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The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt

The Path to Total Terror
The Origins of Totalitarianism.
by Hannah Arendt.
Harcourt, Brace. 477 pp. $6.75.

 

A science-fiction tale of some years back tells of a young man who gets the idea that the world he lives in is arranged especially for him. If he walks into a drug store and orders an ice-cream soda, neither the drug store nor the soda existed prior to his need of them. If he meets a girl, this is because it has been arranged by the secret world-controllers who are playing with him. He charily confides some of these suspicions to a friend of his—and then we learn that his fantasies are in fact true: his “friend” reports to the hidden controllers that the hero “is getting on to us.” Thereupon, the controllers contrive one night to make the hero’s city disappear; when he wakes in the midst of nothingness, he realizes that his paranoia was all too realistic.

Indeed, it is to science fiction, rather than to the more humane Utopias of the past, that we must look for the extremities of the totalitarian’s belief that, while nothing may be in itself meaningful, everything may be possible. Hannah Arendt’s extraordinarily penetrating book makes plain that totalitarianism, whether Nazi or Stalinist, cannot be understood so long as we continue to use the traditional categories of common sense: it cannot be explained by the mere desire for power, for national expansion, for class revenge—for any motives that are simply human, though evil. Totalitarians are “inhuman” in that they are motivated toward total domination of the globe, toward total destructiveness of human individuality everywhere. Their goals are based neither on specific, narrow interests nor even on the utopianism of earlier ideologies, religious or socialist, which sought to extend in the future the sway of certain already given values.

The concentration camps which are, for Dr. Arendt, the characteristic feature of totalitarianism, exist not primarily to silence the opposition (this was liquidated in the early stages) or even to cow the population through terror (for knowledge of what precisely goes on in the camps is hidden from the people), but as experiments in total domination—experiments whose very “success” is more frightening than any previous tyranny the world has had to endure. (It is this that makes Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four such a depressing book: unlike Huxley in Brave New World, he could imagine nothing that was not already Stalinist or Nazi practice.)

Dr, Arendt, building on the work of such writers as Kravchenko, Rousset, and Bettelheim (she criticizes Dallin for his “utilitarian” theory that the Soviet camps are simply an inefficient forced labor supply), shows how the Soviet Union, in eliminating mere whimsical bestiality and sadism from its treatment of people, in forcing friends and families to denounce anyone among them on whom arbitrary suspicion falls, has gone further than the Nazis in the direction of total domination. On this point, I entirely agree with her: most of the Nazis were too corruptible, in their still human desires for money or revenge, to succumb (save in the one sphere of racial policy) to complete and fanatical ideals of total domination. But then, Himmler had less time at his disposal than Stalin has had to create in his own image men who are not even attached to their own lives, let alone to their ease, their advancement, or even their cruel satisfactions.

Without a certain amount of fanaticism on her own part (she reminds one of Simone Weil in her passion and eloquence, though she is not mystical and is much more closely tied to the data of historical experience), Dr. Arendt would perhaps have been less well equipped for the enormous task of understanding she has set herself: namely, to make sense of just those excesses which strike the non-totalitarian world as madness; to feel her way into the mentality of both the leaders and the followers of totalitarian movements, which requires showing just what it was they despised in the bourgeois 19th-century world they wanted to destroy. At times this leads her perilously close to assuming that this world, because it fell and because it bred its destroyers, did in fact “deserve” to be destroyed. Such an attitude assumes a historical rationality and inevitability which, in other aspects, Dr. Arendt rejects; yet this attitude is significant precisely because it is arguable that very little major work of the last hundred years in philosophy and social science—whether we think of Marx, of Comte, of Freud, of Nietzsche—has been produced without some degree of fanaticism. And The Origins of Totalitarianism must be placed on that small shelf of truly seminal works whose very errors, exaggerations, and over-systematizations so often turn out, in the unpredictable history of ideas, to be liberating and fructifying for thought.

