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How Hannah Arendt’s classic work on totalitarianism illuminates today’s America

- December 17, 2016

The rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States, accentuated by the election of Donald Trump, has led to growing fears about the possibility of new forms of authoritarianism. In search of insight, many commentators have turned to a book published some 65 years ago — Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Arendt was a German Jewish intellectual who fled Germany with the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933, lived in Paris as a stateless refugee and Zionist activist until 1941 and then fled to and settled in the United States.

“Origins,” first published in 1951, was based on research and writing done during the 1940s. The book’s primary purpose is to understand totalitarianism, a novel form of mobilizational and genocidal dictatorship epitomized by Stalinism in Soviet Russia and Hitlerism in Nazi Germany, and it culminates in a vivid account of the system of concentration and death camps that Arendt believed defined totalitarian rule. The book’s very first words signal the mood:

Two world wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in the anticipation of a third World War between the two remaining superpowers. This moment of anticipation is like the calm, that settles after all hopes have died . . . Under the most diverse conditions and disparate circumstances, we watch the development of the same phenomena — homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth . . . Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest — forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries.

How could such a book speak so powerfully to our present moment? The short answer is that we, too, live in dark times, even if they are different and perhaps less dark, and “Origins” raises a set of fundamental questions about how tyranny can arise and the dangerous forms of inhumanity to which it can lead.

The “grotesque disparity between cause and effect”

“Origins” centers on the rise of totalitarianism, especially its Nazi variant, out of the ashes of World War I and the Great Depression. As Arendt made clear, her interest is in understanding the origins of totalitarianism, not explaining its “causes.” The elements that together made its rise possible — anti-Semitism, imperialism, racism, the post-World War I crises of multinational empires, the displacement of peoples by war and by technological change — were important. But their “crystallization” into the horrific outcome that was totalitarianism was neither predictable nor inevitable. While her account of these “elements” is bracing, even more disturbing is the way she links them to the monstrous outcome to which they gave rise. “Origins” charts the “grotesque disparity between cause and effect,” which made the horrors of the 1940s so surprising, and shocking, to so many. One reason the book resonates so strongly today is its fixation on the way many “bads” long taken for granted can come together to generate a maelstrom of evil and horror foreseen by no one, perhaps not even the protagonists themselves. The lesson: Freedom is fragile, and when demagogues speak, and others start following them, it is wise to pay attention.

Alienation and political extremism

A subtheme of “Origins” is that by the 1930s, there was throughout Europe a generalized crisis of legitimacy. Large numbers of people felt dispossessed, disenfranchised, disconnected from dominant social institutions. The political party system, and parliamentary government more generally, were regarded as corrupt and oligarchic. Such an environment was fertile ground for a “mob mentality,” in which outsiders — Jews, Roma, Slavs, gays, “cosmopolitan intellectuals” — could be scapegoated and a savior could be craved: “The mob always will shout for ‘the strong man,’ the ‘great leader.’ For the mob hates the society from which it is excluded, as well as Parliament where it is not represented.”

And a society suffused with resentment, according to Arendt, is ripe for manipulation by the propaganda of sensationalist demagogues: “What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part . . . Totalitarian propaganda thrives on this escape from reality into fiction . . . [and] can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity.” Cynicism. Contempt for truth. Appeal to the craving of the masses for simple stories of malevolent conspiracy. Stephen K. Bannon of Breitbart News may not have read “Origins,” but it is clear he has taken a page from the movements Arendt analyzes.

A crisis of political representation

In modern mass democracies, political parties serve an essential role in structuring competitive elections and linking citizens to government. According to Arendt, a central condition of the rise of totalitarianism was a crisis in the functioning and the legitimacy of party politics and of parliamentary government: “The success of totalitarian movements among the masses meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled countries in general and of European nation-states and their party system in particular. The first was that the people in its majority had taken an active part in government, and that each individual was in sympathy with one’s own or somebody else’s party . . . The second . . . was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation.”

