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.