Network for the Study of Totalitarianism and Democracy (NEST)

Totalitarianism has been met with a renewed interest in recent years. The debate, inspired by current events such as the 9/11 attacks, has focused on whether the concept of totalitarianism is a fruitful analytical approach to understanding political extremism, or if it is rather to be understood as merely a political insult, and an inaccurate one at that.

About NEST

The project is studying totalitarianism as a modern historical phenomenon. The overarching theme of the project is the intellectual history of “totalitarianism” as a theory and an analytical concept. The core of the project is an interdisciplinary network of researchers and students representing a wide range of scholarly disciplines: History, Political Science, Anthropology, Philosophy, History of Religion and History of Ideas.

Totalitarianism is generally understood as a modern concept, in the sense that modern technological and economic structures are seen as necessary preconditions for the emergence of totalitarian ideologies in the 20th century. Rejection of cultural and political pluralism as well as liberal representative democracy, combined with a belief in the necessity of revolutionary change to achieve the ultimate goal of a utopian society by any means necessary is commonly recognized as important features of totalitarian ideologies.

Historically the term “totalitarianism” can be traced back to the inter-war years. The term first appeared in connection with Italian fascism in the mid 1920s, but soon came to be used by proponents of liberal democracy to describe even other forms of dictatorships, such as Stalinism and National Socialism. After the Second World War the concept was strongly woven into a cold war context, and was mainly used by American and European social scientists to describe the Soviet Union and other communist regimes. Following the terrorist attacks on September 11 2001, a renewed academic interest in totalitarianism theory and the concept of “totalitarianism” has emerged, especially within the humanities and social sciences, but also in the general public debate, with the focus of attention increasingly being directed towards totalitarian ideas within various radical Islamist movements.


The main perspective of the project as a whole is to focus on movements and ideologies with totalitarian ambitions rather than the various forms of totalitarian regimes. Also the focus will be on such movements and ideologies in their revolutionary phase rather than their attempts to consolidate power after their seizure of the state. The overarching research questions will thus be about the totalitarian attraction: For what reasons and in which way totalitarian ideas and movements have been able to attract widespread support at different times and in different regions. In order to fully understand the nature of totalitarian regimes and the potential threat of new forms of totalitarian movements, there is a profound need to understand what different totalitarian ideologies has offered people in the 20th and 21st centuries, what kind of dreams and hopes they have provided an answer to., that have inspired followers to pursue a path of revolution and destructive change of their contemporary societies.

On the other hand, there is ample historical evidence to suggest that the political cultures in some societies and in some historical periods have been less receptive to totalitarian ideas than others. The traditionally strong Scandinavian democracies would seem to be a case in point.

The main research goal of the project is to conduct comparative studies to explore whether the European experience of totalitarianism in the 20th century can be a fruitful way to understand contemporary movements with totalitarian world views and ambitions, such as Islamism. Another important goal for the project is to apply current knowledge of totalitarianism to investigate the Norwegian and Scandinavian case in the history of totalitarianism.

Keeping in line with recent trends in the study of totalitarianism, the project is not concerned primarily with totalitarian regimes and forms of governance. Rather, by focusing on the ideologies, their intellectual history, as well as totalitarian movements as structural expressions of the political ambitions of the totalitarian ideologies, we will be able to shed new light on the concept of totalitarianism in the 21st century, and how we are to understand its origins, development and potential.

Published July 1, 2010 9:35 AM - Last modified Oct. 28, 2014 1:02 PM