Hannah Arendt on the Elements of Totalitarianism

why hannah matters

The first element of totalitarianism discussed in the field manual [The Origins of Totalitarianism] is the existence of an ideology that explains all of history and justifies the regime and its policies: a kind of “supersense.” This ideology seems perfectly logical to those who subscribe to it and reason from its premises, which are far removed from reality. The ideology designates a superior people and an internal enemy (usually operating as a conspiracy) that must be eliminated. Gradually, the ideology comes to usurp all other foundations for the regime’s legal system. Arendt described an ideology of Nature (particularly “natural” races) in Nazism and an ideology of His- tory (particularly focused in a Marxian manner on class struggle and violent revolution) in Stalinism. In a totalitarian society the “methods of domination rest on the assumption that men can be completely conditioned because they are only functions of some higher historical or natural forces.” It is this functionalism that remains as a deep legacy in “the life of the mind”…

…A second key element of totalitarianism is total terror, which Arendt saw essentially institutionalized in the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet labor camps. Ultimately sparing no part of the population, total terror was preceded in these regimes by the dissolution of traditional class structures and political allegiances in a fervent political “movement” that eventually made the uprooting and moving of huge populations in their mass societies seem necessary and justifiable. Arendt also noted that the introduction in 1945 of atomic weapons put the world under threat of a new form of total terror, which meant new institutions for wielding that threat would become necessary if new forms of totalitarianism adopted them. But no matter what the form, it is the total in total terror that is key. Once willingness to persecute and sacrifice huge numbers of people, whole subpopulations, to the logic of an ideology (that is, for no practical or strategic reason) had appeared in history, it could not go away. This destruction is no longer “unthinkable.” It is all too thinkable—or all too invocable by the thoughtless. Total terror or total war has been with us, a disease in uncertain remission, for more than fifty years…

…Arendt identified as a third element of totalitarianism the destruction of natural human bonds, chiefly of the family, accomplished by laws regulating marriage (and forbidding marriage between peoples designated superior and those designated inferior). Bonds can also be assaulted by police practices that force people to spy on and inform on family members. Along with the destruction of public spaces—the destruction of politics—in a totalitarian regime goes the destruction of private spaces for intimacy and family life…

…Government by bureaucracy was a fourth element of totalitarianism that Arendt identified, tracking its history from the nineteenth-century imperial regimes and examining its assault upon individual judgment and responsibility as it became in Germany and the Soviet Union “government by nobody.” She also identified as elements the domination of the totalitarian regimes by their secret police, rather than their national armies, and the corruption of their legal institutions, particularly those designed to protect the private and political spaces (free speech, free press, right of assembly, and so on). The totalitarian governments also asserted their absolute sovereignty and thereby justified continental imperialism into lands with peoples claimed as Volk in the biological or historical terms asserted in their ideology….

…In identifying these last elements of totalitarianism, Arendt was also elaborating upon one of the basic processual insights of The Origins of Totalitarianism, which was that the nineteenth- century overseas imperialists—the European states that colonized Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia—exported to those lands their own superfluous people, their déclassé mobs, where they were overseen by a type of colonialist bureaucrat who became accustomed to treating the mob and the colonized peoples as subhumans and trampling upon their local laws and customs. She argued that these imperialist methods in turn corrupted the European states themselves, which carried the methods over into their continental imperialisms. Both Germany and Russia, in effect, made colonials out of their own unwanted populations: their Jews, their dissidents. The concentration camp and the labor camp had their prototypes in the Bantustans of South Africa.


  1. Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth. Why Arendt Matters. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006. Print. 33-57.

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Filed under History, Notes on History, Philosophy, Politics

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