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In the Preface to the first edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote that the book was written "against a background of both reckless optimism and reckless despair." This quote is a good starting point for an analysis of the book. It was written shortly after World War II by Arendt, a German Jew who left Nazi Germany shortly after Hitler's rise to power. She fled several countries in Europe, escaping arrest in France to make her way to safety in the United States.
Clearly, these traumatic events shaped her life and provided a motive to try (as a trained philosopher) to make sense of the apparently irrational phenomenon of totalitarianism. Arendt spends much of the book tracing the long history of anti-Semitism, the relatively recent rise of "race-thinking," the effects of imperialism, and the rise of powerful nation-states, which she characterizes as the source of human rights.
If The Origins of Totalitarianism has a central argument, it is that the collapse of the nation-state as well as social classes, a phenomenon that reached its peak after World War I, made totalitarianism possible. She observes that "[t]otalitarian movements are possible wherever there are masses who for one reason or another have acquired the appetite for political organization." The collapse of governments in the wake of World War I, as well as the "fall of protecting class walls" paved the way for mass movements as "slumbering majorities" transformed into "one great unorganized, structureless mass of furious individuals." These people were able to be mobilized into totalitarian movements. So though some of the ideologies that underlay Nazism as well as Stalin's Soviet Union were older, it took a particular set of circumstances to allow for the rise of totalitarianism.
In terms of significance, Arendt's work marks one of the first attempts to analyze totalitarianism as a political movement. Her emphasis, as noted above, is on its originality. She points out that totalitarian movements aimed at "the transformation of human nature itself," which made them unprecedented in history. They "exploded . . . the alternative between lawful and lawless government, between arbitrary and legitimate power," essentially ignoring the fundamental questions that had engaged political philosophers since the days of Plato. Her analysis of totalitarianism formed the basis for much future scholarship on the subject.
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Although Hannah Arendt never tired of disassociating herself from the class of “paid professional thinkers,” The Origins of Totalitarianism is nonetheless a tour de force of political philosophy. It combines her unique talent for attention to historical detail, rigorous philosophical analysis resulting from her training in Germany between the two world wars, and her predilection for the disciplines of historical research and political science. The direct occasion for this particular text was Arendt’s successful flight from the oppression that she, a German Jew, was bound to endure under the Nazis and her conclusions about what she considered to be the crisis of the twentieth century: the emergence of totalitarianism as a new form of government and with it mass destruction of humans. Although the bulk of this text is taken up by her presentation of an analysis of the social and phenomenological origins of totalitarianism as a movement and its remarkable successes, her conclusions also provide some suggestions on how such social phenomena might be avoided.
Arendt divides this text into three major parts: “Anti-Semitism,” “Imperialism,” and “Totalitarianism.” The emergence of anti-Semitism as a sociohistorical phenomenon paves the way for the political policies of imperialism, not only Europe’s race-based policies but also the Soviet Union’s classless-society policies. The imperialists saw Jewish claims to chosenness and a national-tribal entity as a threat to their own policies of global domination. Arendt presents both anti-Semitism and imperialism as forerunners of totalitarian structures, total and ruthlessly consistent social organizations.
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In part 1, Arendt explores the origin and formation of anti-Semitism, which she identifies as a secular, nineteenth century ideology, distinct from the centuries-old Christian and Islamic religious traditions of Jew hatred. She locates its origin in the equally long history of Jewish-Gentile relations and the late-nineteenth century reaction of Gentiles to emancipated and assimilated Jews.
She limits the scope of her analysis to Jewish history in central and western Europe, ranging from the roles of the Court Jews in early modernity to the Dreyfus affair in France at the end of the nineteenth century. The official emergence of anti-Semitic political parties in the 1870’s and 1880’s began the process that inevitably ended in what has come to be known as the “final solution,” that is, the response of the Nazis in Germany to the presence of the Jews as a distinctive subgroup within European nation-states. For Arendt, the historical roots of anti-Semitism demonstrate how it served as the catalyst for the expansionist imperialist policies that ultimately resulted in Nazi totalitarianism. She points out that, ironically, Jewish and anti-Jewish affairs became used for events that, while having little to do with actual Jews, nonetheless targeted Jews as their chief victims.
Arendt at first considers how the Jewish community transcended established national boundaries and what effects that had. Although Jews were instrumental in the nineteenth century development of the European entity of the nation-state because of their supranational status (their “homelessness”), economic resources, and perceived international contacts, precisely because of their status as transnational entities, they were perceived as threats to the aspirations of newly emergent overarching movements such as pan-Germanism and pan-Slavism. As an inter-European element, the Jews served as the primary competition for supranational groups, such as the All-German Union in Germany, the anti-Semitic pan-Germanists led by Georg von Schönerer in Austria, and the anti-Semitic, antirepublic, antidemocratic, anti-Dreyfusards in France.
