(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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 . ....

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Arendt’s Conclusion

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

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.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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,...

(The entire section is 491 words.)