It’s like a novel, Mary McCarthy observed of the completed edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism. Arendt and McCarthy had clashed in 1945 when they first met at a New York party hosted by Partisan Review’s Philip Rahv, McCarthy’s ex-lover. Another fierce wit who rarely suffered fools gladly, McCarthy, when they were introduced, made a sarcastic quip about Hitler’s unpopularity in Paris.
Arendt, exhausted from work and war and grieving her dead, exploded with uncharacteristic and dramatic self-importance: How can you say such a thing in front of me—a victim of Hitler, a person who has been in a concentration camp! They met again a few years later, realized that they actually rather liked one another, exchanged apologies, and then, soon after, the first of many books.
McCarthy sent Arendt her crisp, slim, satirical roman-à-clef on self-important American intellectuals, The Oasis (1949). Arendt upped the stakes of their early friendship considerably by reciprocating with the neither crisp nor slim The Origins of Totalitarianism.
“Dear Hannah,” begins the first letter McCarthy wrote in their long, intimate, correspondence, “I’ve read your book, absorbed, for the past two weeks, in the bathtub, riding in the car, waiting in line in the grocery store. It seems to me a truly extraordinary piece of work . . . and also engrossing and fascinating in the way that a novel is: i.e., that it says something on nearly every page that is novel, that one could not have anticipated from what went before but that one then recognizes as inevitable and foreshadowed by the underlying plot of ideas.”
A book that is engrossing enough to read in the bath has to have a considerable pull and The Origins of Totalitarianism is indeed grimly compelling. Arendt depicts a society of lonely, atomized, lifeless people, one great unorganized, structureless mass of furious individuals, characterized by hatred, fear, organized terror, mass death, and unspeakable suffering. This is a world of science-fiction-level horror; utterly alien, incredible and outrageous.
Yet as the story of how this hell came to plant itself on earth unfolds, as McCarthy says, you get a growing and uncomfortable sense that there was something inevitable about it all. I think this is partly because while the history described in the book is extreme, Arendt’s underlying “plot of ideas” feels familiar. The Origins of Totalitarianism reads like a good novel because it reveals to the reader some experience that they already know, but thanks to its pages can now understand. That is also what can make it as terrifying to read in the twenty-first century as it was in the twentieth.
The Origins of Totalitarianism reads like a good novel because it reveals to the reader some experience that they already know, but thanks to its pages can now understand.
This is the story of how millions of twentieth-century Europeans willingly came to live in a murderous ideological fiction. Get rid of the epic fantasy that the totalitarian masses were driven by some common purpose, a great and unified idealistic commitment to a bold, passionate, but unfortunately evil, idea. Ditch, too, the gothic horror of cunning and mesmerizing leaders and their dull, stupid, and gullible enablers. The history that Arendt chronicles in the final section of her book, “Totalitarianism,” is both more prosaic and tawdrier, which is also why it’s familiar.
There were several auguries that foreshadowed the development of totalitarianism. There were racism and imperialism, as we have seen. There were mobs and nationalism in France, pre-Nazi Germany, and Austria. Demagogues whipped up emotions across the continent and authoritarians promised to resolve things for ordinary people in Portugal, Hungary, and Poland. There was fascism in Spain and Italy, which was violent and nasty, but not the total attack on politics itself which came with totalitarian regimes. Across the globe, there were totalitarian movements that gathered up the moment’s dark discontent by giving the appearance of unstoppable momentum, but which could be stopped where there was sufficient political room for resistance.
The starting point for all these phenomena in Europe was the uprooting of people that had come with capitalism, imperialism, nationalism, and revolution. The end point for totalitarian regimes was to make human superfluousness a permanent condition for absolute rule. The anonymity of modern life discovered its denouement in a political system in which human beings ceased to matter at all.
In Western Europe, social disintegration had undermined the promises of liberal democracies before they really got started. Previously, the sense of belonging to a class or group had disguised the fact that very little genuine representative democratic activity had been occurring, despite the opening up of the franchise and political emancipation across the continent.
For a while, people could afford to be disinterested in national politics because they got their sense of social worth from somewhere else. When the promise of social respect and self-determination that had motivated the fathers of Hannah Arendt and Adolf Eichmann began to crumble under economic chaos and war in the first decades of the century, just how vacant contemporary politics really was became visible.
Democracy’s dirty secret was out, which was that, in Arendt’s words, democratic government had rested as much on the silent approbation and tolerance of the indifferent and inarticulate sections of the people as on the articulate and visible institutions and organizations of the country. Bluntly put, a small number of people had governed largely for their own self-interest. When it became clear that political parties were not doing what they advertised and representing the interests of particular groups or classes, a vacuum opened up at the center of political power. A different kind of anti-democratic politics began to emerge. At its heart was a terrifying negative solidarity of the formerly indifferent and inarticulate. The dull gray masses which popular imagination associates with twentieth-century totalitarian rule were never really unified, Arendt tells us. Mass movements were created out of isolated loners and democracy’s losers.
