The Origins of Totalitarianism Essay - Critical Essays

Hannah Arendt


Arendt sought in The Origins of Totalitarianism to differentiate her subject from other forms of oppression such as tyranny, despotism, and dictatorship which, however heinous, had been commonplace in humankind’s experiences. Instead, she asked how the specifically modern, nightmarish phenomenon epitomized by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime could have happened. How did the Nazi death camps and Stalin’s purges—for Arendt the uniquely horrible marks of totalitarianism—have come to symbolize evils of incomprehensible magnitude?

Arendt’s approach to these questions was to examine the key elements of the political and social contexts out of which totalitarianism grew, as well as the roots of the ideology in which the phenomenon was cloaked. Clearly, Arendt believed that totalitarianism fed upon the internal destruction of the nation-state. Previously manifesting some measure of legal and territorial stability, the nation-state by the late nineteenth century began suffering from the corrosive effects of imperialist expansionism and from an increasing tendency for individuals to identify themselves less as citizens or as members of a social class than as members of a race.

What she perceived still more specifically was the collapse of one social class after another within the modern state. The collapse was induced by attempts to adjust relationships between the old aristocracies and the emergent middle classes, as well as by efforts to reconcile the relationships of both classes to the state itself. For example, aristocracies seeking to retain their former social dominance soon showed resentment toward governments that extended legal equality to those whom aristocrats considered their inferiors. Similarly, the lower middle classes (the so-called petty bourgeoisie) were embittered toward their governments because of the financial losses that they...

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