HCJ FOUR: Totalitarianism (My Seminar Paper) Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism analyses the two major totalitarian movements of the 20th century, Nazism and Stalinism.

Totalitarianism differs from other forms of political oppression such as despotism (a single entity rules with absolute power), tyranny (cruel and aggressive government or rule) and dictatorship (government ruled by an individual –dictator or oligarchy – small group).

Wherever it rose to power, it developed entirely new political institutions and destroyed all social, legal and political traditions of the country. Totalitarian government always transformed classes into masses, replaced the party system, not by one-party dictatorships, but by a mass movement, shifted the centre of power from the army to the police, and established a foreign policy openly directed toward world domination.

Present totalitarian governments have developed from one-party systems; whenever these became truly totalitarian, they started to operate according to a system of values so radically different from all others, that none of our traditional legal, moral, or common sense utilitarian categories could any longer help us to come to terms with, or judge, or predict their course of action.

The totalitarian “crisis” is no mere threat from the outside, no result of some aggressive foreign policy of either Germany or Russia, and that it will no more disappear with the death of Stalin than it disappeared with the fall of Nazi Germany.

Arendt raises the question: does totalitarian government owe its existence to accidental failure of the traditional political forces or is there is such a thing as the nature of totalitarian government, whether it has its own essence?

Do we interpret totalitarianism as a modern form of tyranny – a lawless government where power is wielded by one man – an arbitrary power, unrestricted by law, yielded in the interest of the ruler and hostile to the interests of the governed with fear as the principle of action, fear of the people by the ruler and fear of the ruler by the people. Arendt explains how these have been the hallmarks of tyranny throughout our tradition.


Totalitarianism defies all positive laws, even to the extreme of defying those which it has itself established – such as the case of the Soviet Constitution of 1936, also known as the “Stalin” constitution:

– The Central Executive Committee became the Supreme Soviet.

– The Supreme Soviet was empowered to set up Commissions, which administered most of the government.

-The 1936 Constitution thus focused power in Stalin’s hands.

It did have some benefits but only for the Communist Party, to work, to rest and leisure, to health protection, to care in old age and sickness, to housing and education.

It claims to obey laws of Nature or of History from which all positive laws always have been supposed to spring. Totalitarian lawfulness pretends to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior. It applies the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behavior of men. The law of Nature or the law of History is expected to produce mankind as its end product; and this expectation lies behind the claim to global rule of all totalitarian governments. Totalitarian policy claims to transform the human species into an active unfailing carrier of a law to which human beings otherwise would only passively and reluctantly be subjected.

In the interpretation of totalitarianism, all laws have become laws of movement. When the Nazis talked about the law of nature, neither nature nor history is any longer the stabilising source of authority for the actions of mortal men; they are movements in themselves. Underlying the Nazis’ belief in race laws as the expression of the law of nature in man, is Darwin’s idea of man as the product of a natural development which does not necessarily stop with the present species of human beings. This is the same as the belief in class-struggle as the expression of the law of history in which lies Marx’s notion of society as the product of a gigantic historical movement which races according to its own law of motion to the end of historical times when it will abolish itself.

When comparing Marx and Darwin, Arendt suggests that ultimately the movement of history (survival of the most progressive class) and the movement of nature (survival of the fittest) are one and the same. Intellectual change took place in the middle of the last century consisting in the refusal to view or accept anything “as it is” with the interpretation of everything as being only a stage of some further development. In these ideologies, the term “law” itself changed its meaning: from expressing the framework of stability within which human actions and motions can take place, it became the expression of the motion itself.

Terror becomes total when it becomes independent of all opposition; it rules supreme when nobody any longer stands in its way. If lawfulness is the essence of non-tyrannical government and lawlessness is the essence of tyranny, then terror is the essence of totalitarian domination.

Terror is the realisation of the law of movement; its chief aim is to make it possible for the force of nature or of history to race freely through mankind, unhindered by any spontaneous human action. As such, terror seeks to “stabilize” men in order to liberate the forces of nature or history.

Guilt and innocence become senseless notions; “guilty” is he who stands in the way of the natural or historical process, which has passed judgment over “inferior races,” over individuals “unfit to live,” over “dying classes and decadent peoples.”

To abolish the fences of laws between men — as tyranny does — means to take away man’s liberties and destroy freedom as a living political reality; for the space between men as it is hedged in by laws, is the living space of freedom.

By pressing men against each other, total terror destroys the space between them. Total terror, the essence of totalitarian government, exists neither for nor against men. It is supposed to provide the forces of nature or history with an incomparable instrument to accelerate their movement.

