Book Review: The origins of totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt

The book is a tome, but without doubt one of the most interesting and profound book that I have read. I must confess that this is one of those books which I have not managed to read in one go, (even when re-reading it)! It is so capacious (526 pages) and so intellectually stimulating that I read a chapter, mull over it…(if need be read another book to cool down  and then return to the book. The book is a passionate condemnation of totalitarianism, and since Hannah Arendt has been a personal victim of Nazi oppression, the passion in her work clearly comes out.

The book is divided into three sections; ‘Antisemitism’, ‘Imperialism’ and ‘Totalitarianism’. According to her the most important contributors of totalitarianism have been antisemitism and imperialism. Explaining the genesis of antisemitism in Europe she does not fall for the pedantic, “Jew as a victim” theory propagated by many scholars. The causes leading to the rise of antisemitism in Europe according to her can be traced to the relative decline in the importance of Jews (particularly Jewish bankers in the 19th century), their historical alignment with the nobility (a class which was in position of power and so was able to protect them in the past) and the rise of a new kind of unified nation state and nationalism accompanying it. In this exercise for the creation of a unified nation state by its protagonists, the nobility were perceived as impediments and Jews their lackeys. They thus became the other or the aliens in the new nation. The book deals in detail about the Dreyfus affair where a French Jewish officer was falsely implicated for spying and incarcerated. The evidence was suppressed reflecting the antisemitic mood in large sections of the French army and society.

Hannah argues that the rise of imperialism led to racism. Imperialism bought European society in contact with the colonized non-European societies and people who were considered inferior by the Europeans. This inferiority provided the Europeans with the excuse to to tolerate denial of their rights, violence and mass murder against the. She argues that because of this racist attitude, Europe lost its moral compass and the European society became more tolerant of violence and injustice. Imperialism also resulted in pan-nationalist movements in Europe (like one based on language; all German speaking people were one nation) finally culminating in hyper nationalism.Added to this antisemitism and hyper nationalism was the rise of what Hannah calls the ‘mass man’, a refugee within his own society; the atomized individual having little attachment to his job, family, friend or class. It was this ‘mass man’ finding his sense of identity and fulfillment in the movement, and these were led by declassed intellectuals.

Hannah argues that the two classic totalitarian states were Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. According to her, these were states/entities which sought to establish total control within the state; absolute control not only of the government but also every aspect of the citizens life.So, regimes like Spain under Franco, Italy under Mussolini and Argentina under Juan Peron would not classify as totalitarian, for what these dictators sought was absolute political control, but left other areas of life such as art, music literature untouched. In fact Hitler himself argued that Nazism and Fascism were not the same.

While it is true that many of the premises of Hannah can be faulted, (like totalitarianism will originate only in states with large population; Cambodia under Pol Pot defied this thesis) I find her one of the 20th century’s foremost intellectual. If one wants to understand Nazism and what it does to people, one must read her. Hannah is particularly relevent in today’s India, with all its societal and political changes. She is also important because one chuckles as to how casually the word ‘fascist’ is being thrown around by the self styled intellectuals without having any idea of what that ideology entailed.

PS: Time for me to pick up and re-read ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’!

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