Review: The Origins of Totalitariansm – by Hannah Arendt

This book is quite old, first published in 1951, it dates from a period when the totalitarian reality of Hitler and Stalin were very much fresh in the mind. Hannah Arendt was a German Jew and this work is both philosophical, enlightening and gives a valuable educated insight into the dark political reality of totalitarianism. It’s a relatively modern political phenomenon and the in depth analysis of the German Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler in addition to the Communist Soviet regime under Josef Stalin demonstrates how totalitarianism can come from the political extreme of either side of the left-right axis of politics.

The first part of the book looks at the origins of anti-semitism. This was a focus of the rise of the totalitarianist states under both Hitler and Stalin, with both leaders showing similar anti-Jew tendencies, Hitler going to the extreme measures of the Holocauust which killed 6 million Jews during World War 2 and indeed his whole philiosophy, rooted in Mein Kempf was aimed at the total destruction of the Jewish Race. Arendt as a Jew   does not give a based one way account of anti-semitism. It is such a controversial thing, a bête-noire to this day with the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbot just recent examples of modern British politicians flagged for it. Arendt, surprisingly, gives a 50-50 reasoned account of its origins, blaming not just the extreme racist political drives to promote it, but looking at the Jews themselves and allocating some of the blame for anti-semitism with them. The failure to adapt to mainstream societies and to remain a state within a state and also very markedly she decries the role of court Jew that was so prominent in European aristocratic circles to have been a major factor in provoking the anger of the likes of Hitler who in Mein Kampf made a targeted attack on the Jews of Vienna.  

The second part of the book looks at Imperialism and the rise of nationalism in the European Nation States and a general shift in politics. This paves the way for the later emergence of Hitler and Stalin to live out the realities of the inevitable totalitarian extremism that all along was at the end of the pathway that was being carefully paved out for them to step into.

On to Part 3 where we have a detailed analysis of both Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler and the Communist Soviet Union with Stalin as dictator. Totalitarianism transcends the mere extreme Fascist politics of other dictators that one might have thought would enter into the category. General Franco or Benito Mussolini were fascists aligned with the far right Nazis but there whole societies still maintained certain elements of democracy and therefore they do not slip into the category of totalitarianIsm proper. Also, Post Revolution Russia, under Lenin, was not as extreme and centred around a one man dictatorship that the extremes of Josef Stalin brought to the table in the Kremlin.

The characteristics of totalitarianism involve a deep web of deceit and propaganda and the truth is constantly subject to change. Control by the State of every aspect of the individual in private, public life is total. Any form of dissidence meets with the most brutal of punishment. All is at the whim of the absolute leader without whom the whole of the state and society cannot survive. It’s extreme insanity and it seems unbelievable how it manifested into reality but the truth is there for all to see in the history books. Indeed one could argue that since Arendt we have seen more totalitarianism in the Communist China and North Korea, one could argue that Boris Johnson’ Britain has many totalitarian characteristics.

The ultimate tool of the totalitarian dictators was the concentration camps under Hitler and the Gulag under Stalin. These are discussed and are obviously horrific. Also, both dictators weren’t averse top meting out capital punishment to any sign of internal or external enemies. Purges and liquidations feature as a core part of totalitarian societies.

Orwell has been one of the most significant authors to have famously demonstrated totalitarianism. The likes of “Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’ are cornerstones of modern  literature. But they are works of fiction. What Arendt achieves is an academic study of the realities of totalitarianism as it has manifested in recent twentieth century history. She looks at the facts on the ground, the reality, rather than a dystopia from the imagination. The stark reality of totalitarianism is far worse than any  author can imagine.

I’ve had a 26 year war against the British State, being a victim of the Mental Health Act 1983 and a revolving door patient within State Psychiatric hospitals with the local NHS being totally backed up by an excessively violent local police force. I feel that none of my democratic rights have been upheld. For years I have wondered about whether or not a text exists that can explain the deep feelings that I have, knowing the extreme feeling of injustice, absolute helplessness and an often invasive imprisonment in horrific surroundings. Having discovered Arendt, I have now found this book – she puts into words that which I have experienced and her shocking academic study of totalitarianism is indeed a factual reality in the U.K. even if it is well hidden and may seem like a delusional claim.

“Their real secret, the concentration camps, those laboratories in the experiment of total domination, is shielded by the totalitarian regimes from the eyes of their own people as well as from all others.

            For a considerable length of time the normality of the normal world is the most efficient protection against disclosure of totalitarian mass crimes. ‘Normal men don’t know that everything is possible’, refuse to believe their eyes and ears in the face of the monstruous, just as the mass men did not trust theirs in the face of a normal reality in which no place was left for them. The reason why the totalitarian regimes can get so far forward realizing a fictitious, topsy-turvy world is that the outside nontotalitarian world, which always comprises a great part of the population of the totalitarian country itself, indulges also in wishful thinking and shirks reality in the face of real insanity just as much as the masses do in the face of the normal world. This common-sense disinclination to believe the monstruous is constantly strengthened by the totalitarian ruler himself, who makes sure that no reliable statistics, no controllable facts and figures are ever published, so that there are only subjective, uncontrollable, and unreliable reports about the places of the living dead.” (Arendt, H. 1951:571-2)

This book is genuinely one of the best literary works that I have ever studied and I will refer back to it. It is a dark subject but equally an important one and it is an important work and should be read widely as it provides the necessary warnings about the dangers that extreme politics can produce in our world.