The Origins of Totalitarianism Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The fact that Hannah Arendt was a Jewish refugee from Nazi oppression cannot be divorced from The Origins of Totalitarianism. Written with eminent scholarship (hardly a page lacks footnotes and in some cases the footnotes are of greater length than the text), the book nevertheless is a passionate condemnation of totalitarianism. Arendt, in short, was searching for the intellectual roots of the movement that had displaced her from her native Germany and had made her a refugee in a world decidedly unfriendly toward Jews. Clearly the book is the product not only of thought but also of suffering. In fact, it was only with the publication of The Origins of Totalitarianism that Arendt was able to secure an academic position. Eventually she would become a full professor at Princeton University, the first woman to achieve that position.

The work is divided into three sections: “Antisemitism,” “Imperialism,” and “Totalitarianism,” with the last two parts having been revised in the 1958 and 1966 editions. (As the book was revised, it grew in length, running to 526 pages in the 1966 edition.) It is Arendt’s thesis that the two most important contributions to totalitarian movements have been anti-Semitism and imperialism. In the first three chapters, Arendt discusses the origins of anti-Semitism and the position of the Jews in Western European society, particularly in the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. She differs from many scholars in taking issue with the Jew-as-scapegoat analysis of anti-Semitism; instead, she attempts to demonstrate that anti-Semitism arose from several causes. It was a consequence of the declining importance of Jews, particularly Jewish bankers in the nineteenth century, the rise of the nation-state, and the emergence of a new type of nationalism in which the Jews were perceived as an alien element in the nation. Moreover, Jews had historically aligned themselves with the nobility, a class that had been in a position of power and so was able to protect them. Now, the nobility was seen as the major impediment to the formation of unified nation-states, and the Jews were perceived as the nobility’s lackeys.

Chapter 4 deals with the Dreyfus affair, in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer and a Jew, was railroaded into imprisonment on Devil’s Island, falsely accused of spying. Although Dreyfus was known to be innocent, his trial and imprisonment, and the attempted suppression of evidence that would have freed him, revealed the anti-Semitic climate of both the army and large segments of the population in turn-of-the-century France.

Part 2, “Imperialism,” consists of five chapters. Each discusses an aspect of imperialism, but the thrust is the development of racism as a consequence of imperialism and the consequences of racism. Imperialism and racism went hand in glove, according to Arendt, and it was imperialism that brought Europeans into contact with nonwhite peoples, peoples the Europeans believed to be culturally inferior and who were increasingly seen to be racially inferior as well.

Given the presence of such colonial populations, Europeans were more easily able to abandon whatever moral scruples they possessed. The natives thus were never given the rights that the inhabitants of the home countries were afforded, and, particularly in Africa, brutality—even mass murder—was not unusual.

The expansionist climate would result in the pan-movements in Europe. The philosophy of these was that all people who spoke a particular language as their mother tongue were of that nationality. For example, and regardless of political frontiers, all who spoke German were Germans and belonged within one unified German state. In short, imperialism aided the formation of supernationalist sentiments, and, by the same token, supernationalist emotions helped to create the collective mass consciousness necessary for the development of totalitarianism.

The third and final section of The Origins of Totalitarianism, which consists of four chapters, deals directly with totalitarianism, concentrating on Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, although more space is given to the former than to the latter.

Given a climate of anti-Semitism and supernationalism, Arendt adds another element: “mass man,” the refugee within his own society, a man led by declassed intellectuals. Arendt grants that political ideology could and would vary from society to society, but in her view political ideology was not the basic issue. What was necessary for the rise of totalitarianism were the factors mentioned above.

A new factor was added in the twentieth century: the presence in great numbers of mass men. These atomized individuals had no attachment to job, family, friends, or class. They were available to follow a leadership that allowed them to gain identity in a mass movement. No matter how brutal or irrational such a movement might be, it nevertheless offered a sense of identity to those who had never sufficiently gained one or who had lost the one they had possessed.

The Origins of Totalitarianism is a wide-ranging book, capacious to a fault. Indeed, some of the chapter subsections could stand alone and perhaps should not have been included; instead, they should have been published as separate historical pieces, as they are tangential to the subject of the book. Moreover, it is surprising that Arendt never precisely defines totalitarianism, although she deals with Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany as prime examples. What emerges is a portrait of an entity that seeks to establish total control within the state, absolute control not only of the government but also of every aspect of the...

(The entire section is 2343 words.)