Review: The Origins of Totalitarianism

Review: The Origins of Totalitarianism


Luke Murphy




This review was originally published on Medium

It was a sign of the speed at which events were moving that Hannah Arendt’s 1951 ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’ was remembered, republished and sold-out so soon after the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and the referendum to leave the European Union in the United Kingdom. It is now three years on from both events, and I assume everyone who went online to buy it has completed the 600 pages that would be so much more if it wasn’t for the tiny font of its exhaustive footnotes.

Like so many mid-2000s email chains that burst into your inbox to explain the 10 Signs of True Love with number ten being ‘if you read this whilst thinking of someone then it REALLY is love,’ it is difficult to read ‘Origins’ without always thinking of current events. Every sentence dares you to find a modern-day comparison. But the point of Arendt’s writing is to provide a detailed diagnosis of what caused Stalinism in Russia and National Socialism in Germany. Writing in 1951, a year in our lazy minds easily attached to the ‘post-war’ period, the author’s experience and arguments actually have more connection with The French Revolution, the unification of Germany, The Dreyfuss Affair and British Imperialism than any ‘modern’ historical event.


A case in point is the reminder that anti-Semitism existed before the state of Israel. It is the modern flavour of anti-Semitism, that for example eats away at the Labour Party, which is so consumed with debates about the Israeli-Palestine conflict. It is sobering to find ‘Israel, State of’ gets only one entry in the index when over 150 pages are dedicated to anti-Semitism as a signpost to, and the paving of, the road to totalitarianism (and this was three years after the establishment of Israel).

Israel arrives once in the book only to reinforce one of Arendt’s central arguments that, whether we like it or not, only national rights can secure a person’s or people’s safety. Since nobody can sufficiently define and, more importantly, effectively go out to bat for human rights at a time of humanitarian crisis, the establishment of a Jewish state was the only way to protect Jewish people from cosmological threat. To put it another way, we all agree that the nation-state is the currency of the world, but we are still to agree, as the Mediterranean graveyard in our own time grows, that human beings are more important than any number of things.

In the age of empires, Jewish people were able to live and work, with varying degrees of success in a world where citizenship was unconnected from the nation-state. But as these empires finally collapsed at the end of the first world war, Arendt’s key concept of ‘superfluousness’ is introduced as Jewish people found themselves top of a list of people without a state to defend them. The people on this list were called ‘Minorities’.

National Rights

The invention of new nation-states in the first part of the twentieth century was half-baked and reflected the fashion of the Imperial Era to think ‘in continents’. A ruler line here. A pencil border there and for the majoritarian leaders of the day the redrawing of Europe and the Middle East was complete. Moments like this in 1919 were a victory for peace and the hand of progress—unless you were a Polish Jew in Romania or a German speaker in Czechoslovakia.

Virile nationalism is an origin of totalitarianism, and this does live on today. If you are a nationalist or are behaving or acting in a way that strengthens only one particular nation, then it is only the people who embody that nation which could be its model citizens (the rest are ‘tolerated’ at best). Because for every action of nationalism, you create a reaction of un-nationalism. If you can imagine the ideal Frenchman, you can imagine an un-Frenchman. If you can imagine ideal German behaviour, then you can imagine un-German behaviour. And as nations were imagined, built and expanded the new pressure on individuals to choose once and for all their single and true nationality was unbearable. If they couldn’t choose or weren’t convincing enough, they suffered a helpless fall into statelessness where they were neither citizen, acceptable or human.

Arendt brings vivid and new energy to our current situation from the secure retreat of a 1951 American naturalised citizen. The introduction of the idea of ‘superfluousness’ is still coherent and new, and the second part of the book, ‘Imperialism’ is where things start to expand.

British Imperialism

In today’s Britain the two-handed debate of ‘on the whole, the British Empire did more good than bad’ is valid only if both sides have failed to read and understand any of the simple arguments opposed to their position. And Arnedt shows the patience of an independent thinker who seemingly held no selfish, strategic or economic interest in praising or attacking Britain:

“The happy fact is that although British imperialist rule sank to some level of vulgarity, cruelty played a lesser role between the two World Wars than ever before and a minimum of human rights was always safeguarded.”

Britain did not invent cruelty or become defined by it. But it did set examples that were hypocritical to its values and were to be perfected by others. British Controller-General of Egypt (the title itself enough to rebuke the Burkean form of democracy British MPs were so proud of) Lord Cromer wrote uneasily in 1884 of being in charge of a:

‘hybrid form of government to which no name can be given and for which there is no precedent’.

A private admission revealing that, unlike the Roman Empire where expansion went hand in hand with the expansion of Roman citizens, 19th-century Imperialism, was just a great game that Britain was bloody damn good at. The goal was first about expansion for expansion’s sake and second, to protect India at all costs because of some mystical love we are assured was mutual. This made British territories like Egypt and South Africa only valuable as a notch on the bedpost and because they facilitated continued relations with mistress India. They had become superfluous.

