Category Archives: The Origins of Totalitarianism

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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Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism: Why the Jews?


Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

Hailed as a classic by the Times Literary Supplement and ranked by Le Monde as one of the 100 best books of 20th century, Hannah Arendt’s monumental study, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), sketches a political philosophy of the rise of Nazism and Stalinism. In her discussion of the rise of the Nazi movement in particular, Arendt refutes previous explanations of the dissemination of anti-Semitism and its vicious culmination in the Holocaust.

She dismisses explanations of anti-Semitism that she considers “ahistorical,” which do not take into account how prejudices and discrimination against the Jews, occurring throughout the centuries, turned into the center of racist ideology for the Nazi movements.  To understand the historical difference between previous anti-Semitic tendencies and actions—even ones as severe and deadly as pogroms—and the Nazi extermination camps, Arendt describes the unique nature of totalitarian power.

In the first part of the book, Arendt refutes common misconceptions of anti-Semitism. Her arguments focus upon a central question: Why the Jews? How and why did the Jewish people throughout Europe come to be targeted for discrimination, abuse, mass deportation and extermination?

1. The rise in nationalism did not cause a corresponding rise in anti-Semitism in Europe

One common answer to this question explains the radical rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in terms of the rise in nationalist sentiments and its “xenophobic outbursts”. Arendt contends that just the opposite is true: modern anti-Semitism grew as nationalism declined throughout Europe. Nazi ideology, while making use of nationalist sentiments in its rhetoric, actually emphasized the international character of “race”. Hitler never hid the fact that his aim was to ensure the supremacy of the “Aryan” race in Europe and, if possible, throughout the world by subjugating and even eliminating “inferior races”. He turned prevalent feelings of national fervor, anti-Semitism and xenophobia into a transnational racial war.

2. The Jews were not randomly selected as Nazism’s main target and victims

Arendt goes on to refute another common misconception: namely, that the Nazi movement could have selected any other group as the main target of its hatred and abuse. After all, it did include other groups in its categories of “undesirables,” including the mentally handicapped, Gypsies and even the Poles (or the Slavs in general, whom Hitler planned to enslave if he had won the war).  But nobody can deny that the isolation and extermination of the Jews was Hitler’s—and, consequently, the Nazi movement’s—primary obsession. The Nazis pursued the mass deportations and extermination of Jews even at the cost of an economic loss and even after the battle of Stalingrad, when they began to lose the war. This is not, however, because the Jews are perpetual scapegoats and victims. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well,” Arendt points out. “It upholds the perfect innocence of the victim, an innocence which insinuates not only that no evil was done but that nothing at all was done that might possibly have a connection with the issue at stake.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 5) So then why were the Jews targeted as the Nazi regimes primary enemies and targets?

3. The Jews were targeted by the Nazis not because of their vast influence, as was claimed by fascist movements, but because of their statelessness and powerlessness

Nazi propaganda held the Jews responsible for everything that went wrong—economic crises, Germany’s humiliation after the Treaty of Versailles, unemployment, etc. This implied that the Jews were a unified people that had an incredible political power. Hitler described his war against the Jews as a self-defense against a “Jewish conspiracy” to take over the world. Yet, Arendt maintains, the opposite holds true. “Anti-Semitism reached its climax when Jews had similarly lost their public functions and their influence, and were left with nothing but their wealth.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 4) Arendt plausibly argues that Jewish wealth without political power and social influence began to be seen as parasitical in nature. It stirred envy rather than respect and contempt rather than compassion: at least in people already inclined to finding scapegoats for their troubles.

4. Totalitarianism subjugates perfectly obedient people

No doubt, there’s a personal, quirky and irrational component to Hitler’s obsessive hatred of the Jewish people, which became part and parcel of his insatiable drive for power. Hitler justified his desire for total control not only of the German people, but also of Europe and eventually the world, in terms of “saving” the Aryan race from imminent contamination and eventual destruction by the Jews. Yet he targeted Jewish victims who not only had no desire to take over the world, but also who didn’t have the means to do it. In general, Arendt argues, the victims of totalitarian terror are selected because of their helplessness and innocence, not because of their power and culpability. The assault upon the Jewish people, she goes on to illustrate, was only the first step in a reign of terror of unprecedented proportions that would aim at nothing short of the destruction of ethical values and of human identity itself.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Totalitarianism: A Modern Curse

