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The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah…

The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

by Hannah Arendt

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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. ( )
4 vote TheAmpersand | Jul 9, 2016 |
Totalitarianism is a human enterprise difficult to explain but possible to comprehend. This work of Hannah Arendt helps the reader in understanding this human "achievement". Pure and absolute evil doesn't appear suddenly, it has its roots in history. Arendt examines the genesis and the development of anti-Semitism and imperialism in the first two parts of this work. Its characteristics and history are well explained in order to relate them to totalitarianism. Arendt has a talent to relate the pivotal facts in history to ideas (concepts), its generation and development. Her writings increase the reader comprehension of the questions and, when confronted with human faults and failures, inspire the search of solutions. As the result of this well made work, the reader gets invaluable knowledge about totalitarianism and its manifestations in history and about how to overcome it. ( )
1 vote MarcusBastos | May 15, 2016 |
This book has three parts: (1) Antisemitism, (2) Imperialism and (3) Totalitarianism. Part three is a lot better than the first two parts. In part three the author provides a fascinating and deep analysis of the totalitarian state, its ideology and lack of government. She argues that totalitarianism is a political system all its own, incomparable even to tyranny or dictactorship.

The author's main aim is to reveal the multifaceted irrationality and anti-rationality of totalitarian systems. She convincingly shows that utilitarian explanations of the "logic" behind totalitarianism are not valid. Totalitarianism aims only to destroy the civil rights of everyone, foreigners and compatriots alike. All other goals are secondary. The author's discussion of the key role of concentration camps in this horrifying system is probably the best part of this book. The general conclusions she draws from Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are pretty much applicable word for word to the one totalitarian state of today, North Korea. I therefore doubt that any other analysis of totalitarianism could equal this one.

Parts one and two, on the other hand, are a strange mixture of historical narrative, biography and arbitrary stream-of-thought. Almost half of part one is spent on a biographical portrait of Benjamin Disraeli and on a discussion of the Dreyfus affair, neither of which yields any interesting conclusions about antisemitism. In book two the author is even further off the mark. Among other excursions she launches into a prolonged discussion of Hobbes' philosophy because he supposedly gives an "almost complete picture (...) of the bourgeois man" (p.134). I'm not sure what her intentions were when she wrote parts one and two, but they are both poorly structured and seem to have been written without much planning or editing.

In any case, my misgivings about the earlier parts do not detract any value from the chapter on totalitarianism. Read part three and feel free to skip the rest in good conscience.
2 vote thcson | Apr 28, 2015 |
This book should have been better but it was pretty dry and barely held my interest. ( )
  jimocracy | Apr 18, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hannah Arendtprimary authorall editionscalculated
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)

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"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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