The Origins of Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt

A book on the nature of totalitarian movements, written by a German-Jewish philosopher with a characteristic focus on World War II and its aftermath. Recent political developments spurred me to attempt this unabridged tome, and with some irony it didn’t necessarily help. I even glanced over Eichmann in Jerusalem, but it didn't really answer the inquiry I had. While there were some interesting anecdotes on German and Russian totalitarianism, I am ultimately less interested in the bogeymen of ages gone as I am worried about more current trends towards fascism. (In fact, I understand them less now as I am more aware of what might be my own possible proclivities towards it, which frightens me even more.) Other parts of the book include the creation of racism as a component of imperialism, which was at least straightforward, as well as the section on the historical development of antisemitism, which was the most enlightening of it all.

When one is not enfranchised, power looks like a secret club one cannot enter, where influencers exchange influence in luxury country clubs that won't let any ol’ nobody in. Regardless of if power and politics actually works that way or not, (it doesn't,) that is still what it looks like to the outside observer. Put into the context of early industrialization, it led the first totalitarians to assume secret societies and shadowy cabals were the puppet-masters behind all the opaque market chaos. Even Eichmann was tasked with fruitless investigations into Freemasonry before the Nazi government ever turned their gaze towards the Jewish Question. But what is stranger still is what happened when these baseless fears were eventually given legitimacy. Those who totalitarianism appealed to had never before understood power on their own; so when they were given power for the first time, they unwittingly turned into the very thing they criticized. They tried to replicate the structures of preindustrial, close-kinship community upscaled to meet the same requirements for larger populations. The scale didn’t quite work out, resulting in obtuse and labyrinthine administrative structures, impossible-to-understand for anyone who wasn't already within the inner-party's social circles. The plot twist at the end of that story is when the supposedly heroic peoples who wanted to defend themselves from all the dark conspirators must suddenly (or fail to) realize; that they, themselves, were the secret shadowy cabal bent on world domination all along.

Arendt's core thesis is that totalitarianism is a unique evil that exists independent of the political thought it claims to hold; you cannot condemn the fascism of a left-wing party while still being sympathetic to the fascism of a right-wing party, or vice-versa. The reasons for why totalitarianism is horrible are historically evident, but it is obvious Arendt still struggled with the specifics of why it got as bad as it did. Reading between her lines, my takeaway was the abdication of personal responsibility. Totalitarian thought engenders powerlessness in its followers; both before, when Jews and/or Freemasons and/or Wall Street and/or Corporations are all in control of everything and you'll never make a dent on any of it; as well as after, when Dear Leader has everything in this bureaucratic mess all planned out and just trust him everything will be fine. (This actually holds a lot of appeal to nervous persons in what Polanyi terms as “complex society,” when the results of individual actions are too often opaque and unclear.) The problem is, at no point is one's own personal agency actually taken away. The individual person still owns the responsibility of their own actions within a totalitarian society, even if they are continually led to believe otherwise. Thus, totalitarian followers often become unthinking and reckless in what they eventually end up doing, which contributes not only to the hostile clashes that fascists have with liberal society, but also in how the Jewish Holocaust and the Bolshevik Gulags got to be as soul-crushing as they were.

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Book Metadata

  • ISBN: 978-0-15-670153-2
  • Necessary Corrections:
    • Historical Reception to Eichmann in Jerusalem.
    • There is some evidence to suggest that Arendt began with the hypothesis of “the banality of evil” and worked backwards to prove it, even going so far as underplaying the antisemitism of former Holocaust organizers to support her point.
    • Eichmann in Jerusalem was published long after this book, though. However, it still may reflect poorly on this book.

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