The Origins of Totalitarianism Chapter 1

In my first post, I went over the prefaces and provided some background to Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. Today, I’ll dive into the first chapter of the first book.

Arendt opens the chapter by taking aim at the “hasty explanations” of antisemitism, most of them in the vein of thinking that it was a coincidence that Nazi ideology centered around antisemitism.

This line of thinking is at least understandable. That the “Jewish question” led to such a catastrophe seems incomprehensible, and the explanations offered for how that came to be, in Arendt’s mind, “Look as if they had been hastily and hazardously contrived” (3).

The first of these, is that antisemitism is a natural outgrowth of nationalism and xenophobia. This fails as an explanation on several fronts. First, the antisemitism reached its peak at the same time that the European nation states were defeated, and absorbed into Nazi Germany.

But, weren’t the Nazis nationalists? Not according to themselves. They saw their movement as one with in an international scope, much like the Bolshevik’s.

(As a modern-day aside, I think modern-day neo-Nazis, who spout antisemitism in the United States, are evidence for this. The ideology is not bound by borders on a map.)

If not simple nationalism and xenophobia, then what? It would be oversimplifying to say that antisemitism or the decline of the nation-state could be explained by one thing. But Arendt does think that de Tocqueville’s insight from L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution is helpful. In that work, he points out that the Revolution happened at a time when the aristocracy had lost much of their power, but not their wealth. In Arendt’s words, “Neither oppression nor exploitation as such is ever the main cause for resentment; wealth without visible function is much more intolerable because nobody can understand why it should be tolerated” (4).

Similarly, Jews had lost much of their influence and power, but not their wealth, by the time Hitler came to power. The same is true for the rest of Europe as well, though not in such catastrophic ways.

Another fallacy that Arendt wants to falsify is that Jews, because they were powerless, could be blamed as the cause of hidden evil. In other words, they are an easy scapegoat. However, saying that Jews were the scapegoat implies that anyone could be a scapegoat. Or, to put it another way as Arendt does in this retelling of a post-World War 1 joke (page 5):

An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? asks the one. Why the Jews? asks the other.

The scapegoat theory is internally inconsistent. If we try to explain why Jews were well suited to being the target, then they’re not being scapegoated. They are one group among many, who all have an effect on the world. They all have agency. And despite being the victim of unmeasurable cruelty, they retain that agency.

(Modern aside: this seems very close to victim blaming. See a bit later in the post for why Arendt wants to take this route.)

In other times, this would suffice to refute the scapegoat theory, but the use of terror as a weapon of government has made it necessary, in Arendt’s view, to refute it in another fashion.

In both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia (under Stalin, at least), terror strikes at objectively innocent (individual) victims, who are chosen arbitrarily. However, this terror in this sense is the end state. (pages 6-7)

In order to establish a totalitarian regime, terror must be presented as an instrument for carrying out a specific ideology; and that ideology must have won the adherence of many, and even a majority, before terror can be stabilized. The point for the historian is that the Jews, before becoming the main victims of modern terror, were the center of Nazi ideology. And an ideology which has to persuade and mobilize people cannot choose its victim arbitrarily.

Arendt’s argument (I think), is that while Jews were innocent victims of the Holocaust, before that, they were deliberately targeted by Nazi ideology. And that wasn’t done arbitrarily.

Another way of putting it, would be that if Nazis had targeted the bicyclists instead, they wouldn’t have risen to power.

The opposite of scapegoat theory, which Arendt also seeks to falsify, is that antisemitism, is in one form or another, eternal. In this theory, outbursts of violence are simply the natural state of affairs.

It’s not surprising to Arendt that professional antisemites adopted this view. But she is perturbed that many historians, and many Jews, have adopted this. In her view, the reasons that both antisemites and Jews adopt this view is that both want to escape their share of the responsibility.