Arendt successfully provides a fabric for understanding how the extermination of the Jews, or any ethnic group, en masse and individually, is not possible without broad social support. Anti-Semitism as a political movement needed the passionate fanaticism of social forces to create the attitudes or moods of extermination. With such a mood, it then becomes easier to argue that vices must be exterminated, or, as she puts it, that one gets rid of unwanted bedbugs by poison gas.
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In part 2, Arendt analyzes imperialism as a preparatory stage to the coming catastrophe of totalitarianism. Imperialism was born when ruling classes came up against national limitations to their economic expansion and thus devised the new tenet that the inherent law of the capitalist system is constant economic growth and that expansion should be the political goal of economic policy. From 1884 to 1914, the slogan of “expansion for expansion’s sake” was used to justify conquering foreign peoples for the sake of the nation and also as a business guideline as companies brutally exploited foreign peoples. Significantly, many of the pioneers of this expansion were adventurous Jewish financiers. However, the export of money had to be followed by the export of power in order to protect the tremendous capital risks, thus eliminating the Jews from the power struggle to follow.
It was only through the national instruments of violence that foreign investments could be rationalized and integrated into the national economy. The police and army were exported and thus separated from the national body (setting a precedent for the police state), and they also became representatives of the state. Without the ethical structures of the national body to constrain it, police-led capitalism created its own realities. Quickly, it became obvious that only unlimited power could beget unlimited money. Hence, because expansion was a permanent policy, violence and power became the conscious aims of a body politic, and violence administered for violence’s sake was allowed to continue until there was nothing left to violate. What is new in imperialist expansion is precisely the model that is set up of unlimited expansion aimed at unlimited accumulation of capital that brings about aimless accumulation and violent use of power.
At the heart of Arendt’s analysis is an application of Hobbesian political philosophy. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s social theory entails that individuals accumulate control in a kind of absolute isolation and to their own advantage and are thus driven to realize that they can pursue and achieve their goals only with the help of the majority. Individuals, driven solely by personal interests, conclude that the pursuit of power is the fundamental drive of all humans because each person is equally capable of killing the other. For Arendt, Hobbes is a philosophical scoundrel in promoting a philosophy of the war of “all against all” that became the theoretical basis for the identification of nations as tribes with no interconnections or human solidarity. Such a philosophy legitimizes the foundation of a naturalistic ideology that reduces humans and their instinct of self-preservation to a least common denominator shared with the lower forms of the animal world. This leads to Arendt’s insight that racism was the main ideological weapon of imperialistic politics, which helps explain the transition of imperialist ideas in Germany to totalitarian ones.
The other major element characteristic of imperialism is its bureaucratic rule. The creation of nation-states through the Versailles peace treaty at the end of World War I spawned millions of minorities with no place to call home. The bureaucratic response was to assimilate or eliminate them, which then led to the problem of statelessness and the coordinated institution of internment camps for undesirables or “displaced persons.” According to Arendt, to deal with the influx of millions of undesirable refugees, the police assumed political control in all countries throughout Europe and thus were able to erect concentration camps and coordinate internment efforts. The first loss suffered by the stateless and rightless refugees was the loss of their homes, which “meant the loss of the entire social context into which they were born and in which they established for themselves a distinct place in the world.” Loss of government protection followed, but what was unprecedented in this loss was the impossibility of finding a new home—there was no place where these unwanteds were welcome.
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The final part of Arendt’s text focuses on totalitarian movements and governments, in particular, how various movements became established and retained power and control. The most central ideas are that the success of a totalitarian movement depends on the selflessness of its adherents; its aim in and skill at organizing the masses; its elimination of all anomalies, even those in its own ethnic base; and the presence of the masses for support and continuation. The masses are those who by sheer numbers, neutrality, or indifference cannot be organized into groups of common interest and hardly ever vote. To establish totalitarian rule, the mob-inspired bourgeoisie must be able to organize themselves politically (which they started to do in the imperialist period) in order to influence the politically indifferent masses and gain their support.
In Europe, there arose the phenomenon of the mass human, who possessed a kind of selflessness that diluted the forces of self-preservation and engendered a pervasive mood that the individual, being expendable or superfluous, does not matter. After the leaders of totalitarian movements attracted the masses and gained their obedience, they conducted repeated purges that lead to mass atomization of the populace and blind loyalty from individuals who, because of total isolation from family, friends, comrades, and even acquaintances, could find their place in the world only via membership in the movement and the political party to which it gave birth. Total domination followed, exercised not only externally but also from within such that, according to Hitler, even “thinking . . . [exists] only by virtue of giving and executing orders.” No one is allowed to even pause to stop and think, let alone resist. Total loyalty to the leader and his new version of history extended even to elite intellectuals, who began to distrust traditional views of world history and adopted cynical views that the old views were only a facade used to fool people.
