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Totalitarian Dictators in Twentieth-Century Europe Essay

Hitler. Stalin. Mussolini. These three names define World War II. World policy revolved around them for at least a decade or in Stalin’s case for almost fifty years. Much is generally known about each man’s role in the war, but only as it pertains to the outcome. Not many people possess extensive knowledge of these dictators as individuals or as leaders of a particular party. This paper will attempt to shed light on the differences as well as the similarities of they style of totalitarianism that the three men who shaped the middle of the twentieth century implemented in their respective countries.

Benito Mussolini (b. 29 July 1883, d. 28 April 1945) was born into a lower-middle-class family outside of Predappio, Italy, in the Romagna region. His mother was a devout Catholic schoolmistress, his father a revolutionary/blacksmith in and out of employment. Mussolini was proud of his relatively humble beginnings and later sought to exploit this fact in order to identify with the general populace – not unlike some 2004 Presidential hopefuls – going so far as to exaggerate the low station of his youth.

He received schooling from his mother for a while, but she later sent him to a church school. Mussolini was an extremely violent young man who stabbed classmates on several occasions, which eventually resulted in expulsion from the church school and a subsequent higher-level institution. He continued to self-educate by reading books, which were amply available both in his home and in his later employment as a school teacher. He moved to Switzerland for a time, but eventually returned to Italy. He caused some civil problems and was arrested a few times, but was also arrested for political insurrection.

Joseph Stalin (b. 21 December 1889, d. 5 March 1953) was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili in Gori, Georgia. His parents had been serfs in childhood (until the emancipation), and at little Iosif’s birth his father was a cobbler and his mother a homemaker. Stalin, like Mussolini, tried to exaggerate his family’s low status, going so far as to actually change official records. His first language was Georgian; he did not learn Russian until he was approximately nine years old. Stalin’s formal education also began in a church school, although he had far less access to literature than Benito. He was employed by a cobbler-friend of his father’s, but still had enough time to get into trouble, for which he was arrested multiple times, specifically for political insurrection.

Adolf Hitler (b. 20 April 1889, d. 30 April 1945) was born into a well-respected family in Braunau, Austria. His father was a customs official, which lent itself to an honorable view by the community. Hitler did not receive as much education even as Stalin, and in fact did not finish school. He was denied admission to the Vienna Academy of Arts, and then traveled and lived a bohemian lifestyle for a few years. At the outbreak of World War I, Hitler volunteered for the German military and gained extensive front-line military experience. After the war he avidly read newspapers and seemed only interested in politics and military technology. He was imprisoned several times, during which he authored Mein Kampf.

These three men from fairly similar backgrounds begin to be very different as soon as one looks at them. Mussolini cut a very striking figure, being tall and intimidating while also being blessed with strong features and broad shoulders. He was very theatrical, and it can be said that he made every decision with tomorrow’s headlines in mind. While this attitude toward propaganda assured his power, it also partially led to his decline. Stalin never grew past five-feet-four-inches and had several physical deformities, including a shriveled arm and irregular toes.

He looked the part of a Russian proletariat worker, with a large moustache and thick, unruly hair. Stalin also knew the value of censorship and propaganda, and used it to shelter Russians from the rest of the world. Hitler was not a tall man, by any means, but looked the part of at least a military leader, if not dictator. More than anything, Hitler’s physical appearance was intriguing to the average observer. Hitler’s use of propaganda was not limited to his own country, but he deceived other nations with it as well, especially Italy.

In a way, all three men rode a revolution of another’s making to power, but the details are vastly dissimilar. In Mussolini’s youth, Italy was experiencing domestic instability due to the election of new parties to Parliament. The majority left-wing socialists were so fragmented that they could come to no compromises and caused Parliament to remain stagnant. The people of Italy were fed up with a king who did nothing, a Parliament that could pass nothing, and a corrupt lower government. Mussolini started his political career as a socialist, and even wrote for a socialist newspaper (all copies of which strangely disappeared from Italian libraries upon Mussolini’s ascension to power), but soon realized that there was more popular support for a party on the right. A very few fascist groups had been formed in Italy, but no official party had yet emerged. Mussolini used his journalistic influence, and a great deal of propaganda, to bring people’s opinion into line with his own and to gain prestige in the community.

Mussolini later claimed that he created the fascist party, and could therefore destroy it if he so desired. Stalin also joined the socialist party, but unlike Mussolini remained a member until his death. Socialism was already a well-established political party in Russia led by V. I. Lenin (1870-1924) himself. Stalin maneuvered himself close to Lenin and eventually gained his favor, although not without opposition. Hitler rode the wave of nationalism/socialism/feeling of injustice in Germany after the Versailles Treaty of 1919 faulted Germany for World War I, forced her to give up territory and colonies, and ordered her to pay colossal reparations for war debts incurred by the Allies. The people of Germany saw this as an insult to her sovereignty and used Wilson’s Fourteen Points to assert the right to self-determination. The Nazi party emerged promising to restore Germany to her traditional prowess, and Hitler quickly rose through party ranks to the top. All three men used assassinations to aid their respective ascents to power which are beyond the scope of this paper.

