The Origins of Totalitarianism

Graduate Studies Essay for JHR 510: Political Evil, Economic Crime, and Alternative Practices to Human Security

Origins of TotalWhat comes to your mind when you hear the word “evil?” For many people, Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich of Nazi Germany are typically one of the first things to come to mind. And for good reason, as the Nazi regime is well-known for one of the more brutal acts in human history: the extermination of 6 million Jews and other marginalized groups during a period known as the Holocaust. From this horrifying point in time in human history come some very important questions: why and how could such an atrocity take place?

Many people seem to be content with the following answer: “Because Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were evil people.” But is the answer really this simple? Why were the Jews singled out? How were Hitler and the Nazis able to gain that type of power and unquestioned control? In the book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Dr. Hannah Arendt takes a thoughtful, compelling, well-researched look into the causes of totalitarian movements and governments, with a specific focus on Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Arendt, a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi oppression, highlights Europe’s history of anti-Semitism and colonial imperialism, along with the basic framework and strategy of totalitarianism that led to its realization in the 20th century.

One of the central ideas of the book is that the Jewish people were not simply arbitrarily chosen to be the victims of the Nazis during the Holocaust, but that instead, the root cause was a long history of anti-Semitism that dated back a few hundred years. Arendt argues that European anti-Semitism was born at the same time as the creation of the nation-state in 17th and 18th century Europe. During this time period, a class-system was developed in which members of society were identified by their class, however, as Arendt states, “The only exceptions to this general rule were the Jews. They did not form a class of their own and they did not belong to any of the classes in their countries (p 13).” This made the Jews stand out among other groups of society, making them a vulnerable population. Ardent examines several factors that led to anti-Semitic feelings from members of society towards the Jews in this time period. For example, the emancipation of Jews in several countries in Europe led to possible feelings of resentment, as Arendt states, “Political anti-Semitism developed because the Jews were a separate body, while social discrimination arose because of the growing equality of Jews with all other groups (p 54).” Furthermore, various groups and individuals across Europe during this time period often associated or even outright blamed the Jewish people for various societal problems. For example, while discussing the historically close connections between Jewish financiers and those in positions of power in the government, Arendt mentions, “Because of their close relationship to state sources of power, the Jews were invariably identified with power, and because of their aloofness from society and concentration upon the closed circle of the family, they were invariably expected of working for the destruction of all social structures (p 28).” Another example was from the prominent French writer, Louis Ferdinand Celine, who Arendt cites “…had a simple thesis, ingenious and containing exactly the ideological imagination that the more rational French anti-Semitism had lacked. He claimed that the Jews had prevented the evolution of Europe into a political entity, had caused all European wars since 843, and had plotted both the ruin of France and Germany by inciting their mutual hostility (p 49).” Arendt also refers to anti-Semitic feelings of “the mob,” which she describes as a large crowd of people that “comprises all strata of society” that expresses feelings of rebellion against those in power. Regarding the mob, Arendt states, “There can be no doubt in the eyes of the mob the Jews came to serve as an object lesson for all the things they detested. If they hated society they could point to the way in which the Jews were tolerated within it; and if they hated the government they could point to the way in which the Jews had been protected by or were identifiable with the state… the Jews must be accorded first place among [the mob’s] favorite victims (p 108).” Anti-Semitism was clearly very widespread throughout Europe, and it seemed to manifest in varying forms. Arendt goes on to explain that, depending on the circumstances, anti-Semitism did tend to rise and fall throughout this time period, but even in times of relative security and prosperity for various nation states, the anti-Semitic feelings never quite went away and seemed to have always laid beneath the surface and stuck with society until they fully erupted in Nazi Germany.

Arendt provides some excellent context regarding the anti-Semitism in Europe, however, I can’t help but feel there are still plenty of puzzle pieces missing. What led the Jewish people to become so spread out all over Europe? How did many of the Jews attain their wealth in the first place? Also, while the main focus on the book is on totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, there seems to be much less focus on the rise of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, with much of the history concentrated on Western European nations such as France and Germany. Were the causes of anti-Semitism the same in Eastern Europe? Or were the circumstance much different? Further, while Arendt did elaborate quite a bit on the various causes of anti-Semitism and attempted to provide a comprehensive historical background, it seemed that her perspective tended to present the Jews as the innocent victims in the matter. That, even though the Jews were often in positions of wealth and tied to those in power, the anti-Semitic movements were not based upon any real truth. Providing a better context on how deeply involved the Jewish people were in the oppression of different parts of society would have been helpful to understand the feelings of anti-Semitism that manifested, and determining if there was any validity to those feelings. From a social justice perspective, one could argue that the anti-Semitic movement was simply a pursuit for justice against a group of oppressors (in this case the Jews), albeit one based upon hate and violence. Regardless, Arendt still does an excellent job at providing a much needed context to the anti-Semitic movement and highlights some of the more important factors involved.

