The Origins of Totalitarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism
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“How could such a book speak so powerfully to our present moment? The short answer is that we, too, live in dark times, even if they are different and perhaps less dark, and “Origins” raises a set of fundamental questions about how tyranny can arise and the dangerous forms of inhumanity to which it can lead.”  —Jeffrey C. Isaac, The Washington Post

Book Summary - The Origins of Totalitarianism

Key Insights

The rise of totalitarian regimes in the 20th Century culminated in a conflict that would become known as World War Two. The emergence of totalitarianism in Germany and the Soviet Union threatened world peace and forever changed the nature of war.

But totalitarianism was not a novel concept at that point. And even after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the threat of totalitarianism was not gone forever. At different points in history, circumstances can give rise to this ideology in small or large movements.

To understand how totalitarianism becomes a mainstream ideology, you need to first look at its origins and the catalyst for its emergence. It is important to be aware of these facts so that you can be aware of how society can prevent history from repeating itself.

Key Points

Totalitarianism and antisemitism are not new ideas.

The rise of totalitarianism in the 20th Century was not something that occurred overnight. The foundations for it lay in Europe’s past, going as far back as the 17th Century. Its ties to anti-Semitic behavior go back just as far.

The social and class divide in Europe is centuries old. As European society evolved from feudal states to monarchies, the Jewish community played an integral role. Throughout history, Jewish people have been employed as financial managers to the ruling classes.

Because of their status, Jews became economically stable. However, their wealth did nothing to help include them in European society and for centuries the Jewish community found itself resented by nationalist Europeans.

If you were a witness to the changes in Europe over the centuries, you would see the growing discontent with the Jewish population. Unfounded accusations and conspiracy theories about the Jewish grab for power spread throughout Europe. Despite their contributions to society Jews were seen as outsiders and looked down upon by almost all classes of Europeans.

This all sounds ominous enough, but it got worse. As nationalist movements grew in parts of Europe, they promoted the idea that their people were racially superior. By the time the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany, the antisemitism sentiment was at the core of nationalistic ideas.

Democracy only works when you represent everyone.

You are probably wondering how nationalist movements gain a foothold in government. After all, just because they promote racist ideas, you would think that most people as decent law-abiding citizens, would not buy into it. The reality is that the nationalist movement had a lot of help from existing state governments, even if it was unintentional.

Before World War Two, European governments were losing supporters and discontent was growing with their leadership. Simultaneously, resentment towards Jewish people grew. One of the reasons for the resentment was the fact that a majority of Jewish people remained wealthy. Other communities were impacted by fluctuations in economic stability in European nations and they blamed the Jewish people for their bad situations.

As the years went by, many of the poor communities felt ignored by the politicians, who focused their energies on the wealthier citizens of their nations. The disenfranchised masses were then vulnerable to other groups who would listen to them. For the totalitarianism movement, it was the perfect opportunity. They could fuel the antisemitism for their own political needs.

Imagine the needs of your community have been ignored by the government for years, and then suddenly a new party comes along who appears to understand what you want. Their promise to fight for you rings true because they act as if they are the same as you and want the same things.

When you see that type of messaging, it may feel like it makes sense to vote with them. There’s nothing wrong with wanting opportunities for a better life. So, it makes sense, right?

This is how the totalitarianism movement was able to appeal to the disenfranchised masses in Europe. The democratic governments assumed they would remain in power and ignored the threat to their leadership. The leaders of the totalitarianism movements were able to gain more votes when elections took place and slowly democracy was eroded.

If the democratic governments had truly represented everyone, it is likely that there would not have been a large mass of disenfranchised voters open to new leadership. Unfortunately, with so many people feeling isolated by their own government, it was easy for someone to come along and take advantage of them. As a result, a totalitarian society comes into existence.

Totalitarianism avoids truth and creates fiction.

If you were told that one community was causing the end of civilization, you wouldn’t take their word for it. You would analyze the facts before you believed them. However, with totalitarianism, facts become blurred with fiction.

