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Hannah Arendt on the Origins and Implications of Totalitarianism

In her seminal 1951 book, Hannah Arendt attempted to show how totalitarianism emerged as a distinctly modern utopian problem in the twentieth century, growing out of a lethal combination of imperialism, anti-Semitism and extreme statist bureaucracies. As much a work of intellectual history as political philosophy, The Origins of Totalitarianism jarred many due to its indictment of European civilization during a period of post-war reconstruction. Arendt held that totalitarianism was not a reactionary aberration, an attempt to turn back the clock to earlier tyrannies, but rather a revolutionary form of radical evil explicable by particularly destructive tendencies in modern mass politics. The atomisation of lonely individuals and the receptivity to propaganda of mass society in the modern age makes it an ongoing temptation to be resisted through critical thinking and the affirmation of fundamental human values.

Tracing what she took to be the prime causes of totalitarianism to the nineteenth century, Arendt focused on the rise of imperialism and political anti-Semitism, and the concomitant decline of both the remnants of the feudal order and the nation state. Imperialism and anti-Semitism both drew from racist and Social Darwinist wellsprings in their repudiation of unity through language, culture, and universal rights in favour of biologically fixed and hierarchical distinctions within humanity and a struggle for world conquest. The consequent de-humanisation of entire races and ethnic groups in favour of Aryanist ideals set the grounds for fascism, with the enthusiastic support of what Arendt termed “the mob,” that is, the resentful European déclassés. Furthermore, the narrow chauvinism of pan-Slavism coupled with notions of class warfare and annihilation paved the way for a parallel communist regime of terror in the Soviet Union.

Arendt held that in both its fascist and communist varieties, the totalitarian system’s terror is not incidental, but essential. Unlike authoritarian dictatorships that strive to uphold conservative values, such regimes by their very nature aim to destroy civil society and tradition in favour of a utopian re-fashioning of humanity to suit their collectivist ideological purposes. The twentieth century totalitarian state thus emerges as a juggernaut of terror, a terror maintained in no small part by the eradication of fundamental human values and all critical thought in favour of ideology and propaganda. It thereby seeks to destroy all communal and civil institutions between it and its atomised and lonely citizens. Arendt wrote: