The Origins of Totalitarianism: Prefaces on Antisemitism, Imperialism and Totalitarianism
The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt - Book Overview and Thoughts
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As some of you may be aware, Hannah Arendt was Jewish. She also had a relationship with Martin Heidegger, which became complicated due to his Nazi Germany affiliation. Arendt was deeply involved in her research on antisemitism and worked hard to understand why it existed at all. All these circumstances eventually led her to write "The Origins of Totalitarianism," a three-part book that explains how totalitarian governments evolve. The book aims to provide shields against totalitarianism by encouraging critical thinking and the preservation of freedom.
In this and following newsletters, we'll try to understand her book by condensing it as much as possible while keeping the most important details. We'll start with the book's prefaces, which will help us understand the entire text better, then move on to the sections on antisemitism and imperialism, and finally conclude with the section on totalitarianism.
In preparation for our exploration, we must first understand that totalitarianism, according to Arendt, is the complete annihilation of human freedom in all of its forms. In her opinion, a monarchy and a tyranny can still have some sense of freedom, but totalitarianism completely eliminates it in both the public and private realms. It also seeks continuous expansion and growth, as we will see in the section on imperialism.
Another significant aspect of totalitarianism is the elimination of spontaneity. One of the most important aspects of humanity, as we have seen in her book The Human Condition, is the ability to act spontaneously and intervene in events, which is eradicated in totalitarian regimes. Totalitarianism seeks to eliminate plurality, that is, the diversity in society, and transform it into a unity.
In other words, totalitarianism turns humans into animals by removing spontaneity and plurality, transforming people into beings who simply behave and follow the curse of events without the ability to intervene or change them. This description of totalitarianism is critical because it allows us to stay attentive and recognize its characteristics, while also avoiding naming any government totalitarian.
In the prefaces of the book, she introduces us to what is coming on each part of the text. We won't go into detail with each preface, but we will discuss the most important aspects of them in this newsletter to prepare ourselves for the three parts of the book.
One of the primary causes of totalitarianism is the presence of rootlessness and homelessness; however, in order to understand what she means, we can refer to these elements as meaninglessness.
To put it another way, one of the main reasons totalitarianism emerges is a lack of meaning that usually comes from religious or traditional beliefs. She argues that humans are meaningful beings with an innate need to find meaning. This drives people to seek it by joining movements or organizations that provide a sense of purpose and place in the world.
Furthermore, as religion declines, people seek to satisfy their need for belonging through other deep big movements. This is very powerful and true, in my perspective. The same idea has been advocated by modern thinkers such as Jordan Peterson and John Vervaeke. There is an ongoing lack of belonging in our current societies; where all we have is our daily economic lives, jobs, and responsibilities, whereas in the past people were heavily involved in larger movements, such as religion. As Hannah Arendt and, in our examples, Peterson and Vervaeke argue, a sense of belonging to a community or a larger cause is an important aspect of humanity. Therefore, totalitarianism will always be on the table if this aspect is not fulfilled, because it creates a man-made paradise of meaning and purpose.
As a matter of fact, John Vervaeke claims that the meaning crisis manifests itself in our society in a variety of ways, including political ideologies with pseudo-religious characteristics, mental health crises, addiction, and a general sense of existential unease across societies.
Preface to Part One: Antisemitism
Before diving into each part of the book, Hannah provides introductions to each one of them. For the purposes of this newsletter, and to enhance our understanding, we will look at the main components of each one and start laying out additional information that we will discuss in more detail in the future.
Hannah begins by looking into antisemitism. This, she believes, is a critical aspect of totalitarianism, and one of the most important points to remember is that it emerged in the nineteenth century as an ideology, specifically a racist ideology.
Furthermore, understanding antisemitism requires understanding that Jews did not have a state and lived among other communities, relying on non-Jews for protection and safety.
Additionally, as the concept of equality gained traction in the nineteenth century, Jews were given the option of assimilation. They had to choose between assimilating and losing their Jewish identity or remaining distinct and retaining it.
This refusal to assimilate served the Jews' self-interest by providing a justification for remaining distinct. This, however, resulted in antisemitic ideologies. What is critical to understand is that Hannah claims that racist ideologies emerged as a result of Jews' refusal to assimilate in a society where equality was demanded. Moreover, the consequences of antisemitic movements eventually led to the creation of Zionism, a counter-ideology and response to antisemitism.
