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PHIL 219
Arendt and The Origins of Totalitarianism
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)
Hannah Arendt was born in 1906 in Hanover,
spent her childhood in Königsberg (Kant’s
hometown), and died in New York in 1975.
She grew up in a Europe racked by
nationalism and the world wars.
She was a precocious child, and eventually
matriculated in the German university
system where she studied with the most
prominent German philosophers of the day.
With the rise of Nazism, she moved with her
family to Paris in 1933. In 1941 she was
forced to leave France and moved to New
She taught at Princeton, Berkeley and
Chicago, but was most closely associated
with the New School for Social Research,
where she was a professor of political
philosophy until her death in 1975.
A World Aflame
 Though she studied with some of the most prominent
philosophical theorists of the 20th century, her own work had
a distinctly practical bent from the start.
 We don’t have to look to far for an explanation. She grew
up in a Europe suffering from an extended political,
economic, social, and moral collapse.
 Though it’s strange to look back and realize this, right up to the
First World War, most if not all Europeans believed that they
were the most advanced, civilized, and progressive people in
human history.
 30 years later, with millions of dead, the great cities in ruin, and
the smell of the death camps permeating the continent, it
would be hard to avoid a much different conclusion.
A Political Crisis
 When Arendt begins to take stock of these events, she comes to
the conclusion that the root of the calamities was a political failure.
 She identifies 4 elements of this failure.
1. Cultural Crisis: the alienation of modernity encouraged a culture
inconsistent with democracy and prone to ideological manipulation;
2. Theoretical Crisis: the political theory we’ve inherited has made us
incapable of perceiving and criticizing this culture—politics has come to
be understood solely as means for supporting economic activity;
3. Institutional Crisis: the dominance of economic motives has transformed
the public sphere into a sphere of necessity, and freedom had become
largely constrained to the private sphere;
4. Normative Crisis: citizens can no longer discern what they should be
requiring of themselves and their leaders, or what norms should be
governing public discourse.
An Opening Salvo
 Arendt begins the project of
analyzing, assessing, and
thinking beyond the failure of
western culture in The Origins of
 Its aim is to explain why Europe
was such fertile ground for
totalitarianism in the twentieth
century and to analyze the
forms totalitarianism takes.
 She answers the first question by
identifying three factors: racism,
anti-Semitism, and the rise of
The Analysis
 Addressing the second issue, she focuses her attention on the two
most prominent totalitarian regimes of the 20th century: Nazi
Germany and the Soviet Union.
 Despite being apparently ideologically opposite, she concludes
that they shared features central to totalitarian regimes.
 What characterizes both regimes is their replacement of all prior
traditions and political institutions with new ones that are explicitly
subordinated to the state, their aspirations for global rule, and their
successful organization of the masses.
 Most distinctive is their use of terror, both as a means of political
control and as an ideological justification. Terror becomes an end
in itself.
Mass vs. Class
 We can see the first element of this analysis (the
replacement of tradition and institution) in her discussion of
“A Classless Society.”
 One key to the rise of totalitarian regimes is the emergence
of ‘masses.’
 A ‘mass’ is a group of people identified precisely by their lack of
shared interests and class identity. In the absence of these
traditional avenues of social cohesion and political expression, a
mass is susceptible to manipulation through what they do have
in common: social alienation and emotions.
 “Totalitarian movement are mass organizations of atomized,
isolated individuals” (846c1).
Exposing a political illusion
 Such movements stand in clear opposition to many firmly
held beliefs of traditional democratic political theorists.
 The first is that democracy requires engagement and
participation, “…the movements showed that the politically
neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in
a democratically ruled country, and therefore a democracy
could function according to rules which are actively
recognized by only a minority” (845c2).
 The second is that the masses were no necessary part of
the political calculus. In fact, it was the ability of totalitarian
movements to mobilize the support of these supposedly
indifferent masses that accounts for their rise to power.
