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Franz Borkenau (December 15, 1900 – May 22, 1957) was an Austrian writer and publicist. Borkenau was born in Vienna, Austria, the son of a civil servant. As a university student in Leipzig, his main interests were Marxism and psychoanalysis. Borkenau is known as one of the pioneers of the totalitarianism theory.

Franz Borkenau
Born(1900-12-15)December 15, 1900
Vienna, Austria-Hungary
DiedMay 22, 1957(1957-05-22) (aged 56)
Zurich, Switzerland
OccupationSociologist and journalist
Known forOne of the pioneers of the totalitarianism theory.



During 1921, Borkenau joined the Communist Party of Germany and was active as a Comintern agent until 1929.[1] After graduating from the University of Leipzig during 1924, Borkenau moved to Berlin. In the 1920s, Borkenau was described by Richard Löwenthal as a "sincere Marxist" who very much wanted a world revolution.[1] At the end of 1929, Borkenau resigned from both the Comintern and the KPD owing to his personal repulsion and disgust about how the Communists operated, combined with an increasing horror about Stalinism.[1]

Despite his disillusionment with Communism, Borkenau remained a leftist and worked as a researcher for the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany. During his time at the Frankfurt Institute, Borkenau was a protégé of Carl Grünberg and his main interest was the relationship between capitalism and ideology. During 1933, Borkenau, who in Nazi terms was a "Half Jew", fled from Germany and lived at various times in Vienna, Paris and Panama City. During the 1930s, Borkenau was involved with organizing aid from abroad for the clandestine group Neu Beginnen (New Beginnings), which was working for the end of the Nazi regime.[1] In a series of articles published during 1933-34 in the left-wing German language émigré press, Borkenau defended the Neu Beginnen group as the superior alternative to both the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).[1]

In his 1936 biography of the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto, Borkenau offered an early theory of totalitarianism from a Marxist perspective.[2] Though rather hostile towards Pareto, Borkenau was much impressed by his theory of the "circulation of elites", by which the ablest individuals naturally became members of the elite, thereby ensuring that the elites would always be re-energized and refreshed.[3] Writing from a Marxist viewpoint, Borkenau contended that the "circulation of elites" theory explained both Communism and fascism.[4] Borkenau argued that the political-social-economic crises caused by World War I caused the strongest capitalists to form a "new economic elite".[4] However, as the "new economic elite" continually revitalized itself by ever more destructive competition, more and more ordinary people felt the effects, thus causing the State to intervene.[4] As the State became more involved with the economy, a "new political elite" emerged, which superseded the previous economic elite, and claimed total power for itself in both the economy and politics.[4] In Borkenau's opinion, Fascism in Italy, National Socialism in Germany and Communism in Russia, all in different ways, represented the unfolding of the process[4] Borkenau argued that Vladimir Lenin created the first totalitarian dictatorship with all power concentrated into the hands of the state, which was completely unconstrained by any class forces as all previous regimes had been.[2]

During September 1936, Borkenau made a two-month visit to Spain, where he observed the effects of Spanish Civil War in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. During his Spanish visit, Borkenau was much disillusioned by the behavior of the agents of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD in Spain and of the Spanish Communist Party. During January 1937, Borkenau made a second visit to Spain, during which he was arrested and tortured by Spanish police before being released. Borkenau's experience inspired his best-known book, The Spanish Cockpit (1937). The Spanish Cockpit was widely praised and "made Borkenau's name famous throughout the English-speaking world".[5] Reviewer Douglas Goldring praised The Spanish Cockpit as "of exceptional interest to all those who are really anxious to know what is going on in Spain".[6]

Borkenau's book Austria and After (1938) was an attack on the Nazi Anschluss.[5] During 1939, Borkenau published The New German Empire, where he warned that Adolf Hitler was intent upon world conquest. In particular, Borkenau advised against the idea, popular in Britain in the 1930s, that Britain should return the former German colonies in Africa in exchange for a German promise to respect the frontiers of Europe (unknown to Borkenau, such an offer by the British had been secretly made to the Germans in early 1938).[7]