For the Nazis, anti-Semitic propaganda was a way to coalesce an atomized society. However, the true goal of totalitarian propaganda is not persuasion but organization; the masses have to become a living organization, a Volksgemeinschft, or “community of the people.” Such an organization can only be achieved by creating an entire people of sympathizers in a hierarchy of onionlike, fluctuating front organizations meant on the one hand to deceive and protect the members from outside contamination and on the other to provide a bridge with the “normal” nontotalitarian world. Hence, the Nazi and Bolshevik totalitarian movements developed a form of government Arendt calls permanent revolution, practiced in the constant liquidation of party members in the Soviet Union and in the ever-changing radicalization of the standards of race selection in Nazi Germany. In the totalitarian movement’s “struggle for total domination of the total population of the earth,” the final use of state power is to establish secret police to help constantly transform its fiction into reality, finally erecting “concentration camps as special laboratories to carry through its experiment in total domination.”
As the totalitarian movement subsumes all other goals to its goal of total global conquest, which can be achieved only through total organization and domination in every sphere of life, it becomes a short step from the doctrine of “everything is possible” to “everything is permitted.” Thus, concentration and extermination camps were created to destroy the juridical, moral, and spontaneous aspects of humans. There is no justice in the internment process—who gets chosen is totally arbitrary and lawless—and survivors were not allowed to remember or grieve for those were killed, destroying even the meaning of death. The disallowing of spontaneity and freedom is the most horrible act because it robs humans of their uniqueness, packing them so closely together in the death machine that all distance and difference is lost. The cold, ruthless, systematic killing of individuality that occurred in the late stages of extermination, when the Schutzstaffel (SS) took over the camps, exemplifies the final and most horrible triumph of the totalitarian system.
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Arendt provides a thorough and compelling argument that the causes of the two world wars in the twentieth century have identifiable roots that are tied up in two major movements, anti-Semitism and imperialism, which together provided the grounds for totalitarianism. Avoiding and condemning sweeping generalities, she examines in consuming detail the perplexities of how such events have driven humans to become more attentive to the task of comprehending reality in the forms of the power that we have come to exercise on ourselves both for good and for evil. Her conclusion is that our traditional heritage has produced dehumanizing sociopolitical forces of anti-Semitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism, demonstrating the ongoing need to guarantee human dignity with a “new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its power must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly defined territorial entities.” Only in such a comity, she argues, where humans receive equality by rights only and not by race, class, or party membership, will we be able to carry on the traditions of liberal individualism with its ideals of humankind, the dignity of each human and common responsibility of each for all.
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The Origins of Totalitarianism is a learned and reflective effort by Hannah Arendt to identify the uniquely radical evil embodied in the totalitarianism that menaced the survival of her generation and of Western civilization. It is a study which at once seeks to isolate the sources from which totalitarianism arose between 1900 and 1950, to define its historical peculiarities, and to ponder its political consequences. Critics of the work, from its publication in 1951 to the 1990’s, generally recognized it both as a seminal contribution to ongoing political discourse and to modern political theory and as an unbalanced and intensely controversial analysis of its subject.
The foundations upon which Arendt premises her panoramic study are selectively historical. Thus her overall discussion proceeds chronologically. It begins sketchily with late eighteenth century understandings of citizenship, the Rights of Man, and political theories of the day. Subsequently, however, Arendt’s heaviest emphasis is placed on events and movements of the twentieth century through the 1940’s. Within this chronological frame, her evidence is divided topically into three major parts.
Part 1 explores the roots and character of European anti-Semitism, principally French and German experiences during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and exemplified by the bitter and sensational Dreyfus affair in France. Part 2 concentrates on the new imperialism, which had developed by the late nineteenth century and persisted into World War I. Arendt attributes the eruption of modern imperialism to several factors other than the roles of such striking individuals as Cecil Rhodes. More emphatically, she links imperialism with the consolidation of power represented by modern nation-states (and their bureaucratic extensions), with the emergence of cap-italists and the bourgeoisie as bulwarks of the state and with the expansion of racial thinking that became manifest in the Pan-German and Pan-Slavic movements.
Part 3, elaborating the main themes of earlier sections, concentrates on the totaliltarian phenomenon itself, as epitomized by Nazi Germany but also apparent in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. In these cases, Arendt stresses the emergence of classless, mass societies marked by temporary alliances between “the mob” and elites who vouchsafe all powers over national life to one man. Incessant, undisputed, and powerful propaganda helps drive this process. Meanwhile, the peculiarities of totalitarian organization screen the responsibilities of the leader’s minions behind layers of offices and bureaucracy, isolating them from responsibility as well as from the masses while simultaneously enhancing the personal omnipotence of the dictator.