To continue winning the game, Britain invented a new form of government to be run by unknown, unaccountable and secretive bureaucrats. It was neither military occupation nor holding the promise of some future democracy. The British Empire’s greatest gift to Africa, and the world, in the five decades that preceded the rise of Hitler, was first:

“government without precedent in the north [Egypt]”

and second, the ‘race society’ of Cecil Rhodes’ Southern Africa which Arendt calls:

a way of life without precedent in the south.”

Superfluous land, superfluous government, superfluous peoples all without precedent. These are the origins of totalitarianism. The British indulgence to normalise, and even boast of its rule without precedent would later mutate into the same conditions that could empower a German SS officer in occupied Polish territory to order minorities by train wherever he so wished.


The British Empire also created the most famous of the superfluous heroes like Cecil Rhodes in Southern Africa, Lawrence of Arabia, and although unmentioned by Arendt, Winston ‘Part Of The Last Calvary Charge In Military History’ Churchill. Sickly children or awkward gentlemen who failed to fit inside the circles of British class society were lucky enough to travel overseas and take a free hit in the colonies where they could act as they wanted. And as beneficiaries of the dominant and popular ‘race-thinking,’ everyone else was made subordinate to them.

When they, or at least their legend, returned home the same society that had rejected them now fell in love with their stories of natives, death, adventure, natives and death. It was murder made respectable as:

“…high society fell in love with its own underworld, and of the criminal feeling elevated when by civilised coldness and good manners he [the hero] is allowed to create a vicious, refined atmosphere around his crimes.”

This civilised atmosphere of criminal acts by heroes of the nation reminds us that Hitler, himself a famous outsider rejected by the establishment, was appeased by the British fully aware of his crimes all the way up to the moment of war and that Stalin, the other midwife of totalitarianism, sat at Yalta as a peer and ally to the other leaders of the free world, barely six years before this book was published.


‘Origins’ is such a comprehensive book written with a duty ‘to see things as they are’. Arendt cannot help, in just a clutch of pages, but communicate deep and valuable understanding of topics I did not expect to be covered. For instance, why did Continental Europe collapse into totalitarianism whilst the UK did not, despite having just as much material cause? Arendt presents the secret to British politics, known to some and forgotten by most:

“In the two-party system [of the UK] one party always represents the government and actually rules the country, so that, temporarily the party in power becomes identical with the state…As the two parties are planned and organised for alternate rule, all branches of the administration are planned and organised for alternation. Since the rule of each party is limited in time, the opposition party exerts a control whose efficiency is strengthened by the certainty that it is the ruler of tomorrow. In fact, it is the opposition rather than the symbolic position of the King that guarantees the integrity of the whole against one-party dictatorship…the obvious advantages of this system are that there is no essential difference between government and state…consequently, there is no occasion for indulgence in lofty speculations about Power and State as though they were something beyond human reach.”


“The Continental party system supposes that each party defines itself consciously as a part of the whole, which in turn is represented by a state above parties. A one-party rule, therefore, can only signify the dictatorial domination of one part over all others. One of the minor shortcomings of this system is that cabinet members cannot be chosen according to competence, for too many parties are represented, and ministers are necessarily chosen according to party alliances; the British system, on the other hand, permits a choice of the best men from the large ranks of one party. Much more relevant, however, is the fact that the multiparty system never allows any one man or any one party to assume full responsibility, with the natural consequence that no government, formed by party alliances, ever feels fully responsible.”

Arendt understands the strengths of British parliamentary democracy even when, like a McDonald’s kitchen, it seems unbearably chaotic. What she cannot anticipate for British democracy is the introduction of referendums to this unknowable gap between Power and State, which leads us to our current situation.

The insertion of a referendum to make constitutional changes, which are based only on slogans and speeches not on manifestos or legislation, is extremely dangerous for UK democracy. The delicate constitutional balance which Arendt praises for allowing perpetual disagreement without dictatorship is threatened when a non-parliamentary movement can position itself above the nation, above the state and as sole interpreters of the people’s will.

The second crucial point to our current situation is of the government taking ‘full responsibility’. When Churchill, Attlee, Callaghan, Thatcher/Major and Blair/Brown were all removed as Prime Minister, their party went away in great disagreement. They faced the responsibility of their actions in government, embracing even small measures of thoughtfulness for the future and what it needed to do to be the state when its turn came again.

