Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Origins of Totalitarianism


I spent the last several months slowly reading The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. Like Eichmann in Jerusalem, this is a very complex work which is difficult to reduce to a handful of sentences. But i'll try anyhow. The Origins is a study of not one but two totalitarian governments in the middle of the 20th century. .. And even already i've put my foot in my mouth, because Hannah goes to great lengths to show that the things we're speaking of when we say 'Stalinist Russia' and especially 'Nazi Germany' were not in fact governments; that they were anti-governments; that their leaders specifically endorsed chaos in order to keep power in their movement rather than in their governments. But that aside.

To illustrate how we came to find ourselves with Nazi Germany, Hannah provides a pretty good history of Europe from about 1500 through 1956 or so, with special attention given to tracing the roots and forms of antisemitism. Along the way she covers colonialism, imperialism, the birth of the nation-state, etc.

I've long wondered what happened between the biblical diaspora and the rampant anti-semitism of europe in the thirties (and russia seemingly forever), and The Origins certainly gives some insights into the history there.

With limited space however, i'm going to skip over the origins of modern anitisemitism and just mention a few of the salient characteristics of totalitarian 'governments', as Hannah sees them.

First, she distinguishes explicitly between totalitarianism and 'mere' tyranny. As i interpret it, the distinction is primarily that the scope of a tyranny is limited to a single nation or possibly a region, but the aim of a totalitarianism is nothing less than total control of the entire world. Expressed best and possibly most openly in the words of Cecil Rhodes: "I'd annex the planets if i could". With this worldview, the "homeland" is in fact merely the first population to be subjugated: hence the horrifying treatment of Germans and Russians by Hitler and Stalin. (Hitler as we all know had plans to gas the old and infirm, once all the Jews, homos, and Gypsies were gone. Extermination was not a means to an end; it was a never-to-be concluded process. The same was true of the Soviet Union: Stalin used starvation as a weapon against huge portions of the population, and new segments of society were constantly being selected more or less at random to step up as good communists and confess to crimes they hadn't committed but which the party 'needed' them to).

The second aspect of totalitarianism which was surprising to me is that its exercise of terror is superfluous to the comprehensible goal of achieving and retaining power. ie, it was not used as a tool for gaining ascendency, but rather as a means of shaping the daily reality of the subjugated homeland. Specifically, in both Russia and Germany, domestic terror actually increased and was at its height only after all vestiges of resistance to the regime had been utterly crushed. There was in fact no resistance at all, but the terror was stepped-up. In my opinion this was to break not only the wills but also the minds of the population by removing the existence of cause and effect: terror stuck at random, and no movement by a person could make one safe.
If lawfulness is the essence of non-tyrannical government and lawlessness is the essence of tyranny, then terror is the essence of totalitarian domination. (p. 464)

.. terror increased both in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in inverse ratio to the existence of internal political opposition, so that it looked as though political opposition had not been the pretext of terror .. but the last impediment to its full fury. (p. 393)

A third thing i had not appreciated fully before was the concept of statelessness, and how it was employed by Nazi Germany. I hadn't known that the Germans first stripped their Jews of property and then evicted them from the country, creating a class of stateless refugees burdening the rest of Europe. When Germany then gathered these people up again to be murdered, the neighboring states were glad to be rid of them, and were thus made complicit in the proceedings. Hanna's chapter on the plight of the stateless is excellent. The stateless are also the right-less; there is nobody who has an interest or obligation in protecting their rights, and as such no law protects them. This is certainly what we are seeing today right before us with Guantanamo and the removal of political prisoners from American soil. The following quote illustrates Hanna's point that a person is better off within the legal system, even as a criminal, than in the lawlessness outside of it.
The best criterion by which to decide whether someone has been forced outside the pale of the law is to ask if he would benefit* by committing a crime. If a small burglary is likely to improve his legal position, at least temporarily, one may be sure he has been deprived of human rights. (p. 286 * - meaning that his legal status would improve)

I'll leave things with one last quote concerning the time-honored practice of secret police of instigating ersatz opposition in order that it may be crushed. To hear this particular story again, once can also read the history of the CIA-led coup in Iran. An excellent source is All The Shah's Men, by Steven Kinzer.
The superfluousness of secret services is nothing new; they have always been haunted by the need to prove their usefulness and keep their jobs after the original task had been completed. The methods used for this purpose have made the study of of the history of revolutions a rather difficult enterprise. It appears, for example, that there was not a single anti-government action under the reign of Louis Napoleon which had not been inspired by the police itself. Provocation, in other words, helped as much to maintain the continuity of tradition as it did to disrupt time and again the organization of the revolution. (p. 423)

If you find this book interesting, you might also enjoy Martin Amis's book about Stalinist Russia, Koba the Dread (Laughter and the Twenty Million).


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