“Nobody has the right to obey”, a wall painting by Israeli artist Käthe Fürst located at Arendt’s birthplace Lindener Marktplatz 2, Hannover, Germany. Photo by Bernd Schwabe

After the Second World War and the Holocaust, people asked themselves, ‘why?’ But for some, it was more a question of ‘how’. How is it possible that totalitarian states like Nazi-Germany and Stalinist-Russia came into being and could move whole nations to do their bidding? A Jewish thinker, Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975), studied the ‘how’ of this process. As a Jew, fleeing from Germany in 1933 after persecution by the Gestapo, she had first-hand experiences with the collective psyche that underlies these regimes, and developed a specific interest in totalitarianism.

In her life she wrote about many subjects such as the importance of a politically active life in order to sustain a healthy democracy, human rights and the loneliness of the mass-man. While in history there are many examples of political systems such as tyrannies, republics, monarchies and democracies, the Europeans were introduced to a novel concept: the totalitarian state. Of course, autocracy wasn’t a first, but the modern 20th-century ideology-driven one-party state was.

Let’s focus on three theoretical concepts from Arendt’s book Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951.

The Human Condition

Just like other thinkers and intellectuals of that time, Hannah Arendt wrote about the human condition. Europe went through tremendous changes in the 19th and 20th century. Industrialisation and imperialism produced previously unheard of wealth, and with it came mass consumption. The growth of the middle-class and democratisation of political institutions gave the masses opportunity and mobility which they had not experienced before.

An air of ‘human rights’ and equality for all citizens replaced the old moral order of the aristocracy and religion. To Arendt, this wasn’t solely a positive development. It led to fundamental questions about societies and their political order.

“The absolute monarch was supposed to serve the interests of the nation as a whole, to be the visible exponent and proof of the existence of such a common interest. The enlightened despotism was based on [Duc de] Rohan’s “kings command the peoples and interest commands the king”; with the abolition of the king and sovereignty of the people, this common interest was in constant danger of being replaced by a permanent conflict among class interests and struggle for control of state machinery, that is, by a permanent civil war.” 

There was another fundamental question which rose from the secularisation and new-found materialism of European society, the question about identity and meaning. Because of the growing wealth, scientific development and mass-media, people came to feel like lonely creatures in a gigantic system, deprived of a sense of belonging. In her view, nationalism and racism, empowered by colonial policies and Darwinism, were the only parts of human society which could amend the loneliness the masses now endured. The ‘masses’ and the ‘mass-man’ as a new fundamental human condition, form big parts of the rise of totalitarian states.

“Masses are not held together by a consciousness of common interest and they lack that specific class articulateness which is expressed in determined, limited, and obtainable goals. The term masses applies only where we deal with people who either because of sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest, into political parties or municipal governments or professional organizations or trade unions. Potentially, they exist in every country and form the majority of those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.

The truth is that the masses grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class. The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships. Coming from the class-ridden society of the nation-state, whose cracks had been cemented with nationalistic sentiment, it is only natural that these masses, in the first helplessness of their new experience, have tended toward an especially violent nationalism, to which mass leaders have yielded against their own instincts and purposes for purely demagogic reasons.” 

Arendt is clear about the masses: it isn’t fundamentally their fault, they are being used by demagogues and politicians to achieve their own goals. The masses follow the totalitarian leader, believing that what he says is true and what he wants is good.

Ideology and mass propaganda

To mobilize the apolitical masses, the totalitarian leader needed to bind them to a common purpose or goal. An idea, utopia, or the rhythm of History. In case of the latter, imagine a visionary who says that it is the history of his nation and his people which led to its purpose. And this purpose is the leader and his ideology. But what is an ideology? Arendt talks about two ideologies which have survived in the ‘struggle of the ‘isms’’, Bolshevism and Nazism.

“For an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the “riddles of the universe,” or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man. Few ideologies have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion, and only two have come out on top and essentially defeated all others: the ideology which interprets history as an economic struggle of classes, and the other that interprets history as a natural fight of races.

The appeal of both to large masses was so strong that they were able to enlist state support and establish themselves as official national doctrines. But far beyond the boundaries within which race-thinking and class-thinking have developed into obligatory patterns of thought, free public opinion has adopted them to such an extent that not only intellectuals but great masses of people will no longer accept a presentation of past or present facts that is not in agreement with either of these views.”

An important part in the ideology of the totalitarian leader, is the ‘opposition’, the Other, the Enemy. For Hitler it was the Jews, for Stalin it was the Rich, the bourgeoisie. A similarity between these two enemies is that the bourgeoisie and especially the Jews were both seen as ‘stateless’. Not in a literal sense (however, when the Jews fled and became refugees they became literally stateless), but they weren’t a part of the masses or the nation. According to Arendt, the Jews were seen as bound by religion and biology (heredity), and especially in Germany and Austria came to be viewed as an isolated segment of society. They could be French, German, Spanish, or Dutch, but their loyalty supposedly lay with their ‘own people’, not the nation they were citizens of.

In order to mobilize the masses, the totalitarian leader had the perfect tool: mass-media. It doesn’t matter if something is true or right, Arendt explains, if the people believe and trust you, they will follow you straight to the gates of hell.

‘’In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. (…)

Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

Lies and terror

Lies and gaslighting on a massive scale is one of the tactics of the totalitarian regimes. One of the differences with an authoritarian dictatorship is that there is a law, the law of Nature (Nazism) or History (Bolshevism). Dictatorships are in essence ‘lawless’ regimes, as a subject merely needs to obey the rulers and then one is pretty much fine.

In a totalitarian regime, you don’t just obey, you must submit to the visions of the regime. It must be your view and be the essence of all your actions. As a citizen, everything you do is part of ‘the Greater Good’. A totalitarian regime doesn’t merely want you to sit down and pay your taxes, it wants your soul.

‘’…a perfect totalitarian government, where all men have become ‘One Man’, where all action aims at the acceleration of the movement of nature or history, where every single act is the execution of a death sentence which Nature or History has already pronounced, that is, under conditions where terror can be completely relied upon to keep the movement in constant motion, no principle of action separate from its essence would be needed at all.

(…) What totalitarian rule needs to guide the behaviour of its subjects is a preparation to fit each of them equally well for the role of executioner and the role of victim. This two-sided preparation, the substitute for a principle of action, is the ideology.

Another difference between a dictatorship and a totalitarian regime is the use of terror. Terror, as Arendt puts it, is the executive branch of the totalitarian regime. The masses are the embodiment of the law, being the ‘executioner’ and ‘the victim’ at the same time. In order to survive, the totalitarian regime needs to submit its citizens to a state of constant terror, because the regime can’t survive if its society isn’t in constant motion. Everyone who stands in the way, willingly or unwillingly, of ‘progress’ or ‘nature’, will be eradicated. Everything the regime does, resetting ‘reality’ and ‘facts’, is explainable in line with its vision and ideology. Reality is enslaved by the political purposes of totalitarianism, creating a twilight zone between reality and the ideological fantasy of the regime. 2+2=5.

The combination of the belief in the totalitarian ideology and the execution of terror and massive social control, would keep the people ‘in check’. This resulted in societies where everyone distrusted everyone, even their own family, because it was a matter of survival. Through this system the totalitarian state gained total control of every citizen, allowing them to live a hollow and empty life, in service of the State and ‘progress’.

“The last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.”