From the totalitarian point of view, the fact that men are born and die can be only regarded as an annoying interference with higher forces. Terror executes on the spot the death sentences which Nature is supposed to have pronounced on races or individuals who are “unfit to live,” or History on “dying classes,” without waiting for the slower and less efficient processes of nature or history themselves.

However, Arendt explores the idea that terror in totalitarian government is not sufficient to inspire and guide human behavior. Under totalitarian conditions, fear probably is more widespread than ever before; but fear has lost its practical usefulness when actions guided by it can no longer help to avoid the dangers man fears.

Totalitarian rulers rely on the compulsion with which we can compel ourselves. The tyranny of logicality begins with the mind’s submission to logic as a never-ending process, on which man relies in order to engender his thoughts. By this submission, he surrenders his inner freedom as he surrenders his freedom of movement when he bows down to an outward tyranny. Freedom as an inner capacity of man is identical with the capacity to begin, just as freedom as a political reality is identical with a space of movement between men. Over the beginning, no logic, no cogent deduction can have any power, because its chain presupposes, in the form of a premise, the beginning.

Totalitarian government can be safe only to the extent that it can mobilise man’s own will power in order to force him into that gigantic movement of History or Nature which supposedly uses mankind as its material and knows neither birth nor death.

Totalitarianism bases itself on loneliness, on the experience of not belonging to the world at all, which is among the most radical and desperate experiences of man. What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self which can be realised in solitude. In this situation, man loses trust in himself as the partner of his thoughts and that elementary confidence in the world which is necessary to make experiences at all. Self and world, capacity for thought and experience are lost at the same time.

We must look to our personal judgment rather than the law in order to know how to act – because law may turn out to be criminal as in Nazi Germany. In which case we have a responsibility to oppose bad law.

A good example of this in practice is the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures. Here he measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience.

The Milgram Experiment

In Milgram’s first set of experiments, 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock which would have killed any human receiving the shock.

Another example of adults influenced by authority is Adolf Eichmann. In 1960, Israeli Secret Service kidnapped this Nazi fugitive and he stood trial in Jerusalem for crimes he had committed during the “Final Solution”. Eichmann’s main responsibility during the Holocaust had been the organisation of the transport of millions of Jews from across Europe to concentration camps – a function he carried out with zeal and efficiency.

Eichmann was proud to be a “law abiding citizen. Arendt believed Eichmann’s crime was non-thinking. Eichmann claimed that in implementing the final solution he was acting from obedience and that he had derived this particular moral precept from his reading of Kant.

Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

Arendt rejects the physiological interpretation – Eichmann is neither perverted or sadistic. In her view he just acted according to a brutal law that had become normal and normalised.

George Orwell and 1984

Orwell (sometimes known as a “hero journalist”) was horrified by the capacity of totalitarian regimes to attempt to control minds, by manipulating language. He wrote 1984 with the purpose of warning readers in the West of the dangers of totalitarian government.

With modern mass media, Orwell thought it might be possible to enslave minds. (Ideology)

•     Thought takes place in purely linguistic terms


•     Control language, and you control thought (and thoughtcrime)


Mind control (may be) possible through manipulation of language.
This idea was Itopian – ban words for racial difference, and thus abolish racism (very like PC language now).

This resulted in horrible, ugly distortion into Communist-speak – all-jargon, clichés, ritual phrases – sloganism and slogans– a form of language designed to prevent thought.

His book 1984 best represents these ideas.  The tele screens in the novel also monitor behavior—everywhere they go, citizens are continuously reminded, especially by means of the omnipresent signs reading “BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU,” that the authorities are scrutinizing them.

Language is corrupted:


Ministry of Peace – organises war
Ministry of Love – organises the police
Ministry of Plenty – gathers taxes.

Project is to reduce language – reduce vocabulary to a few abstract euphemisms. They have cut out all words of possible opposition to the regime. You can’t say “I am against the government” because these words have been obliterated. Therefore you can’t even think it.

Ultimately the plan is to reduce all language to the phrase “I love Big Brother.”

In the novel – Winston’s job is removing articles from the archive which contradict the current (ever changing) line on the party. “Down the memory hole”.


Business jargon:

People aren’t sacked, they are: “demised”, “transitioned out of the company”, or roles are “disestablished”.

You don’t speak to people you “reach out to them”.

A bottle of water is an “affordable, portable lifestyle beverage”.

In summary we owe to ourselves to make our own decisions and from these take responsibility for our own actions. Even under authority, you have no one to blame but yourself should you commit a heinous crime.


About brackenstockley

Contributor to the JusticeGap and WINOL. Currently studying journalism at the University of Winchester (Year Three).
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