Borkenau argued that the Germans would never honour such a promise, returning the former German colonies would only provide a new field of conflict, and Hitler's determination to overthrow the Treaty of Versailles was "an almost insignificant incident on the road to unlimited expansion".[7] Borkenau claimed that the German propaganda campaign for the former African colonies was a "stepping stone to something else", the "acquisition of a wider colonial area" for Germany.[7] He asserted that the propaganda campaign for the return of the former German colonies in Africa was intended for their strategic value in helping to prepare the ground for a war against Britain and France, rather than the economic value, which Borkenau noted was very small.[7] Borkenau argued that the main German target in Africa was South Africa.[7] Borkenau contended that if Britain returned the former German colonies to the Reich, the Germans would arouse the anti-British elements within the Afrikaner population.[7] Once the anti-British Afrikaners became the politically dominant element "to the exclusion of everything British", the Germans would transform South Africa into a German Protectorate.[7] With control of South Africa, the Germans would be able to control the Cape of Good Hope route to India and the gold mines of the Witwatersrand, which "would at one stroke get rid of all the limitations imposed on her Germany by the lack of free exchange".[7]

According to Borkenau, the dictatorship was a powerful revolutionary mass dictatorship based on propaganda and terror, which, to maintain itself and the associated Wehrwirtschaft (Defence Economy), required a policy of endless expansion in all directions.[8] The powerful internal forces driving German foreign policy meant Nazi Germany had to attempt world conquest because without expansionism in all directions, the German dictatorship would collapse.[8] The nearest historical counterpart to German policy was French expansionism during the French Revolution and the age of Napoleon I.[8] Borkenau criticized those who compared the Third Reich to the Second Reich or argued that National Socialism was just one of the "ever-recurring waves of Teutonic nationalism or the expression of "have-not imperialism" as engaging in a "deadly parallel".[8] Borkenau's portrayal of Nazi foreign policy being driven by powerful internal forces into a limitless expansionism was to prefigure the arguments made by German foreign policy by functionalist historians like Hans Mommsen and Martin Broszat, who similarly contended that Nazi foreign policy did not have any plans but was rather "expansionism without objective" pushed by internal forces. However, Borkenau's work differed from the functionalists in that he maintained that the Nazi regime was a well-organized totalitarian dictatorship. During World War II, Borkenau lived in London, and worked as a writer for Cyril Connolly's journal Horizon.

During 1947, Borkenau returned to Germany to work as a professor at the University of Marburg. In June 1950, Borkenau attended the conference in Berlin together with other anti-Communist intellectuals such as Hugh Trevor-Roper, Ignazio Silone, Raymond Aron, Arthur Koestler, Sidney Hook and Melvin J. Lasky that resulted in the initiation of the Congress for Cultural Freedom. At the conference, Borkenau delivered the theme speech, for which he spoke of the "meaninglessness" of the conflict between capitalism and socialism in a time of "ebbing revolution", and the only conflict that mattered in the world was the one between Communism and democracy.[9] Left-wing cryptocommunist intellectuals such as Cedric Belfrage, noting that Hitler often denounced Communism in Berlin, like Borkenau did, would compare his speech to the Nuremberg rallies and accused Borkenau of being a sort of neo-Nazi.[10]

Borkenau was very active in the Congress, and was often criticized by Marxist intellectuals such as Isaac Deutscher for his fierce anti-Communism. In turn, Borkenau was often critical of Deutscher's work. In 1949, Borkenau in a newspaper article criticized Deutscher for endorsing in his biography of Stalin the official Soviet version that Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky together with the rest of the Red Army high command had been plotting a coup in collaboration with the intelligence services of Germany and Japan, thus justifying Stalin's "liquidation" of the Red Army leadership during 1937.[11] Borkenau claimed that Deutscher was engaging in an apologia for Stalin since in his opinion, there was nothing that supported Stalin's version of events about the alleged coup plot of 1937. Borkenau concluded that:

Deutscher's perspective is utterly false. [...] Napoleon's person could be detached from the destinies of France; and the achivements [sic?] of the revolution, and of the Napolenoic period were indeed preserved. But it is more than doubtful whether Russia's destiny can be separated from Stalinism, even if Stalin were ever to die a natural death. The inner law of Stalinist terror drives Stalin's Russia, not less, even if more slowly, the law of Nazi terror Hitler's Germany, to conflict with the world and thereby to total catastrophe not only for the terroristic régime, but also for the nation ruled by it. [...] The danger of Deutscher's book is that in place of this grave and anxious prospect it puts another one which is more normal and reassuring. According to Deutscher's conception there is nothing terrible to fear because in the main the terrors are already past. To this conception we oppose the opinion that the revolution of the twentieth century shows parallels to earlier revolutions only in its opening phrase, but that later it ushers in a régime of terror without end, of hostility towards everything human, of horrors which carry no remedy, and which can be cured only ferro et igni.[12]

