The emergence of liberalism was a long and slow process evolving from various revolutions such as Protestantism, industrialization, scientific development, the Enlightenment, and the American and French revolutions. With each phase came reform and as citizens challenged the status quo, new ideas and concepts regarding society, government, and economics materialized. The main principles that have come to define liberalism are individual liberty, private enterprise, and democratic government. Springing from these main principles are modern notions of equality, freedom of speech and press, religious toleration, and secular society. However, in the twentieth century liberalism faced its first major challenge with the formation of totalitarian governments in states such as Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, and Japan. In direct contrast to liberal nations, these totalitarian states emphasized unity and individual submission to the state, government control over industry and enterprise, and an authoritarian dictatorship opposed to democracy.
Perhaps the most important principle of liberalism is its emphasis on individual liberty and the ability of each person to direct themselves with free choice and expression. Before liberalism European society was characterized by authoritarian style governments and strong social divisions between the aristocracy and peasants. With the advent of liberalism these barriers were considered improper and in theory each individual possessed the ability to advance themselves without social classes hindering them. However, the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Mussolini threw aside this notion and instead viewed individual freedom as an impediment to “national greatness.” More important than the individual was the collective state, thus Mussolini’s conclusion that if Fascism was to win then the twentieth century would become the “century of the state.”
This proposed “national greatness” did not refer to all in the nation with totalitarian leaders abandoning liberal ideas of equality and religious toleration. Hitler’s Nazi Party developed as a racist and bigoted party who envisioned a nation consisting of people with pure “German blood” and no room for the Jew whom Nazis hated and despised. Western liberalism had developed to the point where religious toleration and secular society were seen as pillars of Western Civilization, but the advent of totalitarianism in World War II threatened this very notion. Millions of Jews and those seen as social miscreants by Nazis were persecuted and murdered in a state sponsored program created and promoted by Germany and its allies. In Japan a totalitarian state different from its European counterparts had invaded much of Asia with the belief that they were creating a “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” in which Japan would lead Asian nations. In reality though, Japan also saw itself as a pure race and superior to other Asian peoples as did the Germans.
In order to achieve a greater nation and carry out unequal and discriminatory policies, the totalitarian state also required total control of the economy. Such a practice was a complete break away from liberalism which had increasingly moved towards decentralization of state power and encouraged private enterprise and competitiveness. Economic theorists such as Adam Smith had proposed that a free economy in which business could occur without regulation and government interference would create a competitive environment in which individuals would work to better themselves and thus the entire nation. However, in 1929 the Great Depression occurred and Europe experienced economic collapse, creating a sense of disillusionment with capitalism and making the totalitarian state appear to be an increasingly attractive alternative. Fascists, Nazis, and Stalin’s totalitarian Soviet all required that the economy function solely for the benefit of the state who dictated how and where money should be spent. During WWII each moved their economies into war economies where the entire nation worked and produced for the purpose of war. These totalitarian dictatorships had the power to simply step in and seize control of a business if they deemed it necessary, a behavior that goes against the laissez faire approach of liberalism.
Dictatorship is the best word to describe totalitarian states during the first half of the twentieth century, in a political climate that completely excluded democracy. Once in power, the Fascists and Nazis broke with democratic politics that had become an essential part of liberalism and individual liberty. For many citizens in these nations, democracy had only created uncertainty, instability, and a squabbling and ineffective government. The one party dictatorship that totalitarianism offered addressed these problems and gave the people the strong leadership they so desperately desired. By dispensing with democracy, liberal ideas of freedom of press and speech also had to be removed in order to maintain the power of the single party and were replaced with propaganda and complete control of the media and education. The state provided the appropriate ideology for its people and indoctrinated their own citizens with approved party policies.
In the early twentieth century Western Civilization had increasingly come to be defined by its liberal ideas and principles. Politics and society revolved around the idea that individual freedom was paramount and economic policy was based on a free economy. However, this also led to disillusionment and with the advent of the Great Depression Europeans began to question the validity of liberalism as a solution to their problems. Leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini provided a viable alternative with their totalitarian ideas of statehood, central control of the economy, and a strong and stable government. Unfortunately their rejection of liberalism also led to rejection of equality, religious toleration, and freedom of speech and ultimately the deaths of millions of innocents. Perhaps if totalitarianism had been conceived of and led by someone who respected basic human rights and equality, it could have developed as a valid political theory. However, experiments into totalitarianism around WWII and even in recent history have perhaps forever branded this form of government as evil and unworkable in a world dominated by Western liberal ideas.