The Origins of Totalitarianism

by Hannah Arendt

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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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