Leaders of totalitarian movements do not want their supporters to think about facts that distract from their narrative. One of the signs that totalitarianism has considerable power in a society is when people do not question the misinformation being spread.

When the Nazi party came to power, they consistently pushed their conspiracy theories about Jewish people onto society. The people of Germany, already disillusioned with the state of their country, were susceptible to Nazi propaganda. As a result, the party’s vision to rid Germany of Jewish people became the vision of its supporters.

The events in Germany are a prime example of how totalitarianism can disrupt a vulnerable society. But it was not just Germany that was experiencing a shift in society, the Soviet Union was also using propaganda to great effect. If you were in either of these nations at the time, it would have been hard to know which policies were rooted in truth.

Rewriting history helps to shape the future.

Imagine you are living in a society where any aims for independent thought and free speech are increasingly suppressed. This is what it was like in 1930s Germany as the Nazi party increased its hold on society. One of the methods used was the rewriting of history.

If you were to believe the Nazi propaganda at the time, then the Aryan people were a superior race. They were destined to rescue Germany from the evils of Judaism and create a better future for the German people. The legacy of the master race was a fictional creation that helped to persuade the disenfranchised masses to support their vision.

In totalitarianism, fictional history and propaganda are used to influence the disenfranchised masses. To ensure loyalty, the real motivations of the totalitarian movement are hidden behind ideology and created enemies. This hides the real motivation which is for more power.

Totalitarianism works because free will is taken away from people.

In totalitarian societies, there is an absence of a free will. It is the result of ongoing propaganda campaigns and the continued suppression of analytical thought. The totalitarian society effectively diminishes the ability of its people to think for themselves and forces them to allow their rights to be taken away.

Imagine if you were in a totalitarian state and bore witness to its effect. You would think that people are not aware of the human rights violations being carried out. In truth, most people became so used to the violence and suppression of rights that they eventually just accepted it as the new normal for society.

This was how totalitarian movements like the Nazis were able to commit atrocities against the Jewish people. By essentially taking away the rights of the German people to the extent they became dehumanized to the Nazi party’s crimes. As a result, they were able to exterminate masses of people with little resistance.

Preventing history from repeating itself.

The idea of totalitarianism occurring again seems far-fetched but it could happen again. When democratic governments begin to lose sight of the disenfranchised, they become complicit in the erosion of society. To prevent this from happening, you need to be aware of the causes that lead to disenfranchisement.

One of the key causes of disenfranchisement is isolation. When people feel disconnected from society or experience intense loneliness they become susceptible to suggestions. For totalitarian regimes, this provides a perfect opportunity to encourage people to join their movement.

However, if you can learn from history’s mistakes it is possible to prevent totalitarianism from happening again. There are patterns that you can learn from. You can see the risks and where this ideology may rise again.

Ensuring that everyone’s voice is represented by the governing powers will help. But society also needs to be aware of how totalitarianism becomes mainstream. By exercising your right to free will the threat of totalitarianism can be diminished.

The Main Take-away

The threat of totalitarianism occurs when a large part of society becomes disenfranchised by its government.

The best way to prevent the rise of totalitarianism from happening is for all of society to be represented equally and to encourage free thinking. The protection of human rights and free will is essential to continue living in a democratic society.

About the Author

Hannah Arendt was born in Hanover, Germany in 1906. She studied philosophy at the University of Marburg, the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg, and the University of Heidelberg.

As an author, Arendt has written extensively about the philosophy of human nature and the threat of totalitarianism. She was also a professor at the University of Chicago and the New School for Social Research in New York City.

Arendt moved to Paris in 1933 as Nazi policies began to be implemented. In 1941 she and her husband moved to the United States where she became the research director for the Conference on Jewish Relations.

In 1951 Arendt became a naturalized American citizen and remained in the United States for the rest of her life. Arendt died in 1975 aged 69 and left behind an extensive body of work that is still relevant today.


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