The Origins of Totalitarianism

by Hannah Arendt

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 154

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.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2343

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 lives of those who reside within it. Whatever the political philosophy—and political philosophies differed greatly between Nazism and Communism—no deviance in thought or action was permitted. In fact, to a totalitarian regime, ideology is secondary. What is of prime importance is the state itself. The state is above the individual, and both the individual and the party exist for the state. The state itself is the cause, the cause to which all belong and in which all submerge their individual identities and become one.

Every agency of the totalitarian state has but one function: to enforce uniformity, to stamp out deviance. The forms of enforcement or enculturation may differ from regime to regime, as they in fact did in Adolf Hitler’s Germany or Joseph Stalin’s Russia, but the ultimate purpose remains the same. Thus regimes such as those in Spain under Francisco Franco, Italy under Benito Mussolini, and Argentina under Juan Perón do not qualify as totalitarian, for their fascist masters sought only absolute political control. Other areas of life, such as art, music, and literature, were left untouched. The dictators of these regimes did have their personal preferences, but they did not impose them on the nations they governed. Totalitarianism, on the other hand, is all-pervasive and all-encompassing. Hitler himself differentiated between fascism and Nazism in this regard.

Arendt provides an excellent analysis of the seemingly unlikely alliance of the mob and the intellectual. The underclass, whether Lumpenproletariat or fallen bourgeoisie, stripped of jobs, family, friends, a sense of community, and, perhaps, religious attachments, becomes atomized. Being human, however, such individuals seek a sense of identity, an identity that can be found in a mass movement, such as Communism or Nazism. In joining a mass movement, the individual identity, weak though it was, is lost, submerged in a mass—and much more powerful—identity.

The role of the intellectual was to mobilize and direct the masses, the very mass of atomized men who yearn to be mobilized and directed and to lose themselves in the collective whole. The intellectual, as Arendt defines him, need not be a formally educated person. Neither Hitler nor Stalin had much formal education; Hitler was in fact anti-intellectual, but he was a man of ideas, a man with a message.

Arendt’s discussions of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia are excellent, but what is surprising is that she omits discussion of China under Mao Zedong. That is understandable in the first (1951) edition, but it seems the 1958 and 1966 revisions should have contained a treatment of China, which was then the world’s largest totalitarian society. One suspects that Arendt did not wish to deal with China because Mao, whatever his faults, was no Hitler or Stalin, and the Chinese peasant, who had brought Mao to power, was not the European atomized man. Similarly, one can take issue with Arendt’s view that whereas dictatorship can occur in nations of any size, totalitarian regimes can develop only in states with quite large populations. This view has been disproved by the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, a fairly small nation. It is true that the murder of three million people by the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot and the totalitarian nature of his regime came to light only after the last revision of The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1966. Indeed, the facts were not widely known until after Arendt’s death in 1975, but the evidence of Cambodia does disprove her contention regarding state size and totalitarianism.

Given her background, it is not surprising that Arendt would focus on anti-Semitism as a root cause of totalitarianism. Again, the evidence of China and Cambodia, nations without an anti-Semitic tradition, seems to contradict her on this point. Totalitarianism can exist, and has existed, entirely separate from anti-Semitism. Furthermore, as penetrating as her analysis of anti-Semitism is, it does not account for medieval and early modern anti-Semitism. Reading the book, one could almost gain the impression that anti-Semitism was a nineteenth and twentieth century phenomenon. The roots of anti-Semitism lie deep within the Christian tradition, however, as churchmen sought to distance their new religion from its parent, Judaism. It was not the Nazis who first built the ghetto walls, and it was not the persecutors of Alfred Dreyfus who perpetrated the Crusader massacres.

In a similar vein, imperialism may or may not be a cause of totalitarianism. Under William II, Germany acquired a colonial empire, and it seems reasonable that the experience of overlordship of nonwhite people who were considered racially inferior did in fact further an atmosphere of racism within Germany. That such racism added to the climate that brought the Nazi regime to power also seems reasonable, but China under Mao was clearly a totalitarian regime, and it was neither imperialist nor racist. Precisely the same statement can be made concerning Cambodia under Pol Pot. On the other hand, Great Britain and France, the two greatest imperial powers of the modern world, never experienced totalitarianism; they evolved into parliamentary democracies.

What Arendt has done, then, is primarily to examine the roots of Hitlerian totalitarianism, and she has done so with solid scholarship, providing a number of penetrating insights. She has gone on to extrapolate from the German example to Stalinist Russia and to the nature and origins of totalitarianism as a whole. Yet the Nazi experience was only one among a number of totalitarian regimes; thus, while anti-Semitism, imperialism, racism, and the desire of an atomized population led by declassed intellectuals to gain a new sense of identity clearly contributed to the rise of Nazi totalitarianism, the same would not necessarily be true elsewhere. For example, the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union was not openly anti-Semitic until its last days, although Russia was historically anti-Semitic. Moreover, Communist doctrine, far from being racist, openly and avowedly opposes racism. The book thus would have been far truer to its content and scope if it had been titled The Origins of Nazi Totalitarianism, for it is apparent that that is the subject about which Arendt knew most and is really the topic she most wished to discuss.

A work of eminent scholarship, although some of its basic premises can be faulted, The Origins of Totalitarianism vaulted Hannah Arendt into the ranks of intellectual preeminence. She would go on to author a number of books but became best known to the general public as a result of the 1963 publication of the controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Adolf Eichmann was the German officer directly in charge of the genocide practiced against the Jews in World War II. He had been kidnapped in Argentina by the Israelis and brought to Jerusalem to stand trial.

Arendt claimed that it was wrong simply to concentrate on one man, Eichmann, because others were also responsible: other countries that stood passively by, other Germans, and even Jews who had not acted with determination in the face of the Nazi evil. It was her view that, first in Germany and then in other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe, evil became commonplace, hence banal, and so did not garner the moral opprobrium it normally would have aroused. From 1963 onward, the phrase “banality of evil” would be associated with Arendt and would remain controversial.

Written between 1945 and 1949 and published in 1951, The Origins of Totalitarianism serves as an example of the right book at the right time. The true horror of the Nazi regime and its death factories had struck the world with awful force, and the West, then in the grip of the Cold War, was also reacting to the perceived menace of Communism, not only in the Soviet Union but also throughout Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. The time was thus ripe for an examination of totalitarianism, and Arendt’s book filled the need. It was not only erudite—it would have been recognized as a major treatise in any period—but also timely.

The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem are Arendt’s best-known works. In them one sees her focus on Nazism, the force that displaced her from a comfortable life in her native Germany, made her a refugee, and murdered millions of her fellow Jews. It is no wonder, then, that the thrust of her intellectual interests thereafter would be an attempt to understand Nazism and that her clarity of vision was perhaps clouded by the anti-Semitism of Hitlerian Germany and its horrific consequences. Whatever its faults of conceptualization, however, The Origins of Totalitarianism will remain a major work in its field, for it provides much useful historical information and a number of profound insights into totalitarianism, a topic of crucial importance in the history of the twentieth century.

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