The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt


The 20th. century European totalitarian states rose in Nazi Germany under Hitler (1933-1945) and in the Soviet Union led by Stalin (1924-1953). In her book Arendt seeks to explain the factors explaining modern totalitarianism and why European populations succumbed to them. 

Regarding Arandt's personal background (1906-1975), she was born into a German-Jewish family in Hanover, Germany. In 1925 she maintained a one-year amorous affair with her antisemitic professor, Heidegger. In 1933 she fled Germany fearing for her life. The Origins of Totalitarianism is the authoress's attempt to better understand the events of her time.

In her book Arendt notes that both anti-semitism and imperialism were the main influences in the rise of the totalitarian state. In the 19th. century, she argues, racism and antisemitism were used to justify nationalism and imperialism and that laid the ground for totalitarianism in the 20th. century. Imperialism promoted unlimited expansion and annexation; nationalism ensured that those who did not fit in with the nation state were oppressed. These were the instruments later totalitarian states used to pursue their aims.

Arendt, however, draws a distinction between nationalism and totalitarianism. She affirms that dictatorship is not necessarily totalitarian. One characteristic of the totalitarian government is replacement of all previous traditions and political institutions for its own specific goals. Other characteristics are the endeavour to rule globally and the organisation of the masses. (She asserts that totalitarianism is less likely to arise within small populations.)

The authoress cites indiscriminate terror as another feature of modern totalitarian regimes and it is directed equally at enemies and obedient followers. Random terror is not a tool, but an end in itself. It is justified by supposed natural laws of history which, for example, state that war is inevitable between superior and inferior races. 

In economical terms the rise of the bourgeoisie to power is also cited by Arendt as restricting freedom and consensus, which made populations more susceptible to totalitarianism. These regimes offer a clear idea of security and protection from danger. After the First World War and the 1929 financial crack societies were more responsive to these promises. This ideology is a fiction and propaganda is the tool used to transform reality into fantasy.


The Origins of Totalitarianism was first published in English as The Burden of Time 1951. A German edition was published in 1955 as Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft ("Elements and Origins of Totalitarian Rule")

The first edition has three sections: Antisemitism, Imperialism and Totalitarianism. It analyses the epistemogical crises which lay behind the political disasters of her time. (It was revised 7 years later after the Hungarian uprising in 1956. In 1967 she added more prefaces to each section.)

Part 1 Antisemitism

Arendt establishes that antisemitism did not arise from totalitarianism in Europe but preceeded it. She writes of Jewish history in Europe and the restrictions linked to their different social status, citing in particular the Dreyfus affair. When the Jews lost political power while maintaining their wealth, others resented them. They were both sought after for credit, yet excluded for their heritage.

The authoress establishes that antisemitism is an ideological weapon used by the totalitarian movements. The European aristocracy associated with religious conservatism to mobilise the masses against the Jews. This antisemitic rhetoric was embraced by totalitarian states to further their agenda.

Part 2 Imperialism 

Arendt makes the connection between totalitarianism and imperialism, through the rise of the bourgeoisie, which sought capital wealth outside the nation state. Imperialism enabled the bourgeoisie to impose its bureaucracy on other nations and colonise them through terror for its own financial gain. Totalitarianism used antisemitism and racism to control others and as a paradigm for use beyond its national borders.

The authoress suggests that colonisation taught the Nazi elites how to rule through bureaucracy and ideology. These worked outside limited government and were powered by movement and growth. Continental imperialism led to pan-nationalism, which offered a path for Hitler and Stalin's totalitarian states. 

On the other hand pan-nationalist movements were different from imperialism because they were not looking for financial growth and did not have a general goal. They were based more on sentiments than programmes. Racism and antisemitism were effective in convincing the masses to join the movements.

Part 3 Totalitarianism

This section explains how totalitarian regimes maintain their power, once in government. Since they depend on the masses, totalitarian leaders use propaganda and terror to govern. They offer a consistent fiction to allow the masses to escape their reality and accept the totalitarian narrative. Stability is avoided since it weakens the regime structure which is based on randomness.

In the final chapter Arendt explains that loneliness makes the masses susceptible to totalitarian influence and, since division is precisely what the regime promotes, a viscious circle is created.