Mass movements were created out of isolated loners and democracy’s losers.
That was what happened in Western Europe. To make totalitarianism possible in the Soviet Union, Stalin had to re-create the social atomization that historical circumstances had gifted the Nazis in Germany. The Russian Revolution had already disposed of one centralized, unaccountable, despotic rule: Stalin had to invent a new one. Vladimir Lenin, the first head of the new government, believed that strengthening social groups and organizations was the best way of protecting the revolution, so he (briefly) encouraged trade unions and promoted the consciousness of cultural and historical differences among the Soviet countries.
Stalin, who assumed leadership in 1924, Bolshevized the revolution’s communal political structures and replaced them with his infamous centralized party bureaucracy whose tendencies toward Russification, Arendt noted, were not too different from those of the Czarist regime. The liquidation of classes, property owners, and the bourgeoisie, then the peasants, swiftly followed. Hannah Arendt would have probably viewed the Russification that began again under Putin in the first decades of the twenty-first century as less of a plot twist than an unimaginative repetition.
In novels, there is often a moment when characters realize they have been living in a dream (or nightmare), when scales fall from their eyes and a new direction is taken. This happens in plots from history too, but it usually takes longer, and the moment of realization is nearly always too late. Nothing which was being done, no matter how stupid, no matter how many people knew and foretold the consequences, could be undone or prevented, Arendt wrote of the interwar period. Every event had the finality of a last judgment . . . that was passed neither by God nor by the devil, but looked rather like the expression of some unredeemably stupid fatality.
The First World War, mass unemployment, inflation, civil war, revolution, pogroms, mass deportations, and mass migration; instead of producing a reality check, the more extreme the circumstances became, the more reality spun out of reach. Artists and writers creatively thrilled to the futility of it all. In nightclubs and bars, people sang of hopelessness with a tired joy. And the more estranged people became, the more resentment seeped into everyday life. Nothing, wrote Arendt, perhaps illustrates the general disintegration of political life better than a vague pervasive hatred of everyone and everything.
In novels, there is often a moment when characters realize they have been living in a dream (or nightmare), when scales fall from their eyes and a new direction is taken. This happens in plots from history too, but it usually takes longer…
Directionless hate was a political opportunity. Rabble-rousers and demagogues stepped into the gap left by democratic failure, paving the way for the big men who became such lethal clichés in what followed. The topsy-turvy logic of totalitarian thinking began to take shape. In Europe and America, wealthy elites conspired with ideologues to try and persuade the miserable and disenfranchised that civil society and the institutions of law and democracy were the real enemy. “Truth,” they said, was whatever the “hypocritical” liberal and bourgeois political and social classes wanted hidden—the global elites, the bankers, the Jews, the citizens of nowhere.
Conspiracy theories proliferated because they offered a coherence and a consistency that was lacking in the real world. The most famous conspiracy theory of all, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, vividly detailing a Jewish plot for world domination, first emerged in Russia in 1902. After the revolution, anti-communist exiles brought the document with them to the West where it began to circulate. The fact that it was revealed to be fraudulent in 1921 did not stop Hitler and Goebbels from championing it as evidence of a Communist-Jewish threat later.
In the United States, Henry Ford published and distributed over 500,000 copies of the Protocols, which were also discussed on national radio by Father Coughlin, the anti-semitic leader of the National Union for Social Justice. The current American right-wing movement QAnon developed its own version of the Protocols in 2017. America, they claimed, was being run by a cabal of satanic pedophile cannibals, funded by Jewish financiers.
The extreme ridiculousness of these conspiracies is very much the point. They are designed to appeal to people for whom democratic discourse has failed, people who are not only disinterested in conventional politics but often violently opposed to them. Totalitarian propaganda doesn’t follow the usual rules of political persuasion and refutation, but makes a show of standing outside of traditional party politics.
The ideologues of the 1930s presented political debate as originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources—in race, class, myth, and historical destiny. Their fights, as Arendt put it, were framed as being beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. Twenty-first-century propagandists similarly pitch their battles as epic and existential. Race and historical destiny remain popular themes; so, too, are gender absolutism, sexuality, the family, God, and a vague but passionately hawked “greatness.”
This kind of “politics” is meant to be mad because the madder the theory, the more distant from a commonly despised reality it is possible to become. The masses’ escape from reality, Hannah Arendt observed in a sentence that rears up from the twentieth century into the twenty-first, is a verdict against the world in which they are forced to live and in which they cannot exist.
Nazi and Bolshevik propagandists quickly mastered the art of turning coincidences into plots and making the conspiracies seem real. Random events were interpreted as portents and confirmations. But while they temporarily gave the illusion of coherence, the storytelling and lies did not end the chaos; enemies and their plots had to be constantly invented. There were never enough of them. It was exhausting (it is exhausting).
