By Robert A. Vella – March 15th 2022
Prologue: During the writing of this book review/dissertation, Russia’s dictator Vladimir Putin launched a military invasion of Ukraine in eastern Europe which fortuitously provided a timely example for the crucial subject matter of this post. In the concluding comments, I have tied the two together more informatively.
One of the true pleasures of retirement is the extra personal time available to catch-up on books and other literary works I’ve always wanted to read, and I have certainly been taking advantage of this time especially since ceasing my daily blogging activities. One such book is The Origins of Totalitarianism (first published in 1951) by Holocaust survivor Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) who, in the opinion of many, was the most insightful and influential political philosopher of the 20th century. It examines, in painstaking detail, the rise of the two most infamous totalitarian regimes in recent human history. Ostensibly archenemies towards each other on ideological grounds, Arendt astutely characterized Nazi Germany (fascist) and Stalinist Russia (communist) as opposite sides of the same coin because both resulted in very similar tangible outcomes – i.e. total seizure of political power and the state apparatus bound by loyalty to a single leader, the elimination of citizen’s rights, the devaluation of the individual, oppressive restrictions on personal freedom, the use of censorship and propaganda to control information, absolute police control over the population through fear and intimidation, the persecution and even genocide of undesirable peoples and adversarial groups, and of course the waging of aggressive war to insatiably expand its power.
Considering what is occurring right now in the United States and across the world (i.e. the decline of democracy and the spread of authoritarianism), it is probably the most important book you’ve never read or are likely to read. The Origins of Totalitarianism is neither an easy nor an enjoyable read. The content is bluntly factual which forces the reader to confront their own personal biases and preconceptions. It also paints rather disturbing pictures of human nature, the inherent dangers of mass movements, and the fragility of democratic/republican forms of government. Readers will surely find it a depressing experience, as I did, but it will also open eyes like none other. And, as we attempt to navigate the problematic future before us in this uncertain 21st century, the clearest of visions will become an imperative for our very survival.
The book I read is the latest version (copyright 1968) which includes prefaces to the original three-part volume. Part One – Antisemitism discusses the societal history of Jews in Europe within the context of longstanding discrimination against them by the Christian majority and how this latent prejudice was later weaponized by a totalitarian regime (under Adolf Hitler) to commit the most heinous of crimes against humanity (at least in modern times). Part Two – Imperialism explores how the demise of feudalism and the rise of nation-states in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment (see: the Rights of Man) triggered major political reforms and an expansionist period of state-sponsored capitalistic colonialism which produced two incompatible developments: 1) the emancipation of the Jewish people (whose privileged “Court Jews” had been protected by European nobles in exchange for financial and diplomatic services, and who subsequently began financing state governments directly), and 2) the replacement of the old feudal order by a prospering bourgeoisie (i.e. the entrepreneurial middle class) who largely resented the new legal equality granted to Jews considering their close relationship to the aristocracy (which the bourgeoisie had rebelled against during the French Revolution). Part Three – Totalitarianism covers the tumultuous four decades from the First World War which ended monarchical governance and the imperialist expansion, unleashed rampant and vitriolic anti-Semitism, gave birth to Europe’s destructive totalitarian regimes which caused the catastrophic Second World War, and finally to the unsettled Cold War aftermath which we are still trying to cope with today and from which Arendt issued a frightening extrapolative warning about America’s potential descent into a similar social and political abyss.
It should be noted that totalitarianism isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. For example, China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BCE) conquered and unified the country under his autocratic reign which by most – if not all – measures matches the definition of totalitarianism. However, whereas he and other historical tyrants who wielded absolute governmental power generally did so under the self-proclaimed auspices of divine or immortal privilege, the totalitarian figures of the 20th and 21st centuries typically justified themselves more ideologically. This is certainly true for Hitler and Joseph Stalin whose bitter fight-to-the-death struggle in 1941-1945 was profoundly a battle between fascism and communism even though both slaughtered millions of their own people and otherwise behaved as tyrannically. Likewise, the ruling communist party of China today sees its vibrant ideology as the strength of its success while blaming a stagnated ideology for the dissolution of the former Soviet Union (which Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is now attempting to reassemble through force). Arendt pointed out that the transformation of Europe’s anti-Semitism from a primal yet pervasive from of bigotry to a well-developed ideological construct (i.e. a belief system) occurred before either Stalin or Hitler rose to power. Conversely, Qin took credit for unifying ancient China because of the assertion that only he could do it. This distinction between totalitarians who rule based on special privilege or on ideological beliefs may seem incidental, but it has very real consequences. All leaders die, but beliefs live on indefinitely. When Qin Shi Huang died (probably from self-induced mercury poisoning), his successor and eldest son (Fusu) was assassinated and his younger son (Qin Er Shi) became emperor. But, the new emperor was weak and his reign lasted only three years which led to the collapse of the Qin Dynasty. In contrast, the ideologies of fascism, communism, and anti-Semitism, among many others (e.g. white supremacy in the U.S.), are still alive and well.
Now, let’s review the three parts of Arendt’s book more closely.
In Part One, Arendt prioritized the complexity of Jewish history as the primary driver of European anti-Semitism. Since their homeland in the Levant was located within the vital junction between Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Jews were extremely vulnerable to invasion. They were attacked and overrun repeatedly for centuries by larger neighbors to the north, east, and south. First the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE, then more significantly the Babylonians in the 6th century BCE, forced the relocation of large numbers of Jews eastward (primarily for slave labor) which marked the verifiable beginnings of the Diaspora (i.e. the dispersion of the Jewish people). When the Romans seized Jerusalem in the 1st century BCE, and violently suppressed a revolt in the 1st century CE (which destroyed the symbolic Second Temple), the Jewish dispersion intensified westward into Europe. There, in de-facto exile, Jewish culture was doggedly preserved even after the Christianization of Europe (by Roman Emperor Constantine) in the 4th century CE; however, the Jews remained a secluded people steadfastly isolated by their own cultural identity while being outcast by its increasingly hostile Christian host. Furthermore, schisms began to emerge within European Jews which delineated the wealthy from the poor and the parvenu (i.e. assimilating social climbers) from the pariahs (i.e. intellectuals committed to attaining equality for Jews) and which ultimately aided the purposes of anti-Semitism.
