Last Updated on August 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 730
The twentieth century was indisputably the age of totalitarianism. There had always been dictatorships, of course, and despotic regimes of one sort or another. But it wasn't until the twentieth century that totalitarianism emerged as a discrete phenomenon, and Hannah Arendt was one of the most important political thinkers to articulate a precise definition.
In the popular mind, totalitarianism is virtually synonymous with dictatorship, but Arendt disagrees. She argues that totalitarianism involves the wholesale replacement of all prior traditions and political institutions with completely new ones that exist purely and solely to serve the needs of the totalitarian state. In that sense, Franco's dictatorship in Spain couldn't be described as totalitarian on Arendt's grounds, as it consolidated rather than replaced traditional institutions such as the Catholic Church and the army. All totalitarian states are dictatorships, but not all dictatorships are totalitarian.
As the title of the book suggests, Arendt is concerned with getting to the roots of the totalitarian phenomenon, and this is one of her main themes. Her conclusions in this regard are somewhat surprising. For instance, Arendt is adamant that neither single-party rule nor nationalism are essential factors in explaining totalitarianism. Just as successive generations of scholars have equated totalitarianism with dictatorship, so they have also tended to conflate the quite separate phenomena of nationalism and imperialism.
Nationalism, though often breeding intolerance and exclusion, only truly became dangerous when wedded to a project of imperialism. And it was imperialism, along with anti-Semitism and biological racism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that laid the foundations for what Arendt identifies as totalitarianism. Imperialism had its own internal dynamic, a ceaseless desire to expand into new territories soon to be ruthlessly exploited, both culturally and economically. Totalitarian regimes used imperialism as a means to an end, an effective instrument that would enable them to carry out their radical plans of social and political reconstruction.
A further theme explored by Arendt is how totalitarian regimes consolidate themselves. One such method is the successful organization of the masses. Totalitarian regimes prove themselves remarkably adept at playing on certain grievances, especially at times of economic crisis, in order to radicalize the masses. Arendt draws our attention once more to the roots of totalitarianism in the period of 1880–1914. During this period, she argues, the political rise of the bourgeoisie eroded the political realm as a space for freedom, deliberation, and meaningful consensus. The almost complete domination of one class created the conditions in which a politics of grievance could emerge, one that could only be catered to by something new and altogether radical, be it left- or right-wing.
This is a necessary precondition of the establishment of the totalitarian state's goals. The implementation of a radical reconstruction of society requires a population that has itself become attuned to radical yet simplistic solutions to seemingly intractable political problems. In this way the totalitarian state makes the masses in some way complicit in the subsequent implementation of its policies as well as partly responsible for their ultimate failures; it binds people and state together in a common bond that enhances the feeling of security of the former and the power of the latter.
But no totalitarian state would be complete without the consistent, ruthless application of terror. Arendt argues that terror, unlike imperialism, is not a means to an end for totalitarian regimes; it is an end in itself. This is entirely in keeping with her earlier assessment of the radical nature of totalitarianism. Despotic regimes throughout history have always resorted to some measure of terror, but they were always used to maintain control. However brutal such terror may have been, there was always a precise reason for its use.
In the totalitarian state, on the other hand, terror is used indiscriminately. It comes to take on a momentum all of its own, separating people from each other to bind them ever more closely to the totalitarian regime. Ironically, mass terror makes the totalitarian state's promise of security all the more important to its subjects. As no one can trust anyone else for fear of being informed on, so they are left with little choice but to retain their faith in the state to protect them, the very same state that simultaneously persecutes them. Thus the distinction between fiction and reality is blurred, reinforced by a ceaseless and highly sophisticated campaign of state propaganda.