What is the main argument advanced by Hannah Arendt in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism?

Expert Answers
rrteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt, a German Jew who had fled the country amid the rise of Adolf Hitler, sought to explain just how it was that totalitarian governments could come to power in the first place. Her overall argument is indicated by the titles of the three sections of the book, "Anti-Semitism, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism." She situates the rise of modern anti-Semitism amid longstanding associations between Jews and the nobility, as well as old banking cartels, both of which were becoming obsolete in the new Europe, dominated as it was by corporations and especially powerful nation-states. These nation-states were inherently exclusionary, and Jews found themselves more marginalized than they had ever been. Most memorably, she points to the Dreyfus affair in late nineteenth-century France as evidence of the argument. As for imperialism, Arendt points to the strongly racist nature of European justifications for territorial acquisition, and suggests that the brutality of conquest created a precedent for the blood-letting of the twentieth century. She also posits a connection between territorial expansion a spirit of "super-nationalism" that connected European peoples to each other, regardless of political borders. Finally, Arendt claims that a precondition of totalitarianism was the breakdown, as she saw it, of a class system. This left people anchorless and alienated:

The fall of protecting class walls transformed the slumbering majorities behind all parties into one great unorganized, structureless mass of furious individuals that had nothing in common except the vague apprehension that the hopes of party members were doomed...

This led to a profound sense of "self-centered bitterness," which paradoxically predisposed many Europeans to be willing to accept affronts to their rights that they would not have previously countenanced:

Self-centeredness...went hand-in-hand with a decisive weakening of the instinct for self-preservation. Selfishness in the sense that one does not matter, the feeling of being expendable, was no longer the expression of individual idealism, but a mass phenomenon.

Arendt detects this attitude among people in both Germany and Russia before the rise of Hitler and Stalin, and suggests that it was this that persuaded people to subordinate themselves, or allow themselves to be subordinated, to the interests of a totalitarian state.

Read the study guide:
The Origins of Totalitarianism

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question