Even during the Roman Empire, some Jews were able to gain privileged status for their valuable expertise in various administrative functions and this trend became more pronounced in the later feudal societies of Medieval Europe where such individuals were known as “Court Jews.” When feudalism gave way to the establishment of nation-states, Wealthy Jews began financing these new governments (which needed money to fund operations) as well as international business endeavors, and they gained enormous social influence in the process (e.g. the Rothschild family). These Jewish financiers well understood the precarious relationship of being so tied to the state (which protected them), and that is why they mostly avoided getting involved in politics while simply continuing to work with whomever rose to power. What the financiers didn’t understand so well is the possibility of the citizenry turning against its government and – by guilt of association – against the Jewish people (whom they were already prejudiced against). Arendt details several such instances, especially in Prussia and Austria, but it was in France where it really exploded. In 1892, the Panama Scandals erupted which turned a failed canal-building venture across the isthmus into a massive financial collapse caused by a thoroughly corrupt bribery scheme (involving government and its financiers) presumably in the name of saving the venture. Two year later, the Dreyfus Affair ignited latent anti-Semitism when an army intelligence officer (and possibly conspiring members of the General Staff) faked a handwritten note (which he later admitted to faking) supposedly written by Jewish artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus which was used to convict him of treason (i.e. spying for the Germans). The case dragged on for years; and, although Dreyfus was eventually exonerated, it still remains a highly contentious issue in France to this very day. For Europe, the dual scandals immediately preceded catastrophes of monstrous proportions which embroiled the entire world: two deadly and devastating world wars, populist backlashes against the institutions of government, the weaponization of vile ideologies, the ethnic extermination of millions of people, and a terrible legacy that will haunt us forever. Arendt told us exactly how and why it happened.
She also meticulously explained the intricate social dynamics which transpired throughout Europe and conveyed a clear distinction between the masses and the mob. Populations are never of one mind on any issue, and it is a convenient fallacy (of demagogues) to equate “the will of the people” with mob violence. Arendt described “the mob” as a disparate collection of socially frustrated individuals who take to the streets during moments of discord to vent their pent-up aggression. In France during the Dreyfus Affair, as later in Germany and elsewhere, mob chants such as “Kill the Jews!” did not reflect the larger populace; however, it was used by opportunistic leaders to at least temporarily sway public opinion to achieve desired political results. The Christian masses of Europe certainly felt no love for Jews, but it was their own self-interest and indifference towards Jews which were politically exploited. When outside perceptions of anti-Semitism threatened to ruin the Paris Exposition of 1900 (i.e. the World’s Fair) with a boycott , the hateful rhetoric and mob violence suddenly subsided in France at the behest of many of those same leaders.
In Part Two, the aforementioned incompatibility between the emancipation of European Jews and the replacement of the old feudal order had both weakened the privileges afforded to the Jewish nobility while tying their social status to the state which, as it turned out, would swing wildly with the ever-shifting political winds. The legal equality granted to Jews wasn’t enough to overcome their generally unwelcome position in European society. For that to occur, Jews needed Christian allies of whom there were few among the newly empowered bourgeoisie, a shrinking number among their former aristocratic benefactors whose influence had been pushed behind the public sphere and who were becoming increasingly anti-Semitic themselves, and a nearly irrelevant number among the proletariat (i.e. wage-earning workers) who were preoccupied with their own troubles and conflicts. Had the leaders of these new nation-states possessed the wisdom and fortitude to establish and maintain a reasonable level of social stability, the Jewish position might have steadied, Unfortunately, the opposite was true. With every new political scandal, with the excesses of imperialism running amok, and with every new bloody war, public anger towards the state grew accumulatively. As it did, Jews became a bigger and easier target. Given these circumstances, the worst case scenario was likely inevitable.
Persecution of minority groups in Europe was not limited to Jews. The Knights Templar, Rosicrucians, freemasons, and even the Jesuits (who ironically spearheaded anti-Semitism within the Catholic Church at this time), were among those singled out. What Jews failed to recognize was that the new nation-states couldn’t be relied upon to protect them as they had been under the old feudal order and that their traditional political nonparticipation would leave them more vulnerable than ever. Arendt illustrated the puzzling lack of support for Dreyfus among Jews and even among his family including the man himself. They chose to mount virtually no defense at all, and were willing to accept whatever eventually resulted. Only through the determined and principled efforts of statesmen like Georges Clemenceau (plus several others) did a modicum of justice prevail. It is no wonder, then, that so few Frenchmen opposed the injustice. To the practical mind of people who aren’t so brave, why defend those who won’t defend themselves? This lesson has since been learned painfully well by the Jewish people.
The brief but frenzied period of imperial conquest by Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and other western European nations, had added over 10 million square miles of Africa and Asia and over 100 million of its people to their empires from the 1880s to the start of World War I (note: the United States and Japan conducted a similar expansion in the Pacific at the same time). But, compared to the European colonization of the Americas 3-4 centuries earlier, this one was performed hastily and foolishly. It was motivated by capitalistic greed and by state anxiety over national security as both economic and military strength were surging in developed countries around the world during the Industrial Revolution. What unfolded was a haphazard rush to gain as much territory and control as possible before their rivals did. Also in contrast to the colonization of the western hemisphere, mores had changed dramatically. No longer could wholesale and wanton destruction of indigenous peoples be tolerated (as it was against Native Americans). A justification had to be found for the conquests, and European leaders concocted the rationale that “backward” and “impoverished” inhabitants would benefit under their dominion. That such “progress” seldom materialized, or was otherwise unappreciated, is evidenced by the rebellious reaction of black and brown people who were disingenuously told that the white man would bring them prosperity. At least the French made an attempt, albeit halfheartedly and dimwittedly, to fully assimilate conquered lands into its empire as the Romans successfully did. The British, on the other hand, did not. They preferred a detached form of local administration which typically served more the interests of colonial ventures than the empire. Regardless of strategy, the end result was pretty much the same everywhere. When European rivalries – exacerbated by monarchial petulance – plunged the continent into war in 1914, the assets obtained through imperialism quickly became liabilities. After the equally unwise and retributory Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, Europe was bankrupt in just about every way imaginable. The collective national debt skyrocketed, its economies were shattered, its vital young manhood was bled dry, millions of destitute refugees were on the move, borders were torn apart, Russia was in revolution, the once-mighty royal families faded away, and – maybe worst of all – government itself became an enemy of the people.