In World War I Hitler was still a soldier fighting on the Western Front and Mussolini was writing a newspaper, but Stalin was participating in the Russian Revolution. The Bolshevik revolution took place in 1917, and once it started Russia immediately pulled out of the war; an intensive civil war was going on, so Russia needed to focus on internal stability rather than Germany’s quest for an empire. Lenin was head of the Socialist party, and once they won the revolution, he began organizing the government. One of Socialism/Communism’s greatest strengths is governmental organization. Lenin was excellent as delegating responsibility in such a way that the stratification of government was highly effective. This arrangement allowed each individual to focus on his/her own job, lending efficiency and stability to a country used to chaos. Even when leaders were absent, which was not very often, the government could function efficiently and without disruption.

Stalin’s domestic policy was truly socialist. He attempted, at least at first, to put up the façade that all comrades were equal and there was not an oligarchic ruling elite. He stabilized the economy and inflation and instituted many social welfare programs to benefit the citizens. Hitler did the same as far as economy was concerned, but his new government programs were a little more detrimental to society as a whole than were Stalin’s. Hitler, as well as the rest of Eastern Europe, hated the Jews.

There are many myths surrounding this hatred saying that his family was Jewish, particularly his grandmother, or that he had some sort of personal experience with Jewish treachery, but his hatred of the Jews ultimately came down to a cultural stigma. If this had not been true, his pogroms and genocide could not have gone on with popular support for as long as they did. His concentration camps aimed at the “Final Solution” to the Jewish problem exterminated approximately two million Jews and an unknown number of gypsies and political prisoners. The result was not a pure Aryan race as Hitler had hoped, but only great international contempt and a human rights nightmare. Mass graves are still being found in former German-held territories.

Hitler’s regime was especially brutal to women. He used pregnant women for scientific experiments that often caused the baby to die or to be born grotesquely deformed. He thought that all women were inherently inferior to men, and should be treated as subordinates. Mussolini agreed with him on this point, going so far as to assert that Italy was superior to Britain because of the high station women enjoyed in British society. He also expressed his view on the role of women in Italy.

“Already there were in Britain four million more women than men – sexually unsatisfied and hence pacifist by nature, afraid of the pain of childbirth and hence unworthy of empire; when he spoke on this topic he became agitated and vehement to a degree that his hearers sometimes found astonishing…he was confident that if he directed Italians to feel a proper sense of mission they would increase the size of their families to between eight and twenty children…He gave special praise to those who called intellectual women a monstrosity, for which reason higher education for women should preferably be reduced to those subjects which the ‘feminine brain’ could adequately operate – for example, household management. In this way they could be returned from the employment market to their natural function of child-bearing.”

This blatant distaste for women did not mean that Hitler and Mussolini should control themselves sexually; in fact they both had numerous mistresses and were known as womanizers in their youth. Stalin and the Socialists in theory believed in the equality of women, but in practice high-ranking government positions were reserved for men, although many lower and mid-level offices were already held by women.

When Stalin defeated Trotsky, he took over a political machine that could practically run itself. Hitler’s system would eventually be only slightly more centralized, but Mussolini could have learned a valuable lesson from Stalin. Mussolini made several mistakes with the organization of his government in Italy after World War I. Above all, Mussolini craved power – lusted for absolute, pure, unadulterated power. He always had to be in control. He took on more and more personal responsibility as the years went on, when he should have been creating new ministries to deal with those particular issues. Another downfall of Mussolini was that he hated to be contradicted or proven wrong.

As a result, he surrounded himself with generals and politicians who only told him what he wanted to hear and shot anyone who disagreed. These men were not necessarily incompetent, but no man of character could be a “yes-man” for that long. Mussolini also made sure that these men were pliable to his wishes and would not be in a position to undermine his power. He used local “squadristas” to keep any civilian dissidents in line through the use of extremely violent physical force, which Hitler did with his Gestapo, but at least he surrounded himself with excellent military advisors.

Mussolini’s domestic policy was highly questionable, if not completely ignorant. He had no more idea how to run a country than he knew how to organize a government. He wanted to expand Italy to the boundaries of ancient Rome, at least in the Mediterranean. He also wanted a warlike people who were accustomed to hardship and heartbreak, so it comes as no surprise that Mussolini tried to convince Italians that they were constantly in a state of war. He encouraged nationalism to its most extreme form, and even wanted Italians to become supra-nationalists of a superior race. Mussolini’s ideas on race differed from Hitler’s in that he thought that Italians were superior and all other nations were inferior; the only ethnicity he originally had contempt for was the Levantine Italian ethnic group in Southern Italy. But in typical Mussolini fashion, once Hitler began pogroms against the Jews, Mussolini issued a statement that Jews were obviously inferior, too.

