The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1968.
Summary: A work tracing the rise of totalitarian governments in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany to their origins in racism and class warfare, reactions to imperialism, and the mechanics that distinguish totalitarian states from other kinds of states.
The Origins of Totalitarianism is on my “Ten Books I Want to Read Before I Die” list. After over a month of reading, I can check this book off the list, but I can’t dismiss it from my thoughts. It is long, the prose is demanding, and the ideas are critically important to our times. I certainly will not do the book justice in a blog-length review. But I hope I can give you a sense of what it is about and why I think the book is worth the effort.
The book is written in three parts. Many focus on the third, “Totalitarianism” and neglect the first two, on “Antisemitism” and Imperialism.” The first part describe the rise of race thinking, particularly in the context of the nation-state, and how the Jews, as stateless persons were particularly vulnerable to racist attacks. This was epitomized in the Dreyfus Affair, in which a French Army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, of Jewish descent, was wrongly accused of treason and convicted, arousing latent fears about Jews in France, indeed fears about the motives of Jews in other European countries.
Imperialism arose, in Arendt’s analysis as economic expansion came up against national limits. Arendt writes:
“Imperialism was born when the ruling class in capitalist production came up against national limitations to its economic expansion. The bourgeoisie turned to politics out of economic necessity; for if it did not want to give up the capitalist system whose inherent law is constant economic growth, it had to impose this law upon its home governments and to proclaim expansion to be an ultimate political goal of foreign policy.”
In turn, a form of continental imperialism arose, as an alternative to the existing parties characterized as “pan-Slav” or “pan-German.” This played into ideologies that led to decline of the parliamentary nation states, institutionalizing either anti-Semitism, or anti-bourgeois sentiment (even after the bourgeoisie in Russia was eliminated).
The third part describes the methodology of totalitarian movements eventuating in totalitarian states. Such movements substitute masses for classes, kept in subjection by an inner ring of secret police using methods of terror to keep people in line, using camps and gulags to destroy real and projected enemies. Propaganda plays a critical role in creating an alternate reality that followers of the totalitarian leader prefer to truth, particularly in engendering fear of an “other” who threatens the state. Arendt writes,
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
Arendt’s book concludes, in its revised edition, with a chapter discussing how loneliness and isolation of individuals serve as pre-conditions for totalitarianism.
The one thing I missed in her analysis was a discussion of how the disruption of World War I and global economic depression contributed to the conditions giving rise to Stalinism and Nazism. It seems to me that these conditions offered fertile ground for the use of racist and classist attacks, widespread dissatisfaction with the existing nation-state (which she does touch on), and the appeal of a strong leader.
This book has gone through a resurgence of interest in light of current political developments in the US. The language of tyranny and totalitarianism has been thrown around, but in reality we are a long way from Arendt’s description of governments that dominate every aspect of a person’s life through government-sponsored terror, secret police, and concentration camps (apart from the temporary interning of undocumented refugees and their children).
Nevertheless, there are concerning trends that Arendt observes in these totalitarian societies that are present in American society:
- Nationalist organizations affirming one’s racial identity while portraying other “races” as a threat to the nation’s greatness.
- Deep dissatisfaction with established political parties and systems.
- The blurring of distinctions between fact and fiction, of truth and falsehood to uphold particular narratives of reality and the questioning of motives of any who challenge those narratives.
- The increasing isolation and loneliness of growing numbers of people, confined to echo chambers of virtual communities, instead of being surrounded by robust local communities.
- A growing focus on national political leadership, and particularly on finding strong figures who “get things done” as the critical element to a thriving national life, as opposed to local forms of government, voluntary associations, and private enterprise.
None of these of themselves eventuate in the totalitarian state of which Arendt writes. But these conditions could be exploited by leaders unafraid of using methods of totalitarian control to transform a democratic republic to a government that dominates every aspect of the human existence of its citizens.
I suspect the people of Czarist Russia and of early 1930’s Germany believed that a totalitarian state “couldn’t happen here.” Perhaps that assumption is the most dangerous of all. Arendt’s massive work traces how it did, and could. It persuaded me that it can happen here, and of the vital work each of us need to embrace in bridging rather than accentuating our divides, in protecting the institutions that help us separate fact from fiction, in renewing our neighborhoods and local communities, and in exercising deliberate care in those we elect to positions of power and trust.