French Revolution: The Origin Of Modern Totalitarianism

The French Revolution was an attempt to change France’s monarchy from unequal and establish a republican government. It was based on Enlightenment ideas like natural rights and legal equality. It failed to fulfill its promise of liberty and extinguished all opposition voices. The French Revolution claimed that these radical and authoritative actions were essential to reach its ultimate goal of creating a perfect society. It is a hallmark of many totalitarian governments around the globe since the French revolution. These include Stalin’s Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. To achieve their ideal society, the leaders employed radical methods like the French revolutionaries who used terror and propaganda to suppress dissent.

Rousseau’s philosophy was the inspiration behind the French revolution. Rousseau believed citizens had to ignore their personal wants and needs in order to reach the general good. Furthermore, all forms or dissent should be stopped. This philosophy was at its peak during the Terror. Robespierre took power to implement the Terror. The Terror caused citizens to “politicize every aspect of their lives” as they were required to follow the general will. To ensure loyalty citizens to the government, opposition to the revolutionary government was “perverted” and made it a crime. This led to thousands of people being sent to death by the guillotine during this short period, even though they were suspicious that their opinions were not supported by evidence. Similar to this, people who opposed the state or condemned it were treated as enemies in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and other countries. They were often sent to concentration camp instead of being executed. These harsh punishments for minor differences in opinion created fear among citizens of France, Russia, Germany, and Germany. This fear made it nearly impossible to overthrow each totalitarian regime. Modern totalitarian leaders used fear to end dissent in a manner similar to Maximilien Ropespierre’s French revolution leaders. Indoctrination of citizens through propaganda was an additional method by modern totalitarian regimes to suppress dissent. Propaganda wasn’t as common in France after the revolution as in totalitarian regimes, but it was there. Jacobins were one example. They formed in the wake the French Revolution. They played a crucial role in instituting Terror. Similar trends were observed in the past totalitarian governments, like Nazi Germany. Hitler’s Third Reich used education as a means of indoctrinating youth in Nazi ideology. School courses were designed to instill anti-Semitism among children by promoting racial theory and educating them about the Aryan race’s superiority. Stalin’s USSR propaganda also was used to condemn governments that were “degradations” of true politics. Although propaganda used during the French revolution wasn’t as effective as in modern totalitarian regimes, it was still useful and had the same effect of eliminating dissent.

The French revolution was motivated by progressive ideals such a equality of all persons before the law, liberty and justice. Ironically, however it was led by governments. It led to governments (like the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte) who opposed these ideals. The radical Jacobins took control of the National Convention in 1793 from the moderate Girondins, using the state-of-emergency France as a justification for their power grab. The new government implemented radical changes to make the country more rational. They established a new calendar, and abolished Christianity. The Jacobins’ violent transfer to power and the subsequent changes they made were undemocratic, and a hallmark of totalitarian governments today like Nazi Germany. Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany, but he did not achieve the democratic goals he originally set out to. He was able to consolidate the power of the president and chancellor into one position, and also passed the Enabling Act through Reichstag. He became dictator and banned opposition parties, suspended civil liberties, and committed genocide on Jews, homosexuals, as well as other people he thought to be less than the Aryan race. As with Nazi Germany and French governments during the Revolution Stalin’s Soviet Union was ruled by one party. They were subject to undemocratic, atrocious legislation which resulted in the deaths of millions. The French Revolution, unlike other totalitarian governments today, was based on democratic and Enlightenment principles like equality and liberty. However, revolutionaries felt it was necessary to use all means to attain their goal of creating an ideal state that upholds these principles. Modern totalitarian governments also use brutal methods like terror, propaganda, and single-party rule to suppress dissent.

The striking similarities in the French Revolution and current totalitarian regimes are not enough to make the conclusion that the French Revolution is their source. The only reason totalitarian governments took the brutal actions they did is because the ends justifies their means. This was the driving force behind France’s brutal Revolution, which is the reason why totalitarianism today has its roots.



Makhi is a 34 yo educational blogger who is passionate about writing and exploring new content ideas. She has a degree in English from the University of Utah and is currently working as a teacher in a public school in Utah. Makhi has been published in numerous online journals and has been featured on national television networks.