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Dr. Arendt begins by tracing the fateful way in which the Jews became the first near-total victims of near-total domination. (Had the Nazis remained longer in power, the Poles, Ukrainians, and “unhealthy” Germans would have followed suit; the Gypsies actually were wiped out.) It is her aim to show that the Jews were not accidental and wholly innocent victims, as the “scapegoat” theory would have it, and that modern exterminatory anti-Semitism has virtually no connection with medieval or czarist attitudes and outrages—let alone with mere social anti-Semitism in the Western countries. She observes that the Jews lost, with the decline of absolute monarchy, and the later maturing of the national state into the imperialist state, their economic and political function as state bankers and financial-diplomatic intermediaries (of course, this function was monopolized by a very small number, who thereby “led” their fellow Jews). At the same time, the Jews did not find a functional place in the basic industries of the developing mass societies, but remained “between parvenu and pariah”—either parasitic diamond jobbers or stock manipulators or seekers of fame and the aura of fame in the cosmopolitan glow by which their Jewishness would be erased. Drawing on Proust’s work, she shows how in aristocratic and highly anti-Semitic French circles Jewishness, like homosexuality, became a “vice” the more titillating the less it was disguised. Many mobile Jews were put in the position of employing or appearing to employ precisely their social marginality as Jews for their ticket of entry to society. Under such conditions, these Jews lost not only their economic and, in the widest sense, their social function, but also their bearings; and the author shows the consequences of this in her brilliant account of the Dreyfus Affair. The French Jews, with hardly any exceptions, were unable to see that the clearing of Dreyfus involved more desperately political issues than those embodied in a business deal; unlike Bernard Lazare, Zola, and Clemenceau, they kept insisting that it must all have been a mistake, that nobody—least of all Dreyfus’s military and reactionary enemies—really meant ill, either to France or to the Jews. Dr. Arendt suggests that the failure to fight the issue through, and the acceptance instead of the compromise of Dreyfus’s pardon, made it plain that political anti-Semitism could be used to undermine democracy and the nation-state.

In her attitude, Dr. Arendt may be a bit too uncharitable to the weakness, the lack of heroism, of Dreyfus’s family and of the other comfortably fixed French Jews; she admires courage and despises middle-class pretense, blindness, and vacillation. At the same time, she tends to assume not only that the selection of the Jews as political game was no accident but that the success of the game was no accident either but a tribute to the political discernment of the anti-Semites (who “really understood” the masses’ longings) and to the cowardice and illusions of the Jews and their liberal friends. The danger of assuming that what happened had to happen (which is different from assuming that one can explain it retroactively) always confronts the historian who attempts to be more than a narrator of antiquities.

However that may be, Dr. Arendt brilliantly uses the French “rehearsal” to show how anti-Semitism becomes a platform uniting the “elite” and the “mob” in contempt for bourgeois society and its laws; and in seeing that this alliance lies at the heart of the totalitarian movements of the 20th century, she makes one of her most important contributions. For instance, her analysis helps account for the success of such a play as The Madwoman of Chaillot (written, by the way, by an anti-Semite), which allows people to laugh at the spectacle of the witty bohemians (i. e. the intellectual elite), the wisely mad, and the charming mob leading wicked, rapacious oil financiers (the bourgeois) into a deathtrap; even businessmen enjoy the spectacle of their arty and fashionable demise. The real “merchants of death” under conditions of modern malaise and discontent with middle-class society become writers who, like Celine, passionately argue for the massacre of all Jews, not insomuch as they are Jews but insomuch as they are symbols of what these writers cannot stand in their society. Indeed, Dr. Arendt shows that anti-Semitism of this modern variety has a long leftist history (Marx’s hatred of “the Jew” is a case in point); such anti-Semitism is not, as so many still think, the attitude of conservatives wishing to preserve the status quo, but of men bent on its destruction.

