Why we all need to read ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’

Hannah Arendt is flavour of the month and rightly so. Her book The Origins of Totalitarianism is one of the most important books of the 20th Century.

Most articles have focused on the totalitarianism — the book’s eerily familiar description of demagoguery, propaganda and eventually, dictatorship — but not the origins — the trends, or early stages, that evolved into the darkest moments of human history.

Here are some of the scariest parts of the book, that are basically a warning to future societies that racism can destroy a free state.

See for yourself if any of Arendt’s warnings sound familiar:

1 — It begins with a refugee crisis…

Among the ‘origins’ of ‘totalitarianism’, Arendt argues, is the fact that human rights became unenforceable when people without a state — usually persecuted minorities — became rightless: forced to leave their own state, no other community was willing to guarantee them any rights whatsoever.

Arendt traces the first cracks of a free state to the failure to help refugees:

“The first great damage done to the nation-states as a result of the arrival of hundreds of thousands of stateless people was that the right of asylum, the only right that had ever figured as a symbol of the Rights of Man in the sphere of international relationships, was being abolished.”

It became clear, Arendt writes, that you only had human rights if you belonged to a state — the League of Nations could not help you.

“The moment human beings lacked their own government and had to fall back upon their minimum rights, no authority was left to protect them and no institution was willing to guarantee them.”

The only “country” the world had to offer the stateless, Arendt write, was the internment camp.

Refugees stranded at the Greek border crossing of Idomeni in 2016. Photo credit: Amnesty International / Fotis Filippou

The world had been ready to help individuals seeking political asylum, but not whole groups of people: the loss of home and political status meant expulsions from humanity altogether:

“The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.”

Arendt, who herself experienced this ‘calamity’, writes brutally and cynically about the world turning its back on refugees. If only she were here today to hold a mirror up to the world and deliver her warning personally.

Photo credit: Flickr_Danielle Attias

2 — Ignore the rights of others only at risk to your own

Arendt’s warning is that when human rights — “a general characteristic of the human condition which no tyrant [can] take away” — are dependent on belonging to a state that will defend them, the door is open to wider abuses.

Arendt points out that when nations could not deport stateless people fleeing persecution, them put them in camps or used the police to control them. This did wider damage to legal institutions and the protection of all human rights:

“For the nation-state cannot exist once its principle of equality before the law has broken down. … Laws that are not equal for all revert to rights and privileges, something contradictory to the very nature of nation-states.
The clearer the proof of their inability to treat stateless people as legal persons and the greater the extension of arbitrary rule by police decree, the more difficult it is for states to resist the temptation to deprive all citizens of legal status and rule them with an omnipotent police.”

For Arendt, when the 1930s state ceased to protect the rights of refugees — the right to asylum — it ceased to enforce human rights at all.

At this point, quite in the middle of the book, comes the most chilling line of all, in which Arendt warns that in a world where “what is right” is “what is good for” a narrow definition of people:

“It is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organised and mechanised humanity will conclude quite democratically — namely by majority decision — that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof.”

3 — Without rights, the darkest evil becomes possible

It is when talking about refugees and coming closest to her own personal experience that the book feels so much more than political philosophy.

You can imagine Arendt, herself a German-Jewish refugee, cigarette between two fingers, head in hands, bent over the manuscript thinking, while she thinks “How could this happen?”, and tries to articulate the answer, which comes down to this:

“The point is that a condition of complete rightlessness was created before the right to live was challenged.”

Human rights were proclaimed but never politically secured and so lost all validity in an era with hundreds of thousands of people were homeless, stateless, outlawed and unwanted, and million more were made “economically superfluous and socially burdensome” by unemployment.

Monument for the deported on the Jewish cemetery near the Grosse Hamburger Strasse. Photo credit: flickr_Margie Savage

Because once a state decided that it didn’t want a group of people, no other state was willing to protect them. The more refugees were seen just as desperate stragglers, the less they were seen as humans with rights.

Refugees forced to live in increasingly dehumanising conditions at the Greek border. Photo credit: Amnesty International / Fotis Filippou.

Arendt points out that people were too busy dehumanising refugees — these stateless undesirables — to consider how terrible were the crimes they were fleeing:

“The more the number of rightless people increased, the greater became the temptation to pay less attention to the deeds of the persecuting governments than to the status of the persecuted.”

Just think how often the news talks about refugees without any context about what they might have fled.

For Arendt, this “silent consent” is what ultimately allowed the Nazis to impose their racist ideology upon the world, stripping the Jews and their other victims first of their rights and only then, after no other state had stepped forward to protect those rights, their lives:

“Before they set the gas chambers into motion they had carefully tested the ground and found out to their satisfaction that no country would claim these people.”
The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, seen from Hannah Arendt Strasse. Photo credit: flickr_Norman Z

4 — What goes around, comes around

Arendt doesn’t just make a plea for human rights, she warns that racism (in her theory, expressed as antisemitism and imperialism) is the germ of a deadly sickness: “the nation-destroying and humanity-annihilating power of racism”.

