Chapter 3: Totalitarianism: The Annihilation of Action

Hannah Arendt: Prophet for our Time
by James M. Campbell

Chapter 3: Totalitarianism: The Annihilation of Action

The recognized forms of government are few in number and have been much the same ever since the Greeks analyzed and classified them to include monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, republic, and despotism. It is Arendt’s claim in The Origins of Totalitarianism that totalitarianism is a new form of government, ushered onto the stage of history with the regimes of Josef Stalin and Adolph Hitler. It is not just another form of tyranny, although there are similarities, but a unique and novel development, indeed, the ultimate tyranny.

This is quite a claim — and for those of us who are amateurs in the field of political science, accustomed to using tyranny, fascism, dictatorship, and totalitarianism interchangeably — something of a shock.

What is it that makes totalitarianism so novel and so demonic? To Arendt totalitarianism is the total domination of a people through a combination of simplistic ideology and constant terror. It appears to no traditional laws or forms of government but rather to its own concocted Law of Nature (survival of the fittest, master race) or Law of History (a classless society and that one class the proletariat). Its goal is the extension of that total domination to the entire world.

Arendt is not speaking of German facism or Russian communism in general but of the particular forms of government developed under Stalin and Hitler. Her chief references, however, are to the Nazi government, perhaps because in 1951, the year her book was first published, more was known of Germany than of Russia, but also because she is German and experienced first-hand the rise of Nazism.

The Origins of Totalitarianism appeared in an enlarged edition in 1958. This edition includes the chapter “Ideology and Terror:

A Novel Form of Government,” which embodies, as Arendt says in her preface, “insights of a more general and theoretical nature.” The earlier and original chapters are more historical in nature. In them Arendt traces the roots of totalitarianism to European anti-semitism and imperialism. Totalitarianism didn’t just drop out of the blue. It used the anti-semitism that had been prevalent in Europe for a long time as a rationale for fanaticism. It used nineteenth century European imperialism as the model for its global goals.

Thus Hitler could appeal to the threat of a Jewish plot to rule the world as an excuse for illegal and tyrannic moves by the government. The savagery of German, Boer and Belgian imperialism in Africa and the inhuman, bureaucratic efficiency of British administration of her colonies in Asia and Africa were forerunners of the Nazi drive to rule the world, savagely and efficiently. It was Leopold II of Belgium who was responsible for the extermination of ten million natives in the Congo between 1890 and 1911. Hitler’s extermination of six million Jews thus becomes runner-up in enormity to what white empire-builders had done before him to the blacks of Africa.

The Pan-Slav and Pan-German movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were additional roots for Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism, breaking open, as they did, the traditional notions of nationhood and territory.

Arendt analyzes these historical origins in a fascinating manner. But it is in her chapter “Ideology and Terror” that she probes the essential nature of totalitarianism. It is this analysis which I find most informative for us today, and to which I now turn.


“If Lawfulness is the essence of non-tyrannical government and lawlessness is the essence of tyranny, then terror is the essence of totalitarian domination.” (Origins of Totalitarianism, 1964 Meridian Book edition, p.464) All traditions, all values, all legalities and illegalities, all political institutions are destroyed and all behavior, public or private, is controlled by terror. In an ordinary dictatorship such as Mussolini’s thousands of people were arrested for political crimes, but hundreds of these were acquitted by the Italian courts. In Nazi Germany there were no acquittals. To be arrested was to be convicted — more, it was to be dropped off the face of the earth, to be erased from memory. For if anyone dared to ask why, if any loved one inquired as to what charge was made, that person was next. By terror — culminating in the concentration and extermination camps — the people are made incommunicado — atomized — afraid to bare their thoughts to their closest friends.

The maintenance crew of terror is the secret police In most tyrannies it is the military who are the elite. In totalitarian states it is the secret police — the Gestapo, the SS, the NKVD. Their job is to destroy the internal and external enemies of the totalitarian movement. They seek to know about every citizen and all his connections. No warrants are needed for arrests, no stated reasons of any kind. Terror is different from fear, for in the grip of terror no one knows what to fear, what to avoid, what constitutes a crime or even a mistake.

But as laws in a traditional government are of a negative nature, defining the boundaries of behavior, but insufficient in themselves to inspire it, so terror is insufficient in a totalitarian state to motivate and guide human behavior. Some guiding principle is needed that provides a positive basis for public behavior, a goal around which to rally the people.


