments of the completeness of modern dictatorships. The essence of totalitarianism is the harnessing of instruments for control in the modern state with a strong ideology. Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski in Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956) proposed that totalitarianism included:

a) An ideology to which adherence is demanded.

b) A mass party which is interwoven with a state bureaucracy.

c) Exclusive control of the armed forces.

d) Exclusive control over the media and mass communication.

e) A secret police force.

f) Central control over the economy.

It is the use of these criteria, together with the histories of the rulers additions of power, which enable students to make a sound evaluation of the date of commencement and the extent of, or limitations to, dictatorships in the twentieth century.

  RETURN TO HOME/Index PAGE - AND                         
  For access to the full list of concept gain Membership of the Study Centre