As for why Arendt finds the scapegoat theory and the ‘eternal antisemitism’ theory so abhorrent, she says that “In this inherent negation of the significance of human behavior, they bear a terrible resemblance to those modern practices and forms of government which, by means of arbitrary terror, liquidate the possibility of human activity,” (8). Both these theories, as well as state sanctioned terror, deny human agency, not only to the victims, but to the murderers as well.

(To bring it back to the victim blaming aside, it seems she would rather keep agency for the Jewish people, than to hold them free of responsibility. To do the latter is to leave the fate of the Jews, or anyone, out of their own control.)

So what does Arendt propose as an explanation for “Why the Jews?” in a way that preserves human agency? She proposes a couple over-arching points:

  • Modern antisemitism must be placed in context of the development of the nation-state, and the relationship of Jews to the state.
  • The idea that Jews are the ‘key to history’ and the cause of all evil is rooted in the previous relationship between Jews and society at large.

From there, she will look at the Dreyfus Affair, as she considers it a dress rehearsal for what came afterward.

The Origins of Totalitarianism – Background and Prefaces

I’m reading through Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, and in an effort to restart this blog, I’m going to try posting my thoughts about the book here.

I first thought of reading the book after the 2016 election of Donald Trump, but the Charlottesville protests last weekend pushed me to get the book and start reading it. While I hope that Trump’s election is the high water mark of the alt-right movement today, I don’t think the possibility of white racial resentment becoming more widespread is one that can be dismissed.

The most relevant bit of Hannah Arendt‘s background is that she was a German-Jewish political philosopher who was forced to flee Germany due to the rise of the Nazi party. So we’ll see how her first person experience in that regime shows up in the book.

Let’s get started. For reference, I’m reading the version with ISBN 978-0-15-670153-2.


The book is divided into three sections. Part one is on Antisemitism, part two on Imperialism, and part three on Totalitarianism.

The book includes four separate prefaces. The first, written in 1950 for the first edition. The rest were written later, in 1966 and 1967, one for each part of the book.

The difference in tone in the 1950s preface from the later ones in striking. While the prefaces for the 1966-67 prefaces reads like what one might expect from an academic preface, the 1950s version has a more urgent tone.

Part of that, can be attributed to the uncertainty of whether the just started Korean War would turn into a World War Three. After two world wars, human civilization seems at its breaking point, driven by “political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules common sense and self-interest…” (vii).

The main argument of the book seems to be the following:

Antisemitism (not merely the hatred of Jews), imperialism (not merely conquest), totalitarianism (not merely dictatorship) – one after the other, one more brutally than the other, have demonstrated that human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its power must remain strictly limited, rooted and controlled by newly defined territorial entities. (ix)

I think what is coming in the book is that antisemitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism are modern phenomenon that are distinct from what preceded them. Hatred of Jews doesn’t neatly lead to Antisemitism along a linear path from one to the next. Hatred of Jews must be mixed with modern phenomena to become Antisemitism. The same for conquest and imperialism; and the same dictatorship and totalitarianism.


Quick Link: Article About Middle East Strategy

Long time, no post. Here’s an article about American grand strategy in the Middle East.

Our relations have never been worse. In Syria, we are engaged in arming, training and funding essentially the same people whom the new Egyptian regime is about to hang and whom we are considering bombing in Iraq. In Iraq, we are about to become engaged in supporting the regime we installed and which is the close ally of the Syrian and Iranian regimes that we have been trying for years to destroy; yet in Iran, we appear to be on the point of reversing our policy of destroying its government and seeking its help to defeat the insurgents in Iraq. And on and on.

We are lurching from crisis to crisis, seemingly without a goal in mind.

Still no Nuclear Renaissance

Back in college, the professors liked talking about how there was a nuclear renaissance just around the corner. While they acknowledged that the capital costs of new reactors was high, government guaranteed loans and a new generation of smaller reactors were supposed to take care of that.

With that support, nuclear power was supposed to expand, due to favorable operating costs. But that does not seem to be the case, and it turns out reactors can’t compete on that front.