In the totalitarian state the guiding principle is a simplistic ideology. For the Nazis the ideology is a contorted version of the Darwinian thesis “survival of the fittest.” The only real law is this “Law of Nature,” this essential process to which all other processes are subservient. And since the “Aryan” race is obviously the fittest, then why not help the process along — by removing all the scum as soon as possible, the Jews first, then the Slays, then all the mentally ill, the incurably sick, etc. Or, as in Stalin’s ideology, if the Law of History dictates the ascendance of one class and the withering away of all others, then we are the true servants of history if we help the process by wiping out all dommed classes and all enemies of the process of history, including those enemies within the proletariat itself.

The totalitarian state is not a structure, but a movement. No settling down, no stability, no return to the normal relationships of life can be allowed, or the whole thing will crumble. Everything must be kept in motion — including the secret police, whose members are constantly being shifted and are never allowed to stay in one area too long.

The ideology calls for a movement to win the world and all is subservient to that ideology no matter how much it flies in the face of reality — of factuality. The greatest threat to a totalitarian movement, once it gains power, is factuality. For the ideology has created a fictitious world, a set of glasses through which all are to see life, and once those glasses are removed, even momentarily, the fictitious world begins to crack. There are in fact three totalitarian elements to all ideological thinking, Arendt points out.( Arendt seems to be in that school of thought which considers ideology in and of itself a “bad” thing. She often uses the word prejoratively. My own feeling is that that is too narrow a use of the concept of ideology. Clifford Geertz, in his paper “Ideology as a Cultural System” offers a less negative understanding. [Published as a chapter in Ideology and Discontent, edited by David Apter, New York, The Free Press, 1964.]) One is the claim to total explanation not of what is but of what becomes — of history. The second Is the claimed “sixth sense” that sees a secret meaning in everything and allows nothing to be experienced or understood in its own right. Third is the emancipation” of thought from experience by logical or dialectical argumentation from a self-generated idea or dialectical argumentation from a self-generated idea or thesis in addition to which no other ideas or experiences are needed or allowed.

As terror, in atomizing every citizen, ruins all relationships between men, Arendt argues, so simplistic ideology or logic ruins all relationships with reality. Ideology in a totalitarian state is the final rationale and all things are lawful that are done within the aegis of its logic or dialectic.

Citizens of a totalitarian state are either victims or executioners and the movement by its ideology seeks to prepare them to fill either role (or both) equally well. Thus the spectacle of persons in Stalin’s Russia willingly confessing deeds or words they never committed or spoke, not out of guilt or masochism but out of loyalty to the necessities of the movement’s logic which has called for a certain kind of crime to be committed and confessed at a particular point in history.

The Basis of Appeal

But how can terror and ideology quench so completely the sense and reason and human initiative of a nation or a continent? What need does totalitarianism speak to, no matter how grotesquely, that it can find entry and gain mastery over the minds of millions? Arendt ponders this question and concludes that it is through the human experiences of isolation and loneliness that totalitarianism gains entry and then mastery.

1Arendt seems to be in that school of thought which considers ideology in and of itself a “bad” thing. She often uses the word prejoratively. My own feeling is that that is too narrow a use of the concept of ideology. Clifford Geertz, in his paper “Ideology as a Cultural System” offers a less negative understanding. (Published as a chapter in Ideology and Discontent, edited by David Apter, New York, The Free Press, 1964.)

Isolation is a political experience. Isolation is the inability tQ act because there is no one to act with. It is political impotence. It is both the seedhed of totalitarianism and an end result, tyranny also builds on isolation. Totalitarianism, however, builds on a combination of isolation and loneliness.

Loneliness is more than isolation. It is feeling deserted from all human companionship, of not belonging to the world at all. Loneliness concerns human life as a whole.

The isolated, politically atomized man can still work, or labor, can still fall back on the intimacies and support of private life, as men have done under many tyrannies. But totalitarianism is not content with creating isolation. It invades the private sphere as well. It is based on loneliness dominating both the political and social spheres of life. “What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century.”(op. cit., p. 475)

Uprooted people with no place in the world recognized and guaranteed by others, superfluous people who feel they do not belong to the world at all, these are the fodder of the movement.

To lonely, isolated people totalitarianism comes, enfolds them with the iron bands of terror, clears their agonies of mind with one idea and its easy train of syllogisms, one thesis with all other ideas the antithesis, and by this brief, false Camelot wins them in order to crush them.

In a sense, totalitarianism is organized loneliness and as such is considerably more dangerous than the unorganized impotence of all those ruled by traditional tyrants. “Its danger,” Arendt concludes, “is that it threatens to ravage the world as we know it — a world which everywhere seems to have come to an end — before a new beginning rising from this end has had time to assert itself.” (ibid., p. 476)

But her faith is in the capacity of man yet to make that new beginning — to act — a capacity guaranteed by each new birth.