Arendt elucidated a quite compelling aspect of the imperialist mindset. She correlated it to the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (from his 17th century book Leviathan) which proclaimed that Man is fundamentally self-interested (i.e. narcissistic) and warlike (i.e. aggressive) who participates in community only as a means of procuring personal safety and has no other obligation towards his community or his fellow man. She also referred to it as “Bourgeoisie morality” within the context of explaining the apparent psychology of the newly empowered entrepreneurial middle class. Arendt specifically cited Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) – paradoxically the only Jewish (and proudly so) Prime Minister in the history of the United Kingdom – as a key figure in the relationship between Jews and the aristocracy, who asserted a leading role within conservative politics, and who added tremendous impetus for imperialist expansion. Additionally, she critiques this mindset as shortsighted and self-destructive because it relies solely on the application of power which unceasingly seeks to acquire more until such power is eventually turned upon the very society it was intended to serve. To look at it from a 21st century perspective, the philosophy is generally consistent with the concepts of laissez-faire capitalism and neoliberalism espoused by traditional conservatives.
Had this imperial expansion been pursued in ignorance of its societal consequences, a harsh judgment in hindsight might be unfair; but, Arendt revealed that its philosophical promoter (i.e. Hobbes) and its ultimate performers (i.e. the political class, entrepreneurial class, and financier class) knew that insatiable economic growth was not sustainable within a finite physical world and that the unrestrained growth of political power was terminally dangerous. That they did it anyway is morally reprehensible from any respectable viewpoint. To reduce humankind down to the level of a mere bacterium multiplying uncontrollably in a Petri Dish, is a contemptible attitude towards life in my opinion. I also believe Hannah Arendt would’ve agreed.
The book is stocked full of such profound revelations. Another is her observation that ideologies are always constructed to advance specific political or social effects and never emerge organically from sound theoretical concepts; and, furthermore, that only two broad political ideologies have withstood the test of time: 1) that human history is essentially class warfare, and 2) that human history is essentially racial warfare. That both enabled the two appalling totalitarian regimes focused on by Arendt (i.e. communist Soviet Union and fascist Nazi Germany) provides obvious evidence for the “success” of their respective ideologies. Within the context of imperialism, she then uncovered the history of ideological racism in Europe. Prior to the rise of nation-states which sprung from The Enlightenment, bigotry towards ethnic groups was generally confined to religious differences (e.g. between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and to the outcomes of military battles (i.e. the winners were seen as ethnically superior and the losers as ethnically inferior). That began to change in the prelude to the French Revolution. The aristocratic nobility, seated at the top of feudal society, felt the growing pressure from the oppressed populace and in reaction started to differentiate themselves as a distinct and higher ethnicity. In France, the nobles (e.g. Henri de Boulainvilliers) self-identified with the Germanic Franks and belittled the masses as lower Celtic Gauls (note: there is no factual basis for this idea because the population of Europe at that time was a complex mix of numerous tribes which constantly competed, merged, and assimilated with each other over thousands of years; in other words, there was no purebred aristocracy). Conversely, ethnic bigotry evolved quite differently in Germany although its eventual course was shaped by a Frenchman (see: Arthur de Gobineau). After the defeat of Prussia by Napoleon in 1806, nationalism and unification sentiment grew steadily in Germany among the bourgeoisie (who had not revolted against the aristocracy as it did in France) along with a romanticism for what Arendt described as “innate personality.” As the 19th century drew to a close, Gobinism flourished in Germany which championed the supremacy of Aryan peoples, spread fears of its replacement by inferior races (through interbreeding), and condemned democratic governance as antithetical to the rightful domination of the “master race” (note: previously in the book she defined such ideologies as politically weaponized, and labeled this one as the most unpatriotic of them all). If readers see a striking resemblance to the ideological racism now pervading the U.S. and elsewhere in the 21st century, it is not just coincidence. The ideology is the same, although it is ironic that 19th century Gobinists deemed the white population of America as interbred with non-Aryan blood and therefore impure.
Racial attitudes in 19th century England, United States, and South Africa are less germane to the origins of totalitarianism but were still important enough for Arendt to address in the book. Like Germans, the English bourgeoisie were more comfortable with aristocracy and opposed the egalitarianism of the French Revolution. Its nationalistic sentiment grew similarly and contemporaneously but produced a different outcome. Instead of the full-blown racism of Gobinism, English thinking centered around the inheritance of rights – i.e. that the social status of individuals was derived from both their ethnic heritage and their personal property (the “Rights of Englishmen” versus the “Rights of Man” as Arendt contrasted it). This ideology may seem overly clever and obviously contrived, and that was precisely the point because Great Britain had already abolished slavery earlier in the century (gradually from 1807 to 1843) and couldn’t be so blatantly racist as the Germans. Regardless, the effect was the same for indigenous peoples during imperialism. The rationale for their oppression mattered not. Likewise, Southern slave owners in the U.S. fought desperately to preserve their perverse socioeconomic system even though they knew that it would eventually end as did Afrikaners try to preserve segregationist apartheid a century later in South Africa (note: those Dutch descendants who settled in South Africa beginning in the 17th century, known as Boers, had enslaved indigenous people for labor and initially fled British control because of abolition and then fought against the empire during its imperialistic expansion). Arendt used these examples to reinforce her premise that the practical realities of political power are the primary drivers of ethnic subjugation and that racist ideology is a potent tool to facilitate it.
