The Origins of Totalitarianism


No, this is not an article about Trump. Even though it might as well be…

Hannah Arendt was a German Jew, who escaped the Holocaust, and spent her entire life essentially studying why things went for very wrong.

Arendt, like many other German Jews who escaped to America, became determined to understand the totalitarianisms of the world and how to combat such societies. The Origins of Totalitarianism is probably the best, most succinct and accessible book on the topic.

This is primarily a work of European history, largely in a socio-economic sense. The first ‘book’ covers the growth of antisemitism in Europe. The second book covers imperialism-as separate from earlier colonisation-and finally the third book describes the totalitarianism party or movement in growth and a little bit in power.

Totalitarianism is essentially when a society is gripped by an idea and the logical (however unreasonable it might be) conclusion of this fundamental idea or premise. The Nazis had race, and the Stalinists had class; both thought they had grasped the fundamental laws of history. And from this pretty much anything can become reasonable from a certain point of view.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. Arendt points out that “antisemitism” is relatively new, historically speaking. Sure, Jews where segregated and outcast members of European society, but this had little to do with “antisemitism” as we know it. Jews where often able to prosper because they formed an important social strata-protected by kings-that lent money, conducted diplomacy, and often could be counted on to manage the finances of the burgeoning European state.

Jews become so hated and feared because of what they represented: a chosen race, but also financial masters who seemingly cropped up behind important events and powerful figures. The protection of the kings died away as states became more “egalitarian”.

The next stage is the advent of imperialism you know: Cecil Rhodes, The Scramble for Africa, Rudyard Kipling, etc. It starts around 1870-1880; and represents a new phase where excess money or savings went to invest overseas, and these powerful moneyed interests essentially got the various nationalist governments of Europe to physically safeguard the the investment. Not only is this a big step forward in terms private corporations receiving free financial guarantees on the back of the tax payers of the nation at large, it’s a profoundly dehumanising process that both dehumanises the conquered peoples, but be gins a subtle where the people of the initial colonising power start to slip towards the same status.

WWI-the war that everyone lost-destroyed Europe’s class structure which hither to had provided a sort of communal sense identity and support. The story of interwar Europe is the story of the masses. Masses of alienated, nihilistic, aimless people. Totalitarianism comes into play because it offered both a salve for damaged egos, but also promises a purpose and vision of the future.

I would strongly recommend this book because it is one of literally half a dozen that I have read which truely explains fascism and totalitarianism. Most of what you read, see and hear about the Nazis is largely a shallow, Disneyfied imitation of what was really going on. Few books explain the why and the how as good as Arendt does here. For example, Arendt speaks of how the reasons that the supports of the Fascist leader are seemingly immune from facts, logic and common sense is a peculiar mixture of naivety, cynicism, and hopelessness. Alienated people are very vulnerable; but once “inspired” are capable of swallowing any false hood from the Leader, but if caught out factually, are capable of explaining it away cynically, i.e.: “it was all a brilliant calculated lie in order to…”

Sound familiar?

It does come back to Trump. This book gave me some real insight into what’s going on these days. I would say Trump gets 6 out of 10 possible swastikas on the Totalitarian Leader Scale. The rhetoric is there; the absolute dismissal of facts and reality is there. The insinuations of violence, the promise to set everything right in the world is there.

In all honesty, it is dicey to compare contemporary American politics to events that took place going on a century ago on a different continent. I in no way want to minimise the terrifying similarities, but I simply wish to point out that there are significant differences as well. Fully understanding the situation can only aid us.

I would suggest that Trump falls quite a bit closer to Mussolini; Arendt specifically separates his regime in Italy from the “true” totalitarianisms of Stalin and Hitler. Both H and S where masterful at organising huge numbers of people and manipulating them. S in particular was a man of infinite patience and cunning; H had a real flair for being all thing to all people. Neither of these things sound like Trump. Both H and S and organising principals which claimed to “explain the secret of History”; race and class, respectively. Trump has no such principal; merely a sort of angst and sense of victimisation to draw upon. Trump promises to set things right, but he’s totally unclear on how or why; H and S would have had their reasons out for all to see.

Mussolini, on the other hand was journalist. He was bombastic, and totally buffoonish. He was a master at sweeping, psudo-intellectual, statements that also manage to be total nonsense. M engaged in a delusional form of extreme, militant nationalism, which somehow never really crossed the line into the truely anti-human forms of society that H and S managed; probably in part because M lacked the organisational drive, nor the world-and-history spanning idea to make the whole thing possible.

It’s not terribly fair nor accurate to accuse Trump supports of being fascists. They do not understand what that word means. To them, a Nazi is someone who has a silly little moustache, shouts in German, and wears a brown uniform. Cheap photos trying to show Trump supports doing the Nazi salute do far more harm than damage. When we say Trump supports are racists, fascists, etc, we forget that they do not understand what these words mean. As much as I want to start chanting “sieg heil” overtime I see someone in a Trump hat, I know that deep down, it’s not going to be effective. If someone where to call me an “anti-American net-communist” I would ignore it because it clearly doesn’t apply to me; I suspect the same thing is at work with the Trump supporters. We need to attack in terms of facts, and appeals to the strong tradition of American liberalism. We need to break down bubbles in this country and communicate not by name calling, but by charged and determined arguments.

I do think that the internet has changed things. It’s made some things possible that where not 90 years ago, but it has opened some new doors as well. All told, the real scary thing is that the next right-wing populist candidate too come along after Trump as lost in November might be even scarier. There are things worse than buffoons.





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