A second major theme in the book is the strong impact that European colonial imperialism had on bringing about totalitarianism. Arendt cites that during the age of imperialism, which began around 1870 and led to the annexation of a number of African and Asian countries by European governments, centered on the political emancipation of the bourgeoisie (middle class), which “was the first class in history to achieve economic pre-eminence without aspiring to political rule (p 123).” Arendt explains, “Imperialism was born when the ruling class in capitalistic 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 (p 126).” Arendt elaborates further that, “In contrast to the economic structure, the political structure cannot be expanded indefinitely (p 126).”  This meant that European nations needed to penetrate other markets that had not been exposed to capitalism if they wanted to continue to grow their wealth and power. In the pursuit of continual political and economic expansion and the quest for constant growth of wealth, several European nations seized control of huge chunks of land and people in Africa and Asia. Arendt quotes that during the imperialist era, “Within less than two decades, British colonial possessions increased by 4.5 million square miles and 66 million inhabitants, the French nation gained 3.5 million square miles and 26 million people, the Germans won a new empire of a million square miles and 12 million natives, and Belgium through her king acquired 900,000 square miles with 8.5 million population (p 124).” Arendt expands upon two concepts that developed during the imperialist era which would later contribute to totalitarianism. She states, “Two new devices for political organization and rule over foreign peoples were discovered during the first decades of imperialism. One was race as a principle of the body politic, and the other bureaucracy as a principle of foreign domination (p 185).” Ardent elaborates on race and bureaucracy, stating “…race was discovered in South Africa and bureaucracy in Algeria, Egypt, and India; the former was originally the barely conscious reaction to tribes of whose humanity European man was ashamed and frightened, whereas the latter was a consequence of that administration by which Europeans had tried to rule foreign peoples whom they felt to be hopelessly their inferiors and at the same time in need of their special protection (p 207).” These two devices were used as a means to oppress large groups of people and keep the power and control in the hands of the European imperialists. They were each extremely powerful forms of oppression, so powerful that they could even be used to justify the mass murder of a people. Arendt cites how the concept of racism “resulted in the most terrible massacres in recent history, the Boers’ (Dutch settlers) extermination of Hottentot tribes, the wild murdering by Carl Peters in German Southeast Africa, [and] the decimation of the peaceful Congo population-from 20 to 40 million reduced to 8 million (p 185).” It’s easy to see how this type of mentality translated into similar types of behavior during the totalitarian movements. Arendt helps shed light on how extreme violence and oppression can be institutionalized in order for a certain group to obtain wealth, power, and control.

Hitler and StalinArendt makes a direct connection between the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin and this imperialist movement. She describes how “continental imperialism” came about, explaining, “The Central and Eastern European nations, which had no colonial possessions and little hope for overseas expansion, now decided that they ‘had the same right to expand as other great peoples and that if [they were] not granted this possibility overseas, [they would] be forced to do it in Europe’ (p 222).” This led to a Germanized Central European movement and a Russianized Eastern and Southern European movement which were the starting points for Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia (p 226). Each of these movements expressed that their people were the “chosen ones,” i.e. superior to everyone else. This ideology manifested into what Arendt describes as “tribal nationalism.” She elaborates, “Politically speaking, tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by a ‘world of enemies,’ ‘one against all,’ that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man (p 227).” Arendt then highlights the dangers of these types of ideologies, making the point, “Tribalism and racism are the very realistic, if very destructive, ways of escaping [the] predicament of common responsibility (p 236).” These types of paradigms see everyone other than your own specific group as sub-human, making it very easy to justify treating them inhumanely, resulting in all sorts of social justice and human rights issues. Arendt makes an important point on how the impact of this type of ideology on anti-Semitism. She cites during this time that the, “hatred of the Jews was, for the first time, severed from all actual experience concerning Jewish people, political, social, economic, and followed only the peculiar logic of an ideology (229).” In a sense, anti-Semitism had become institutionalized in these cultures, and became a “normal” way of thinking. Building upon this, Arendt references the evolution of “human rights” on earth, and how they factored in to the totalitarian movements. She discusses the paradox that existed in the original establishment of the Declaration of the Rights of Man at the end of the 18th century, explaining that, “Since the Rights of Man were proclaimed to be ‘inalienable,’ irreducible to and undeducible from other rights or laws, no authority was invoked for their establishment; Man himself was their source as well as their ultimate goal (p 291).” As a result, there were no institutions in place to protect people from having their human rights infringed upon, which proved to be incredibly problematic. As Arendt states, “The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable–even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them–whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of the state (p 293).” Through her historical perspective, Arendt helps us understand some of the major flaws with the establishment of human rights. All a nation or government had to do to deny a group of people their human rights was to claim that they were not “citizens,” and hence they were not protected under the constitution and laws of that government. This is something that still happens frequently today, as international authority to protect human rights is still fundamentally lacking. Arendt further clarifies what this “loss of human rights” means in practice. She states, “The first loss which the rightless suffered was the loss of their homes, and this meant the loss of the entire social texture into which they were born and in which they established for themselves a distinct place in the world… The second loss which the rightless suffered was the loss of the government protection, and this did not imply just the loss of legal status in their own, but in all countries (p 293-294).” To break it down further, Arendt explains, “The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective (p 296).” Arendt does a fantastic job of underlining how human rights can become deprived, and articulating what this really looks and feels like for human beings in the real world. Her insights clearly show the immense danger when things like racism and tribal nationalism are no longer based upon personal experience, but become institutionalized parts of daily life, and how this can transform into the denial of human rights.

