In 1951, Hannah Arendt wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, a massive undertaking that sought to understand scientific racism, its applications for authoritarian governments, and the 19th-century rise of antisemitism in Europe. In the text, she emphasized that a general distrust of media and government is a key criterion for the development of totalitarianism, a model of government characterized by dictatorial rule, subservience to the state, and panoptic surveillance of private life.
In a chilling passage, she wrote:
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true ... Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness. 1
She compellingly argues that a lack of faith in media and the government predisposes the public to ignore facts in support of a charismatic ruler, such as Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler. The rise of totalitarianism in the first half of 20th-century Europe leveraged the fact that people were scared and intimidated by the speed of technological development and globalization. In other words, they longed for a return to the simpler days of their youth.
"The Origins of Totalitarianism" is a pivotal text that offers a paradigm shift for historians and social and cultural theorists. Deeply informed by the political developments of the previous decades (which saw the atrocities of WWII and the Holocaust), Arendt explored the political implications of "othering" policies in Europe, to combat the discrimination (at best) or genocide (at worst) of disenfranchised populations.
One of the first scholars to study totalitarianism, she investigated the mentalities that made possible the exercise of power by one group over another. She also suggested that the exercise of power was an imperialist one, with specific emphasis on the aim of ideological expansion.
The 19th-century rise of antisemitism in Europe was linked closely to the development of nationalism and imperialism. These three developments (antisemitism, nationalism, and imperialism) occurred simultaneously and were necessary criteria for the emergence of totalitarianism. The period from roughly 1884 to 1914 is often called “New Imperialism,” and saw an increase in European colonial missions to Africa and Asia. These missions used racist ideologies as a political tool to justify colonial expansion and subjugation of “the Other.”
A totalitarian regime leverages self-serving ideologies to craft and promote an alternate narrative that serves the state’s aims more effectively than the truth would. The regime could then foster a nationalist rhetoric that justified economic and territorial expansion at the expense of the Other (in this case, Jews and other minorities), in a self-perpetuating cycle.
There is a manufactured ideology at the root of all totalitarian governments—an ideology that has been designed to fit that state’s aims. In the case of the Nazis, their history presented Aryans as the "master race," Germany as destined for global conquest, and the Jewish people as obstacles who were continually seeking to undermine this destiny. "The outstanding negative quality of the totalitarian elite," Arendt wrote, "is that it never stops to think about the world as it really is and never compares the lies with reality." 2 In so doing, the regime perpetuates its own rhetoric and remains closed to dissenting voices.
The propaganda against Jews pushed by the Nazis was intended to cover up the state’s real agenda, which was concerned with expansion and acquiring power. The state’s use of knowledge about the Other was used to establish authority. Scientific racism was used by Nazi Germany to dehumanize minority populations, which in turn would decriminalize the acts of occupying their homes, confiscating their property, and expelling them from their own lands. By portraying itself as superior and using propaganda to promote an unfavourable image of the Other, the ruling regime presents itself as an ideal solution for the discontented majority.
There are, of course, potentially genocidal outcomes of a regime’s misuse of power. On the expansionist agendas of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, Arendt recognizes:
Evidence that totalitarian governments aspire to conquer the globe and bring all countries on earth under their domination can be found repeatedly in Nazi and Bolshevik literature. Yet these ideological programs, inherited from pretotalitarian movements, ... are not decisive. What is decisive is that totalitarian regimes really conduct their foreign policy on the consistent assumption that they will eventually achieve their ultimate goal and never lose sight of it, no matter how distant it may appear or how seriously its "ideal" demands may conflict with the necessities of the moment. They therefore consider no country as permanently foreign but, on the contrary, every country as their potential territory.3
But how does the identity of a territory evolve with the populations that inhabit it, and how do totalitarian and neo-imperialist states control this identity?
Jews have always constituted a minority population within Europe. During the years leading up to WWII, the USSR, Nazi Germany, and even Britain articulated their superior European identity in opposition to the Jewish Other, which was thought to have a destabilizing impact on national character. All these governments used propaganda to justify territorial expansion at the expense of a subjugated people. In the case of Nazi Germany, the state regularly used misinformation to portray the "Jewish threat" a threat against which the Nazis claimed to offer the ultimate solution. In the case of imperialist states like Britain, strategic rhetoric was used to exert control over a disenfranchised population in foreign, colonial regions. Nazi Germany invoked the same rhetoric to “cleanse” the domestic homeland.
Writing in 1951, Arendt and many of her peers were still reeling from the horrors of the Second World War and the full realization of the brutality of the Nazi regime. Arendt was a Jewish refugee from Germany who fled to Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and France before settling in the United States and establishing herself as one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. She is credited with continuing the theoretical tradition of civic republicanism, with an optimistic view that no authoritarian or totalitarian regime could ever be capable of fully extinguishing one’s freedom or individuality.4 This optimism is largely absent from “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, though she does spend a large part of the work illustrating how the average citizen without malicious intent could be attracted to a totalitarian regime, intended partly to explain the rise in popularity of the Nazi party. Her text represents years of inquiry into the origins of a movement that deeply affected her own life and characterized the world in which she worked and operated.
27 years later, the cultural theorist Edward Said wrote a book, somewhat more well-known than Arendt’s, entitled Orientalism. This text offered a paradigm shift for the study of Europe’s relationship with the rest of the world, critiquing Western representations of the Middle East and North Africa.
The fields of history and political theory are continually evolving, and the current generation of scholars owes much to the work of Arendt and Said, whose analyses of societal order further humanitarian causes as well as academic ones. My next article will investigate Said’s text, which has been foundational for the examination of power, imperial expansion, and the suppression of marginalized communities outside of Europe.
1 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Berlin: Schocken Books, 1951), 382.
2 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Berlin: Schocken Books, 1951), 83.
3 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Berlin: Schocken Books, 1951), 113.
4 Maurizio Passerin d’Entreves, “Hannah Arendt,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, January 11, 2019.