Totalitarianism and Mass Politics: Comparative Perspectives on Fascism and Communism

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Course Description: 

The course provides a systematic introduction to the history and historiography of two political ideologies, set of movements, and regimes which have greatly shaped Central Europe’s development in the twentieth century: fascism and communism. A main purpose of the course is to critically question the analytical framework of “(uni)totalitarianism” that dominated comparative studies on fascism and communism during the Cold War, and to introduce students to alternative theoretical and methodological approaches focusing on issues of legitimization, consensus-building, resistance and collaboration in the context of totalitarian movements and regimes in inter-war and post-war Europe, such as “the ethnography of the state,” the “sacralisation” of politics, and fascism and communism as “political religions.” It is hoped that, by the end of the course, students will acquire a comprehensive knowledge of the core historical literature on fascism and communism and will grasp the ideological implications of the complex theoretical debates in these fields.

The course employs the comparative method, in an effort to identify both the unique and the common variables at work in the making of fascist and communist regimes. It puts forward a double comparative perspective: “internal” between varieties of fascist and respectively varieties of communist regimes; and “external,” between fascist and communist regimes. Although Italian Fascism, German National-Socialism and Soviet Stalinism are the most representative historical case studies cited in the latter comparison, the course does not restrict the discussion to these “three tyrannies” but focuses on other historical examples from East-Central Europe, as well.

The course consists of a combination of lectures and seminars, and is structured in introduction, two main parts, and conclusions. The introduction presents the history of the concept of “totalitarianism” and influential academic analyses of totalitarian regimes authored by Hannah Arendt, Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew K. Brzezinski; and briefly reviews influential social-psychological theories of collective behavior in early twentieth-century Europe. Part one provides an overview of various attempts at defining “generic” fascism put forward by prominent scholars such as Ernst Nolte, George L. Mosse, Stanley G. Payne, Roger Griffin, and Emilio Gentile. It also explores the history of inter-war fascist movements, parties, and regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. While academic research has almost unilaterally focused on the “paradigmatic” case studies of Italian fascism and German National Socialism, the course pays special attention to what has generally been called “peripheral” or “minor” fascisms in East-Central Europe, in an effort to integrate them within mainstream fascist studies.

Part two (classes fifteen to twenty-two) explores the main features of Stalinism and the institutionalization of communist regimes in East-Central Europe. To this end, it delineates stages of development of Leninist regimes; critically assesses typologies of communist leadership based on various strategies of legitimization, such as charisma, control and coercion; and compare “palingenetic” political communities built on the mythical core of communist ideology. On this basis, the conclusions pursue an in-depth and informed comparison of fascist and communist regimes. The purpose of this wider comparison is to integrate the study of fascism and communism within the larger framework of mass politics in inter-war and post-1945 Europe, approached from novel theoretical and methodological perspectives.

Learning Outcomes: 

The course investigates various primary and secondary sources related to fascism and communism, mainly films, art-works, political and academic works written or made during inter-war or post-war years. It makes ample use of visual media, especially of photography, political posters and films, in an attempt to encourage students to development their interpretive skills in employing visual images in their historical research. We will watch short extracts from: Italian Il Luce newsreel-documentaries filmed between 1920 and 1940, such as La Roma di Mussolini; Romanian news documentaries from 1940-1941; extracts from representative propaganda documentaries or movies of the 1920s and 1930s, such as: Sergei Eisenstein, The Battleship Potemkin (1925); Camicia Nera (The Black Shirt) (1933) the Italian Fascism propaganda film directed by Giovacchino Forzano; Three Songs of Lenin (1934), made in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of Lenin's death, directed by Dziga Vertov; Triumph des Willens (The Triumph of the Will), the propaganda film documenting the 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg, directed by Leni Reifenstahl (1935); and from historical documentaries: Patrizia Veroli, D’Annunzio: Soggetto e Testi (2003); Harmut Kaminski, Stalin: From Revolution to Superpower (1993); and Florin Iepan, Children of the Decree (2005). In doing so, the course underscores the shifting place of images in society and politics and the increasing role played by photography, advertisement boards, posters and cinema in political propaganda. In addition, students will be given the opportunity to attend a guided tour of the “Terror House Museum” in Budapest, documenting the fascism and communist terror in Hungary. The course is mainly opened to students in history, political science and nationalism studies.


Students are expected to attend all lectures and seminars, read the assigned readings and prepare to actively participate in class discussions. The requirements and grading breakdown of the seminar are as follows: 

  • Seminar participation (25 percent), based on both the quantity and quality of the students’ contributions and involvement during discussions of readings and visual materials;
  • Seminar presentation (25 percent);
  • Final essay (50 percent): A final essay of circa 4,000 words will be due at the end of the course.

Class Attendance:

Regular attendance is mandatory in all classes. A student who misses more than two units (two 100 min sessions) in any 2 or 4 credit class without a verified reason beyond the student's control must submit an 8-10 page paper assigned by the Professor which as a rule should cover the material in the missed class. The paper is due no later than 3 weeks after the missed class