The Origins of Totalitarianism (Folio Society)

by Hannah Arendt

Hardcover, 2022



Call number



Folio Society (2022)


History. Politics. Nonfiction. HTML:Hannah Arendt's definitive work on totalitarianismâ??an essential component of any study of twentieth-century political history.The Origins of Totalitarianism begins with the rise of anti-Semitism in central and western Europe in the 1800s and continues with an examination of European colonial imperialism from 1884 to the outbreak of World War I. Arendt explores the institutions and operations of totalitarian movements, focusing on the two genuine forms of totalitarian government in our timeâ??Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russiaâ??which she adroitly recognizes were two sides of the same coin, rather than opposing philosophies of Right and Left. From this vantage point, she discusses the evolution of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the nontotalitarian world, the use of terror, and the nature of isolation and loneliness as preconditions for total do… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
Easy enough to read, for an academic text, but certainly not an easy read. As others have commented, "The Origins of Totalitarianism" is somewhat uneven. Arendt's history of the societal role of Jews in Europe probably won't interest everyone, nor will her take on the Dreyfus affair, but it allows
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her to ask why the Holocaust focused on the Jews rather than another racial group. Similarly, while I'm not sure that her analysis will completely convince everyone, she draws some interesting connections between the imperialist mindset and the rise of fascism, which helps explain a lot of the seemingly strange stylistic parallels between both of these systems. Her look at the pan-German and pan-Slavic movements is perhaps more directly related to the question of how fascism came about: a description of how the Nazis systematically erased modern nationalistic concepts of what it was to be German with more loosely defined racial and tribal definitions.

The second and third parts of Arendt's book are perhaps the most useful: they challenge many preconceptions that many people hold about fascism as a system. While many people, including myself, have tended to think of fascism as a state-centric phenomenon, Arendt convincingly argues that it did a great deal to destroy state institutions and modern concepts of statehood. She also takes pains to differentiate between authoritarian systems, in which power tends to flow downward from the top, with totalitarianism and fascism in particular, which are less organized, less self-interested, and generally more chaotic and anti-rational phenomena. This fits nicely with the ideas of historians who've expressed the view that Nazi Germany was a disorganized "polyocracy" rather than a well-regulated dictatorship. Arendt also takes aim at some of the modern periods most cherished ideas: she attacks the concept of "the Rights of Man" as absolutely unenforceable outside of a specifically national context, and her study of the trials of "displaced persons" in Europe after the First World War challenges the idea that nations are themselves naturally and necessarily cohesive entities. She also criticizes ideological thinking of all stripes as necessarily closed and of limited value, drawing, as she does, a useful comparison between Communist views of class warfare and Nazi notions of racial superiority as overarching all-embracing answers for everything.

The most chilling chapters of "The Origins of Totalitarianism" deal with the peculiar and terrible logic of totalitarian systems, in which the distinction between action and inaction and life and death tend to lose their meaning and the enlightenment-era concept of the unique self is hollowed out until people are seen as interchangeable units, or materiel. Finally, the distinctions she draws between men living together, living alone, feeling solitude, and feeling genuinely lonely are extremely affecting and make, in a roundabout way, a good case that these systems were essentially the product of the emotional displacements caused by the changes wrought by modernity. More than a historical analysis, "The Origins of Totalitarianism" also serves as a warning for those looking ahead in our own unstable times.
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LibraryThing member rboyechko
In the book, Hannah Arendt traces the development of totalitarianism from its roots in the French nobility after Revolution to the 20th century and beyond. It is her extraordinary ability to expound such a complex topic in such a way that the book is engaging and, above all else, clear. Arendt
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never attempts to place her writing on the pinnacle of the Ivory Tower, unintelligible for all but a select few erudite peers. Instead, the book is quite accessible to a layman. Nonetheless, it's clear that she has done extensive research into all aspects connected with the topic, with the result that reading the rather voluminous footnotes has proved to be a major source of extra information. In short, an excellent book for anyone interest in totalitarianism, both present-day and historical. Additionally, there is much information about imperialism, Jews in Europe, Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, and a plethora of other related topics.
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LibraryThing member thcson
This book has three parts: (1) Antisemitism, (2) Imperialism and (3) Totalitarianism. Part three is a lot better than the first two parts. In part three the author provides a fascinating and deep analysis of the totalitarian state, its ideology and lack of government. She argues that
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totalitarianism is a political system all its own, incomparable even to tyranny or dictactorship.

