Seminar Paper: Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarians

Hannah Arendt was an German-American political theorist. Published in 1951, her most famous book “The Origins of Totalitarianism” challenges why totalitarianism started. It was written after world war two and after Hitlers death.  Arendt wanted to give her readers a sense of phenomenal reality of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is; An imposing government that exercise absolute control over all aspects of life in a State, with an aim to eventually dominate the World. There will be zero opposition to a totalitarian ruler. In the chapter “Ideology and Terror”Arendt tries to sum up exactly how totalitarianism worked in the cases of Stalin's Russia and Nazi Germany.

Hannah Arendt reveals that terror is at the center of a totalitarian government, and that this terror is based upon ideology. 

This type of terror exceeds fear. Totalitarianism dominated many governments during the twentieth century. Unlike other forms of government that oppress its people; a totalitarian form of government escapes the boundaries of definition. It is commonly mistaken as a tyranny or dictatorship. Arendt explains that this is because it must begin as a tyranny, an oppressive government, to lift the dividing line of the laws. Arendt uses two particular governments as examples to help clarify the nature of a totalitarian government; fascist Germany and communist Russia. According to Arendt, the totalitarianism that rose in Germany was based upon the ideology of racism. 

Hitler's idea of the ideal Aryan; fitting the profile of fair skin, blue eye, blond skin- to be the desiring race to populate Germany. By creating this ideology of the strong race he wiped out an entire race and religion of Judaism, hence came about genocide.  
Underlying the Nazi’s law of race is Darwin’s idea of the man as product of natural development. Bolshevik’s beliefs in class struggle is like Marx’s notion of society as a gigantic historical movement which races to its own law of motion to the end of historical times when it will abolish itself.

She speaks about law in some detail, something that totalitarian regimes do not succeed purely through aggression and ruthlessness but through a shift in the way the people consider law as a whole. She says that this is where totalitarians law differs from other forms of law. Totalitarians didn’t replace laws. It simply defies laws, and makes clear that it can do so. In the interpretation of totalitarian laws Arendt goes on to say that all laws have become ‘laws of movement,’ neither nature or history was the stabilising source of authority for the Nazi’s or the Russians Bolshevik’s, for the mortal man they are simply movements in themselves. She adds that previous governments used positive laws as the only way to express the difference between right and wrong. In a totalitarian body, positive laws are replaced with terror. Terror ceasing to be solely used for the oppression of any opposition.

She speaks in great length about rule by fear. Totalitarianism destroys human morality and eradicates ideas such as guilt and empathy. Fear was the hazardous element. “Guilt and innocence become senseless notions; “guilty” is he who stands in the way of the natural or historical process which has passed judgment over “inferior races”, over individuals “unfit to live,” over “dying classes and decadent peoples.” 

This is by far the most terrifying aspect of totalitarianism. To make people feel guilty for not doing something. This links to the Milgram experiment where people would take the step further giving the innocent person higher levels of electric shocks every time they are asked to simple ‘carry on’ with the experiment. The only thing the authoritative figure tells you is that ‘you must go on’ and this was sufficient enough for people to carry on. 

Hannah Arendt explains that the totalitarians developed ideologies to impact the masses. There are three types of totalitarian ideologies. Firstly it is that ideologies are based on motion and that the subject matter of an ideology is history. She then adds that ‘Ideologies explain not what is but what becomes’ this links to the idea that ideologies are orientated towards history. This method of thinking could be linked to Hegel’s idea of the zeitgeist, where we are living in a world where we started with a thesis-antithesis and eventually a synthesis will be reached where we result in a euphoria society. 

Secondly ideological thinking becomes independent of all experience. Which it cannot learn anything new even if it is a question of something that has come to pass. Hence why ideological thinking becomes liberated from the reality that we perceive with our five senses. 

Thirdly ideologies have no power to transform reality. 

Ideology is the logic of an idea, the subject matter is history. She went on to explain that Ideological victory of racism and communism over all other isms was decided before the totalitarian movements took hold of precisely these ideologies. All other ideologies have totalitarian qualities but they are only developed by totalitarian movements.

Hannah Arednt goes on to say that the propaganda of the totalitarian movement also serves to set free the thought from experience and reality and that there is a “secret meaning into every public event.”

She sights the the work of Hitler and Stalin as “ideologies of great importance.”  For they did not add a single new thought to the ideas and propaganda slogans of their movements. 

Totalitarian governments could not exist without destroying the realm of life, by isolating men. Total terror leaves no space for private life and the self coercion of totalitarian logic destroys man’s capacity for experience and thought. Isolation can happen in a world whose chief values are dictated by their work, all human activities turned into hard labor. The isolation then becomes loneliness. 

Epictetus, the slave philosopher of Greek origin was the first to distinguish loneliness and solitude. "When you close your doors, and make darkness within, remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within," Epictetus

She concludes that in history we can see that solitary men have always been in danger of loneliness, this came to light in the nineteenth century. For philosophers solitude is a condition of work philosophy is only for the few, they begin to insist that nobody understands them. In Hegel’s deathbed he stated that “Nobody has understood me expect one; and he also misunderstood.” 
Nietzsche, also a lonely man, found himself and started thinking dialogue of solitude in his Sils Maria and Zarathustra. It’s loneliness that causes the loss of one’s self. 

A new form of government who essence is terror and whose principle of action is the logicality of ideological thinking. Such a combination was never used before in the varied forms of political domination. 

Like Hobbes’ social contract, totalitarian regimes are controlled by a figure of authority. In Hobbes’ contract this is the Leviathan. He believed that it is ‘every man against every man’ in society. This is similar to the totalitarians view but their ideology removes man from all his freedom and liberty and for the existentialists this is the key problem. Freedom is the most important factor for man according to the existentialists. Totalitarian regimes removes freedom from society. 

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