The atrocities committed during this period of imperialism, especially against the tribal cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa, were horrific and occasionally intolerable even to the racist predisposition of European leaders. For example, the 10-20 million natives in the Congo (Arendt’s figures, modern estimates range from 10-15 or 1-15 million, but the exact number is impossible to determine due to the lack of record keeping) who died from forced labor or from infectious diseases transmitted by Europeans or who were murdered for resisting their Belgian overseers (under the private ownership of King Leopold II, plus many more who were tortured and mutilated for the same reason) eventually compelled the Belgian government to officially seize administrative control. Imported Indian and Chinese coolies (i.e. unskilled replacement workers) were also treated harshly, and the Jews who represented the initial Jewish financiers of the stunningly lucrative gold and diamond mining ventures in South Africa became the targets of anti-Semitism when the funding streams shifted to other European sources. Nevertheless, these folks and additional Jewish immigrants built-up the more productive sectors of the South African economy (in contrast to the extractive and exploitative mining ventures) and this angered the Boers even more because their adopted semi-nomadic lifestyle at the top of tribal society was threatened by a fully developed capitalistic economy which would inevitably become egalitarian (as it was in Europe). The British, only wanting their highly successful profiteering to continue, chose to accommodate the Boers’ racial hostility. Curiously, this Boer history is one of the few examples of a formerly civilized people migrating to a new land and reverting nearly back to the ways of hunter-gatherers.
Arendt made a distinction between the racist governing of South Africa (see: Cecil Rhodes) and the bureaucratic governing of Egypt (see: the Earl of Cromer) where control of the Suez Canal was vital for maintaining British rule in India (its most prized possession), yet she also acknowledged the practical similarities of these contrasting imperial administrations. Therefore, the on-the-ground realities make Arendt’s distinction relevant more in relation to the respective political situations and less so in relation to the concerns of indigenous peoples. To the oppressed, in other words, it didn’t matter much if their oppressor saw them as subhuman slaves or as lesser-human subjects who needed to be “civilized” (see: The White Man’s Burden).
Consequently, animosity towards imperialism was inescapably growing across the globe and even within the European nations which perpetrated it. What was also percolating at the same time in eastern and central Europe were ideological movements far more menacing to social stability and world peace. First in Russia, the tribal nationalism of Pan-Slavism promoted the aspiration of bringing together the Slavic peoples of eastern and southern Europe (particularly those in the Balkans); then in Austria and Germany, Pan-Germanism spurred an analogous passion – perhaps even more virulently – to unify the assorted Germanic peoples of central Europe. Both movements jealously took advantage of the imperial practices of its western European neighbors to justify the forceful annexation of land, the subjugation of resident populations, and the exile or extermination of unwanted ethnic groups. However, the rulers of these empires – the last being Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, and especially Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary (with its heterogeneous population) – were fretful about the intrinsic threat it posed to the nation-state. Arendt explained that these movements envisioned superseding the authority of the state (i.e. central government) with the racial/religious cultural identity of a nation which was divinely sanctioned (i.e. by God). This then was the tinderbox upon which Europe found itself on the eve of World War I; and, had not the assassination of presumptive heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand ignited it in 1914, some other incident surely would have. The causes of WWI can be summarized as intense nationalistic fervor, the jealousy of central and eastern Europe against western imperialism, the internally destabilizing effects of impulsive and exploitative imperial practices, and growing animosity towards the nation-state fueled by radical ethnic cultural identity movements.
It was inescapably obvious even then that the monumentally insane ideologies of Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism were on a perilous collision course since “God” wasn’t going to intervene by declaring which of these fanatical peoples he had “chosen.” What was less apparent was the stark envy both movements felt towards Jews because it was they who had already established a stateless Jewish nation. This resentment was absolutely intolerable to the psychology of these pan-movements for it meant that it was the Jews whom God had chosen and not them. Such bitterness further exacerbated the historic hostilities of anti-Semitism which came to a head not in the First World War but during the interbellum and in the Second World War. Furthermore, Arendt cited the despotic Russian monarchy and Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy as key to this turbulent sociopolitical period. Both regimes were extraordinarily corrupt by employing a secretive bureaucracy to administer arbitrary decrees (i.e. proto-totalitarianism) instead of governing under a constitutionally-based system of laws. It even differed from the old feudal order because there was little-to-no consistency or accountability in official decisions which left the populace prone to believing that their miserable lives resulted from an unknowable divinely-inspired fate. Such a belief inevitably strips the recognition of absolute power away from demigod-like monarchs to the perceived ultimate authority of god(s). Also, especially in the case of Austria-Hungary, the monarchies’ close association with Jewish financiers (e.g. the Rothschild family) considerably increased the infatuation with these pan-movements.
For this time of transition between imperialism and totalitarianism, Arendt compared the differences between Europe’s political and parliamentary systems. I won’t delve into much detail here because it is less relevant to the larger story (in my opinion), and I’m doing my level best to keep this book review as concise as possible. Regardless, she made some very incisive observations (which I recommend reading for yourself) and one which in hindsight appears to have been eclipsed by recent events. Firstly, Arendt noted that political party organization – as self-interested entities – can work against the national interest when the masses become polarized by circumstances or by ideology (coincidentally, George Washington warned about the danger of political parties at the end of his presidency in the U.S.). Secondly, she also saw that the popular desire to prioritize the interests of the nation over political parties can undermine the state via the rise of radical nationalistic movements. Thirdly, that fascist Italy (under Benito Mussolini) and Spain (under Francisco Franco) differed (at least initially) from Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia by restraining their parties from usurping the state. Fourthly, Arendt asserted that Great Britain’s two-party system – in contrast to the continental multiparty systems – was the only parliamentary structure to survive the wars among the combatants because it was less susceptible to polarization; however, from the mid-1990s to the present, America’s two-party system did become dangerously polarized albeit within a presidential – i.e. non-parliamentary – structure.
The devastation of WWI was so great that the sociopolitical structure of continental Europe collapsed in a heap. Germany had been beaten and starved into submission, Austria-Hungary was dissolved, Russia (which had quit the war in 1917) descended into revolution and civil war, France had been ravaged and “bled white” (as attempted by Erich von Falkenhayn in 1916 at Verdun), Britain was shaken and broke, economies were in shambles, unemployment and inflation were rampant, desperate refugees were everywhere, and the mood of the survivors ran the gamut of cynical human emotions. Consequently, the class-based social hierarchy (which emerged after the end of caste-based feudalism) largely dissipated (“declassed” in Arendt’s view) and the role of political parties as effectuators of class interests (i.e. special interests) was abandoned. Political dynamics were dramatically transformed very quickly and were dominated by the rapidly evolving pan-movements of tribal nationalism. Political parties ceased advocating for anything and began protesting against any of the three remaining major political forces – i.e. communism, fascism, and the beleaguered yet stubborn status quo.