We will go over all of this in greater detail when we discuss antisemitism, but one of the most powerful quotes Arendt provides in this section is the following:
“Equality of condition, though it is certainly a basic requirement for justice, is nevertheless among the greatest and most uncertain ventures of modern mankind. The more equal conditions are, the less explanation there is for the differences that actually exist between people; and thus the more unequal do individuals and groups become.” - Hannah Arendt
This quote is significant because, as we have seen, when we strive to become equal, there is always an inherent need to differentiate ourselves. This is because we are all different and unique, and there is plurality and diversity in our species.
Preface to Part Two: Imperialism
The second section of the book explores imperialism, an evolution from colonialism, fueled by economic and industrial changes within the nation-state system. These economic factors led to expansionist politics, resulting in global dominance.
According to Arendt, the main problem with imperialism is its boundless nature, which causes it to spread across the globe. Imperialism is essentially the pursuit of power without regard for borders. As a result, despite the appearance of imperialism as a nationalist movement, it is, in fact, an international one.
Building on the concerns about power, Hannah highlights the problems associated with powerful countries engaging in imperialism, where they seek to extend their influence over other nations. She argues that these powerful nations may encounter challenges in developing fair and effective systems of government due to certain uncontrollable factors.
Moreover, she considers the rise of secret services, or the deep state, influencing various aspects of a country to be a troubling sign. She claims that the United States established such services not only in response to a direct threat, but also as a result of the country's emergence as a major world power after World War II. This raises concerns about their impact on domestic affairs as well as their potential impact on constitutional development.
Following this, she discusses the growing educational and technological gap between wealthy Western countries and the rest of the world. She claims that foreign aid programs may unintentionally contribute to one country's dominance over another, possibly to the point of becoming instruments of foreign power. This foreign aid is usually in the form of foreign currency, which does not usually help much and only increases a country's economic power.
In conclusion, Hannah sees imperialism as one of totalitarianism's key ingredients because it seeks global dominance and creates global politics.
Preface to Part Three: Totalitarianism
One of the most important points to make about this section of the book is that our ideology causes us to label things as soon as we notice or perceive certain characteristics.
One of these flaws is our current anti-communist thinking. Hannah warns people about the obsession with pursuing expansionary liberalism, which includes anti-communist thinking that can eventually become a global ideology. The main point to remember here is that Hannah is concerned about global ideologies dominating because this is the type of thing that leads to totalitarianism.
Furthermore, we must understand that totalitarianism seeks to transform diversity into unity, ultimately limiting human freedom. The concept of freedom is crucial in this context. Hannah believes that the ability to intervene, act, and speak, that is, the ability to change events that would otherwise run their course like organisms or automatic machines, is the most important aspect of humanity. We won't go into detail about this concept here, but if we want to learn more about it, we can watch our videos or read our newsletters about her book The Human Condition, which will help us gain a deep understanding on her claims about humanity.
Finally, she talks about some points to consider when discussing totalitarianism. She argues that not all governments should be labeled as totalitarian. Totalitarianism seeks to eliminate plurality; thus, when we see laws that flatten out groups that contribute to diversity, we may start considering a government to be totalitarian.
Another characteristic of totalitarianism is that facts that contradict the official fiction become non-facts, meaning that anything that contradicts a specific belief is false or deniable. Furthermore, totalitarianism creates multiple layers of bureaucracy, which overlap and create parallel functions. This is because totalitarianism does not have a clear goal; rather, it constantly shifts. By having multiple layers of bureaucracy, totalitarian governments can have multiple options to choose from when their circumstances or goals change.
Lastly, totalitarian governments fabricate criminals, labeling individuals as enemies who may not necessarily commit crimes, as seen with Jews in Nazi Germany. This opposition eventually leads to terror, constituting yet another component of totalitarian governments. The imperative to exert extreme control becomes apparent when necessary.
These are the fundamental insights of each section of the book, and in our next newsletter, we will delve into the text and uncover every detail of each section, starting with antisemitism.
Please consider subscribing to our YouTube channel and newsletter, and stay tuned for more content on this exceptional book!
Arendt, H. (1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism (2017th ed.). Penguin Classics.
[Alex O'Connor]. (2023, December 4). Why Can't We Find Meaning Anymore? John Vervaeke [Video].
[Jordan B Peterson]. (2024, January 15). Dr. Peterson and John Vervaeke Discuss the Meaning Crisis [Video].
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