Mass Mobilization
 When we consider the rise of Hitler, or Stalin’s
consolidation of power after the Russian revolution, we
see that this mobilization of the masses is not
fundamentally nationalistic, but rather is completely at
the service of the party.
 It is not loyalty to the “fatherland” that is ultimately
demanded, but loyalty to the Führer.
 According to Arendt, such loyalty could only be
commanded in the failure of traditional political and
social institutions, and would be particularly attractive to
those who felt cut off, isolated and desperate to belong.
From Mass to Movement
 The preeminent tool of totalitarian movements is propaganda.
 The isolated character of the masses make them particularly
susceptible to the combination of gullibility and cynicism that
seems so evident in propaganda.
 “Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all
times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not
particularly object to being deceived because it held every
statement to be a lie anyhow” (848c1).
 The key to the success of mass propaganda is the figure of the
leader. The ‘infallibility’ of the leader, who is the ‘truth-teller’ serves
to resolve the evident contradictoriness of the message.
Institutional Dissonance
 One of the most surprising developments to conventional
political theorists is the ability of totalitarian regimes to
survive contact with existing political forms and
 The conventional wisdom was that these movements would
lack the capacity to work the machinery of governance,
that contact with the real world would either force their
collapse or moderate their ideologies.
 On the contrary, the isolated and unprecedented
character of regimes like the Reich limited their
vulnerability to typical institutional pressures, and even
exacerbated their violent impulses (849c2).
A New Theory of Power
 Arendt explains this by observing that, “…behind their
politics is hidden an entirely new and unprecedented
concept of power” (849c2).
 She specifies this concept by reference to more
traditional accounts. It exhibits:
 Disregard for consequences (not ruthlessness);
 Neglect of national interests (not nationalism);
 Contempt for utilitarian interests (not self-interest);
 Adherence to ideology (not lust for power).
The Face of Totalitarian Power
 This shift is in large part explained by the very factors that explain
the mobilization of the masses in the first place. The party, in the
person of the leader, is the only good.
 As a result, the paradigmatic form of totalitarian power is
 This is, for Arendt, the lesson of the concentration camps. She calls
them the laboratory of totalitarianism (850c2). They express the
subordination of all other interests to the ideology of the regime
and are essential to its survival.
 “Without concentration camps, without the undefined fear they inspire
an the very well-defined training they offer in totalitarian domination…a
totalitarian state can neither inspire it nuclear troops with fanaticism nor
maintain a whole people in complete apathy” (851c1).
Accident or Essence
 Given the analysis Arendt has offered, the question
remains, was the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th century
merely a historical accident, or was it a response to
something essential in the political self-understanding of
the West?
 From the perspective of traditional political theory,
totalitarianism seems clearly contradictory. As we’ve
seen, the prevailing question of political philosophy has
been the question of authority. Totalitarianism, with its
rejection of traditional models of authority, seems an
A Profound Transformation
 But what appears as a rejection of traditional political
forms is really, according to Arendt, a transformation (or
better, a radicalization) of these forms.
 “It is the monstrous, yet seemingly unanswerable claim of
totalitarian rule that, far from being ‘lawless,’ it goes to the
sources of authority…that far from being arbitrary it is more
obedient…that far from wielding its power in the interest of
one man…[it is obedient to] the law of History or the law of
Nature” (853c1).
 Thus, even terror is ‘lawful’ (854-5).
 Thus, Arendt concludes that totalitarianism is expressive of a
certain truth of traditional political theories.
 That’s not to say that the various political philosophies that
we’ve examined are empty or useless. Ultimately, Arendt is
going to argue for a revitalization of a number of the
classical themes and concerns that we’ve focused on as a
remedy for totalitarianism.
 However, particularly the modern theories (e.g., social
contract theory) exhibit a blindness, a careless confidence,
and a one-sidedness that has made us vulnerable to the
new theory of power and authority that totalitarianism