• Daniel Grasso

Reading The Origins Of Totalitarianism in 2020: Introduction (Part 1 of 7)

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Imagine it’s 1946 and your generation is tasked with the challenge of making sense of the horrors of WWII. The world around you is trying to understand what it saw, trying to comprehend the mass genocide and the complicity of the nations in it, and trying to move forward, back to normality. Yet, all previous categories, all previous experiences seem to pale in comparison to Nazi death camps, as if the world was realizing its traditional vocabulary cannot cover something this horrific: “for what meaning has the concept of murder when we are confronted with the mass production of corpses?” (Arendt, 1951, p. 441) With the emergence of evil on such a large and impersonal scale, the calm and organized extermination of entire people groups, the world reeled, failing to use the past to comprehend this novel system of evil: the Totalitarians.

As well as trying to make sense of Nazi Germany, the world looks to the USSR and Joseph Stalin. To the keen observer, the harbingers of a looming "Cold War" which will pit wounded democratic nations against communism are apparent. The USSR, once an ally against Fascism with its claim of “socialism for one country,” is now gearing up to fulfill the Marxist promise of world revolution by export across the globe. At first glance it seems Hitler and the incumbent Stalin were simply tyrants, of which history is rife: that is to say that to the casual observer, it would seem the aforementioned monstrous rulers were autocratic absolutists, who would do anything to stay in power. History has seen its fair share of mass murderers and maniacal dictators, yet why did the actions of the Nazi’s in WWII and the persistent terror of the gulags in Stalinist Russia seem so uniquely heinous and indescribable? Why are extermination camps of innocents different from the mass murder of political enemies or the enslavement of the conquered? Why do we still have museums dedicated to preserving this memory, affirming the almost unbelievable horror of history?

It is into this world of confusion in the face of new political action and organization that Hannah Arendt publishes her first major work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Her book takes on the Herculean task of untangling and analyzing the confusion described above, seeking to understand the nature of totalitarianism movements, governance, and ideology. Even though the work operates within the context of the Holocaust and the Gulags, Hitler and Stalin, Fascism and Communism, Arendt’s writing does not belong to the past, pertinent only to WWII or the Cold War. Instead, Arendt's piercing analysis unveils a new form of government that is an entirely original system who’s name only appeared thirty years prior: a system uniquely modern and fundamentally different from the past, a new system and ideology that was here to stay.

The Origins of Totalitarianism is frequently listed as top-100 non-fiction work of the 20th century, which is unsurprising as Arendt’s book is commonly praised as being both profound and original in its analysis; the work has even been dubbed as “the most influential single book on the theme of totalitarianism” by the long-standing Foreign Affairs magazine. Along with this reputation for weight and influence, there exists a certain anxiety and consternation when approaching the 600-page tome that spans centuries of history. Arendt is a clear and powerful writer, but, regardless of style, the three-hundred pages of 18th and 19th century European history leading up to the main topic can be intimidating. It can be easy to feel this important prologue to be too dense or irrelevant. After all, we are far removed from the societies of 18th century France and the insider politics of 19th century Britain.

Yet as Arendt approaches the 20th century the contemporary reader finds themselves no longer surrounded by antiquated people and distant problems, but instead right at home amongst: race issues, immigration problems, stateless people, ideologies of race and history, and the upheavals of mass anti-establishment movements. Here we find not only age-old--yet still pertinent--political problems, but a calm, clear, and nuanced understanding waiting to be explored.

2020 brought a pandemic, race riots and mass protest, calls to defund the police, fervent arguments over systemic racism, a highly contentious election, and even a movement on the tyranny of face masks. What these events have highlighted is not only how far America has grown apart, but even more troubling: how dysfunctional and corrupt, our political and cultural institutions--that once held us together--have become. While our American institutions such as the news media and academy once worked effectively to facilitate open and honest conversation, it seems that now, all nuance and debate have been stripped from the public sphere by a media only working to fan the flames by promulgating a corrupt and demonstrably false dichotomy with caricatures and straw-men arguments that relegate discourse to the affirmation of party dogma. This process thereby propagates a corrupt and demonstrably false dichotomy, which has infested every area of common life with vitriolic politics. Amongst all this confusion and strife, what we need now more than ever is a clearer understanding of our political and social lives.