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As things turned out, it was not the Jews at home but the blacks of Africa abroad who suffered in the 19th century from racist doctrine and practice. Dr. Arendt’s account of what happened when the Boers in South Africa confronted tribes of “savages” who could neither be quickly killed nor quickly domesticated—but who served as a frightening image of what “going native” meant under the nomadic life of the veld—is one of the many dramatic chapters in her series of moving historical tableaux. Modern anthropology has so accustomed us to assume the fundamental ethnocentrism of such a ferocious value judgment as is implied in the term “savages” that it is startling to the reader to find that Dr. Arendt herself regards the Zulus and other African people as savages and not merely as “preliterates” with a valuable and interesting culture. Yet it is perhaps this bias, which she shares with the wonderful short novel of Conrad, Heart of Darkness, which provides her with the empathy required to comprehend the mind of the Boer. In his deracination from all civilized values, the Boer lost not only anything that might be called a Christian attitude toward the indigenous population; he also lost whatever he had possessed of a “capitalist” mentality. Without developing a new ideology, he regressed to a bitter agrarianism, fundamentalism, and anti-urbanism; and became himself metaphorically a member of a lost tribe. Thus, he lost the skills and motives that might have led him to exploit the diamond mines of the Rand, rather than leave this to the hated Jews and to Cecil Rhodes.

The South of Africa thus contributed (by what route Dr. Arendt never makes quite clear) a theme of virulent racialism to the developing pattern of totalitarian theory and practice inside Europe. Meanwhile, in Egypt, at the other end of Africa, the British were facing a very different problem from that of the Boers: they had taken Egypt, not for its loot or to colonize it nor for purposes of future incorporation, but simply because of the need to protect the seaway to India. If the Boers got too close to the natives to be distinguished from them save by skin color, the British proconsuls in Egypt remained wholly detached from the natives whom they supervised. Lord Cromer stands, in Dr. Arendt’s account, as the epitome of the cold, correct bureaucratic mentality that could equally well massacre or protect an alien people. Proceeding in the face of what he considered the sentimentality of the British public, he developed techniques for systematic and disingenuous rule. He did this selflessly, capably, anonymously, much as T. E. Lawrence and other foreign agents later served British imperial policy. Dr. Arendt seems to be asserting that such techniques of organization were precursors of totalitarian bureaucracy, as necessary as were the French mobs who stoned Dreyfusards, or the Boers who wantonly murdered Zulus, for the dynamism of the totalitarian movement.

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Yet the line which runs from Cromer’s imperialistic tendencies, chastened as these were by his exalted ethic and his devotion to reason, to the brutality of a Nazi governor-general in occupied territory, seems to me slim indeed, though no more tenuous than many similar chains of guilt which historians of ideas and of institutions have been drawing in our day. Dr. Arendt is torn between her partial recognition of this fact in addition to her well-justified sympathy for the heroes and poets of the British foreign service, on the one hand, and her belief that imperialism, along with anti-Semitism, laid the groundwork for totalitarianism, on the other. The second third of her book is in fact devoted to imperialism. She sees this movement as tending, for example, in the case of Cecil Rhodes, to expansion for expansion’s sake; Rhodes’ famous remark, “I would annex the planets if I could,” has the ring of totalitarian inhumanity and fanaticism. Beyond that, she sees imperialism more or less as Hobson does—as an expression of the political power of the bourgeoisie and as the last desperate move of capitalism after people and produce and capital become surplus. In my opinion, she gives insufficient weight to Schumpeter’s criticisms of Hobson. Schumpeter suggests that imperialism has its roots largely in pre-capitalist habits rather than late-capitalist crisis; imperialism is out of keeping with the “soft” moral climate and freetrade economic ethic of mature capitalism. (Schumpeter’s views have recently become available in an excellent translation by Heinz Norden: see Imperialism and Social Classes, edited by Paul M. Sweezy.)

