The new half-term brings a brand new module in the teaching on the Access to HE programme: Twentieth Century Dictatorships. It is quite a large module in terms of covering the key assessment criteria, but this is all distilled into the essay question: comparing and contrasting the Nazi dictatorship with one other dictatorship in the twentieth century. So, for example, a student could could compare Hitler’s rule in Germany with Stalin’s in Russia, or with Mussolini’s in Italy; more off-beat choices could compare Hitler with the likes of Saparmurat Niyazov, the dictator of Turkmenistan in the 1990s into the new century.

The starting point of this module is in understanding exactly what a dictatorship is. This itself is a much harder task than we can first suppose, mainly because dictatorships seem to disguise themselves as democracies. For example, we have the Democratic Republic of Korea, or the Democratic Republic of Congo; neither are democratic or republics. Even Hitler’s Third Reich continued with the sham of running Reichstag sessions to give the appearance of holding a mandate from the people. Therefore, additional effort is needed in order to ascertain the true dictatorships.

This is further complicated by the differences between the dictatorships themselves. A dictator could be a fascist or someone opposed to fascism, such as a communist (such as the difference between Hitler and Stalin). Furthermore, they could be:

  • Constitutional: Mussolini in Italy was under the umbrella of the Italian King (and Pope).
  • Counter-revolutionary: Franco’s success in the Spanish Civil War was in opposition to the rise of the revolutionary left.
  • Third World dictatorship: military dictators in developing countries.
  • Theocratic: the country is run with religion as the primary focus.
  • Dynastic: control of the government is passed down to the next generation (North Korea).

The situation is particularly confusing because the origins of dictatorships are themselves unique; they are created in times of political crises and power vacuums. Hitler comes to power during an economic crisis – the Great Depression – in Germany, whilst the Communists in Russia come to power in the aftermath of defeat in the First World War. Each have their own mission: a Communist revolution (Chairman Mao or Castro in Cuba), or to provide stability (General Franco in Spain), or to create a new racial order (Hitler in Nazi Germany). But the crucial element here is their use of tactics and methodology in taking and maintaining power: in this manner, Hitler and Stalin can be argued to be very similar.

It is possible to utilise criteria to highlight the true dictatorships from the democracies. It follows a similar logic to the idea of ‘the duck test’:

‘If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.’

This criteria could include:

  • Proper meaningful elections are not allowed (no choice / no political pluralism).
  • Focus on one leader (dictator) – who holds all power in the country (a cult of personality).
  • The government has absolute power (can overrule laws and the judiciary).
  • Focus on military might and force to stay in power (the use of an elite bodyguard service and devotion from the army).
  • Personal freedoms removed.
  • The government heavily regulate every aspect of the public’s lives.
  • People are placed under a form of permanent surveillance (such as the Gestapo in Nazi Germany).

Once we can indicate who is a dictator we can then proceed to analyse their impact on their social, economic, and political life. In future posts I will return to this module in order to cover the various similarities and differences between these modern dictatorships, with a specific focus on fleshing out the interesting themes that connect the likes of Hitler and Stalin to the likes of Niyazov in Turkmenistan.