In Arendt’s third and final section, she discusses how totalitarian movements are able to grow from a movement of a few in power to gaining the support of society at large. One thing that is fundamentally unique of totalitarian movements is that they “aim at and succeed in organizing masses–not classes, like the old interest parties of the Continental nation states (p 308).” Arendt defines the term “masses” as “the majority of those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls (p 311).” Arendt brings up an incredibly compelling point, in that, the key to starting a massive movement (in this case a totalitarian movement) is to spark the interest of those members of society that are currently indifferent. Intuitively, you would think that this portion of society would be small; however, Arendt discusses how “the movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in a democratically ruled country, that therefore a democracy could function according to rules which are actively recognized by only a minority (p 312).” She says in short, “Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals (p 323).” This is a profound, thought-provoking insight into one of the pre-cursors to totalitarian movements that likely still exists in many democracies today.  In terms of how to actually attract the masses, Arendt explains that, “Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself; the masses have to be won by propaganda (p 341).” Arendt describes propaganda as a part “psychological warfare” and states that it is “possibly the most important instrument of totalitarianism for dealing with the nontotalitarian world (p 344).” Arendt ties the effectiveness of propaganda during this time period back to imperialism, stating, “Totatalitarian propaganda perfects the techniques of mass propaganda, but it neither invents them nor originates their themes. These were prepared for them by fifty years of the rise of imperialism and disintegration of the nation-state (p 351).” This shows that the totalitarian movements simply capitalized by using information that already existed, and was already deeply entrenched in society. Another alarming insight provided by Arendt is her claim that, “What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part (p 351).” This statement indicates that a movement can garner support using complete lies, as long as it never waivers from those claims. Disturbingly, consistency, not truth, was the most important factor in gaining support from the masses. In terms of sustaining a totalitarian movement, Arendt argues, “The only rule of which everybody in a totalitarian state may be sure is that the more visible government agencies are, the less power they carry, and the less is known of the existence of an institution, the more powerful it will ultimately turn out to be (p 403).” As a result, the totalitarian movements of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia incorporated various forms of secrecy into their movement. For example, Arendt cites, “Above the state and behind the facades of ostensible power, in a maze of multiplied offices, underlying all shifts of authority and in a chaos of inefficiency, lies the power nucleus of the country, the superefficient and super competent services of the secret police (p 420).” This type of obscure system makes it very difficult for anyone to effectively challenge the totalitarian movement. Arendt further describes the operations of totalitarian movements, stating, “It is in the very nature of totalitarian regimes to demand unlimited power. Such power can only be secured if literally all men, without a single exception, are reliably dominated in every aspect of their life (p 456).” In short, it is the effective use of propaganda, several layers of secrecy, along with the demand for unlimited power that make totalitarian movements so incredibly perilous for society. In the end of her final section, Arendt emphasizes the importance of avoiding political and societal isolation amongst the public, as “it has frequently been observed that terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other (p 474).” She concludes her book, which covers such a discouraging part of human history, with a sense of optimism that “ever end in history necessarily contains a new beginning (p 478).”

In summary, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism provides incredible insight into the root causes, components and institutions, after-effects, and learnings from the two major totalitarian movements of the 20th century. Her perspective helps humanity to better understand the difficulties in achieving social justice and protecting human rights in the modern age. While it provides an incredibly deep analysis on totalitarian movement in Nazi Germany, it would be worthwhile to gain further perspective into the history and climate of Stalinist Russia, along with other pseudo-totalitarian movements throughout the past century. This would help humankind draw comparisons and gain additional insights in order to further our collective understanding of what causes totalitarianism, prevent any future occurrences, and utilize the learnings to drive positive social change on earth.

If you’re interested in reading the book yourself:


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