Although she held academic posts, Arendt was essentially an intellectual. She was trained and influenced by two distinguished philosophers, Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, and she was acquainted with many of the keenest European minds of her time. She likewise shared the harrowing experiences that many of these people had thrust upon them by totalitarian regimes. A cosmopolitan Jew who became more aware of her Jewishness as persecutions increased, she escaped from Nazi Germany. For years, she was a stateless person, abroad in the world without rights. Working with Jewish and Zionist organizations in Switzerland, France, and then the United States she bore witness to the savagery of Nazism, of the concentration camps, and in time, of the ultimate horror of the Holocaust.
The Origins of Totalitarianism is thus a work of disciplined passion whose themes and threads depict the destruction of Western civilization under the impacts of totalitarianism, two related world wars, and the chaos (as Arendt describes it) that ensued. From the perspective of the late 1940’s she saw the world as fundamentally divided. On the one hand were believers in human omnipotence who thought that if they could organize the masses, anything was possible. On the other hand were those who had become “superfluous”—that is, people whose lives were distinguished by their powerlessness. Underlying everything was a failed understanding of politics and of moral responsibility.
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Although continuously involved in controversies about her voluminous work, of which The Origins of Totalitarianism was only the beginning, Hannah Arendt was generally recognized before her death in 1975 as one of the foremost political theorists of her day. She accordingly gathered honorary degrees from major universities—Yale, Dartmouth, Fordham, and Princeton among them—and she was chosen as the first woman to give Princeton University’s prestigious Christian Gauss seminars. Throughout her life, Arendt closely identified with the subject of her first book, Rachel Varhagen, an extraordinary eighteenth century Jew who was emotionally and intellectually ahead of her times.
Arendt was her own kind of feminist. She greatly admired Germany’s Rosa Luxemburg, an ardent advocate of women’s rights who believed them to be attainable only through socialism. Arendt rejected Luxemburg’s socialist formula, but nevertheless held firmly to the conviction that women should achieve their goals through political struggle. That meant that women should coordinate their efforts with other politically active groups and concentrate on tangible political goals, such as legislation for equal employment opportunities, that were part of broader political questions. Adhering to this position, she criticized feminists who invested energies in resolving social issues, which she considered diversionary and impractical. Unquestionably, however, her inspiration for other women and men stemmed from her challenges to extant political philosophies starting with Plato and her inquiry into whether human beings could create their own values when caught between good and evil.
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Sources for Further Study
Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Complements The Origins of Totalitarianism by a more explicit examination of human capacities, humankind’s identity as a unique being yet member of societies, and roles in work, labor, action, and so on as actually experienced in relation to realities of modern life.
Aschheim, Steven E., ed. Hannah Arendt in Jerusalem. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
Benhabib, Seyla. The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996. Drawing on Arendt’s cultural background, life experiences, and philosophical influences, Benhabib has provided a critical account of Arendt’s thought.
Bernstein, Richard J. Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996. Bernstein argues how certain events in Arendt’s life and how she responded to these events directed her thinking and greatly influenced her body of work.
Birmingham, Peg. Hannah Arendt and Human Rights: The Predicament of Common Responsibility. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
Bradshaw, Leah. Acting and Thinking: The Political Thought of Hannah Arendt. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989. Deals with the problem of evil and Hannah Arendt’s major texts on totalitarianism, revolution, democracy, the life of the mind, and political responsibility. Contains notes, bibliography, and index.
Canovan, Margaret. Hannah Arendt: A Reinterpretation of Her Political Thought. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Contains chapters on The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, and on Arendt’s view of morality and politics, philosophy and politics, and republicanism. Carnovan believes that Arendt is “widely misunderstood” because her views are original and disturbingly unorthodox.
Courtine-Denamy, Sylvie. Three Women in Dark Times: Edith Stein, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, or “Amor Fati, Amor Mundi.” Translated by G. M. Goshgarian. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. A study of these three Jewish women philosophers against the background of wartime Europe.
Hull, Margaret Betz. The Hidden Philosophy of Hannah Arendt. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.
Isaac, Jeffrey C. Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.
Kristeva, Julia. Hannah Arendt: Life Is a Narrative. Translated by Frank Collins. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2001. The published lectures of one German woman philosopher on another.
Lang, Anthony F., Jr., and John Williams, eds. Hannah Arendt and International Relations: Readings Across the Lines. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Linn, Ruth. Escaping Auschwitz: A Culture of Forgetting. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Evocative, interpretive essays on the life paths and works of twelve women, including Arendt, connecting the circumstances of their lives with the shapes, styles, subjects, and situations of their art.
Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. A superb, definitive biography that is a delight to read, authoritative, appreciative, yet critical. A remarkable subject brilliantly brought to life for readers. Full chapter notes, a chronological bibliography of Arendt’s voluminous writings, and an outstanding index add value to the work.