Totalitarianism: antisemitism and racism 

Arendt views racism and antisemitism as ideologies, narratives on which to base political and economic systems. She distinguishes between 'race thinking' and racism because the former is opinion while the latter has an infectious quality which is weaponised by totalitarian systems. Similarly social discrimination, through hatred of the Jews, differs from antisemitism which aims to erradicate the Jewish people for political ends. It is also used to mobilise adepts in totalitarian regimes. 

Racism was employed by white imperialists to justify colonisation, through branding the colonisers as superior to the colonised. The authoress indicates that power and weakness were the basis for many ideologies, including social Darwinism. (Adolf Hitler began to read about social darwinism in 1924. He believed that the German master race had grown weak because of non-Aryans in Germany. It became necessary to purify the gene pool. The inferior races were targeted for extinction: Jews, Roma (gypsies), Poles, Soviets, the handicapped and homosexuals.)

The Bourgeoisie

The bourgeois class are described by Arendt as maintaining a double morality, amplified by the division between public and private life. Nazism appeals to their desire for personal gain and acqusitions and they wanted a strong man in power to allow them to concentrate on their finances.

The bourgeois had a single aim - to pursue capital gains, and they saw public life in politics as a sideline. However, when national affairs hindered their economic freedom they took up an interest in politics. Arendt draws a sharp political distinction between the citizen and the bourgeois, a conflict from the previous century:

"...the nineteenth-century struggle between bourgeois and citizen, between the man who judged and used all public institutions by the yardstick of his private interests and the responsible citizen who was concerned with public affairs as the affairs of all." 

The bourgeois double morality of liberalism consisted of the private ethics of acquisition in contrast to the publicly professed  virtues of empathy, individualism and tolerance.

The bourgeoisie welcomed Nazism's ruthlessly competitive values since it meant that their own double morality was synthesised and blessed in the public sphere. Their private morality was announced as a public good. They also needed a strong public leader so that they could focus on their private finances. However, they misjudged the Nazis as simple dictators, not understanding that totalitarian movements:

"...can tolerate bourgeois individualism no more than any other kind of individualism.”

Marx had already pointed out that liberal rights promote the concept of atomistic individuals, separated from the community and out for themselves. He wrote that this process alienated people from their natural bent as social animals. It was this liberal alienation, installed by bourgeois greed, that smoothed the way to the bourgeoisie considering Nazism acceptable.

The Masses

The liberal changes promoted by the bourgeoisie expedited the processes of capitalism. Marx had already noted the ways in which industrialisation alienated the masses: from ownership of the product; from the production process which became repetitive; from each other due to the division of labour. The masses did not have political representation, either, which alienated them from their government and from the public community. Arendt wrote:

“The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships."

The masses' life descended into nihilism, according to Arendt, and made them selfless in the sense that they did not value their own lives and saw themselves as expendable. The Nazis took advantage of this sacrificial attitude of the masses. Arendt affirms that Himmler described Nazi followers as:

“not interested in everyday problems but only in ideological questions of importance for decades and centuries, so that the man … knows he is working for a great task which occurs but once in 2,000 years.” 

Only such an enormous promise could satisfy such a deranged mass mentality.

The Elite

The intelligentsia of the country aligned themselves with Nazism. The primary reason, according to Arendt, was to observe the revelation of the hypocritical morality of the bourgeoisie. 

" seemed revolutionary to admit cruelty, disregard of human values … those who traditionally hated the bourgeoisie and had voluntarily left respectable society saw only the lack of hypocrisy and respectability, not the content itself."

Propaganda and terror 

There is only one policy in a totalitarian regime: self-perpetuation. Nobody is safe since there is no clear party line. Fear is the norm since the regime is unpredictable. Stalin repeatedly purged his own governments due to his own fear of his peers. It was a reign of terror.

Factual knowledge is held as impossible and truth is only known through propaganda. Arendt claims the:

“...possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.”

Propaganda is tailored, not to truths but to the audience who are thereby indoctrinated and subdued to the leadership. The success of propaganda is due to the audience's willingness to believe the worst, even if absurd, and to accept deception, since every statement was a lie in any case.


Arendt claims that loneliness is the basis for the totalitarian terror regime. Terror, coupled with ideology, are the instruments for establishing totalitarian power. The former turns relationships between people into mistrust, thus severing confidence in others and a shared reality, which is replaced by an official ideology. People then lose the capacity for experience and thought as these are dictated to them.

"The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist."

Loneliness is the source and the result of what perpetuates tyrannical regimes: manipulation by isolation.

"Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result."

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