I’ve just finished reading an extraordinary book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, written in 1951. Its author, Hanna Arendt, was a political theorist and a Jew who was briefly imprisoned by the Nazis and, years later, placed in an internment camp by Vichy France. Arendt’s book offer insights into our own state of affairs. Here are some excerpts:

The older nations enjoyed constitutions which implicitly or explicitly (as in the case of France, the nation par excellence) were founded upon the Rights of Man, that even if there were other nationalities within their borders they needed no additional law for them, and that only in the newly established succession states was a temporary enforcement of human rights necessary as a compromise and exception. The arrival of the stateless people brought an end to this illusion.

***

One is almost tempted to measure the degree of totalitarian infection by the extent to which the concerned governments use their sovereign right of denationalization [i.e., the right to deport people] . . . . But one should bear in mind at the same time that there was hardly a country left on the Continent that did not pass between the two wars some new legislation which, even if it did not use this right extensively, was always phrased to allow for getting rid of a great number of its inhabitants at any opportune moment.

***

The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error. The assumption of infallibility, moreover, is based not so much on superior intelligence as on the correct interpretation of the essentially reliable forces in history or nature, forces which neither defeat nor ruin can prove wrong because they are bound to assert themselves in the long run. . . . Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.

***

. . .since the middle thirties, one mysterious world conspiracy has followed another in Bolshevik propaganda. . . . The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. Repetition, somewhat overrated in importance because of the common belief in the masses’ inferior capacity to grasp and remember, is important only because it convinces them of consistency in time. . . . The revolt of the masses against “realism,” common sense, and all ‘the plausibilities of the world’ (Burke) was the result of their atomization, of their loss of social status along with which they lost the whole sector of communal relationships in whose framework common sense makes sense.

***

…they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been ‘spoiled’ by the party system. Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.

***

With the assumption that foreign politics is necessarily outside of the human contract, engaged in the perpetual war of all against all, which is the law of the “state of nature,” Hobbes affords the best possible theoretical foundation for those naturalistic ideologies which hold nations to be tribes, separated from each other by nature, without any connection whatever, unconscious of the solidarity of mankind and having in common only the instinct for self-preservation which man shares with the animal world.

***

If it should prove to be true that we are imprisoned in Hobbes’s endless process of power accumulation, then the organization of the mob will inevitably take the form of transformation of nations into races, for there is, under the conditions of an accumulating society, no other unifying bond available between individuals who in the very process of power accumulation and expansion are losing all natural connections with their fellow-men. Racism may indeed carry out the doom of the Western world and, for that matter, of the whole of human civilization. When Russians have become Slavs, when Frenchmen have assumed the role of commanders of a force noire, when Englishmen have turned into “white men,” as already for a disastrous spell all Germans became Aryans, then this change will itself signify the end of Western man. For no matter what learned scientists may say, race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death.

***

A conception of law which identifies what is right with the notion of what is good for— for the individual, or the family, or the people, or the largest number— becomes inevitable once the absolute and transcendent measurements of religion or the law of nature have lost their authority. And this predicament is by no means solved if the unit to which the “good for” applies is as large as mankind itself. For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organized and mechanized humanity will conclude quite democratically— namely by majority decision— that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof. Here, in the problems of factual reality, we are confronted with one of the oldest perplexities of political philosophy, which could remain undetected only so long as a stable Christian theology provided the framework for all political and philosophical problems, but which long ago caused Plato to say: “Not man, but a god, must be the measure of all things.” (Emphasis added)

***

The final excerpt, of course, describes the dilemma Abraham Lincoln discovered in Stephen Douglas’s Popular Sovereignty doctrine expressed in the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. This dilemma precipitated Lincoln’s return to politics and was a major subject of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. All of natural law is based on political equality, and political equality is based on the existence and reign of God. That’s a political restatement of the two greatest commandments, from which all the law and the prophets also hang.

4 thoughts on “Hanna Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

  1. As always your observations are spot on. I was born just three years after WW II ended and grew up surrounded by images of what that war had interrupted but not done away with. Totalitarianism. My neighbors wore the numbered tattoos on their arms of concentration camps. A Japanese family displayed the photograph of their father, dressed in an American uniform, lest they by singled out as the enemy. The restaurant on the avenue – The Gold Star – with a portrait of a son who was killed – and the Gold Star mother who grieved. Will we ever learn? One of my earliest iconic visions was of the televised film of small children with their arms in the air and German guns pointed at them. We are not as close anymore to that time and so we can’t reflect as well. Those who fought are all but gone. Those, like myself, who grew up in a society that was putting itself back together after a terrible war – we’re drifting away. Today’s youth will carry us through I bet. They seem to be turning away from much of what is wrong and they seem tolerant buoys in an ocean stream carrying us forward.

  2. Al, what an experience. I’m always learning more about you. I’ve read a couple of books about historical cycles in England and America by William Strauss and Neil Howe. Each cycle is about ninety years, long enough, I suppose, for a generation to forget the lessons learned at the same point in the cycle earlier. Today’s college and high school students would be part of a hero generation, much like “The Greatest Generation,” those who did most of the fighting during World War II. I miss working around you.

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