Likewise, Borkenau was often critical of the work of the pro-Soviet British historian E. H. Carr. In 1951, Borkenau wrote in the Der Monat newspaper of the first volume of Carr's History of Soviet Russia that for Carr: "Human suffering he seems to say, is not a historical factor; Carr belongs to those very cold people who always believe they think and act with the iciest calculation and therefore fail to understand why they are mistaken in their calculations time and time again".[13] Borkenau was a major advocate for the totalitarianism school. Another historian whom Borkenau disliked (for different reasons than was the case with Deutscher and Carr) was Arnold J. Toynbee. In the May 1955 issue of Commentary, Borkenau accused Toynbee of being anti-Semitic.[14]

In the 1950s, Borkenau was well known as an expert on Communism and the Soviet Union. Borkenau was one of the founders of Sovietology. As a Kremlinologist, one of Borkenau's major interests was making predictions about the future of Communism.[15] Some of Borkenau's predictions, such as his claim during the early 1950s about the coming Sino-Soviet split were confirmed by events, but others were not.[15] In an article in the April 1954 edition of Commentary entitled "Getting at the Facts Behind the Soviet Facade", Borkenau wrote that the Sino-Soviet alliance was unstable and would last for only a decade or so.[16]

Borkenau argued that despite the appearance of unity, there were power struggles within the Soviet elite.[17] Moreover, Borkenau contended that within the Soviet government there were vast chefstvo (patronage) networks extending down from the elite to the lowest ranks of power.[18]

Borkenau's 1954 book, Der russische Bürgerkrieg, 1918-1921, showed some sympathy for non-Bolshevik socialists.[5]

Borkenau's techniques were a minute analysis of official Soviet statements and the standing arrangement at the Kremlin on official occasions to determine what Soviet official was in Stalin's favour and what official was not.[18] Signs such as newspaper editorials, guest lists at formal occasions, obituaries in Soviet newspapers, and accounts of formal speeches were important to identifying the various chefstvo networks.[18] Borkenau argued that even small changes in the formalistic language of the Soviet state could sometimes indicate important changes:[18] "Political issues must be interpreted in the light of formulas, political and otherwise, and their history; and such interpretation cannot be safely concluded until the whole history of the given formula has been established from its first enunciation on".[18] On the basis of his method, during January 1953, Borkenau predicted that Stalin's death would occur in the near-future (Stalin died later in March).[18] In 1954, Borkenau wrote that he made that prediction on the basis of a resolution of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany on the "lessons of the Slansky case".[18] Borkenau argued that because the resolution quoted Georgy Malenkov a number of times about the supposed lessons for the Communist world of Rudolf Slánský's supposed treason, it was Walter Ulbricht's way of associating himself with Malenkov's chefstvo network as part of the preparation for the post-Stalin succession struggle:[18]

Malenkov was quoted at inordinate length. [...] By quoting him in his fashion and by adding his own yelp to the anti-Semitic chorus, Ulbricht, the animator of the resolution, proclaimed himself a Malenkov client. But even more important; while Malenkov was cited at length, Stalin was quoted with a mere half sentence dating from 1910. Such a deliberate affront could have been offered only by people sure of that tyrant's approaching downfall, or else out of reach of his retribution. Otherwise, it was sure suicide. It was primarily on the strength of the evidence found in this resolution that I then predicted, in print, Stalin's imminent death, which, sure enough, came seven weeks later.[18]

Another topic of interest for Borkenau was engaging in an intellectual critique of Toynbee and Oswald Spengler's work about when and why civilizations weaken and end. The latter critique was published posthumously by his friend, Richard Löwenthal. Borkenau became increasingly active as a freelance author living in Paris, Rome and Zurich, where he died suddenly of heart failure in 1957.[5]


  • The Transition from the Feudal to the Bourgeois World View, 1934.
  • Pareto, New York : Wiley, 1936.
  • The Spanish Cockpit : an Eye-Witness Account of the Political and Social Conflicts of the Spanish Civil War, London : Faber and Faber, 1937.
  • Austria and After, London, Faber and Faber 1938.
  • The Communist International, London : Faber and Faber, 1938.
  • The New German Empire, New York, Viking, 1939.
  • The Totalitarian Enemy, London, Faber and Faber 1940.
  • Socialism, National or International, London, G. Routledge 1942.
  • European Communism, New York : Harper, 1953.
  • World Communism; a History of the Communist International, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press 1962.
  • End and Beginning : on the Generations of Cultures and the Origins of the West, edited with an introduction by Richard Lowenthal, New York : Columbia University Press, 1981.