The author's main aim is to reveal the multifaceted irrationality and anti-rationality of totalitarian systems. She convincingly shows that utilitarian explanations of the "logic" behind totalitarianism are not valid. Totalitarianism aims only to destroy the civil rights of everyone, foreigners and compatriots alike. All other goals are secondary. The author's discussion of the key role that concentration camps play in this horrifying system is probably the best part of this book. The general conclusions she draws from Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia are pretty much applicable word for word to the one totalitarian state in the world today, North Korea. I therefore doubt that any other analysis of totalitarianism could equal this one.

Parts one and two, on the other hand, are a strange mixture of historical narrative, biography and arbitrary stream-of-thought without a distinguishale aim. Almost half of book one is spent on a biographical portrait of Benjamin Disraeli and on a discussion of the Dreyfus affair, neither of which yields any interesting conclusions about antisemitism. In book two the author is even further off the mark. Among other excursions she launches into a prolonged discussion of Hobbes' philosophy because he supposedly gives an "almost complete picture (...) of the bourgeois man" (p.134). I'm not sure what her intentions were when she wrote these parts, but they are both poorly structured and seem to have been written without much planning or editing.

In any case, my misgivings about parts one and two do not detract any value from the chapter on totalitarianism. Read part three and feel free to skip the two earlier parts in good conscience.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
Welp, this seemed topical. Lots of people have recently discussed Arendt’s explanation of why totalitarians lie and change positions so readily—because the point isn’t truth, the point is to destroy truth and law so that only chance separates the oppressed from the oppressors. (Orwell’s
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1984 is quite clearly the companion volume to this work.) The book itself is a bit frustrating; it’s neither history nor political science as we’d know it today, relying quite heavily on assertions of fact that I was not always willing to take on faith, especially in the extended early discussions of anti-Semitism. And her discussion of totalitarianism v. fascism relies on the reader to accrete and infer differences rather than stopping to explain what she thinks the differences are. (Mainly, I think, that fascism recognizes the persistence of private life and individuality, asserting only complete dominance over political life, while totalitarianism attempts to destroy private identity in total.) Still, Arendt’s take on anti-Semitism provoked some thoughts about why anti-Semitism is still so important to current hate movements; she argues that, historically, Jews were given protected (and restricted) status by the state, and thus Jews are associated with the state and with the rule of law in a way other groups are not. Totalitarians, who want to tear down the state because it stands in opposition to sudden and complete shifts of who’s targeted for elimination, thus readily target Jews. Arendt’s discussion of imperialism as a predecessor for totalitarianism is also quite thought-provoking: the condition of governing people who are considered unfit for self-government, she suggests, leads the governors to invent sudden shifts of policy to prove that the governance is justified/is the kind of thing the governed couldn’t do for themselves/that the governed’s submission to indignities itself proves that they’re unfit to rule themselves. At least, that’s what I got out of it.
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LibraryThing member behemothing
I am on the fence about much of this book, but I keep coming back to "The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man" as so useful, so I can't deny the four.
LibraryThing member MarcusBastos
Totalitarianism is a human enterprise difficult to explain but possible to comprehend. This work of Hannah Arendt helps the reader in understanding this human "achievement". Pure and absolute evil doesn't appear suddenly, it has its roots in history. Arendt examines the genesis and the development
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of anti-Semitism and imperialism in the first two parts of this work. Its characteristics and history are well explained in order to relate them to totalitarianism. Arendt has a talent to relate the pivotal facts in history to ideas (concepts), its generation and development. Her writings increase the reader comprehension of the questions and, when confronted with human faults and failures, inspire the search of solutions. As the result of this well made work, the reader gets invaluable knowledge about totalitarianism and its manifestations in history and about how to overcome it.
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LibraryThing member DanielSTJ
This was an absolutely stunning read. Arendt goes into great detail about. nearly, all elements of totalitarianism from its inception to its insidious effects. She provides exemplars which touch on the basis of the human psyche and reinforces them with a breadth of research that is truly stunning
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in itself. It is a remarkable and absorbing read that should be read by anyone interested in learning more about how governments work, Arendt's writing, or anyone interested in political philosophy. I am completely amazed, and was entertained and absorbed, in reading the text throughout its entirety.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member RobertP
It is apparently one of the great books of the 20th Century, and the subject matter is deserving of thought. I lost interest when the author began to analyze economics through Marxist theory. Too pointless for my liking, given the track record of Marxist theory...
LibraryThing member jimocracy
This book should have been better but it was pretty dry and barely held my interest.
LibraryThing member sensehofstede
Masterful. Read the third book, Totalitarianism.
LibraryThing member RajivC
The first thing that I will say is this: This is a difficult book to read.

