Totalitarianism refers to a type of authoritarian government characteristic of certain 20th-century dictatorships, which dominated entire populations in the name of an ideology. This form of government centralizes and integrates all political, military, religious, economic, and cultural power into a single party, a small group, or one individual.

A dictatorship is a form of government that centralizes political power in a single body or, more precisely, in the hands of a single dictator. Originally, however, it was typically applied temporarily when emergency situations required a strong and effective government to resolve the ongoing crisis on a temporary basis.

In such cases, a “dictator” would be identified and appointed, tasked with resolving the occasional crisis, with full powers at their disposal for a limited time. Nevertheless, there was an understanding that, at the end of their mandate, they would be judged for the decisions made.

Ancient and recent history has seen various forms of dictatorship that, despite holding a dominant and undisputed political position, tolerated relationships with other social forces such as the monarchy, religious structures, and the economic and productive sectors, negotiating mutually advantageous agreements without fully implementing the concept of totalitarianism.

Totalitarianism is a concept different from dictatorship. In practical terms, totalitarianism is more accurately an extreme form of dictatorship, which does not presume a temporal limit and seeks to exclude (or incorporate into itself) other power systems: the military, information, and productive sectors in particular, eliminating presidents, monarchs, aristocracy, unions, religious expressions, freedom of the press, systems of opinion and transmission, and private free initiative.

In this sense, the two most significant regimes of the last hundred years, the Nazi and the Soviet regimes, attempted to be fully totalitarian.

The distinction between dictatorship and totalitarianism can be historically significant. Totalitarianism, in fact, appropriates all social components to survive, making it extremely difficult for valid opposing reactions to coalesce. To be overthrown, it often requires the intervention of external forces.

Dictatorship, on the other hand, can, at least potentially, be opposed and defeated by internal community forces that, although with difficulty, still have space to form, organize, and react.