Far from unifying isolated, scared, and angry people into a great nation or redemptive movement, the reality of having to live with multiple lies made the situation more chaotic. More fictions, more hate, and bigger lies were always needed. It became so difficult to distinguish fact from fiction that entire populations gave up trying. The experience of a trembling, wobbling motion of everything we rely on for our sense of direction and reality, Arendt wrote in the 1960s, is among the most common and most vivid experiences of totalitarian rule.
The same complex reality that made people susceptible to propaganda also made them cynical. Amidst the swirl of fictions, plots, fake news, lies, and super lies, people were prepared to believe the incredible—the reliable cunning and malfeasance of class and race enemies—while keeping some shred of human dignity intact by telling themselves that they knew it was just lies and politics all along. The cynics were not the clever people and the masses were not stupid. So far from reality had everyone traveled that none of it really mattered, even as the flags grew bigger and the demands for oaths of allegiance became even more outrageous.
Cynicism turned out to be one of totalitarianism’s most fatal characteristics and may yet become one of its most enduring legacies. The men who administered Hitler’s and Stalin’s policies did not necessarily believe in racism or socialism, Jewish conspiracies or class enemies, any more than many of the GOP believed that Donald Trump won the 2020 election or the Russian high command thought that the Jewish-Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was a Nazi.
But they did—and do—all believe in one thing: human omnipotence and, perhaps most especially, although Arendt does not make the connection, male omnipotence. Their moral cynicism, their belief that everything is permitted, rests on the solid conviction that everything is possible, she concluded. And it was.
The gulags and the Nazi death camps were where the brute reality of all this fiction-making was finally played out. The camps served no purpose, Arendt said, other than to demonstrate the truth of totalitarianism’s most outrageous claim: that human beings were now superfluous. “For what purpose, may I ask, do the gas chambers exist?,” the French survivor David Rousset recalled the question being asked in the death camps. “For what purpose were you born?” was the answer.
Beyond the capacities of human comprehension, Arendt wrote in a review of an early account of the death camps. In the archives you can see on her typescript how she’s returned the carriage of her typewriter back over the words and then struck down hard on the underline key: Beyond the capacities of human comprehension. They had all died together; children, men, women, the dying, and the newborn, like cattle, like matter into the darkest deepest abyss of primal equality, like cattle, like matter, things. When she used the image of Hell in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she later insisted, she did not mean this allegorically but literally.
Mary McCarthy had one criticism of her new friend’s book. How did it all actually work? Did Hitler and Stalin have some all-powerful insight that allowed them to manipulate others to join their insane plots? Were they the demon heirs of Plato’s philosopher who left the cave of shadows, stared at the sun, and then returned to rule based on his superior knowledge of reality? Who writes the plots of totalitarianism, Hannah? she asked.
Nobody was Arendt’s answer. This is why totalitarianism was profoundly anti-political: in the end, there were no opinions, no debates, no agency, no . . . people. Political principles had been replaced by pure ideology. You want people to stop starving? Stalin asked in 1932. Then the counter-revolutionary Ukrainian peasants need to starve—the logic of the man-made famine known as the Holodomor that killed millions.
You think the world is run by unaccountable financial organizations? Hitler asked. Then you must work with us to eliminate the Jews. You can’t say A without saying B and C and so on, down to the end of the murderous alphabet, was how Arendt put it. You didn’t even need Hitler or Stalin to follow this logic. They had succeeded, she added, in contaminating their subjects with the specifically totalitarian virus. The plots had started to reproduce themselves.
Mary McCarthy wasn’t only worried about the plots of totalitarianism. I suspect she was also alluding to Arendt’s own compelling, maybe too compelling, “underlying plot of ideas.” Both Karl Jaspers and later the French political philosopher Claude Lefort pointed out that in telling the story of totalitarianism, Arendt’s own arguments sometimes came dangerously close to reproducing the logic she was describing, leaving no space for an alternative anti-totalitarian history of resistance and contestation.
In fairness, Arendt would go on to write some of that history in On Revolution, but there is a claustrophobia about The Origins of Totalitarianism, an awful inevitability about events as they are retold, and you could (as political scientists have) describe Arendt’s genius for plotting as the book’s flaw. It is a very driven book about a very driven historical phenomenon.
But you could also (as I do) read Arendt as giving brilliant expression to a sense of powerless vertigo in a world that seems to be in the grip of a relentlessly awful plot. Nothing which was being done, no matter how stupid, no matter how many people knew and foretold the consequences, could be undone or prevented, she wrote. Many observing world events between the election of Donald Trump in America in 2016 and the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 would have understood exactly what she meant.
Excerpted from WE ARE FREE TO CHANGE THE WORLD copyright © 2024 by Lyndsey Stonebridge. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.