Cover to cover
In 1933, Jewish German Hannah Arendt fled Germany to escape the rise of National Socialism. She lived in Paris for a time, before moving to New York in 1941. She soon began writing about her escape from Europe and the difficulties she faced as an immigrant. But in 1943, she learned about the atrocities taking place in Europe, and the massive scale of the concentration camps used to murder people under Hitler’s regime. That soon led her to start work on The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt tried to understand the logic behind the death camps, but she could find no explanation for why a system would aim to kill such massive numbers of people. She wanted to understand the motivations behind this senseless murder, and eventually described the process in her book.
The Origins of Totalitarianism became a dissection of two political movements and doctrines that developed around the same time in history: Hitler’s National Socialism and Stalinism, the form of government in the Soviet Union at the time.
In her quest for understanding, Arendt discovered that there is no way to understand or explain death camps using common sense: totalitarianism goes against all sense. Normally, we try to understand evil by examining the motivation behind it, such as self-interest, greed or lust for power. These are clearly on display in authoritarian systems, where one person exercises unlimited power. But in totalitarianism, all of society is made subordinate to a single ideology or idea of state, even those in power. It involves a total domination of every individual, in every aspect of their lives. A totalitarian system actually offers no benefit to anyone, so it goes against all common sense.
In her book, Arendt analyses which social conditions can lead to a people being completely dominated by an ideology. The main ingredient for the creation of totalitarian movements is loneliness, or social disintegration. In Arendt’s time, people had fewer shared interests due to political developments, such as the decline of the nation-state and the class system. They became isolated and burdened by feelings of being unrooted and unnecessary to society.
According to Hannah Arendt, feelings of loneliness can cause a person’s common sense to disintegrate. The line between ‘true’ and ‘false’ fades, which Arendt describes in The Origin of Totalitarianism as: “In an ever changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached a point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.” This complete displacement led to a yearning for coherence; a new kind of logic.
Through their ideology, totalitarian movements offer that coherence. Both National Socialism and Stalinism used propaganda to create a new kind of logic, and with it to redesign the world, divide it and organise it. In the process, a new fictional reality was created, with more coherence. And that was precisely what the lonely masses yearned for.
Lessons for today’s world
As Hannah Arendt described in her book, loneliness is one of the ‘origins of totalitarianism’. Loneliness is also a common phenomenon today. The rise of new communications technologies (the Internet) has given shape to a new loneliness: social media creates a world in which you are permanently connected, without actually making a connection with others.
Would Arendt recognise in that the raw materials for totalitarian movements? “The totalitarian state that Hannah Arendt describes in her book doesn’t exist right now”, emphasises political philosopher Dr. Dorothea Gädeke. And we shouldn’t use the term ‘totalitarianism’ for other political movements, because it can undermine the threat posed by actual totalitarian movements. But that does not mean we shouldn’t be critical and vigilant, as totalitarianism can always experience a revival.
During the coronavirus pandemic, many people felt useless and powerless, and social relationships deteriorated due to social distancing. People suddenly lost many of their contacts. Arendt warns us to stay alert in this situation by taking seriously the experience of loneliness itself and the circumstances that the loneliness creates. Gädeke: “Whenever loneliness becomes an everyday experience, it prepares people for totalitarian rule.“
Because loneliness erases the line between ‘real’ and ‘fake’, and makes people susceptible to totalitarian propaganda. That can be dangerous in a world where ‘fake news’ and the spread of disinformation are everyday occurrences. Take Donald Trump claiming that 1.5 million people attended his inauguration, for example, even though that was clearly not the case.
Arendt teaches us that it is not important to prove what is true and what is not, but rather to examine what exactly leads someone to believe something that isn’t true. Because certain social conditions can lead to the lies becoming the truth. “It’s important for us not to be too cynical, or to laugh away the threat”, warns Gädeke. Instead, we should take responsibility for our social and political world by taking it seriously, and not by ridiculing figures like Trump. Because that may only make the situation worse.