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

“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.”

“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.”

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

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

Photo credit: Flickr_Danielle Attias

“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.”

“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.”

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

Monument for the deported on the Jewish cemetery near the Grosse Hamburger Strasse. Photo credit: flickr_Margie Savage
Refugees forced to live in increasingly dehumanising conditions at the Greek border. Photo credit: Amnesty International / Fotis Filippou.

“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.”

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

“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.”

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

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

“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.”

“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.”

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

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

“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

“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.”



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