With Europe’s royal families deposed, disempowered, or dead (the Bolsheviks murdered the entire House of Romanov in 1918), with its parliamentary systems under siege from both the radical Left and Right, and with its traditional political parties scrambling incoherently for relevance amidst the chaos, the continental nation-states (most of which were created during the preceding century) found themselves standing on the precipice of oblivion. The refugee problem was addressed even more ineptly than the other pressing issues. The downfall of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires instantly dumped millions of ethnically diverse and suddenly stateless people on the doorstep of world leaders. Their statelessness was critical because civil and human rights protections had been exclusively under the purview of state governments. The Paris Peace Conference and League of Nations (Woodrow Wilson’s vision) responded by creating new nation-states across eastern and southern Europe (the borders drawn were politically motivated leaving these states demographically disharmonious) and by introducing new treaties and mandates to reestablish basic rights (see: the Minority Treaties). Sadly, the good intentions produced bad results. Large German minorities in the new countries gave fodder to tribal nationalism in Germany which was simultaneously infuriated by the retributive Treaty of Versailles. No nation-state, new or old, wanted the still stateless Jews; and, ethnic conflicts erupted between Czechs and Slovaks, Croats and Serbs, and between numerous other groups.
What subsequently transpired over the two decades before the outbreak of WWII was astonishing even in retrospect. Europe’s extant and newly configured nation-states could not solve the refugee problem which they themselves had created. Resident populations refused to accept the ethnic newcomers (who had difficulty assimilating), irrespective of how they arrived, and governments couldn’t repatriate refugees with their countries of origin if those states no longer existed or had declined to accept them. Immigration officials, naturally enough, wouldn’t touch this thorny dilemma and conveniently ignored the condition of statelessness! Consequently, local law enforcement agencies began deporting refugees illegally and clandestinely across their national borders (which elicited reprisals); and, additionally, internment camps were setup to segregate refugees from the rest of the populace. As time went on this situation led directly to the advent of the police state, concentration camps, the infringement and/or annulment of civil rights, the revocation of citizenship (i.e. denaturalization and denationalization), totalitarian governance, and genocide.
Arendt concluded Part Two (Imperialism) with a superlative formal essay on human rights and why it has been so arduous to achieve. Her words should be read for yourself (it still requires copyright permission to reprint them), but I’ll summarize it here from my interpretation. Natural Rights (a form of Negative Rights) trace back to ancient Greek philosophy which articulated rights that are fundamental to the human condition and that are inalienable (cannot be abridged or annulled by human beliefs, customs, or laws). During the Age of Enlightenment, it was applied to replace the arbitrary Divine Right of Kings with a constitutional system of laws (a form of Positive Rights) based on equality (i.e. republicanism). Prior to that historic shift, from which the modern nation-state superseded feudalism, people essentially had no rights at all unless they inherited it at birth (e.g. from royal ancestry), acquired it through association (e.g. marriage), or were granted specific privileges by their Lords who owned the land (e.g. the aforementioned privileges granted to “Court Jews”). Conversely, all citizens of a nation-state (born or naturalized) possess all its constitutional rights; although, the state retains the power to suspend or revoke certain rights from individuals who violate the law or their conditions of citizenship. And, therein lays the problem. Natural Rights (a.k.a. the Rights of Man), the foundation upon which constitutions are built, are unenforceable without law and laws are unenforceable without the state. If the administrators or lower bureaucrats of the state choose not to enforce such laws, or if legislators rewrite or rescind such laws, or if judges reinterpret (i.e. weaken) such laws, or if the state itself is captured by autocrats who have no regard for the law (e.g. totalitarians), then civil and human rights cannot be protected. Arendt also extrapolates these political dynamics to any world government which might arise; in other words, there is no higher authority which could guarantee human rights because all authorities are corruptible. So, we humans must face a hideous reality – a choice, really, between having no rights whatsoever or having some rights which we must constantly fight to protect (democratically, or otherwise). Finally, Arendt alluded to the nonsensical notion of completely abolishing government by explaining that humankind is innately a social creature and that societies cannot function without organization.
In Part Three, Arendt returned to the character of the “masses” (which she had previously differentiated from the “mob”) as not the underlying cause of totalitarianism but as its indispensable enabler. She pointed out that communism was the forerunner to Stalinist totalitarianism and that fascism was the precursor to Nazi totalitarianism. The difference between the pre-totalitarian and fully totalitarian nations within each ideology was the size of its respective populations. Under a certain size, there isn’t generally enough popular support for a political party to successfully seize control of the state. Fascist Italy and Spain each had roughly half the population of Germany whose own population didn’t reach Arendt’s totalitarian threshold until after it had annexed adjacent lands (e.g. Austria and the Sudetenland) prior to the start of WWII. Germany’s resistance to political seizure of the state is exemplified by Erich Ludendorff (Quartermaster General and General of the Infantry during WWI) – an avowed tribal nationalist and subsequent Nazi party leader – who initially supported Hitler but who later opposed him because of the threat he posed to the state. On January 30th 1933, when Hitler was appointed Chancellor by President (of the Weimar Republic) Paul von Hindenburg (Ludendorff’s military superior and close confidant throughout the Great War), he reportedly sent this telegram to his old friend:
“I solemnly prophesy that this accursed man (Hitler) will cast our Reich into the abyss and bring our nation to inconceivable misery. Future generations will damn you (Hindenburg) in your grave for what you have done.”
