The Origins of Totalitarianism  

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"The Society of Medicine of Paris not only published a report on the discovery of 'polychesia' (excessive defecation) and 'bromidrosis' (body odor) in the German race, but proposed ..." --The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt, p.160

“[…] all debate about the truth or falsity of a totalitarian dictator’s prediction is as weird as arguing with a potential murderer about whether his future victim is dead or alive – since by killing the person in question the murderer can promptly provide proof of the correctness of his statement […] Propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts. […] The assertion that the Moscow subway is the only one in the world is a lie only so long as the Bolsheviks have not the power to destroy all the others.” p.350

"What totalitarian ideologies therefore aim at is not the transformation of the outside world or the revolutionizing transmutation of society, but the transformation of human nature itself. The concentration camps are the laboratories where changes in human nature are tested, and their shamefulness therefore is not just the business of their inmates and those who run them according to strictly "scientific" standards; it is the concern of all men. Suffering, of which there has been always too much on earth, is not the issue, nor is the number of victims. Human nature as such is at stake, and even though it seems that these experiments succeed not in changing man but only in destroying him, by creating a society in which the nihilistic banality of homo homini lupus is consistently realized, one should bear in mind the necessary limitations to an experiment which requires global control in order to show conclusive results." --The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Origins of Totalitarianism (Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft, "Elements and Origins of Totalitarian Rule"; 1951), by Hannah Arendt, describes and analyzes Nazism and Stalinism, the major totalitarian political movements of the first half of the 20th century. The book is regularly listed as one of the best non-fiction books of the 20th century.



The book describes the various preconditions and subsequent rise of anti-Semitism in central, eastern, and western Europe in the early-to-mid 19th century; then examines the New Imperialism, from 1884 to the start of the First World War (1914–18); then traces the emergence of racism as an ideology, and its modern application as an “ideological weapon for imperialism”, by the Boers during the Great Trek (1830s–40s) in the early 19th century. The book has three sections: Antisemitism, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism.

Analysis of Antisemitism and Imperialism

Arendt begins the book with an analysis of the rise of antisemitism in Europe, particularly focusing on the Dreyfus affair. She then discusses scientific racism, and its role in colonialist imperialism, itself characterized by unlimited territorial and economic expansion. That unlimited expansion necessarily opposed itself and was hostile to the territorially delimited nation-state. Arendt traces the roots of modern imperialism to the accumulation of excess capital in European nation-states during the 19th century. This capital required overseas investments outside of Europe to be productive and political control had to be expanded overseas to protect the investments. She then examines "continental imperialism" (pan-Germanism and pan-Slavism) and the emergence of "movements" substituting themselves to the political parties. These movements are hostile to the state and antiparliamentarist and gradually institutionalize anti-Semitism and other kinds of racism. Arendt concludes that while Italian Fascism was a nationalist authoritarian movement, Nazism and Stalinism were totalitarian movements that sought to eliminate all restraints upon the power of the movement.

Mechanics of Totalitarian Movements

The book's final section is devoted to describing the mechanics of totalitarian movements, focusing on Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Here, Arendt discusses the transformation of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the non-totalitarian world, and the use of terror, essential to this form of government. Totalitarian movements are fundamentally different from autocratic regimes, says Arendt, insofar as autocratic regimes seek only to gain absolute political power and to outlaw opposition, while totalitarian regimes seek to dominate every aspect of everyone's life as a prelude to world domination. Arendt discusses the use of front organizations, fake governmental agencies, and esoteric doctrines as a means of concealing the radical nature of totalitarian aims from the non-totalitarian world. A final section added to the second edition of the book in 1958 suggests that individual isolation and loneliness are preconditions for totalitarian domination.

Such scholars as Jürgen Habermas supported Arendt in her 20th century criticism of totalitarian readings of Marxism. This commentary on Marxism has indicated concerns with the limits of totalitarian perspectives often associated with Marx's apparent over-estimation of the emancipatory potential of the forces of production. Habermas extends this critique in his writings on functional reductionism in the life-world in his Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. As Habermas states:
... traditional Marxist analysis ... today, when we use the means of the critique of political economy ... can no longer make clear predictions: for that, one would still have to assume the autonomy of a self-reproducing economic system. I do not believe in such an autonomy. Precisely for this reason, the laws governing the economic system are no longer identical to the ones Marx analyzed. Of course, this does not mean that it would be wrong to analyze the mechanism which drives the economic system; but in order for the orthodox version of such an analysis to be valid, the influence of the political system would have to be ignored.


Le Monde placed the book among the 100 best books of any kind of the 20th century, while the National Review ranked it #15 on its list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute listed it among the 50 best non-fiction books of the century. The book made a major impact on Norman Podhoretz, who compared the pleasure of reading it to that of reading a great poem or novel. The book sold out on Amazon in January 2017, as part of a bump in interest in books about totalitarianism around the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

The book has also attracted criticism. The most comprehensive may have been in the Times Literary Supplement in 2009 by University of Chicago professor Bernard Wasserstein. Wasserstein cited Arendt's systematic internalization of the various anti-Semitic and Nazi sources and books she was familiar with, which led to the use of many of these sources as authorities in the book.


See also

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