Hannah Arendt on the Role of the Masses in mass horrors


Nazi Germany, photo from the Wikipedia Commons

Nazi Germany, photo from the Wikipedia Commons

Hannah Arendt on the Role of the Masses in mass horrors

by Claudia Moscovici

Totalitarianism isn’t an easy phenomenon to grasp. One of the most difficult things to understand is how could hundreds of millions of people all over Europe and the Soviet Union have allowed the horrors of the Holocaust and the mass purges to take place. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt offers one of the best explanations for these mass horrors. “Mass” is the key word here. Arendt’s explanation consists of describing this modern social entity called “the masses,” which she distinguishes from the mob (itself capable of spurts of violence, such as during pogroms) as well as from classes (based on economic self-interest). The masses are a quintessentially totalitarian phenomenon.  Arendt posits that one of the key features of the totalitarian state is its system of indoctrination, propaganda, isolation, intimidation and brainwashing—instigated and supervised by the Secret Police—which transforms classes, or thoughtful individuals able to make relatively sound political decisions, into masses, or people who have been so beaten down that they become apathetic and give their unconditional loyalty to the totalitarian regime.

The masses versus the classes

Unlike social classes, Arendt explains, the masses are amorphous and easily swayed. They’re moved by superficial rhetoric and empty fervor rather than united by a common identity or shared economic interests. According to Arendt, “The term masses applies only when we deal with people who either because of their sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 311). Of course, this political and social apathy isn’t enough to lend support to totalitarian movements. An additional, and crucial, factor comes into play. The apathetic masses must come under the spell of charismatic evil leaders, like Hitler and Stalin, who gain control over society and kill in them the last vestige of human decency and individualism. If “the masses” don’t exist in sufficient numbers in a given society, then totalitarian rulers create them. This was the main purpose, Arendt contends, of Stalin’s relentless purges, which destroyed any real class identity and ideological conviction. Even the nuclear family and bonds of love deteriorated, as friends feared friends and parents lived under the reasonable fear that their own children could at any moment turn them in for “deviationism” from the party line.

Social groups versus atomized individuals

The masses are vast in number but isolated in nature. Totalitarian society creates an immense collection of atomized individuals. There’s no other way to command an absolute obedience to the regime: even when the government’s policies change radically, demanding one thing of its followers one day and the opposite the next. This unconditional loyalty, Arendt argues, “can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement, his membership in the party.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 323-4) This false sense of belonging can’t be based on any real social identity, since totalitarian movements are arbitrary in their demands, fickle in their objectives and changeable in their actions. Perhaps their only stable feature is the ruthlessness of their punishments: the constant reign of terror.

Fanaticism versus idealism

The masses are fanatical rather than ideological (adhering to a firm set of political or economic principles) or idealist (aspiring, utopically, to moral or political perfection). Far more extreme than a mob, upon which fanaticism has a short-lived hold, the masses can be under the spell of a charismatic evil leader even when it’s no longer in their self-interest. How is this self-defeating attitude possible? Arendt explains: “identification with the movement and total conformism seem to have destroyed the very capacity for experience, even if it be as extreme as torture or fear of death.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 308)

The philistine versus the bourgeois

Totalitarian movements transform ordinary human beings into philistines. Arendt describes the philistine as a bourgeois who is isolated from his class. The philistine focuses so much on his own narrow needs that he views victims as “others” rather than as fellow human beings. “Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and the private morality or people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives,” Arendt claims. “After a few years of power and systematic co-ordination, the Nazis could rightly announce: “The only person who is still a private individual in Germany is somebody who is asleep.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 338-9) Decades after its publication, The Origins of Totalitarianism remains the most rigorous and systematic explanation—and offers the most elegant political philosophy–for how such mass horrors could have occurred in the 20th century. The book also serves as a necessary reminder that they can happen again for as long as humanity can be dehumanized by totalitarian regimes.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

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