Dr. Arendt observes that those countries which missed out in the race for empire abroad tended to develop their prologues to totalitarian impulses in the midst of the European homeland. Thus, she describes the “Pan-movements” of Central and Eastern Europe (Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism) as a kind of internal imperialism divorced from the restraints imposed by economic interest, collecting followers (and foes) on the basis of mere tribal identities: “In psychological terms, the chief difference between even the most violent chauvinism and this tribal nationalism is that the one is extroverted, concerned with visible spiritual and material achievements of the nation, whereas the other, even in its mildest forms (for example, the German youth movement) is introverted, concentrates on the individual’s own soul which is considered as the embodiment of general national qualities . . . . It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind long before it is used to destroy the humanity of man.”

At this point, Dr. Arendt turns her attention once more to the Jews in order to show how their own tribalism, as caricatured in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, paradoxically became both a consciously and unconsciously emulated model for the many Nazi leaders who felt that if the powerless Jews could form an international conspiracy of “blood,” so all the better could they. One of history’s many ironies described by Dr. Arendt is that only one important Jew ever himself believed this sort of thing. Disraeli, knowing as little about the Jews as the Nazis did, imagined them in his novels and daydreams as a secret power underneath all history, a power from which he drew a good deal of the inspiration for his own play at empire-building. The Origins of Totalitarianism shows the decisive importance of a belief, on the part of mob and elite alike, that there is a conspiratorial, numerically small power which rules History—the Jews in the case of the Nazis, “Wall Street” today in the case of the Bolsheviks; the existence of this alleged power serves both as a model to be imitated, and as a justification for counter-secrecy, and, more important perhaps than either, as an “explanation” for the bewildering life experiences of the movement’s followers.

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The most significant of these experiences for attitude formation is that of feeling oneself as an actual or potential “surplus” in an industrial society, as one who is vulnerable to dislocation in the class system by shifts of economic fortunes and to dislocation in the nation-state system by loss of communal roots. (In the reviewer’s opinion, Dr. Arendt does not pay enough attention to the closing down of emigration routes after the First World War as a notification to the surplus ones that they no longer had a place of hope and refuge. With the hardening of national, and especially American, boundaries, the growth of “tariffs on people” becomes as explosive an international force as the growth of tariffs on commodities.) Dr. Arendt observes that, whereas the slave had a place in earlier societies because he had a function in them, the new de-classed and denationed of the 20th century are just what the exported ones have since come to be called: DP’s, people without place. They perforce depend on their mere humanity as the source of their only claim on mankind.

But since this claim has not proved very strong (though I think Dr. Arendt is here once again too harsh against those easy whippingboys, the “well-meaning liberals,” who tried to help the stateless ones), such DP’s are forced to cling to the only thing they have, to their class or tribal tags; in Europe many refuse even the possibilities of assimilation to a host culture. The DP’s within and without a country are forced by circumstance to regard all respectable society as a racket, impure and simple, at the same time that their helpless presence symbolizes the puzzling breakdown of national communities and of international comity. In their contempt and cynicism, not only they themselves but also those who observe them and fear the same fate, fall all the more readily for the “keys” which reduce history to the manifestation of class or tribal identities.

Does this not show the importance, in the development of totalitarianism, of sheer confusion as to what is going on in the world? Dr. Arendt makes it very plain that confusion serves to rally people to the movements which claim to be “above parties” and which argue that parties are simply part of the façade, the swindle, of the “dying” democratic state—whose engineered death later “proves” the rightness of the earlier label. The confused ones who rally to these movements are people whose disorientation is far different from the sheer political ignorance in which pre-modern peasant societies lived; they are people who are troubled by a literate disorientation which seeks ideological answers no longer given by religion or by the sheer presence of an obvious and obviously oppressive ruling group. And confusion also serves to bewilder, on the other hand, the enemies of the totalitarian movements, who suppose that the latter have limited objectives and that, once they have conquered a place in the sun, appeasement will keep them from wanting the sun itself.

