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.