Correspondingly, the Soviet Union’s population in 1922 (at its inception) was twice as large as Germany’s was in 1934 (when Hindenburg died and Hitler was declared Führer), so Russia’s path to totalitarianism was more certain although it required the failing health of its first leader (Vladimir Lenin) and his death (in 1924) to be attained (Leninism prescribed a “dictatorship of the proletariat” – i.e. an intermediate system between a capitalist economy and Marxist communism). Additionally, Red China’s (i.e. the People’s Republic of China) population in 1949 (when it was founded) was 3 ½ times larger than that of the USSR’s. Likewise to the fascist examples, many smaller communist countries have existed which never became totalitarian. Because of this statistical exclusivity of totalitarian regimes, the leaders of such nations feel a unique affinity towards each other which was consistently demonstrated between Hitler and Stalin until the former’s ideological and racist ambitions compelled him to backstab the latter in 1941 (i.e. Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union).
However, Arendt stressed that the character of the masses is a far more important factor than population size; and, in her sociological examination, an alarming aspect of human nature was revealed. She typified the masses as that large subset of a population (perhaps a plurality) whom neither understands nor is curious about political issues, whom harbors contempt for moral and ethical standards, but whom normally accedes tacit consent to the powers that be as long as their private lives are relatively unaffected. When their lives are greatly affected, as was profoundly the case in the painful aftermath of WWI, then the masses rise up (typically behind a strong, charismatic leader) to unleash vengeance upon the symbols of their rage. This mentality of the “mass man” (in Arendt’s terminology) reflects a psychological development in which narcissistic individualism is transformed into an obsessive commitment to a communal – and customarily destructive – cause. Such persons reach the point of exasperation where they believe nihilistically that there is nothing left for them to lose and that if they must suffer, then all must suffer.
Totalitarianism demands that everything is subordinate to its own ideology and that nothing is exempted – not business concerns, religious practices, individualism, civil and human rights, and certainly not class identification (which, as a form of social hierarchy, is incompatible within the two-tiered totalitarian model where the ruling political party effectuates its ideological designs). Therefore, the elimination of class distinctions was a top priority for both Stalin and Hitler. They did, however, accomplish this differently depending on the sociopolitical circumstances of each nation. Stalin’s approach was blunt, unimaginably brutal, and mercilessly systematic. He essentially stripped the country bare of all its institutions – via property confiscations, organizational purges, manufactured famines (i.e. forced starvation), and other bloody measures – and rebuilt them under his control. Because the social classes of Germany had already been devastated by WWI, and because the German people were more inclined towards obedience, Hitler didn’t need to take such drastic action. Instead, he pretty much operated within the structure of the law – if the intimidation tactics, terrorism, and murderous violence committed by his henchmen can be ignored (which it can’t) – in his rise to power; and, once that sanctioned authority was achieved, he could remake the country without much interference.
Ironically, there were two other groups that put aside their traditional differences and temporarily allied themselves in support of totalitarianism (which they later came to regret). Many among the intellectual elite, who had lambasted the delusions and hypocrisy of civil society (i.e. which promoted the goodness of human nature while implicitly encouraging bad behavior as impetus for capitalism), relished its destruction at the hands of totalitarians (until, of course, the elites themselves were targeted). Likewise, the mob – that criminal underbelly of the bourgeoisie (which Arendt addressed earlier) – mistakenly believed that totalitarianism would serve their lawless private interests. A major reason for these gross miscalculations was the assumption that totalitarians would play by the familiar unwritten rules of politics; and, they were subsequently shocked to discover that no such rules pertained to totalitarianism.
Arendt investigated the use of propaganda, terrorism, and indoctrination in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the indispensable tools of totalitarianism. She identified the first two as inseparably linked (like two sides of the same coin) which are employed domestically during the seizure of political power and internationally thereafter, while the last one functions internally within its perpetually expanding borders. These tools, plus other mechanisms (e.g. the control of information), are designed to propagate and reinforce the false premises and conspiracy theories (a.k.a. “the big lie”) upon which their respective totalitarian ideologies are supported. Arendt also explained that the peculiar psychology of the masses (previously addressed) is perfectly suited to such deceit, for the “mass man” is unreceptive to verifiable information and is ever yearning for the consistency, comprehensibility, and predictability of life which in fact does not exist. Twentieth century totalitarians came to understand and utilize this psychology by studying both the marketing strategies (i.e. advertising) of business and the intimidation tactics of gangsterism (i.e. organized crime) in America. She cited several examples such as the forgery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion used by the Nazis to spread the idea of a global Jewish conspiracy, and the Stalinist’s exiling (in 1929), show trials (based on fake conspiracy theories), and dishonest rewriting of history (of the Russian Revolution) against Leon Trotsky who had served prominently under Lenin (note: Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City by a Soviet agent in 1940). From this, the Nazis were successful in rallying the masses for their Aryan “master race” world domination plan to supersede that (fictitious) supreme position of power supposedly held by the Jews; and, the Stalinists were similarly successful (at least initially) in their advocacy for the (fabricated) superiority of world communism (promoted by the Comintern). However, the fundamental flaw in this basic totalitarian strategy involved the very same entity which had enabled its rise to power. The masses were not martyrs. They would robotically give their lives in support of the anti-Semitic (Germany) and anti-classist (USSR) ideologies while in its ascendancy (because they felt there was nothing left to lose), but they cowered like rabbits when fortunes turned against it (because they realized there was something to lose). This is why the Allies had so much difficulty identifying Nazi Party members (about 10% of the population) and sympathizers (probably close to 90% of the population) among the German populace in 1945. The “Thousand Year Reich” (a.k.a. the “Third Reich”) lasted only 12 years. The Soviet Union endured much longer at 69 years (it finally dissolved in 1991 sixteen years after Arendt died), but its totalitarian phase was much shorter at 31 years which effectively ended in 1953 upon Stalin’s death (note: suspicion still lingers about Stalin having been assassinated, but no substantiating proof has yet been found).
