Totalitarianism as an object of fascination

The great public outcry and vehement criticism of American and British spy programs by western parliaments, NGOs, and the media clearly shows how great the distance still is between western democracies and the terrifying vision that Orwell described.

Leonid Luks
13 August 2013

The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century represent an unprecedented break with European history. Even after the collapse of the Nazi regime and the erosion of the Stalinist reign of terror historians are still not able to adequately answer the question of why such a world – dubbed “hell on earth” by those who lived through it – could arise. Even with all the sources from recently opened archives, historians have not been able to answer the question why this “hell” seemed to work according to an immaculate plan.

No less puzzling is another phenomenon observed shortly after the disappearance of both Hitler's and Stalin's tyrannies: the widespread tendency in the western world to attribute essential characteristics of totalitarian regimes to states that were clearly not totalitarian in any way. Particularly widespread was the comparison of US policy with the policies of the Nazi regime. The slogan “USA-SA-SS” chanted by West Germany’s Achtundsechziger, provides an example of this trend, which was revived to demonstrate against the George W. Bush administration.

Ever since Edward Snowden leaked the details about Prism and the NSA to the press George W. Bush’s successor has also been labeled “totalitarian”. The justly criticized excessive gathering of private data by American intelligence agencies is being compared by the media with George Orwell’s dystopia of 1984. We must not forget that the totalitarian regimes of the 1940s served as a template for Orwell’s novel. We must also recall the pillars on which those regimes were based: unconstrained terror, boundless fear, limitless despotism, and, especially, on a total propagandistic lie. Slavery was dubbed freedom, vice became virtue, the stifling domineering over the people was called the boundless love of the leaders for their subjects. Any questioning of this fiction was regarded as sacrilege and punished brutally.

Yet the great public outcry and vehement criticism of American and British spy programs by western (including the US) parliaments, NGOs, and the media clearly shows how great the distance still is between western democracies and the terrifying vision that Orwell described so vividly in his book.

The comparison of US intelligence agencies with their former communist counterparts is wrong and inappropriate. Nevertheless, that is what Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the “Pentagon Papers”, does in his article “The United Stasi of America” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, July 11, 2013). Ellsberg here compares US intelligence agencies with the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) in the Stalinist GDR. He claims that both shared the same goal – “to know everything”. Ellsberg ignores the fact that the Stasi did not only want to “know everything” but – as the “Shield and Sword of the Party” – also wanted to bring everything and everyone into line.

Dissent was regarded as a crime against the state. In the GDR – just as in other totalitarian states – there was no system of checks and balances, no institutions that might have checked the actions of the intelligence agencies – which, by the way, were more like a secret police. The parliament, the courts, and the press were only puppets of the ruling party. How could anyone compare these conditions with those in the USA – with their sovereign parliament, entirely free press, and independent judiciary?

In its July 13-14th edition the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported on the activities of the latter, which legally compelled the Department of Homeland Security to publish its internal instructions for the monitoring of social networks. Would a court in the Stalinist GDR ever have been able to force the Stasi to publish similar – or any – documents? Such a question would never have even cross the mind of any serious expert on totalitarian regimes. The fact that Ellsberg draws this inadequate comparison suggests that he does not understand the true nature of totalitarian regimes.

Ellsberg’s article “United Stasi of America” was published in the Washington Post (July 8, 2013). It goes without saying that the real Stasi would never have allowed such a publication.


English translation from the German text “Das ´Totalitäre´ als Faszinosum – Anmerkungen zum inflationären Gebrauch des Totalitarismus-Begriffs in der Diskussion um die NSA-Affäre” (Zeithistorische Streitfragen, July 23, 2013). Translated by John Andreas Fuchs

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