Totalitarianism is a modern phenomenon. It is stronger and more intrusive than dictatorship or autocracy. Totalitarian regimes control not only the state, the military, the judicial system and the press, but also reach into people’s minds, to dictate what they should say, think and feel. Hannah Arendt has argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism 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. Although scholars such as Hannah Arendt, Robert Conquest and Vladimir Tismaneanu have elegantly explained the rise (and fall) of communist governments in Eastern Europe, it’s the vivid descriptions we find in the fiction and memoirs of the epoch–George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Natalia Ginsburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind and Lena Constante’s The Silent Escape—that take readers into the daily horrors, the dramatic Kafkaesque show trials, the physical and psychological torture and the general sense of hopelessness that characterizes life under totalitarian regimes. The writers I have just mentioned tend to focus mostly on the Stalinist period, during which the state governed through arbitrary displays of power and terror, sending millions of people to their deaths in labor and concentration camps. Yet as many who lived under totalitarian rule in Eastern Europe during the post-Stalinist era would claim, the milder, “velvet” form of totalitarianism was depressing and depleting in its own way, killing people’s hope and humanity even though it did not physically claim as many lives.

My own novel, Velvet Totalitarianism,  introduces students and the general public to the post-Stalinist phase of totalitarianism, focusing on Romania under the Ceausescu dictatorship, through the dual optic of scholarship and fiction. First I provide information about the Ceausescu regime: its feared Securitate (or Secret Police); the human rights abuses and outrageous domestic policies which left the Romanian people hungry and demoralized; the dictator’s narcissistic personality cult; the infamous orphanages, which were a direct result of the regime’s inhumane and irrational birth control policies, and the events that led to the Romanian revolution, first in the Timisoara uprising and then in Bucharest, where the dictator and his wife were deposed, put on their own show trial and executed in December, 1989. To do so, I synthesize information presented by other scholarly works, memoirs and textbooks on the subject, including Vladimir Tismaneanu’s Stalinism for all Seasons (2003), Peter Cipokowski’s Revolution in Eastern Europe (1991), Andrei Codrescu’s A Hole in the Flag (1991) and Ion Pacepa’s Red Horizons (1987).

Then I translate these events into fiction, to give readers a more palpable sense of what it felt like to live in Romania under the Ceausescu regime. I also attempt to capture the mixture of cynicism and hope that characterized one of the most bloody anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe. My novel depicts the experiences of a family living under the Ceausescu regime whose son gets entangled in a web set up by the Securitate. The story then traces the family’s difficult process of immigrating to the United States as well as the sometimes comical cultural challenges of adapting to America. The main characters arrive in Eastern Europe on vacation during the period of revolutionary upheavals in both Czechoslovakia and Romania, whose events they witness first-hand.

The parts of the novel that focus specifically on Romania constitute more of a fictionalized autobiography or a memoir in that they’re partly based on my family’s personal experience of communism. I say “fictionalized” since having left Romania at the age of eleven, my memories are undoubtedly skewed by a childlike perspective as well as by the passage of time. The factual information about the Securitate, Ceausescu’s policies and the Romanian revolution I depict here, however, is also based on research rather than just on memories and anecdotal accounts. The fiction inspired by real life helps individuate a mass phenomenon. In a post-Cold War era where totalitarian communism has become just another page in history books, fact and fiction are complimentary rather than opposites. Fiction can make what may now seem like a long-gone, dead epoch, and the anonymous suffering of millions of people, seem vivid, significant and real again.

Yet whichever perspective one chooses, fact or fiction, what is being described here is essentially the same reality: conditions in Romania during the so-called “Epoch of Light” were notoriously miserable. People had to wait in long lines for meager supplies of food, clothing and household goods. There was limited heat and hot water. By the late 1970’s, the Secret Police had installed microphones in virtually every home and apartment. The whole population lived in fear. As a Romanian citizen said to a French journalist following the fall of the Ceausescu regime, “It was a system that didn’t destroy people physically—not many were actually killed; but it was a system that condemned us to a fight for the lowest possible level of physical and spiritual nourishment. Under Ceausescu, some people died violently, but an entire population was dying.”

Although this book focuses mostly on Romania, hundreds of millions of Eastern Europeans led similar lives to the ones I describe, struggling daily against poverty, hunger, state indoctrination, surveillance, censorship and oppression in post-Stalinist communist regimes. In actuality, “velvet” totalitarianism was insidious rather than soft and gentle, killing your spirit even when it spared your life.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

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