Natural gas is cheap, and solar is trending cheaper. Nuclear power is not traveling along the same path. It might be viable in some future (carbon pricing, a surge in energy demand, etc.), but not now.

Campaign Finance in Arizona

I’m super excited that FiveThirtyEight has relaunched. This article about why Arizona has a very conservative state legislature reminded me of another article I read about campaign finance a while back.

Public financing is seen as a way to get rid of the influence of money in politics, as well as a way to give legislators more time to legislate, rather than fundraise. Arizona has gone with full public financing of state-wide races.

Arizona has one of the most advanced clean election laws in the country. As long as a candidate for the state legislature reaches a minimum fundraising level ($1,250), the state essentially funds her campaign. (Only Connecticut and Maine have similar laws on public financing for state legislature candidates.) That allows candidates to stay viable even if they don’t have connections to the state party or local business leaders.

(emphasis mine)

With the example in Arizona, it seems that one of the consequences of that is a decentralization of power, and more extreme candidates. 

What about a middle ground, like financing floors, but not ceilings?

I used to believe that a campaign regime of floors-not-ceilings would help; by allowing candidates to raise money in larger chunks, they could reach their fundraising goals in far fewer hours of work. And given diminishing returns (that is, in that more spending produces relatively fewer and fewer votes), the incentive to just use the same time but raise more money wouldn’t be all that high. I think that was, alas, wishful thinking. The evidence seems to be that they all raise whatever they can, even if it’s a waste of their time. Moreover, if floors-not-ceilings succeeded in bringing viable candidates to more districts, even more incumbents would be even more obsessed with the theoretical possibility of a future plausible nominee who had to be scared away by building even larger warchests.

So it seems that financing floors wouldn’t help, full public financing results in more extremism, and campaign spending limits were down by the Supreme Court.

While I’m less sure that big money is a huge problem in politics than I was in the past, reducing the sheer amount of time that politicians spend raising that money is still something I want to see, and there don’t seem to be good solutions to that.

(As an aside, the FiveThirtyEight article can also be seen as a counter argument to “big money leads to polarization.” If public financing leads to polarization/extremism, then surely we can’t lay the blame on big money.)


Pollution and a Sort of Nuclear Winter

A nuclear winter would likely be caused by a nuclear exchange and not nuclear power. That aside, China has is headed towards a similar spot climate wise:

Chinese scientists have warned that the country’s toxic air pollution is now so bad that it resembles a nuclear winter, slowing photosynthesis in plants – and potentially wreaking havoc on the country’s food supply.

China does have nuclear power and is seeking to build out more plants, but they can’t increase capacity fast enough (including with other energy sources) to replace their current reliance on fossil fuels.

Hopefully solar energy keeps dropping in price, although it won’t help if we’re already in the midst of a fossil fuel inspired nuclear winter.

Universal Preschool and Language

As drawn by its students?

I read this article about universal pre-school (école maternelle) in France, and thought it could use a touch more history.

The French language wasn’t widely used throughout France up to the Revolution. The aftermath resulted in a short-lived policy of freedom of languages for all citizens, followed by pretty much the opposite, and forcing everyone to learn French.

I don’t deny that teaching the national language (for countries with a national language) in school is necessarily bad, but when a national policy can be construed as linguicide, it loses some of its luster.

Over here in the United States, there isn’t a national policy, although as the article points out, it’s a hot topic. When I started writing this post, I thought there could be some clever way to include early childhood education taught in English to perhaps make immigration reform somehow more appealing to conservatives. Given what I’ve read of the language policy in the US, it doesn’t seem likely.

With the Bilingual Education Act, we had a policy that was more inclusive than what I suggested. It helped states fund programs for students with limited English ability.

As the Wikipedia article points out, this changed somewhat with the passage of No Child Left Behind.

So with immigration reform a possible hot topic this year, what should language policy look like? This paper goes over the history of US language policy, and provides a list of principles to build future policy around.