What is an historical understanding of totalitarianism from its origins to today?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia explains that totalitarianism is a modern governmental construct. It originated in concept and language in the early twentieth century. It is a governmental construct that can be implemented by leaders with differing ideological points of view. For instance, Stalin and Hitler were both totalitarians yet they had different ideologies and took different actions in their governments.

Benito Mussolini was the leader to coin the phrase (originate the word totalitarianism) from the root totalit(y) and the suffix -arian: one who has total control. Totalitarian governments have total control over all aspects of the government and over citizen's lives. For instance, if a parliament were to disagree with a totalitarian leader, then the leader would close down parliament thus exerting total control. 

One example of present day attempts at totalitarianism, as suggested by the opponents, is the passage of the pro-abortion bill in Ireland. During the hearing about the bill, opposition was actively suppressed leading to the cries of totalitarianism: a silencing of opposition to display total control over an end result in government and citizen's lives.

There is reasonable dissension as to whether this is actually a form of totalitarianism and whether authoritarian dynasties in "Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China" might accurately be called totalitarianism. Dynastic rule has a different basis behind it than modern totalitarianism and while authoritative government can be traced to these ancient regimes, there is no clear confirmation of labels of totalitarianism.

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