In this connection, Dr. Arendt demonstrates that, if the concentration camp is the sign of the existence of totalitarianism in power, the front organization is the means by which it gains power. The front organizations fool not only the outside world about the aims of the movement, by presenting that world with “normal” unfanatical sympathizers, gullible or cynical apologists, and interpreters who put down a barrage of rational explanations (“provocation” or “excesses in the lower ranks”) to explain away what the movement does; but the fronts also serve just as much to fool the inner core of members about the nature of the outside world. For this world presents itself to the inner core not as it is, but through the “reasonable” sympathizer of the front organizations. Until iron curtains and mass terror can shut out the non-totalitarian reality, all but the most tenacious of the inner core need the reassuring existence of the sympathizer in order to remain convinced that their ideological key to history is actually correct and that their beliefs that the Jews or the “60 Families” rule, and that they deserve death for this, are not simply crazy and monstrous creeds.

At the same time, since the party member knows more than the sympathizer, he can look down on him as the gullible one; and Dr. Arendt describes the totalitarian hierarchy as an onion of contempt, in which each layer sees “the world” in the image of the next outside layer, and hence as more gullible and easily controlled than it actually is. At the center stands the Leader himself, who combines in his own person the role of Hard Core—endlessly manipulating the other inner layers to prevent palace cliques and the “return to normalcy” which usually follows a revolution—and the role of Chief Front, able on occasion to appear both to his own followers and to the outer world as more conciliatory and “natural” than the small fry around him. If, as I think, this picture makes sense, it is not the least frightening aspect of our present relations with the Soviet Union to see Stalin as deceived, not so much by his own ideology as by his own fronts, concerning the strength of opposition everywhere against Communism, while still feeling himself able, when things get a bit rough, to smooth them out by assuming the “Good Joe” role at the same moment he inaugurates another series of purges.

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In view of the contributions of Dr. Arendt’s book, it is important that its imaginative historical reconstructions be subjected to professional criticism; there are a number of points where I think Dr. Arendt, on shaky evidence, skates daringly over documentary gaps. In general, as I have already implied, she tends to make totalitarianism appear as consistently fanatical; she therefore overinterprets specific actions in terms of long-range goals, and does not allow for any more or less accidental concatenations of bureaucratic forces, slip-ups, careerisms, as explanatory factors. Thus, she sees the duplication of agencies by Nazis and Bolsheviks as a device for mystification, and as serving other totalitarian ends. She does not suggest that such duplication might appear (as it did under Franklin Roosevelt) only partly as a means to keep various people and policies in suspense but also partly because it is hard, even for a dictator, to end the life of an agency. This general slant makes her assume that totalitarianism, while thoroughly un-utilitarian in pursuit of such older human goals as wealth and power, is ferociously efficient in seeking total domination as such. She writes: “Those who rightly understand the terrible efficiency of totalitarian organization and police are likely to overestimate the material force of totalitarian countries, while those who understand the wasteful incompetence of totalitarian economics are likely to underestimate the power potential which can be created in disregard of all material factors.” On the whole I agree with this; yet there is evidence that even the Soviet MVD can make mistakes; the kind of balefully brilliant scrutiny of the hero recounted in Nineteen Eighty-four may be less frequent than a flat-footed brutality and incompetence. Dr. Arendt accepts the statements of Stalin or Himmler about police organization as unequivocal testimony to their unerring organizational genius. Such historians as Trevor-Roper adduce impressive contrary evidence.

But such questions of detail and emphasis are relatively minor in comparison with the achievement of this book. It is not only an achievement in historiography, but also in political science and, as in its extraordinarily illuminating discussion of the rights of man, in philosophy and ethics. It is throughout a densely imaginative work, truly serious, which makes great demands on the reader, for intellectual readjustments as much as for historical background. I happen to think such an experience in understanding our times as this book provides is itself a social force not to be underestimated.

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