Hannah Arendt: “The Origin of Totalitarians”

img_0503Hannah Arendt was a German Jew born in 1906. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Heidelberg in the late ‘20s. Fearing the Nazis, she fled to Paris in 1933 and, when Germany occupied France, she fled to the US in 1941. In 1951, she published ‘The Origin of Totalitarianism,” a reflection of her observations of the rise of the National Socialist and Hitler in Germany and, more relevantly, the conditions required for such totalitarianism to ascend. Arendt noted several symptoms that appeared essential: expansion of exploitative capitalism more interested in itself than the state or people, a regionalization of national identity, and the decline of functional and engaged citizenry. According to Arendt, following WWI and the Great Depression, the normalcy and stability of German life was so disrupted that people were willing to reject the existing norms of governance and “open to the promulgation of a single, clear and unambiguous idea that would allocate responsibility for woes, and indicate a clear path that would secure the future against insecurity and danger.” Totalitarianism offered itself as a path to their former perception of greatness, real or imagined. Here are some of Arendt’s observations from “The Origins of Totalitarianism”:

“Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist . . .

. . . Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other… Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pre-totalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together…; isolated men are powerless by definition . . .

. . . While isolation concerns only the political realm of life, loneliness concerns human life as a whole. Totalitarian government, like all tyrannies, certainly could not exist without destroying the public realm of life, that is, without destroying, by isolating men, their political capacities. But totalitarian domination as a form of government is new in that it is not content with this isolation and destroys private life as well. It bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man.”

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Filed under Fascism, Hannah Arendt, history, Totalitarianism

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