Both Hitler and Stalin never had any love for the masses; and, particularly in Hitler’s case, that loathing grew stronger with time (before Germany’s crushing military defeat, Hitler told his senior aides that the German people should die for failing to win the war). This sentiment is reflected by the innovative organizational structure of totalitarianism in the 20th century. Historically, traditional authoritarian organizations (e.g. dictatorships and even the military institutions of democratic nations) employ an official body of administrators to enforce established rules and laws. Conversely, totalitarian regimes direct informally assigned functionaries to implement the arbitrary will of the supreme leader. This kind of bureaucracy avoids the pratfalls of misconduct and accountability (i.e. public corruption) because functionaries have only one duty (to obey the wishes of their leader). To facilitate such a system, the leader must be insulated from the populace. Totalitarianism does this by forming concentric rings of front organizations around the leader in which the inner circles are exclusively or mostly comprised of loyal party members while the outer circles have a progressively higher percentage of less dependable sympathizers. During this formation in Germany, Hitler perceived a threat to his rule from Ernst Röhm – the head of the SA (the Nazi’s original paramilitary organization which was supplanted by the SS after the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934) – who (like fellow fascists Mussolini and Franco) opposed the party takeover of the state. Hitler not only had Röhm and his top lieutenants executed, but he also eviscerated the SA.
Arendt described totalitarian movements as “secret societies established in broad daylight.” She elaborated that both work covertly and use idolatry as symbolism for its unifying ideology. For example, Stalin was heavily involved in the Bolshevik Party’s conspiratorial arm and Hitler was indirectly linked to the Black Reichswehr – an illegal organization (comprised of SA and Nazi Party members) within the German army during the Weimar Republic which rebuilt the nation’s military forces in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. The obvious difference between them, she stated, is that totalitarianism publicly boasts of its ideological goals (although not necessarily of its specific actions) whereas secret societies keep their intentions tightly cloistered.
Arendt delved deeper into the psychology of the masses, why totalitarians understood it and why the outside world did not. As explained previously, the masses are normally detached from politics and characteristically disconnected from objective assessments of reality. While it rarely sways away from the latter predisposition, it can be dramatically moved off the former in times of great societal upheaval. Totalitarians learned well that such events offer them the prime opportunity to secure unwavering support from the masses for their ideological cause no matter how extreme, outlandish, or untruthful it might be. Their successes in doing so dispelled the prevailing notion that gullibility was an innate weakness of ignorant and incurious souls (i.e. the masses), and that cynicism was a vice of the erudite and inquisitive mind (i.e. the elite). Once activated, the masses could believe that everything was possible (if they wanted it) and that nothing was true (if they didn’t want to accept it). This unequivocally illogical attitude was precisely matched to the totalitarians’ propaganda, terrorism, and indoctrination strategy. It also came as a tremendous shock to the outside world which had thought that totalitarian regimes would succumb to their own incessant lies and contradictory statements. Unlike the masses, however, the totalitarian inner circle of functionaries were acutely aware of its ideological and rhetorical falsehoods but accepted it in order to achieve its haughty goals through superior organization. Still, the totalitarian leader concept remained a vulnerability. World conquest is the riskiest gamble of all. It if fails, utter destruction is assured; and, the totalitarian ideology – although an unending philosophy – cannot recover in time to replace him. Even the deaths of Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong (in 1976), leaders who did not take the ultimate gamble that Hitler did, effectively ended totalitarianism in their countries.
Other aspects of totalitarianism are just as intriguing. Hitler and Stalin both promised permanent stability for their people, but were determined to maintain perpetual instability because it kept their mass movement motivated which was necessary to facilitate their dreams of world conquest. Confoundedly, western leaders (e.g. Neville Chamberlain at the 1938 Munich Pact, and Franklin D. Roosevelt at the 1945 Yalta Conference) chose an appeasement strategy in their dealings with Hitler and Stalin respectively, knowing full well that no amount of concessions would satisfy their appetites for global domination. It is also puzzling that these two totalitarians kept up the facade of legitimate state government despite blatantly seizing absolute power for their respective political parties (it isn’t the hypocrisy which is puzzling, but the waste of effort to staff a purposeless bureaucracy). Additionally, Arendt discovered that the degree of domestic terrorism wielded against the populace was inversely proportional to the level of opposition it posed to the totalitarian regime (e.g. the intensifying extermination of the Jews as the war progressed). In fact, the Nazi’s genocide campaign against the Jewish people of Europe became such a high priority towards the end of the war that even the imperative of war production (which depended upon forced labor) was subordinated (note: other ethnic and demographic groups were also targeted such as Poles, Slovaks, intellectuals, and anyone who was branded as mentally or physically “unfit”).
Organization of the indispensable police state in totalitarian regimes was radically different from traditional authoritarian systems. Instead of a single or few number of such agencies under one hierarchical chain of command, Hitler and Stalin created many secret police entities (the USSR’s were even more decentralized) which often competed with and investigated each other, and were frequently reorganized and purged (especially by Stalin). The benefit of this seemingly irrational chaos was threefold: 1) that no secret police members knew their status in service to the supreme leader, 2) that secret police members couldn’t build any solidarity amongst themselves, and 3) that the police state (which vies with the military for great influence and power within authoritarian states) could never threaten a totalitarian leader (note: the “July Plot” of 1944 which nearly assassinated Hitler in a failed coup d’état did not involve any Nazi members). As Arendt had addressed earlier, these innovative aspects of totalitarian organization also had detrimental effects such as the inattentiveness to the potential problem of having to replace the supreme leader.
Arendt concluded her exposé on totalitarianism with the most disturbing consequences of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. The crimes against humanity committed by their police states – spearheaded by the SS in Germany under Heinrich Himmler (note: the Gestapo was an agency within the SS) and the NKVD in the Soviet Union under Lavrentiy Beria – were atrocities of such magnitude (psychopathic, in my view) that to this very day the masses are still reluctant to accept the truth and are often more inclined to believe the statements of the perpetrators than those of the victims (who had survived, of course). This corresponds to the deeper understanding of human nature totalitarians possessed in comparison to all other political philosophies which came before them. Hitler and his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels boasted that the bigger the lie, the more believable it was; and, the less able justice systems (based on the rule of law) were in prosecuting crimes committed under such beliefs. For example, Hitler and his Nazi henchmen repeatedly proclaimed that “the Jews would be exterminated like bedbugs” (i.e. gassed to death) – which, in fact, happened to millions of Jews – and yet many people today continue to deny it despite overwhelming documentary evidence that it did (including the Nazi’s own meticulous recordkeeping). But, Arendt explained that the atrocities committed by the totalitarian police states went far beyond the genocides, ideologically motivated homicides, and manslaughter of forced laborers, in the concentration camps. She described the mobilization of the secret police against its own populations in which detailed information was kept on virtually all residents and used to target “undesirables” or anyone even suspected of representing a threat to the regime. To the populace, those who were killed – or had otherwise died – appeared to have simply disappeared from the face of the Earth along with any history of them ever having been alive. She also revealed Nazi plans to medically liquidate invalid persons (i.e. sick people) because such individuals no longer served any useful purpose for the regime and were considered as unnecessary burdens, plus plans to “depopulate” eastern Europe to create “living space” for Germans.
