How Totalitarianism Rhymes Throughout History: Czechoslovakia, China, & Venezuela

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  • 06/02/2021
“It can’t happen here” is a political cliche in the United States. Regardless of your personal viewpoint, there is a vast swath of the American population who simply do not believe in the possibility of any kind of totalitarianism in the United States. It’s worth noting that throughout history, in virtually every place that totalitarian regimes have arisen, the residents of these countries felt the same way. Russia was seen as too traditional and backward, the power of the Czar too entrenched to be defeated. Germany had been viewed throughout most of the modern period as the home of Goethe, Schiller, and Mozart, a place where the local Jewish population had largely assimilated. Because totalitarianism emerges differently throughout history in different countries, it’s crucial to take a broader view of how totalitarian regimes arise. For example, when we’re discussing the rise of communism or the rise of fascism, we see different trends in Russia than we do in China, different trends in Italy than we do in Germany. When we examine multiple, somewhat lesser known examples of the rise of socialism throughout the world, we paint a picture of the different ways in which socialism originated and its possible resurgence. This case study of terror analyses three examples of totalitarianism throughout history. In Czechoslovakia, the Communist Party was able to establish the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic by leveraging little more than a strong showing - but not a victory - in the parliamentary elections. During the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of Communist China in the 1960s, Chairman Mao came out of relative isolation to radically remake an already communist country. Lastly, we will look right in America’s backyard at the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. More than perhaps anywhere else, the rise of totalitarianism throughout the world is an excellent example of the quote often attributed to Mark Twain, “history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” If you are looking for a mechanical repeat of the past, you are looking in the wrong place. Our point is not to show you that the exact same things are currently happening here in the United States, but to highlight similarities.

The Czechoslovak Coup d’Etat of 1948

Standing on this side of history, it’s easy to take Soviet domination over Eastern Europe as a given. However, at no point during the early transition from Nazi domination to the post-war period was it a fait accompli that the formerly occupied nations of Eastern Europe wouldn’t go back to being free and independent nations. Czechoslovakia is perhaps one of the best examples we have of a country that was by no means “destined” to go communist. The situation on the ground in Czechoslovakia was very similar to that of Italy and France - all three had been occupied by the Germans and had large Communist Parties enjoying broad, if not a majority, support. The Communist Parties of each country had a track record of cooperation with non-Communist Parties. What’s more, the Communist Party was able to get a little clout based on the role of the Red Army in liberating Eastern Europe. The broad support of the Communist Party should not be overlooked, as it is a major factor in the rise of a Communist government in Czechoslovakia. In 1945, the Communist Party had a scant 40,000 members. By 1948, this had ballooned to 1.35 million, with several fellow travelers and supporters whose strength is difficult to estimate.  

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