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The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, published in 1951, is the most eye-opening book on what causes totalitarianism and the dangers posed. Easily ranked as one of the best humanities and social sciences books you could ever read, the author highlights key issues that can drive a sovereign state into totalitarianism. The orders for this book have increased in the last two years as everyone tries to understand and explain President Donald Trump from Arendt’s perspective. This is a book that is indeed worth your time given that it not only covers leadership styles of the likes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin but also remains in tough with modernism.
Dictators and despotic regimes have always been around. For Rome in particular, a dictator was a magistrate who had total control of the Republic. All powers were concentrated on this single individual and no one could veto his actions. This became the origin of the term dictatorship which was more rampant in the twentieth century.
No one can dispute the fact that the 20th century was the climax of total domination. During this time, Hannah Arendt emerged as one of the most instrumental political thinkers to articulate the term. As the popular mind considers totalitarianism from the perspective of dictatorship, Arendt thinks otherwise. She believes that totalitarianism has to do with the complete replacement of political systems with new ones whose sole purpose of existence is to serve the needs of the totalitarian government. Based on Arendt’s arguments, one can assert that all totalitarian states are dictatorships. However, the same cannot be said for all dictatorships.
Just as the book’s title suggests, the author was more interested in exploring what causes the totalitarian phenomenon. After a detailed discussion, she makes a conclusion that leaves you with the urge to re-read the book for better understanding. This was not just your regular author. Arendt was an author who mastered the art of deep-thought and freely expressed it. The book has a wide range of scarring parts, some type of warnings to future generations that racism can destroy a free state.
It all starts with the refusal to help refugees
Arendt argues that one of the origins of totalitarianism takes effect when the stateless group, mostly the persecuted minorities, are denied all manner of human rights. This group is forced to leave their country of residence where they enjoyed protection from an authoritative body. Unfortunately, they find it hard to get a place to settle. No other community is willing to take them in.
Due to the refusal to help refugees, a free state is set on the path that leads to totalitarianism. The author writes that gifting asylum to the thousands of stateless people arriving in a nation was one of the noblest things to do. This is regarded as the Right of Man in the wake of international relations. As that right gets abolished, the onset of totalitarianism begins.
Reading this book shows you that the author did not believe in the power of the League of Nations to help the stateless. She writes that once a human being no longer has a government and has fallen back to his basic rights, there would be no institution that is ready to guarantee them. These individuals are left with no choice than to move to an internment camp, which becomes some kind of a country to them.
Her arguments are an exact reflection of what happened to the German Jewish under the Nazi-led government in the 19th century. The whole incident began with the unfair treatment of minorities. Having predicted what lay ahead, some Jews began fleeing to nations that were willing to take them in like the United States. But not all of them were able to get refuge elsewhere. As such, the Nazi German cast them into concentration camps, which could be the equivalent of what Arendt describes as secondary ‘country’. Here, the Jews did not have any type of right. They were exposed to unfair treatment, including outright denial of food and a chance to bathe. The mass graves discovered in Stalingrad are a clear testimony of the horrors experienced here.
Role of hatred in totalitarianism
Arendt had a personal experience of what it felt like to be hated by the whole nation-state. As a German-Jewish, she understood quite too well how hatred against a particular race can be instigated and easily go mainstream. Her book is a clear warning of the destructive potential of developing mass hate against particular minorities.
At the time of its writing, the author had the Jews in mind. She writes of how hatred easily became the main topic of discussion in all public gatherings. The author goes on to explain how the elites take part in eroding values and legitimizing extreme views. In her analysis of the mob, she says that the collision between the elite and the mob helped destroy civilization. All of this was done to see how fun it could be for those excluded unjustly try and force their way in.
As I read the author’s arguments on the role of hatred in pushing forth totalitarianism, I couldn’t help but reflect on where we are as a nation. The United States is currently dominated by too many cases of hate. The country is currently fuming with so much hate, most of which motivates mass shootings. As President Trump argues that these shootings are caused by mental illnesses, experts beg to differ, taking the perception that hate, racism, and white supremacy are the major factors to consider.
Corrupt business and governing class
We all know how detrimental corruption can be to a nation. What we fail to acknowledge is the role that the rise of the corrupt political class and business leaders can have in creating totalitarianism. Arendt describes this group as being one that considers corruption to be funny rather than outrageous.
While expounding on the book’s sub-section, The Temporary Alliance of the Mob and the Elite, Arendt presents the play The Threepenny Opera. In this play, gangsters are depicted as respectable businessmen while respectable businessmen are shown to be gangsters. This is the irony that shows just how the world has lost it when handling the corrupt.
The Soviet Union was characterized by totalitarian rule as well as widespread cases of corruption. It established a form of government in which its ruler, Joseph Stalin, operated without his subjects having a set of rules to question his actions. He had a power-hungry personality which made him corrupt and used the same benefits of corruption to attract admiration from the unsuspecting citizens. This is an exact depiction of Arendt’s description of totalitarianism and totalitarian regimes.
As Arendt came towards the end of her book, her assertions are what left many people talking. They became the central point of discussion. The author gave the book a startling and unexpected conclusion – loneliness.
According to Arendt, being a member of a community goes hand in hand with having rights. The absence of such membership paves the way for mass movements to mobilize the masses who do not have any political opinion or class. The mass man is not ultimately characterized by backwardness or brutality, but by isolation and inability to be a part of normal social relationships.
Applying her observations to our society, it becomes easy to conclude that racism does happen on its own. The decision to hate the minorities (Jews at that time, and Muslims or migrants today) is purely a product of self-definition whose aim is to make oneself feel more important than others in the society.
The advent of the Internet has indeed made the world more connected than before. But has this helped in mitigating loneliness or fostered it? The latter is true. People spend a major part of their time on social media and care less about face-to-face interactions. Technology tries to help with this through the invention of apps that make it possible for video calls. Still, this is not enough. You will often find family members having dinner but none cares to share stories like before because they are all lost in chatting with other friends across the globe.
Today, the United States and European nation-states, in particular, the United Kingdom, are continuously resembling sovereign nation-states. Modern events like U.S. strict imposition of laws against immigration and the U.K’s decision to leave the European Union present the highest danger of totalitarianism than ever. As President Donald Trump maintains a unique approach to leadership, one that many feel they have encountered before, we all ought to be careful not to set up a totalitarian government.
A totalitarian regime possesses the greatest threat to the survival of a nation. Even the origin of World War II is directly attributed to stiff stands by dictatorial leaders like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. That is why I found it quite impressive that Hannah Arendt took a better part of her time to warn us of the dangers faced. The best way to get the most viable lessons from this book is to read it with an open mind as you try to create parallels with our modern world.