To what extent was foreign policy the most important factor in the maintenance of power in two authoritarian states?

 From the November 2022 Paper 2 IBDP History final exam

The maintenance of power in authoritarian states is a multifaceted process, influenced by numerous factors, including foreign policy, domestic policy, control of military and security apparatus, propaganda, and more. For this discussion, let's consider two prominent examples of authoritarian states in the 20th century: Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler (1933-1945) and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin (1929-1953). 

In Nazi Germany, foreign policy was instrumental in Hitler's consolidation and maintenance of power. He leveraged nationalist sentiments, discontent over the Treaty of Versailles, and fear of communism to pursue an aggressive foreign policy that included withdrawal from the League of Nations, rearmament, and territorial expansion. These actions bolstered his image as a strong leader dedicated to restoring Germany's global status, contributing significantly to his ability to maintain power. 

However, domestic factors were arguably even more important in Hitler's maintenance of power. His totalitarian regime suppressed political opposition, controlled media and education, and propagated a potent mix of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and Aryan racial superiority. Hitler also implemented policies that appeared to improve Germany's economy, reducing unemployment and staging large public works projects, which gained him support among the populace. Historian Ian Kershaw, in his biography of Hitler, emphasises the role of the "Hitler Myth" and the propagandistic portrayal of Hitler as the embodiment of the national will as key to his hold on power. 

In the Soviet Union, Stalin's foreign policy was certainly important, especially his manoeuvres in the international communist movement, the establishment of a buffer zone of satellite states after World War II, and his ability to position the USSR as a superpower during the early Cold War years. However, similar to Hitler, domestic factors arguably played a more crucial role in Stalin's long tenure. Stalin instituted a brutal regime that silenced opposition through purges, gulags, and widespread surveillance by the secret police. He also implemented significant economic transformations, including forced collectivisation of agriculture and a series of Five-Year Plans aimed at rapid industrialisation. These policies, despite causing immense hardship and loss of life, strengthened Stalin's control over the Soviet economy and society. Historian Robert Service, in his biography of Stalin, emphasises how Stalin's personality cult, combined with a climate of fear and terror, was instrumental in his retention of power. 

In conclusion, while foreign policy played a role in the maintenance of power in both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, it was arguably not the most important factor. The combination of repressive measures, control over the economy, and the creation of powerful personality cults through propaganda played more critical roles in ensuring the longevity of these authoritarian regimes. This conclusion underlines the intricate interplay of various factors in shaping historical developments, cautioning against simplistic or mono-causal interpretations.