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 suffered as a consequence of state-supported, but failed, business speculations overseas.
These and other forms of resentment toward the state were soon directed against the group popularly suspected of wielding secret control over the state; namely, Jews and the “international Jewish banking conspiracy.” Ironically, Jews, who historically had indeed supplied crucial financial assistance to the state, had largely been supplanted in such roles by the late nineteenth century—just as they became targets of rising anti-Semitism. Tragically, too, cosmopolitan Jews who had prided themselves on being apolitical swiftly discovered that they were devoid of the political weapons essential to their defense.
Arendt views anti-Semitism as one aspect of the racism that imperialist states had first projected toward their colonial subjects overseas. Racist thinking had rebounded upon Europe with profound effect by the opening of the twentieth century. By that time, the old social classes had lost their traditional functions as a result of merging their interests with those of the capitalist middle classes and an increasingly bureaucratized state. Those who failed to do so became fused with the society’s “superfluous” elements—the residual elites of all classes and “the mob.” When outcasts from among intellectuals and the middle classes in turn encountered “the mob,” they found a shared hatred of reigning middle-class values: profit for profit’s sake, power for power’s sake, hypocrisy, and pretentiousness.
In such an atmosphere in which “all traditional values and propositions had evaporated,” Arendt argues that it was easier for many people to accept nonsense, cynicism, and vulgarity as a frank new lifestyle without at the same time reckoning on the naive absurdity of beliefs in such concepts as preindustrial simplicity, Teutonic manliness, and racial superiority. When wars and depressions eviscerated the middle classes and they too crumbled, mass societies arose, composed of people lacking in class consciousness and characterized by their sense of powerlessness and alienation. Once harnessed by declassed elites, the masses were ripe for totalitarian manipulation.
The peculiar character of these mass societies...
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from which totalitarianism sprang is highlighted by Arendt’s contrasting references to “the people” (le peuple) who emerged from the eighteenth century French and American revolutions. These triumphant revolutionaries, Arendt believed, clearly grasped the meaning of citizenship and were confident about their uses of political action. Such a contrast between “citizens” and “the mob” reveals Arendt’s underlying existentialism. Thus while there may be no gods or a comprehensible universe, human beings, she insists, were not powerless if they willed themselves to act, accepting social and moral responsibility for their actions. By depicting the experiences that people lived through that made totalitarian modes of thought acceptable, she stresses how humans need not emulate the robots who guarded extermination camps, who went to their deaths supinely, who confessed proudly to crimes that they did not commit, or who, like the Nazi elite, abnegated individual wills to the belief that they were instruments of Nature and of History.