Quantcast
Connect with us

The power of ordinary people facing Totalitarianism

Published

on

In the weeks since the election of President Donald J. Trump, sales of George Orwell’s 1984have skyrocketed. But so have those of a lesser-known title, The Origins of Totalitarianism, by German Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt.

The Origins of Totalitarianism discusses the rise of the totalitarian movements of Nazism and Stalinism to power in the 20th century. Arendt explained that such movements depended on the unconditional loyalty of the masses of “slumbering majorities,” who felt dissatisfied and abandoned by a system they perceived to be “fraudulent” and corrupt. These masses sprang to the support of a leader who made them feel they had a place in the world by belonging to a movement.

ADVERTISEMENT

I am a scholar of political theory and have written books and scholarly essays on Arendt’s work. Published more than 50 years ago, Arendt’s insights into the development of totalitarianism seem especially relevant to discussions of similar threats to American democracy today.
Who was Hannah Arendt?

Arendt was born in Hanover, Germany in 1906 into a secular Jewish household. She began studying the classics and Christian theology, before turning to philosophy. Subsequent developments made her turn her attention to her Jewish identity and political responses to it.

It began in the mid-1920s, when the nascent Nazi Party started spreading its anti-Semitic ideology at mass rallies. Following the arson attack on the Reichstag (the German Parliament), on Feb. 27, 1933, the Nazis blamed the Communists for plotting against the German government. A day later, the German president declared a state of emergency. The regime, in short order, deprived citizens of basic rights and subjected them to preventive detention. After Nazi parliamentary victories a week later, the Nazis consolidated power, passing legislation allowing Hitler to rule by decree.

Within months, Germany’s free press was destroyed.

Arendt felt she could no longer be a bystander. In a 1964 interview for German television, she said:

ADVERTISEMENT

“Belonging to Judaism had become my own problem and my own problem was political.”

Leaving Germany a few months later, Arendt settled in France. Being Jewish, deprived of her German citizenship, she became stateless — an experience that shaped her thinking.

She remained safe in France for a few years. But when France declared war on Germany in September 1939, the French government began ordering refugees to internment camps. In May 1940, a month before Germany defeated France and occupied the country, Arendt was arrested as an “enemy alien” and sent to a concentration camp in Gurs, near the Spanish border, from which she escaped. Assisted by American journalist Varian Fry’s International Rescue Committee, Arendt and her husband, Heinrich Blücher, immigrated to the United States in 1941.

ADVERTISEMENT

Soon after arriving in America, Arendt published a series of essays on Jewish politics in the German-Jewish newspaper Aufbau, now collected in The Jewish Writings. While writing these essays she learned of the Nazi destruction of European Jewry. In a mood she described as “reckless optimism and reckless despair,” Arendt turned her attention back to the analysis of anti-Semitism, the subject of a long essay (“Antisemitism“) she’d written in France in the late 1930s. The basic arguments from that essay found their way into her magnum opus, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Why ‘Origins’ matters now

ADVERTISEMENT

Many of the factors that Arendt associated with the rise of totalitarianism have been cited to explain Trump’s ascendancy to power.

In Origins, for example, some key conditions that Arendt connected with the emergence of totalitarianism were increasing xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism, and hostility toward elites and mainstream political parties. Along with these, she cited an intensified alienation of the “masses” from government coupled with the willingness of alarming numbers of people to abandon facts or to “escape from reality into fiction.” Additionally, she noted an exponential increase in the number of refugees and stateless peoples, whose rights nation-states were unable to guarantee.

Some scholars, such as political theorist Jeffrey Isaacs, have noted Origins might serve as a warningabout where America is heading.

ADVERTISEMENT

Although that might be true, I argue there is an equally important lesson to be drawn — about the importance of thinking and acting in the present.
Why people’s voices and actions matter

Arendt rejected a “cause and effect” view of history. She argued that what happened in Germany was not inevitable; it could have been avoided. Perhaps most controversially, Arendt claimed the creation of the death camps was not the predictable outcome of “eternal anti-Semitism” but an unprecedented “event that should never have been allowed to happen.”

The Holocaust resulted neither from a confluence of circumstances beyond human control nor from history’s inexorable march. It happened because ordinary people failed to stop it.

Arendt wrote against the idea that the rise of Nazism was the predictable outcome of the economic downturn following Germany’s defeat in World War I. She understood totalitarianism to be the “crystallization” of elements of anti-Semitism, racism and conquest present in European thought as early as the 18th century. She argued that the disintegration of the nation-state system following World War I had exacerbated these conditions.

