The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought

Totalitarianism: The Inversion of Politics
by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University


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From "On the Nature of Totalitarianism: An Essay in Understanding," n.d. The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

Totalitarianism has been identified by many writers as a ruthless, brutal, and, thanks to modern technology, potent form of political tyranny whose ambitions for world domination are unlimited. Disseminating propaganda derived from an ideology through the media of mass communication, totalitarianism relies on mass support. It crushes whoever and whatever stands in its way by means of terror and proceeds to a total reconstruction of the society it displaces. Thus a largely rural and feudal Russian Empire, under the absolutist rule of czars stretching back to the fifteenth century, was transformed first by Lenin after the October Revolution of 1917 and then by Stalin into an industrialized Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; a Germany broken after its defeat in World War I was mobilized and became the conqueror of most of Europe in the early 1940s less than a decade after Hitler's assumption of power; and in China the People's Republic, by taking the Great Leap Forward in 1958 followed by the Cultural Revolution beginning in 1966 and ending with Mao Zedong's death in 1976, expunged much of what remained of a culture that had survived for more than three thousand years.

Such achievements require total one-party governmental control and tremendous human sacrifice; the elimination of free choice and individuality; the politicization of the private sphere, including that of the family; and the denial of any notion of the universality of human rights. In diverse areas of the world where political freedom and open societies have been virtually unknown or untried, totalitarian methods have been seen to exert an ongoing attraction for local elites, warlords, and rebels. Such well-known phenomena as "brain washing," "killing fields," "ethnic cleansing," "mass graves," and "genocide," accounting for millions of victims and arising from a variety of tribal, nationalist, ethnic, religious, and economic conditions, have been deemed totalitarian in nature. Totalitarianism, moreover, is frequently employed as an abstract, vaguely defined term of general opprobrium, whose historical roots are traced to the political thought of Marx or in some instances to Rousseau and as far back as Plato. But because of what has been called its "inefficiency," which Arendt attributes to its "contempt for utilitarian motives," totalitarianism rarely occurs in the political analyses of those who consider the function of politics in terms of "utilitarian expectations." Recently, however, prominent political theorists such as Margaret Canovan in England and Claude Lefort in France have seen in the decline of communism and the diminished intensity of left and right ideological debates an opportunity for an impartial and rigorous reassessment of the concept of totalitarianism. Although Arendt may have experienced a similar need to understand Nazism after its defeat in World War II, for her impartiality was the condition of judging the irreversible catastrophe of totalitarianism as "the central event of our world."

When Arendt noted that causality, the explanation of an event as being determined by another event or chain of events which leads up to it, "is an altogether alien and falsifying category in the historical sciences," she meant that no historical event is ever predictable. Although with hindsight it is possible to discern a sequence of events, there is always a "grotesque disparity" between that sequence and a particular event's significance. What the principle of causality ignores or denies is the contingency of human affairs, i.e., the human capacity to begin something new, and therefore the meaning and "the very existence" of what it seeks to explain (see "The Difficulties of Understanding" and "On the Nature of Totalitarianism"). It is not the "objectivity" of the historical scientist but the impartiality of the judge who perceives the existence and discerns the meaning of events, of which the antecedents can then be told in stories whose beginnings are never causes and whose conclusions are never predetermined.2 The rejection of causality in history and the insistence on the contingency, unpredictability, and meaning of events brought about not by nature but by human agency inform Arendt's judgment of the incomprehensible and unforgivable crimes of totalitarianism. In regard to such crimes the old saying "tout comprendre c'est tout pardonner" (to understand everything is to forgive everything)--as if to understand an offense, say by its psychological motive, were to excuse it--is a double "misrepresentation" of the fact that understanding seeks reconciliation. What may be possible is reconciliation to the world in which the crimes of totalitarianism were committed (see "The Difficulties of Understanding"), and a great part of Arendt's work on totalitarianism and thereafter is an effort to understand that world. But it should be noted that the outrage that pervades her judgment is not a subjective emotional reaction foisted on a purportedly "value free" scientific analysis.3 Her anger is impartial in her judgment of a form of government that defaced the world and "objectively" belongs to that world on whose behalf she judged totalitarianism for what it was and what it meant.


2. The concept of history derives from the Greek verb historein, to inquire, but Arendt found "the origin of this verb" in the Homeric histor, the first "historian," who was a judge (see Thinking, "Postscriptum"; cf. Illiad XVIII, 501).

3. Such a view, as Arendt points out, accurately describes many historical accounts of anti-Semitism, none more so than D. J. Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York, 1996).


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The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought