Books for Now : The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

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The idea of Books for Now is to engage closely with classics which we feel speak to the contemporary.

Our first discussion in the series began with a discussion on Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.

Guest post by Arvind Narrain (with inputs from Kavya Murthy)

When we announced Books for Now as a series, we were asked why we chose classics instead of a series which includes contemporary literature. We can do no better than answer the question by referring to Italo Calvino in his essay Why Read the Classics. Italo Calvino says a classic is a work which: 

“Relegates the noise of the present to background hum…(and)...persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway”.  

About Arendt

Hannah Arendt was born in Germany in 1906 and died in the United States in 1975. Origins of Totalitarianism was written in the 1950s in the US, a decade after Hannah Arendt had escaped from Nazi Germany and lived in exile. It was written with the full knowledge of what had happened in Hitler’s Germany and later in Stalin’s Russia. It was Arendt’s intimate experience of Nazi persecution as a German Jew which is the heartbeat of the book. This book is an attempt and effort to comprehend the calamity that had befallen Jews in particular who were “bereft of home, occupation and language”. In her own words, the great shock was the concentration camps which exposed her what she would go on to call the “radical evil” of the Nazi regime. 

Arendt tells us that comprehension is the “unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality -- whatever it may be.'' We felt that a reading of Origins of Totalitarianism can aid in the comprehension of the contemporary times in which we live, in which forces “constantly threaten to turn modern life into a new form of barbarism.”

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl says of this book: “Reading The Origins of Totalitarianism is like visiting a museum where there is a giant mural of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that you can never finish taking in—a vast historians’ Guernica. It has richer insights on the topics it engages than shelves of other volumes; even its footnotes contain more ideas than many books”. The book is quite hard to summarise in a small blogpost!

In an essay, Arendt describes Walter Benjamin as a “a pearl diver who descends to the bottom of the sea to pry loose the rich and the strange, the pearls and the coral in the depths and to carry them to the surface”, bringing to the “world of the living...thought fragments”. In a similar sense, we will bring to your attention, a couple of ‘thought fragments’, from that vast ‘historians Guernica’, which, we think, speak to our contemporary. 

The book has three sections titled Anti-Semitism, Imperialism and Totalitarianism. Each was written years apart. In short, it is her thesis is that totalitarianism is a form of total domination as a result of anti-semitism and imperialism coming together.  

Anti-Semitism and Imperialism

Anti-Semitism, says Arendt, could have died out as a form of thinking before the era of imperialism dawned. It was the ‘Scramble for Africa’ which gave renewed force and power to race-thinking and converting it into race ideology. Arendt says that imperialism was the phenomenon in which superfluous men from the imperium administer ‘natives’ and superfluous capital in the colony. Imperialism is nothing but the violent subjugation of the colonised, legitimised by the ideology of racism. This ideology of racism, which is given shape and form by  imperialism returns to the mother country in the form of violent nationalist movements. 

In the first section on Imperialism, Arendt has an insightful account of the Dreyfus trial and the birth of violent anti-semitism in France. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish military officer who was wrongly accused and then convicted for treason. The trial was accompanied by a vicious public anti-Semitic campaign. The battle was joined most famously by Emile Zola who wrote his famous tract J’accuse against Dreyfus’s wrongful conviction. The streets rang with cries of ‘death to the Jews’ and Arendt makes the point that the mob had become a “collective tyrant” and that is “no more acceptable than a single tyrant”. She distinguishes the mob from the people, arguing that it is a fundamental error to “regard the mob as identical with rather than as a caricature of the people”. 

Totalitarianism

The experience of both imperialism and anti-Semitism results in the emergence of a new form of state, which Arendt calls the totalitarian state. She describes this as the only “form of government with which co-existence is not possible”. The totalitarian state is founded on the idea of total domination. The state goes about achieving total domination by arbitrarily depriving persons of rights by executive action thereby destroying the rule of law.

Facts cease to matter in a totalitarian regime and facts get reduced to mere opinions. For example, in a totalitarian state, that 6 million Jews have died is an opinion and not a fact. Terror is a necessary condition of a totalitarian state and it is used to produce a “subdued population”. 

Where does hope lie?

In the face of totalitarian domination, where does hope lie ? For Hannah Arendt, hope lies in the fact of human individuality. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she refers to a German soldier Anton Schmidt who forges papers and helps the Jews to escape. Anton Schmidt was put to death by the Nazis and the insight she draws from his courageous and ethical life is that “under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not… Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation”.

The fact that the Dreyfus injustice came to light itself was due to one military officer, who found out that the Dreyfus conviction was based on a forgery and did not hesitate to expose the truth, regardless of his superiors asking him to keep quiet. As she puts it,

“Picquart was no hero and certainly no martyr. He was simply that common type of citizen with an average interest in public affairs who in the hour of danger (though not a minute earlier)  stands up to defend his country in the same unquestioning way as he  discharges his daily duties”.

Thus, one dimension of hope lies in the utter unpredictability of the human being who runs the bureaucracy, the army, police and the state. Even in these bastions of the status quo, there will be the occasional person who is prepared to do what is right. This can given the right circumstances have incalculable consequences. However, that is not enough.

In the context of a totalitarian movement, what other forms can resistance take?  According to Arendt one needs to find a place between “reckless optimism and reckless despair”. She invokes “comprehension” as being an important act along with a commitment to “action”. It is not only the “facing up to reality” but equally the “resisting of reality”. 

Arendt vests her hope in ordinary people beginning  to participate in politics, not as an act of domination but rather as “the organisation or constitution of the power people have when they come together as talking and acting beings”.

The aim of a tyrannical or a totalitarian regime is  to prevent people from “acting together”. A totalitarian regime thrives on people finding themselves in a state of isolation. Isolation, according to Arendt, is a political state produced by a tyrannical regime which wants to ensure that people do not “act together”. A totalitarian state will take the sense of control over human being one step further. It thrives on isolation but also loneliness. Loneliness is a form of alienation from both the world and one’s fellow beings. According to Arendt, it is “the experience of not belonging to the world at all”. It is the experience of loneliness which provides a thriving ground for recruitment to a totalitarian ideology. 

Thinking through Hannnah Arendt’s ideas, if we take isolation and loneliness as the two states most conducive to totalitarian domination, one of the ways forward is to do the patient work of building spaces where people can come together. Human rights groups, environmental action groups are all ways of making a claim through a form of collective mobilisation. It is imperative that we keep such forms of people acting together alive. The big challenge is in reintegrating the human into society. In such a context, one should also create spaces for people to belong to the world, be it societies devoted to “art for art’s sake” or “chess for chess’s sake”. All of these can be vital bulwarks against totalitarianism. 

Finally, Hannah Arendt concludes that totalitarian domination depends not so much  on “a surfeit of ideology” but “an absence of thought”. Eichmann the bureaucrat par excellence illustrated a form of thoughtlessness which resulted in what she was to call the “banality of evil”.  So for Arendt in the final stages of her life, it was a return to the “act of thinking” which could “make men abstain from evil-doing”. 

Bibliography

  • Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, Penguin, 2017.

  • Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times, Harvest Book, 1993. 

  • Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Viking Press, 1965. 

  • Peter Baehr, ed., The Portable Hannah Arendt, Penguin, 2000. 

  • Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters, Yale University Press, 2006


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