Our debates and conversations have become nothing more than a playing of trump cards to silence and disenfranchise the other side: “racist” from the left and “Marxist” from the right, with the word “ideology” now being thrown around by both sides. Slowly but surely our population: people we before called fellow citizens, is becoming increasingly rootless, isolated, and atomized. A mass of angry, confused, and adrift people, willing to sacrifice reason for meaning, is now being filed into ranks along battle lines. A people who are so far removed from the facts, by both distance and personal experience, by the very virtue of global news and national politics, people who can only hear fourth-hand biased information are left to “at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” (Arendt, 1951, p. 382)

With mass political mobilization taking place it is time to stop and ask, who is doing the organizing--and even more importantly--why is it so easy for them to do so? Why are movements able to garner such fanatic and mass support? As new movements and new politics enter our lives it is important to understand their message clearly and assess them fairly. We need to do this with sincere and nuanced understanding; we need to unravel the confusion and justified rage, to separate true from false, ideology from reality, and justice from injustice. We need to truly understand the issues at hand before we can form an informed plan of action. With such blurriness and emotion what we need is a clear and nuanced explanation--what we need is Hannah Arendt. In 2020 it could not be more relevant to once again explore the nature of mass movements, of ideology, of totalitarianism--where it came from and how it interacted with democracy in times like this before.

With this in mind, the aim of this work is two-fold: in the first section, I will attempt to engage with Arendt's rich and dense book and extract the most relevant and important lessons, while afterward I will attempt to apply her profound insights to the politically confused present. In essence, my project in this first section is to summarize, communicate, and explain Arendt’s thought. In order to make this large work of paramount importance approachable, I must offer a greatly diminished work in both size and scope. For that reason, this series of essays is by no means meant to be a replacement for the experience of reading The Origins of Totalitarianism in its entirety: to assert that my work would be is both callous and presumptuous. But hopefully what is lost in completion will be gained in accessibility, that is, without sacrificing clarity and depth. I aim that my work captures more than it misses, communicating to the modern reader with the clarity and focus the essence of Arendt's extensive and prescient insight.

Due to her status, Arendt's words and ideas can be easily abused and twisted for a modern author’s own ends. To avoid this temptation of "putting words in her mouth," I will purposefully avoid making any explicit connections to today’s situation in the first section. Instead, the second and final section will be offered as an editorial; a section set aside to make explicit the connections to today’s world; a section that uses Origins as its framework but will be the opinion of this author, not necessarily Arendt’s. In this manner I hope to avoid any conflation between Arendt’s thought on the totalitarian movements of the 20th century and the political situation in America in 2020.

While the first section will not make explicit connections to 2020, the lessons from The Origins of Totalitarianism will inevitably be familiar and for that reason very insightful. However, a word of caution: these lessons are from Arendt’s analysis of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. While there are deep similarities and clear warning signs, I wish to avoid being an alarmist by wrenching her words from context, or preaching only the worst possible outcome. I am at no point in the following chapters making a one-to-one characterization. Neither am I saying that any movement with totalitarian characteristics must necessarily end in concentration camps; that any race issue must be driven by utopian Marxist ideology, or that a group that shares any of the characterizations to follow is completely totalitarian. Before we begin, let us dismiss blanket statements, strawman characterizations, and hasty generalizations. Learning from the past should not give us carte blanche in dismissing the nuances of the present. 

Instead, we should pick up the resonant strands of history and use them to weave a more harmonious understanding of the unfolding present. Let us gather these strands, i.e. the shared characteristics seen on both the left and right, so that we can better understand the politics of our own time through the lessons of the past. For these lessons are too gravitas to presently ignore. They are hard won lessons learned in the aftermath of great horrors and Arendt’s book stands before us like a prophet calling out in the wilderness illuminating both the immutable past, while heralding a future that is ours to change. Like the proclamation of old: whoever has ears, let them hear.

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