In Totalitarian regimes, there is no alternative; there is no period for a party to go away, wait its turn and reflect. Instead, what happens is the tyranny of the redefinition. Hitler and Stalin just redefined what was good and what was right. ‘Right is what is good for the German People’ said Hitler. Unknowable, unarguable, undefinable. Even at a point of moral failure, British politicians could say ‘Appeasement is right’ or ‘Appeasement is wrong’, always open to change and challenge. Now, in our current situation the Brexit movement, birthed by a tumourous referendum process in the heart of the constitutional body, we approach the moment where ‘What is right is what is good for Brexit’ could justify any act or consequence.

The Mob and the Elite

The most famous and quoted argument of ‘Origins’ is that Totalitarianism is ‘the temporary alliance between the mob and the elite’. The ‘elite’ is well-defined. For Arendt, it was the aristocracy who, faced with the fashion for new European republics, lost their function in society. This is a time when the strict class system of the 19th century had imploded, and all that was left were ‘the masses’. These are all terms we still use today, perhaps tweaking members of ‘the elite’ less as former aristocrats and more as anyone who could imagine reading the Financial Times’ supplement ‘How to Spend It’.

However, use of the term ‘mob’ is one of the occasional times (like in Arendt’s detailed accounts of Jewishness) where caution is needed for the modern reader. These words are now loaded. The stereotypes of the redundant mid-western steelworker and Trump voter and the even more stereotyped Northern-English working-class Brexit voter (52% of all Leave voters came from the South of England) are victims of a long middle-class patronising sneer that breaks apart vital moments of social cohesion. Are Trump and Brexit voters the mob?

In our current situation, social cohesion is the period Arendt is writing in, 1945–1979. After, with the removal of social empathy and relegation in the importance of community in exchange for GDP growth (symbolised by Margaret Thatcher’s famous declaration “There is no such thing as society”), the UK and the USA created the same marginalised ‘masses’ that Arendt identified as the:

“atomised, undefinable, unstable and futile individuals [without] a means of self-definition and identification [and without] the self-respect they had formally derived from their function in society.”

Is use of the term ‘mob’ this same sneer? No. The mob has nothing to do with class, geography or even ideology. It is instead:

“…residues of all classes. This makes it so easy to mistake the mob for the people… While the people in all great revolutions fight for true representation, the mob always will shout for the ‘strong man,’ the great leader.’ For the mob hates society from which it is excluded, as well as Parliament where it is not represented. Plebiscites [referendums], therefore, with which modern mob leaders have obtained such excellent results, are an old concept of politicians who rely upon the mob…What the mob wanted, and what Goebbels expressed with great precision, was access to history even at the price of destruction.”

Just as Hitler and Stalin meet in the middle of political ideology, when the extremes curve together, so also the mob and the elite. Outsiders, sharing only in their rejection from mass society, curve together to meet at points previously thought unacceptable or impossible. And in this communion, the mob and the elite ride the masses for their individual gain. Arendt agrees and, at the last, inoculates herself from any accusation of being patronising:

“The revolt of the masses against ‘realism,’ common sense, and ‘all the plausibilities of the world’ (Burke) was the result of their atomisation, of their loss of social status along with which they lost the whole sector of communal relationships in whose framework common sense makes sense. Totalitarian propaganda can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity…the masses probably will always choose the fantastically fictitious consistency of an ideology and be ready to pay for it with individual sacrifices — and this is not because they are stupid or wicked, but because in the general disaster this escape grants them a minimum of self-respect.” [my underline]

In our current situation, we have ‘the masses’, and we even have ‘the mob’ to shout the loudest. But what we have that Arendt doesn’t emphasise is the individual. For us, the individual is supreme, and any decision made because of concerns for others or a group—even if you are included in that group—makes no sense. Because for the isolated individual, whose best or only social bonds come on social networks, especially after the local closed, it makes sense to choose only that which improves your individual situation. It no longer makes sense to care for others. Thousands of years of thought and experience has regularly warned that personal satisfaction can only ever be so satisfying. And at this loneliest moment, where even common sense feels fraudulent the elite and the mob arrive to deliver the final betrayal with an offer you cannot refuse.

What is Totalitarianism?

Arendt stresses that Fascism in Italy and Spain is not Totalitarianism, only the violent domination of one group over all other groups which remain un-annihilated. She points to the meetings of minds between Hitler and Stalin who considered themselves so alike, much more so than with the fascists of southern Europe. Because totalitarianism was something different, where the only people unaffected ‘are asleep’.

If Franco and Mussolini were not Hitler and Stalin, then Brexit and Trump are even further away. But this is a book about the origins of totalitarianism, the things that come before—and this is a state we will always live in. We will forever live with the knowledge a Stalin or Hitler could return, and this adds a guilty question mark to every new movement of society. This book is a blessing because we have in our hands, in black and white, how their regimes came to be. Hannah Arendt’s writing is so good that with every line of detail, the big picture of normal human life is never lost. Now that we are rushing to define what totalitarianism is and whether it is returning, we ought not to underrate its normality at the time.


This review was originally published on Medium

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