The Origins of Totalitarianism Summary
by Hannah Arendt

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The Origins of Totalitarianism Summary

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, political philosopher and author Hannah Arendt links the emergence of totalitarianism in the 20th century to the rise of anti-Semitism and imperialism. She begins the book with a discussion of anti-Semitism as a driving force behind the Nazi Regime. She argues that totalitarianism is simplistically linked to nationalism, explaining that nationalism existed hand in hand with imperialism, and that imperialism, by nature, involved subjugation and oppression.

After analyzing the motives behind anti-Semitism and explaining its link to totalitarian regimes, Arendt discusses the rise of imperialism and the destruction of the nation-state. She then explains how both these conditions gave rise to racism. After discussing Imperialism, Arendt provides an in-depth analysis of totalitarianism, bringing together ideas from the previous two sections and connecting them to the goals of Nazism and Stalinism. In doing so, she conveys the grim realities behind totalitarian regimes who use terror as a form of government.

Summary

(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...

(The entire section is 2,497 words.)