German troops in combat with the Herero people, one of the forgotten genocides of the 20th century

Arendt was one of the first people to draw a line between two major, previously disparate strands of history: the horrors of totalitarian regimes in Europe and the brutality of colonial regimes.

Imperialism she says, harmed not only their victims, but also the states that perpetrated it.

For her, bureaucratic states built by one race to dominate another, the mass population transfers, the famines, the concentration camps, the massacres, gassing, bombing and general callous indifference to human life that characterised European Imperialism in the 100 years prior to WWII were an origin for totalitarian states:

“Two new devices for political organisation and rule over foreign peoples were discovered during the first decades of imperialism. One was race as a principle of the body politic, and the other bureaucracy as a principle of foreign domination.”

In summary, imperialism was the meeting of racism and bureaucracy. It sharpened and honed racism into a scientific, bureaucratic way of running a state. It gave it gave it the “appearance of national respectability or the seeming sanction of tradition”.

This racism in foreign policy found its way into domestic culture and politics through the conduit of antisemitism, a phenomenon Arendt traces through European history to understand how the Nazis were able to make it a political weapon.

Stolpersteine, memorials for individual victims of the Shoah outside their former homes. Photo credit: flickr_Joop van Dijk

For Arendt, antisemitism illustrates how a state that gives rights to everyone by law can be undermined by racist nationalism that wants to gives them only by birth (as in, birth into a specific race of people, from which Jews, Muslims or other outsiders can be excluded).

This sort of racism, Arendt warns, can “stir up conflict” in every country, which is why it she calls it a powerful weapon for the division and destruction of European nation-states.

5 — How hatred goes mainstream

But how did the racism and cruelty of the colonies go mainstream? That is the part of Arendt’s analysis of mob rule is getting her noticed today.

Her book is essentially a warning of the destructive potential to state and society of politics based on hatred of certain groups (Jews then, Muslims today).

“Hatred … began to play a central role in public affairs everywhere.”

She writes compellingly, and scornfully, about how the elites participate in the erosion of values and the legitimisation of extreme views.

I’m quoting this bit at length — I think it will ring a bell:

“There is no doubt that the elite was pleased whenever the underworld frightened respectable society into accepting it on an equal footing. The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilisation, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it….
The temporary alliance between the elite and the mob rested largely on this genuine delight with which the former watched the latter destroy respectability…
…it seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard of human values. and general amorality, because this at least destroyed the duplicity upon which the existing society seemed to rest. What a temptation to flaunt extreme attitudes in the hypocritical twilight of double moral standards, to wear publicly the mask of cruelty if everybody was patently inconsiderate.”

In other words, people who complain about “political correctness” and Aziz Ansari’s “We don’t have to pretend to be racist anymore” people.

It is not as if totalitarian leaders hide their opinions, she writes:

“For the propaganda of totalitarian movements which precede and accompany totalitarian regimes is invariably as frank as it is mendacious, and would-be totalitarian rulers usually start their careers by boasting of their past crimes and carefully outlining their future ones.”

More specific in totalitarian propaganda, she adds, than direct threats and crimes against individuals is the use of indirect, veiled, and menacing hints against all who will not heed its teachings. Sound familiar?

Finally, she identifies the knack of avoiding fact-checkers by making grand promises about the future, to avoid being proved wrong:

“…by releasing an argument from the control of the present and by saying that only the future can reveal its merits.”

6 — Loneliness: “the common ground for terror”

It is the third part of Arendt’s book that everyone is talking about today, which describes totalitarianism, for example:

But the book ends on an unexpected, startling note — loneliness.

If, for Arendt, belonging to a community is vital to having rights, its absence is also an opportunity for mass movements to mobilise “the masses” who belong to no class or political opinion:

“The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.”

Arendt does not believe racism comes naturally, but needs people who are uprooted and feel they have no place in the world. Hating Jews (or today, Muslims, migrants or any foreigner) can become “a means of self-definition” that “restored some of the self-respect they had formerly derived from their function in society”.

So by touting anti-semitism, the Nazis offered isolated individuals “futile feelings of self-importance and hysterical security”.

Arendt believes that people were primed for the appeal of totalitarian leaders because they were isolated from any community — political or otherwise:

“What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.”
Cyber cafe. Photo credit: flickr_Conor

In the age of social media, where digital connections are replacing political ones, this is perhaps the most important warning of Hannah Arendt’s crucial book.

In conclusion:

I’ll leave you with a final word from Hannah Arendt, that essentially summarises The Origins of Totalitarianism:

“Antisemitism (not merely the hatred of Jews), imperialism (not merely conquest), totalitarianism (not merely dictatorship}-one after the other, one more brutally than the other, have demonstrated that human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity.”

Further Reading:

No wonder then, that people are turning to Hannah Arendt to explain this age we live in:

So much for the problems. The Origins does not provide solutions, although defending international human rights comes to mind. She has written more positively about constructing politics and community, which you can hear more about here:

See also The Hannah Arendt Center for a series of brilliant essays.

More from Arendt on refugees here:

And see the great movie about Eichmann in Jerusalem: