[The Totalitarians, an 8-week online course at the Mises Academy, runs from February 26 — April 28, 2012. You can enroll online.]
In many ways, the absolute state dreamed up by Machiavelli and other Renaissance Europeans couldn't hold a candle to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. If the old absolutists claimed potential and occasionally de facto total control over the lives of subjects, the total-war regimes made numerous "great leaps forward" to achieve ubiquitous surveillance, eradication of even the claim to individual rights, creation of concentration camps, ethnic cleansing on a scale unprecedented in human history, and mass killings of whole categories of individuals branded as "enemies of the state."
It may be an irony that the incubation period of the totalitarians was exactly contemporaneous with a breathtaking acceleration of Western thinking about power and liberty before World War I: Acton, the Austrian School of economics, the late 19th-century critique of the state, the recognition that war is the health of the state, and so forth. Tragically, only a generation or so later, the statists, socialists, and totalitarians seemed to have swept the field. Already before World War I, the imperial warfare-welfare state appeared to be in the ascendant. The First World War seemed to drive the last nails into liberty's coffin.
Yet in spite of the overwhelming forces crushing individual liberty, Ludwig von Mises devoted much of his life to fighting the various "great experiments" of the period hailed as a new golden age by his intellectual contemporaries such as Martin Heidegger, John Maynard Keynes, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The Bolsheviks were barely ensconced in Russia, the National Socialist German Workers Party (the Nazis) barely founded in Munich, before Mises was expending heroic effort to stave off totalitarian waves in Austria. The rest of his life was intertwined with the opposition to both of the "founder" regimes of the totalitarian world, the Soviet Union and the Third Reich. Significantly, the same body of Mises's files and papers seized by the Gestapo in the 1930s ended up after the war in the KGB secret archives!
The voice of Mises was a lonely one among Western intellectuals. National Socialism was widely condemned from the start, but the Soviet Union, and even Stalin himself, got a free pass from many leading intellectuals in the West. The insights of Ludwig von Mises regarding the close relationship of the "left-wing" and "right-wing" totalitarians and the extent to which the systems were simply variations on the same theme have only gradually made headway in the intellectual world. And Mises's analysis of the crucial and close relationship between the standard "pluralistic" Western interventionist states and the totalitarian regimes remains distinctly outside the mainstream.
Much of Mises's thought on all these subjects is summed up in his important work, Omnipotent Government, first published in 1944. This work will become the centerpiece of my new Mises Academy course, The Totalitarians. With this theoretical and historical framework in mind, we will be making a very close historical examination of the Soviet regime, the Third Reich, and — to a lesser extent — other totalitarian states.
Roughly one-fourth of the course will be devoted to a close reading of Omnipotent Government. Beyond this, we will be drawing on a wide variety of primary and secondary sources to try to deepen our understanding of totalitarianism, a subject crucial to any comprehensive view of modern history. Six sessions of the class will be devoted to developing a clear historical narrative and an effective analysis of the Soviet and Nazi regimes, applying the insights of the writings of Mises and others. We will make reference to Mussolini, Pol Pot, and various other totalitarians, but the main focus of the course will be the two "foundational" totalitarian regimes, The Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin and the Third Reich under Hitler.
This course runs from February 26 — April 28, 2012. You can enroll online.