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The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah…

The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

by Hannah Arendt

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: The Origins of Totalitarianism (1-3)

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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. ( )
  BobonBooks | Oct 28, 2018 |
Profound insight into totalitarian movements--not just how they happen but why, getting at the psychology behind their appeal and the social and psychological conditions that allow them to grow. The writing is clear-eyed, penetrating, and deeply unsettling. ( )
  MichaelBarsa | Dec 17, 2017 |
An important book which seems entirely relevant even more than 60 years after it was first published. It is disturbing and harrowing but with a faint breath of hope.
The background history about anti-Semitism and imperialism helps set the scene. The final section is alarming because it seems alarmingly plausible for repetition. A fascinating read. ( )
  rosiezbanks | Oct 12, 2017 |
Welp, this seemed topical. Lots of people have recently discussed Arendt’s explanation of why totalitarians lie and change positions so readily—because the point isn’t truth, the point is to destroy truth and law so that only chance separates the oppressed from the oppressors. (Orwell’s 1984 is quite clearly the companion volume to this work.) The book itself is a bit frustrating; it’s neither history nor political science as we’d know it today, relying quite heavily on assertions of fact that I was not always willing to take on faith, especially in the extended early discussions of anti-Semitism. And her discussion of totalitarianism v. fascism relies on the reader to accrete and infer differences rather than stopping to explain what she thinks the differences are. (Mainly, I think, that fascism recognizes the persistence of private life and individuality, asserting only complete dominance over political life, while totalitarianism attempts to destroy private identity in total.) Still, Arendt’s take on anti-Semitism provoked some thoughts about why anti-Semitism is still so important to current hate movements; she argues that, historically, Jews were given protected (and restricted) status by the state, and thus Jews are associated with the state and with the rule of law in a way other groups are not. Totalitarians, who want to tear down the state because it stands in opposition to sudden and complete shifts of who’s targeted for elimination, thus readily target Jews. Arendt’s discussion of imperialism as a predecessor for totalitarianism is also quite thought-provoking: the condition of governing people who are considered unfit for self-government, she suggests, leads the governors to invent sudden shifts of policy to prove that the governance is justified/is the kind of thing the governed couldn’t do for themselves/that the governed’s submission to indignities itself proves that they’re unfit to rule themselves. At least, that’s what I got out of it. ( )
1 vote rivkat | Dec 15, 2016 |
Easy enough to read, for an academic text, but certainly not an easy read. As others have commented, "The Origins of Totalitarianism" is somewhat uneven. Arendt's history of the societal role of Jews in Europe probably won't interest everyone, nor will her take on the Dreyfus affair, but it allows her to ask why the Holocaust focused on the Jews rather than another racial group. Similarly, while I'm not sure that her analysis will completely convince everyone, she draws some interesting connections between the imperialist mindset and the rise of fascism, which helps explain a lot of the seemingly strange stylistic parallels between both of these systems. Her look at the pan-German and pan-Slavic movements is perhaps more directly related to the question of how fascism came about: a description of how the Nazis systematically erased modern nationalistic concepts of what it was to be German with more loosely defined racial and tribal definitions.

The second and third parts of Arendt's book are perhaps the most useful: they challenge many preconceptions that many people hold about fascism as a system. While many people, including myself, have tended to think of fascism as a state-centric phenomenon, Arendt convincingly argues that it did a great deal to destroy state institutions and modern concepts of statehood. She also takes pains to differentiate between authoritarian systems, in which power tends to flow downward from the top, with totalitarianism and fascism in particular, which are less organized, less self-interested, and generally more chaotic and anti-rational phenomena. This fits nicely with the ideas of historians who've expressed the view that Nazi Germany was a disorganized "polyocracy" rather than a well-regulated dictatorship. Arendt also takes aim at some of the modern periods most cherished ideas: she attacks the concept of "the Rights of Man" as absolutely unenforceable outside of a specifically national context, and her study of the trials of "displaced persons" in Europe after the First World War challenges the idea that nations are themselves naturally and necessarily cohesive entities. She also criticizes ideological thinking of all stripes as necessarily closed and of limited value, drawing, as she does, a useful comparison between Communist views of class warfare and Nazi notions of racial superiority as overarching all-embracing answers for everything.

The most chilling chapters of "The Origins of Totalitarianism" deal with the peculiar and terrible logic of totalitarian systems, in which the distinction between action and inaction and life and death tend to lose their meaning and the enlightenment-era concept of the unique self is hollowed out until people are seen as interchangeable units, or materiel. Finally, the distinctions she draws between men living together, living alone, feeling solitude, and feeling genuinely lonely are extremely affecting and make, in a roundabout way, a good case that these systems were essentially the product of the emotional displacements caused by the changes wrought by modernity. More than a historical analysis, "The Origins of Totalitarianism" also serves as a warning for those looking ahead in our own unstable times. ( )
5 vote TheAmpersand | Jul 9, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (24 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Arendt, Hannahprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Baldunčiks, JurisTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Blumbergs, IlmārsCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jakobsson, JimTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
May, NadiaNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Power, SamanthaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0156701537, Paperback)

Hannah Arendt's definitive work on totalitarianism and an essential component of any study of twentieth-century political history


The Origins of Totalitarianism begins with the rise of anti-Semitism in central and western Europe in the 1800s and continues with an examination of European colonial imperialism from 1884 to the outbreak of World War I. Arendt explores the institutions and operations of totalitarian movements, focusing on the two genuine forms of totalitarian government in our time—Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia—which she adroitly recognizes were two sides of the same coin, rather than opposing philosophies of Right and Left. From this vantage point, she discusses the evolution of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the nontotalitarian world, the use of terror, and the nature of isolation and loneliness as preconditions for total domination.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:33 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt sought to provide a historical account of the forces that crystallized into totalitarianism: The ebb and flow of nineteenth-century anti-Semitism (she deemed the Dreyfus Affair a dress rehearsal for the Final Solution) and the rise of European imperialism, accompanied by the invention of racism as the only possible rationalization for it. For Arendt, totalitarianism was a form of governance that eliminated the very possibility of political action. Totalitarian leaders attract both mobs and elites, take advantage of the unthinkability of their atrocities, target "objective enemies" (classes of people who are liquidated simply because of their group membership), use terror to create total loyalty, rely on concentration camps, and are obsessive in their pursuit of global primacy. But even more presciently, Arendt understood that totalitarian solutions could well survive the demise of totalitarian regimes."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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