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.


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