The twentieth century will be remembered for the two
world wars. It will be remembered, also, as a century when dictators
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
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
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
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
ideology to which adherence is demanded.
b) A mass
party which is interwoven with a state bureaucracy.
Exclusive control of the armed forces.
Exclusive control over the media and mass communication.
secret police force.
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.