ADVERTISEMENT

In other words, Arendt argued these “elements” were brought into an explosive relationship through the actions of leaders of the Nazi movement combined with the active support of followers and the inactions of many others.

The redrawing of European states’ political boundaries after World War I meant a great number of people became stateless refugees. Post-war peace treaties, known as minority treaties, created “laws of exception” or separate sets of rights for those who were not “nationals” of the new states in which they now resided. These treaties, Arendt argued, eroded principles of a common humanity, transforming the state or government “from an instrument of the law into an instrument of the nation.”

Yet, Arendt warned, it would be a mistake to conclude that every outburst of anti-Semitism or racism or imperialism indicated the emergence of a “totalitarian” regime. Those conditions alone were not sufficient to lead to totalitarianism. But inaction in the face of them added a dangerous element into the mix.
Not submitting quietly

I argue that Origins engages readers in thinking about the past with an eye toward an uncharted future.

ADVERTISEMENT

Arendt worried that totalitarian solutions could outlive the demise of past totalitarian regimes. She urged her readers to recognize that leaders’ manipulation of fears of refugees combined with social isolation, loneliness, rapid technological change and economic anxieties could provide ripe conditions for the acceptance of “us-against-them” ideologies. These could result in ethically compromised consequences.

In my view, Origins offers both a warning and an implicit call to resistance. In today’s context, Arendt would invite her readers to question what is being presented as reality. When President Trump and his advisers claim dangerous immigrants are “pouring” into the country or stealing Americans’ jobs, are they silencing dissent or distracting us from the truth?

Origins wasn’t intended to be a formulaic blueprint for how totalitarian rulers emerge or what actions they take. It was a plea for attentive, thoughtful civil disobedience to emerging authoritarian rule.

What makes Origins so salient today is Arendt’s recognition that comprehending totalitarianism’s possible recurrence means neither denying the burden events have placed on us, nor submitting quietly to the order of the day.


Report typos and corrections to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Breaking Banner

Democratic pressure on intel agencies exposed a motherlode of information on foreign meddling helping Trump: report

Published

on

On Saturday, Politico reported that congressional Democrats believe their pressure campaign on the intelligence community was crucial to exposing Russia's newest plot to interfere with U.S. elections on behalf of President Donald Trump.

"For weeks, top Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate have been blaring warnings and demanding briefings and public disclosures from the intelligence community, shrugging off Republican charges that they’re politicizing intelligence," reported Andrew Desiderio and Kyle Cheney. "And Democrats can now point to evidence that their pressure campaign might be working. On Friday, the Trump administration’s counterintelligence chief publicly confirmed that Russia is attempting to harm Joe Biden’s candidacy in 2020. The official, William Evanina, even singled out a pro-Russia Ukrainian, Andrii Derkach, as a key participant in the Kremlin’s new effort."

Continue Reading

2020 Election

Pelosi ‘going for the jugular’ as Republicans fight among themselves over COVID-19 aid: report

Published

on

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi believes she has the upper hand in negotiations with Republicans over the next round of stimulus in response to economic catastrophe resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new report in The New York Times.

The newspaper recounted how Pelosi responded to CNBC anchor Jim Cramer's suggestion she invokes John Lewis to get Republicans to help "minorities" and vulnerable Americans during the economic crisis.

“Perhaps you mistook them for somebody who gives a damn for what you just described," Pelosi replied.

"The comment — unusually coarse for Ms. Pelosi, 80, who was educated by nuns — was part insult, part dare and part slogan for a woman who believes she has the upper hand in crisis negotiations and does not intend to lose it. And it reflected how, two weeks into stalled talks over another round of federal assistance to prop up a battered economy, and less than three months before Election Day, the speaker of the House is going for the jugular," the newspaper explained.

Continue Reading
 

Breaking Banner

Trumpism will live on for years in the Republican Party before it can be rooted out: political analysts

Published

on

President Donald Trump is broadly considered to be in grave peril in the November election, which could not only see him swept from the White House, but could eliminate the GOP's control of the Senate and lead to Democratic gains in the House.

But even if all of this happens, some experts told The Guardian, it could take years before Trump's brand of populist, authoritarian nativism and racism fades from the Republican Party.

"The end of Trump would not necessarily mean the end of Trumpism," reported David Smith. "Nine in 10 Republicans still approve of the job he is doing as president, according to Gallup. A SurveyMonkey poll for Axios last December showed Republican voters’ favourite picks for 2024 led by Mike Pence, with Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr in second place, followed by Nikki Haley, Ivanka Trump, Marco Rubio and Mike Pompeo."

Continue Reading
 
 
You need honest news coverage. Help us deliver it. Join Raw Story Investigates for $1. Go ad-free.
close-image