I was wondering if there is any modern-day country that can be considered totalitarian according to Hannah Arendt (where the totalitarian regime is defined by its endless motion, total domination over individuals' private and public lives, and its creation of a 'fake' reality through ideology and propaganda).

I am tempted to say that under her definition, Nazi Germany, Stalin USSR (and probably Maoist China) are the only examples.

However, there are countries that one could consider 'totalitarian' but do not fit into her concept, e.g. North Korea (doesn't fit because it's 'too small' - Arendt holds that totalitarianism must 'eat up' loads of human lives so requires a large populous country).

Does that mean 1) North Korea isn't actually a totalitarian regime despite our temptation to call it one; or 2) Hannah Arendt's concept of totalitarianism may be wrong (in certain aspects)?

My problem with it is that her theory seems hard to falsify, labelling something very particular ('unprecedented', according to her, also potentially never witnessed again after the two cases she extrapolated from) as the definition of something.

Thank you!

  • Maybe you have to apply the definition not as a Yes/No criteria. May 2, 2022 at 17:29
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    North Korea has 25 million people. You think that's too small? May 2, 2022 at 17:43
  • What are we trying to convey by calling something totalitarian? If we wish to indicate Arendt's descriptive analysis, then we use it on her terms. If we wish to indicate something similar enough, then we use it on similar terms. Maybe we even have politically trivial uses in mind (tracing the origins of the mere word "totalitarian," say). In any event, it's hard to say that our uses are wrong. May 2, 2022 at 17:51
  • We might try out, "Size of population under the system is a weaker/less important part of her definition," and then we can quickly find one more example right off the bat (the Khmer Rouge regime; they even had genocidal expansionism on their plate vs. Vietnam, and %-wise their democide sum/rate was extreme). But eventually, I think we will find ourselves confronted by the monster Arendt herself foresaw, that something even worse than totalitarianism would become possible in our time. May 2, 2022 at 17:53
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    What about the Vatican as a totalitarian state, satisfying the condition of 'total domination over individuals' private and public lives, and its creation of a 'fake' reality through ideology and propaganda' ? That the number of Vatican citizens is small, is outweighed by the domination over hundred of millions catholic followers all over the earth. - Of course, whether the Catholic worldview is a fake reality, spread by ideology and propaganda, is judged differently by followers and opponents.
    – Jo Wehler
    May 2, 2022 at 22:25

1 Answer 1


Arendt was attempting to characterise a new form of tyranny - one cannot call it governance. Her two main examples were Nazi Germany and Stalins USSR. She wrote in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, that she would have liked to investigate Mao's China but accurate information on that regime was then thin on the ground.

Given the evil and genocidal nature of totalitarianism, it's perhaps no surprise that this form of tyranny has few modern instances. One possible example would be the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot in Cambodia.

A possible future instance might be through an amalgam of the Surveillance Capitalism as outlined by Shoshana Zuboff in the book of the same name and the lack of accountability on the internet where information amd disinformation is rife that has over the last decade has engaged commentators in the West as eroding the very basis of democracy.

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