In short, voters freed from conventional partisan attachments were swayed by anti-system movements, parties and leaders, who promised something new and different and whose appeal lay mainly in the very fact that they were new and different. Such appeals can be politically energizing. But by propelling such anti-system movements to political power, these appeals to novelty for its own sake can justify a kind of dictatorial exercise of power unrestrained by legal precedents, parliamentary procedures, or constitutional limits.

“The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”

One the most brilliant features of “Origins” is the way it charts the interconnection of “domestic” and “global” origins of totalitarianism, in particular the role of World War I in exposing the limits of national sovereignty, creating a refugee crisis of epic proportions and putting the lie to established norms of “the rights of man.”

“Before totalitarian politics consciously attacked and partially destroyed the very structure of European civilization, the explosion of 1914 and its severe consequences of instability had sufficiently shattered the facade of Europe’s political system to lay bare its hidden frame. Such visible exposures were the sufferings of more and more groups of people to whom suddenly the rules of the world around them had ceased to apply.”

Among these groups were not only “the dispossessed middle classes, the unemployed, the small rentiers, the pensioners,” but also stateless refugees (“displaced persons”) and ethnic minorities, who became isolated, scapegoated, and deprived of legal recognition except as “problems” to be regulated, interned or expelled.

The more powerless the individual nation-states were to deal with the challenges before them, the greater the temptation was to close ranks and to close borders. Peoples made superfluous by the consequences of the war were rendered superfluous in a legal and political sense; an atmosphere of suspicion and lawlessness spread; and “the very phrase ‘human rights’ became for all concerned — victims, persecutors, onlookers alike — the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feebleminded hypocrisy.” Thus was laid the foundation for the concentration camps and death camps to follow.

Politics beyond despair

There is almost no politics in “Origins” beyond the decisions and processes that eventuated in total domination. It is a dark book, written in a dark time and reflecting on the darkest moment of modern European (and arguably world) history. But it is not without hope. In her preface, Arendt envisions a new form of transnational governance, insisting 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 while its powerful must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly established territorial entities.” And in her conclusion she insists that there is always the possibility of renewal: “But there remains also the truth that every end in history also contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom . . . This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”

In her subsequent work, Arendt reflected at length about the revival of a politics of human dignity, autonomy and active citizenship. While she was highly critical of the depoliticizing tendencies of modern liberal individualism, she was a strong believer in the rule of law and in the importance of constitutional and extraconstitutional restraints on political power. This is most clear in her 1972 “Crises of Republic,” collecting four essays written in the midst of the legitimacy crises associated with the Vietnam War, the rise of the New Left and Black Power movements, and the deceit and authoritarianism of the Nixon administration. In “Civil Disobedience,” originally published in the New York Review of Books, she echoes many observations offered in “Origins” more than 20 years earlier. “Representative government itself,” she writes, “is in a crisis today, partly because it has lost . . . all institutions that permitted the citizens’ actual participation, and partly because it is now gravely affected by the disease from which the party system suffers: bureaucratization and the two parties’ tendency to represent nobody but the party machines.” She then proceeds to offer a robust defense of civil disobedience as grounded in the “spirit of the laws” of the American republic and as practice best suited to enacting the processes of active consent and dissent that alone can revive American democracy.

Arendt understood that the late 1960s legitimacy crises facing the United States and many other societies, including France, Germany, Mexico and Czechoslovakia, were different than the crises facing the countries of interwar Europe. She recognized that the emergence of full-blown totalitarianism was not the only danger facing liberal democracies. Indeed, she noted in “Origins” that “it may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form — though not necessarily the cruelest — only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.” But she brilliantly diagnosed the forms of alienation and dispossession that diminished human dignity, threatened freedom and fueled the rise of authoritarianism.

The current rise of right-wing populism throughout Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the United States presents unique challenges of its own. These demand new analyses and new prescriptions. Arendt begins “Origins” with an epigram from her teacher Karl Jaspers that seems apt: “Give in neither to the past nor the future. What matters is to be entirely present.”

While we should not “give in” to the past, neither can we afford to ignore it and its lessons. And that is why the writings of Hannah Arendt continue to be read.

Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy professor of political science at Indiana University at Bloomington and editor in chief of Perspectives on Politics, a journal of the American Political Science Association.