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The Core Curriculum

Historical Context of Origins of Totalitarianism

Published in 1951, The Origins of Totalitarianism is, on the one hand, a study of the two major totalitarian political movements of the 20th Century and, on the other hand, a study of the political history of mass movements more generally.  The book is divided into three sections – the first on antisemitism, the second on imperialism and the third on totalitarianism. Not a simple catalog of political developments of the modern state, Arendt's volume also considers the social conditions that prepare people for their own domination by totalitarian leaders.  When Arendt points to the collapse of distinctions between fact and fiction and between truth and falsity as dangerous preconditions and tools of totalitarian regimes, too, she underscores the epistemological crises underlying and even catalyzing the political upheavals of her modern world.

"Lenin and Manifistation" by Isaak Brodsky, 1919. (Wikimedia Commons) "Lenin and Manifistation" by Isaak Brodsky, 1919. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the book's first section, Arendt looks to the history and development of antisemitism as it relates to the nation-state and modern dictatorships. Arendt introduces concepts that persist throughout the entire volume, drawing distinctions between nations and masses and between political classes and popular movements. Highlighting the roots of suspicious and hateful attitudes toward a religious minority, Arendt illuminates the social conditions under which the Jewish community could be fashioned as a scapegoat in a nation-state where nationality is taken as "a prerequisite for citizenship and homogeneity of population the outstanding characteristic of the body politic."  In some sense, then, this introductory section revisits perennial questions regarding the demographics of nation-states and the possibility of diverse, democratic societies.

Moving to the topic of imperialism in the second section of the book, Arendt reconsiders the influence of enduring political philosophers like Hobbes, Burke and French revolutionary theorists as they bear on the rise of nations and ultimately of vast economic empires, political structures that are "bridged by tribal nationalism and outright racism."  Expanding on the topics of mass homogeneity and "tribal national identities," Arendt provides a history of colonial expansion and its incorporation of frameworks for rejecting natural human rights.  Her analysis considers British, French, Dutch colonial efforts abroad and she links the racial elements of these efforts to the rise of nationalist ideologies among German peoples within Europe.  In these various historical circumstances, Arendt argues, dehumanized populations are deprived of the "right to have rights" and are expelled from the protections of the state.  Taking a pessimistic view of the possibility of such "natural human rights" to prevent mass extermination like those of the early 20th Century, she concludes that "we are not born equal; we become equal as members of a group on the strength of our decision to guarantee ourselves mutually equal rights."  When nations demolish these guarantees by relying on mere tribalism, swathes of their people will no longer enjoy basic human protections.

In the book's culminating section, Arendt directly confronts the topic of totalitarian movements, "mass organizations of atomized, isolated individuals" who lack social ties of any kind and therefore resort to identity within a party or movement as their only "sense of having a place in the world."   Paradoxically finding that totalitarian governments arise out of hyper-individualization, Arendt shows how people with no sense of belonging or place can descend into thoughtless deference to totalitarian political figures.  Such figures, she argues, exploit the strategies of propaganda and terror, where "the chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility," and where masses without any guiding principles rely not on "facts, and not even invented facts, but only [on] the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part."  Such regimes, Arendt argues, depend upon an "elimination of reality" that maximally enables the totalitarian leader.  

By grounding her view of political crisis in the problems of an "ever-changing, incomprehensible world," Arendt sets forth a view of political domination in which the masses "could, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true."  And this kind of nihilist outlook – an outlook that lacks values and even basic facts – enables the previously unthinkable to come to pass.


Written by Charles McNarama, Core Lecturer, Classics, Columbia University