In many respects, Mussolini was like that kid in elementary school who argued that his dad could beat up everyone else’s dad; Mussolini did not intend to copy Hitler, but to surpass him or beat him at his own game. Mussolini liked to think that he was the most powerful man in the world with the best country in the world and the best army in the world and on and on and could not stand to see anyone even think they were superior to him. This was his tragic flaw which led to the abuse of propaganda. He deliberately manipulated and even invented facts to impress people both in Italy and abroad.

For example, he boasted that Italy’s air strength surpassed that of Britain in the Mediterranean and that Italy had the superior navy, when he had only a few outdated air force divisions ready for duty and even fewer battleships. He also claimed to have an advanced armoured division that rivaled the Panzers when all he really had were a few heavily-armoured cars; he did not even have any tanks. Mussolini also asserted that his standing army consisted of eight million troops and then twelve million, when he had less than one million men in uniform, and could not even provide them with adequate food and weaponry. Many of these soldiers were forced to wear civilian trousers with a black shirt and may or may not have had a gun. Foreign journalists in Italy often commented on Mussolini’s “bluffing”, and eventually he expelled all journalists who said anything derogatory about him from the country.

Hitler was therefore skeptical about an alliance with Italy, but saw a potential exploitation opportunity, and after reciprocal visits to each other’s country Mussolini and Hitler signed the Pact of Steel in 1939, promising to back each other up in times of military strife. However, Hitler had planned this very carefully and knew Italy’s weakness perhaps better than Il Duce himself. Hitler had been planning to deceive everyone with his defensive alliances. He had signed a non-aggression pact with Poland in 1934 that would be in effect until 1939. During the interim five-year period, Hitler had capitalized on England’s appeasement policy to gain not only Austria, but also the Sudentland and all of Czechoslovakia. He had also signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact as a defensive alliance with Russia, but had also agreed to a secret clause in which Hitler revealed his plans to invade Poland and promised to split it with Russia. Stalin could not have been happier, because he knew he could gain half of Poland without having to do any real fighting – the Germans would do it all for him.

The course of World War II is beyond this paper, but Hitler began to back himself into a political corner as he started breaking the terms of almost every treaty he had signed. Germany began to infringe on its treaty with Rome, so Mussolini negotiated with Britain to be neutral, or as the fascists preferred, non-belligerent, in World War II. Later in the war, Germany attacked the Soviet Union and thereby violated that Pact. Stalin was enraged and immediately switched sides, ensuring Allied support. When it looked like Germany had the upper hand in the war, Mussolini defected against his negotiation with Britain and once again supported the Nazis. This decision was greatly influenced by Mussolini’s need for coal and troops to supplement Italian forces in the Mediterranean.

In reality, Hitler knew that Italy could gain nothing on its own because of its incompetent national leadership. Mussolini continued to assert the superiority of the Italian military and refused German military presence until Hitler forced it on him. From this point on, Mussolini rode on Hitler’s coattails, so to speak, and lost all international credibility. When the British finally reached Italy on their re-conquest of the Mediterranean, freedom fighters gave Mussolini up to them. Hitler discovered where Mussolini was being held hostage and sent a force to rescue him and bring him back to Berlin, thus tying Mussolini’s fate to the success of the Third Reich. Not long after Hitler committed suicide in 1945, Mussolini was hanged by freedom fighters.

Stalin, although the Soviet Union had suffered enormous human losses in the war, continued to run the nation as a socialist state, eventually advancing to Communism. He turned down an American offer for aid, as the economy was in complete disarray and there was a massive famine. Joseph Stalin, the leader of the people, had come to care so little for the proletariat that he had become no different from Hitler or Mussolini. After a series of strokes, his death was welcomed by the general public.

However, Stalin’s legacy continued to affect the world in the form of the Cold War until 1989 with the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Hitler’s legacy, from an optimistic point of view, was the creation of the United Nations to prevent any other government from committing atrocities such as his. Mussolini’s legacy was a lasting distaste for singular leadership in Italy. Modern Italians still prefer a stagnant Parliamentary system to a power-hungry megalomaniac any day. Each of these three totalitarian dictators used different methods to impose their rule and left different legacies behind. What they all have in common, though, is that the world is still feeling the impact of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini in 2004. These men not only changed the world when they were here, but changed the course of history with their lives.


All references to Mussolini are from David Mack Smith, Mussolini, (London: Phoenix Giants, 1994)

All references to Stalin are from Robert Conquest, Stalin: Breaker of Nations, (New York: Viking, 1991)

All references to Hitler are from Sebastian Haffner, The Meaning of Hitler, tr. Eswald Osers, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc, 1979)

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