Sunday, July 18, 2021

Short summary: The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

The Origins of Totalitarianism  is a work by Hannah Arendt , the first edition of which was published in 1951 . For Arendt the word totalitarianism expresses the idea that dictatorship is exercised not only in the political sphere , but in all, including the private and intimate spheres , crisscrossing all of society and all of the territory.It consists of three volumes:


On anti-Semitism 

Hannah Arendt's analysis in The Origins of Totalitarianism the rise of anti-Semitism policy, at the end of the xix th  century , unique compared to the feelings anti-Jewish that preceded it. It details the role played by the emergence of modern nation states and the emancipation of the Jews . According to her, the assimilation of the Jews required them to be “exceptional”: the end of the century transformed Judaism , religion and nationality, with collective characteristics, into Jewishness , with a birth, personal character. For medieval man , Judaism was a crime- punish - while for the man of the early xx th  century, Jewishness is a vice - to exterminate. This foreshadows anti-Semitism and the Holocaust .

Arendt concludes The Origins of Totalitarianism with an analysis of the Dreyfus affair , which according to her is the starting point of modern anti - Semitism; she considers that France was "30 years ahead" on the Jewish question .


"Imperialism does not mean building an empire, and expansion does not mean conquest . "

Hannah Arendt analyzes imperialism , this movement of expansion of European powers from 1884 , which culminates in the First World War .Imperialism must be understood as the first phase of the political domination of the bourgeoisie , much more than as the final stage of capitalism.  Arendt links the beginning of the imperialist period to a state in which the nation-state was no longer suited to the capitalist development of the economy . The bourgeoisie , aware of this weakness, began to take an interest in political affairs , to ensure the maintenance of the creation of wealth. "Imperialism was born when the ruling class holding the instruments of production rebelled against the national limits imposed on its economic expansion . "

It makes the distinction with the conquests of the past ("conquest" and "expansion" are two opposite terms in the work), imperial in the first sense of the term: for the first time, powers have made conquests without wanting to export their laws. and their customs in the conquered regions - even by enforcing laws that would be deemed unacceptable on their own soil. It is the first blow to the nation-state and to democracy , the first seeds of totalitarianism .

Arendt also demonstrates that racial thought and bureaucracy , two pillars of totalitarianism, were built to serve imperialist expansion.

In the penultimate part of the book, Arendt analyzes the continental counterpart of imperialism: the annexationist movements, namely Pan-Germanism and Pan- Slavism , which subsequently fed Hitler's and Stalinist totalitarianisms .

The Origins of Totalitarianism concludes with a reflection on human rights and statelessness , conceived as a means of contagion of totalitarianism: stateless persons, people outside the law, force the rule of law to treat them as totalitarian states would. which stripped them of their nationality, because human rights were linked from the start to national sovereignty , and therefore to nationality .

The totalitarian system 

Arendt brings out the specific characteristics of totalitarianism . For Arendt, totalitarianism is above all a movement , a dynamic of destruction of reality and social structures, more than a fixed regime. A totalitarian movement is “international in its organization, universal in its ideological aim, planetary in its political aspirations” . The totalitarian regime, according to Arendt, would find its end if it were confined to a specific territory, or adopted a hierarchy, as in a classic authoritarian regime : it seeks total domination , without limits.

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