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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 730 words.)

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