Hannah Arendt uses exceptionally long and convoluted sentences, which you must unravel slowly. It is only when you do this that you can make sense of what she writes.
She divided the book into three sections:
- The Jewish
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Question. Since I am not familiar with their history, this entire section made little
sense to me. Having said that, I was extremely surprised to note that
anti-Semitism does not have deep historical roots! There is some very good
material on the changes that took place in Europe towards the end of the
19th century, possibly causing some of the disasters of the 20th century.
- Imperialism. There was some good material here, but she kept dancing between England and
Hitler. Because of this her narrative was not clear.
- Totalitarianism. This is when the book began to shine. There is so much material in this section
that this alone makes the book worthwhile. However, she obsessed about Stalin
and Hitler. I don't know why she did not compare these two men with other
totalitarian leaders. Nor did she explore the fine lines between totalitarianism,
tyranny and dictatorship.
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LibraryThing member SChant
I found this very dense and complex, drawing conclusions about 20th century fascism and racism from swathes of 18th & 19th century European politics, philosophy, and culture that to me didn't necessarily follow. I'm sure that to academics this is a useful piece of political analysis, but to a
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lay-person it like me it is incomprehensible, hence the 1-star review. DNF @ 22%.
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LibraryThing member Dilip-Kumar
This is a combination of three volumes, on respectively Antisemitism, Imperialism, and Totalitarianism. Obviously being one of the iconic books by an iconic writer of the twentieth century, it demands respectful attention. Unfortunately the style is very dense and mystifying, many of the sentences
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do not impart any sense on the first reading, the paragraphs go on without much structure or logical flow, there are huge footnotes in tiny print on most pages, there is an overload of references showcasing the author's erudition more than anything else, and the arguments or theoretical constructs are not always convincing. A very difficult book to read, probably requiring other, more modern, studies to achieve any understanding of these complex social-political processes and phenomena in a form that will be relevant to our current situations.
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LibraryThing member jcvogan1
I can only dream that I could write as well as Arendt.
LibraryThing member RickGeissal
Hannah Arendt was a brilliant philosopher, activist and writer. This book is very dense for one such as I who is a layman in this area, but by taking the time to retrace and reread it was understandable and impressive. I learned a lot of history, political ideas and anthropology, and found it a joy
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to read such a great thinker/writer describing and explaining difficult material. The book is great.
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LibraryThing member kcshankd
Not quite the work I was expecting. The first third, a history of European anti-semitism deserves to be its own, separate study. The next third is a history of 19th century Imperialism through the First World War, and seems again to be loosely related, if at all, to what follows.

Finally, the final
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third addresses totalitarianism, and is a product of its time - the echoes of the second world war still ringing. Confusingly, some of it speaks of Stalin's USSR in the present tense, and some parts are edited later after his death.

What should have been the books strongest chapters instead ramble as poorly organized lecture notes. Four times in the final section Arendt describes the SS as the 'transmission belt' of the Nazis. Perhaps it is a translation issue. 'Driving force' or to stick with the analogy, simply 'ratchet' would make more sense. It really stood out to this reader as a loosely organized set of notes after the 2nd repetition, let alone the fourth.
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Physical description

576 p.; 8 inches


0156701537 / 9780156701532
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