  1. ^ a b c d e Jones, William David "Toward a Theory of Totalitarianism: Franz Borkenau's Pareto" pages 455-466 from Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 53, Issue # 3, July - September 1992 page 457.
  2. ^ a b Jones, William David "Toward a Theory of Totalitarianism: Franz Borkenau's Pareto" pages 455-466 from Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 53, Issue # 3, July - September 1992 page 461
  3. ^ Jones, William David "Toward a Theory of Totalitarianism: Franz Borkenau's Pareto" pages 455-466 from Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 53, Issue # 3, July - September 1992 page 459
  4. ^ a b c d e Jones, William David "Toward a Theory of Totalitarianism: Franz Borkenau's Pareto" pages 455-466 from Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 53, Issue # 3, July - September 1992 page 460
  5. ^ a b c d Kessler, Mario, "Between Communism and Anti-Communism: Franz Borkenau" in Fair-Schulz, Alex, and Kessler, Mario, German Scholars in Exile:New Studies in Intellectual History. Lanham, Maryland; Lexington Books, 2011 ISBN 0739150480 (pp. 93-120).
  6. ^ Douglas Goldring, "An English Bookman's Notebook", Ottawa Citizen, October 2nd, 1937 (p.11).
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Crozier, Andrew Appeasement and Germany's Last Bid for Colonies, New York: St's Martin's Press, 1988 page 163.
  8. ^ a b c d Herz, John Review of The New German Empire pages 361-362 from The American Political Science Review, Volume 34, Issue # 2, April 1940
  9. ^ Belfrage, Cedric The American Inquisition, Innianapolis: Bobbs-Merill Company, 1973 pages 138-139.
  10. ^ Belfrage, Cedric The American Inquisition, Innianapolis: Bobbs-Merill Company, 1973 page 139.
  11. ^ Borkenau, Franz "Stalin" im Schafspelz" pages 207-208 from Der Monat, November 1949; Laqueur, Walter The Fate of the Revolution, New York : Scribner, 1987 page 102.
  12. ^ Deutscher, Isaac Stalin A Political Biography, New York: Oxford University Press, 1949, 1966, 1967, 1977 pages xii-xiii.
  13. ^ Borkenau, Franz "Der Spoetter als Panegyriker" from Der Monant, # 36, September 1951 page 614; Laqueur, Walter The Fate of the Revolution, New York : Scribner, 1987 page 126.
  14. ^ Borkenau, Franz "Toynbee's Judgment of the Jews: Where the Historian Misread History", Commentary May 1955
  15. ^ a b Laqueur, Walter The Fate of the Revolution, New York : Scribner, 1987 page 180.
  16. ^ Borkenau, Franz "Getting at the Facts Behind the Soviet Facade" from Commentary, April 1954 page 399.
  17. ^ Laqueur, Walter The Fate of the Revolution, New York : Scribner, 1987 pages 180-181.
  18. ^ a b c d e f g h i Laqueur, Walter The Fate of the Revolution, New York : Scribner, 1987 page 181.


  • Abrams, Mark Review of European Communism page 500 from International Affairs, Volume 29, Issue # 4, October 1953.
  • Carroll, E. Malcolm Review of The New German Empire pages 195-196 from Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Volume 20, March 1940.
  • Carter, W. Horsfall Review of The Spanish Cockpit pages 452-453 from International Affairs Volume 17, Issue # 3,May–June 1938.
  • Collins, Randell "Review: The Borkenau Thesis and the Origins of the West" pages 379-388 from Sociological Forum, Volume 1, Issue # 2, Spring, 1986.
  • Laqueur, Walter The Fate of the Revolution : Interpretations of Soviet History from 1917 to the Present, New York : Scribner, 1987 ISBN 0-684-18903-8.
  • Hartshorne, E.Y. Review of Der Ubergang vom Feudalen zum Burgerlichen Weltbild pages 476-478 from International Journal of Ethics, Volume 45, Issue # 4, July 1935.
  • Herz, John Review of The New German Empire pages 361-362 from The American Political Science Review, Volume 34, Issue # 2, April 1940.
  • Jones, William David "Toward a Theory of Totalitarianism: Franz Borkenau's Pareto" pages 455-466 from Journal of the History of Ideas, Volume 53, Issue # 3, July - September 1992
  • Jones, William David The Lost Debate: German Socialist Intellectuals and Totalitarianism, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999. ISBN 0-252-06796-7.
  • Moore, Barrington Review of End and Beginning: On the Generations of Cultures and the Origins of the West pages 716-717 from The American Journal of Sociology, Volume 92, Issue # 3, November 1986.
  • Nemoianu, Virgil Review of End and Beginnings pages 1235-1238 from MLN, Volume 97, Issue # 5, December 1982.
  • Tashjean, John E "The Sino-Soviet Split: Borkenau's Predictive Analysis of 1952" pages 342-361 from The China Quarterly, Volume 94, June 1983

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