Two big developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries cultivated the germination of totalitarianism first in Russia and then in Germany. One was the increasing population size of nation-states (afford by the Industrial Revolution) which allowed mass movements to become powerful political forces, and the other was the weaponization of radical nationalistic ideologies (initially Pan-Slavism and Pan-Germanism, then the class warfare of communist Stalinism and the racial warfare of fascist Nazism). These mass movements depended upon the sociopolitical isolation of ordinary people, who either could not or would not distinguish fact from fiction and truth from lies, which was activated by adverse socioeconomic circumstances and channeled through a charismatic leader figure; and, the weaponization of their ideologies depended upon the tactics of propaganda, terrorism, and indoctrination. Human nature – or, more accurately, human psychology – provides the underlying foundation. It has been said that Man must have God because he needs at least someone to trust. It could also be said that Man must have heroes because he needs someone to lead. The final result of these social dynamics was totalitarianism which escalated simple infringements on freedom into a pathological assault on human dignity and the utter destruction of the individual. That the outcome was unfathomable misery, suffering, and death, should surprise none of us – for it is the logical consequence when the value of human life becomes superfluous and when man is replaced by machine.
In conclusion, I’ve condensed the 200,000+ words of Arendt’s book down to a 9,000+ word review which is admittedly a dissertation and not a standard review. However, I did this because the subject matter is so important and so relevant to the current geopolitical situation the world finds itself in. As I write this, the wannabe totalitarian Vladimir Putin (“President” of Russia) is conducting a sadistic invasion of Ukraine (a sovereign nation) because he wants to reunite the ethnic Russians of Europe (à la Hitler) and restore the Russian Empire (à la Stalin). So far, the war has been deadly and destructive and has caused nearly three million refugees to flee westward into NATO countries with no end to the crisis in sight. Even worse is the very real possibility of escalation pitting Russia and perhaps China against the United States, Europe, and the western allies, which could quickly result in a World War III nuclear cataclysm.
How did we get here? Hannah Arendt gave us the answers in The Origins of Totalitarianism. The circumstances which led to the two world wars of the 20th century have been replicated in this 21st century. The parallels are all too obvious to ignore. Whereas then when international imperialism triggered racial and ethnic animus, class conflicts, nationalistic fervor, and hostile rivalries between countries, today we have a form of domestic imperialism (i.e. neoliberalism) doing the same things since the 1980s. Whereas then when war and economic distress activated mass movements against the established order of the nation-state, today we have the effects of 9/11 (with its subsequent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere), the 2008 global financial crisis, and the persistent 2020 COVID-19 pandemic also doing the same thing. Whereas then when authoritarian and totalitarian dictators overthrew democracy and the rule of law across the globe (e.g. Mussolini, Franco, Stalin, Hitler, and Hideki Tojo of Japan), today we have new maniacal leaders doing the exact same thing (e.g. Putin, Xi Jinping of China, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, and of course Donald Trump of the U.S.). The old adage stating that “history repeats itself” is a general truism, but historical events do not literally repeat themselves. What does reoccur are the same kind of mistakes we humans make over and over again. Each time we do this, it produces outcomes which are similar to the equivalent mistakes of the past. The fault is wholly our own.
I’d also like to interject my perspective on Arendt’s insightful examination of human nature in relation to anti-Semitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism. The philosophical debate that has waged since the 18th century between the previously mentioned Thomas Hobbes (i.e. Man is bad) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (i.e. Man is good) has unfortunately clouded our understanding by assuming absolute positions which are diametrically opposed. Furthermore, the realities of human nature are so intricate that it is impossible to accurately describe in such simple terms. What’s closer to the truth is that individuals are capable of a wide range of cognitive behavior, and that the social dynamics of groups of individuals are similarly complex. Therefore, the debate is fallacious. What is evident, however, is that environmental and societal stimuli trigger varied human responses. Members of a tribe who encounter a bear in the woods will react differently. Some might walk or run away, some might play dead, some might stand their ground, and some might attack the bear to protect their tribe, to kill the bear for food, or just because they hate bears or like to kill animals; but, other less obvious reactions are possible too such as the deliberate sacrifice of a tribesman (voluntary or involuntary) to allow the others to escape, or even an attempt to befriend the bear. Until the incident occurs, no one can predict precisely what each individual will do or what the tribe will do cooperatively because there are so many variable factors (e.g. the bear’s reaction). So, people’s and society’s continual surprise by unexpected behavior reflects their arrogant presumption of knowledge and their ignorance of human nature.
For those who have comprehensively read this review, it is necessary to understand that you are in a distinct minority. Americans in general, and particularly the younger generations, are ignorantly or willfully oblivious to the dangers of totalitarianism or even to lesser forms of authoritarianism. The ignorant, who rely solely upon personal experience and instinct, simply have no conception of how far everyday living conditions can deteriorate. Since the forgetful effects of the passage of time are unavoidable, education is paramount for remembering the lessons of history; but, unfortunately, the U.S. school system largely abandoned this responsibility decades ago. For the willful, autocracy, monarchy, theocracy, dictatorship, and the other authoritarian forms aren’t even seen as undesirable because such people have lost – or never had – any appreciation of democracy and individual rights. It is surely a daunting task to counter human ignorance, political apathy, callous narcissism, and ideological extremism. Nevertheless, if you and I will not, then who will?
From the Holocaust to Hogan’s Heroes – the autobiography of actor Robert Clary who as a child was among the 2,500 eventual survivors of the 75,000 Jews in France taken by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps during World War II.
Who killed more: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao – an Ohio State University analysis of the number of civilian murders and negligent deaths committed by the three major totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.