The Origins of Totalitarianism

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The Origins of Totalitarianism
File:Arendt, H. - Origins of Totalitarianism.jpg
The 1951 edition
Author Hannah Arendt
Language English
Subject Nazism, Stalinism, totalitarianism
Publisher Schocken Books
Media type Print (hardcover and paperback)
Pages 704
OCLC 52814049
320.53 22
LC Class JC480 .A74 2004

The Origins of Totalitarianism (German: Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft, "Elements and Origins of Totalitarian Rule"; 1951), by Hannah Arendt, describes and analyzes Nazism and Stalinism, the major totalitarian political movements of the 20th century.


The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) describes the rise of anti-Semitism in central Europe and in western Europe in the early-to-mid 19th century; then examines the New Imperialism, from 1884 to the start of the First World War (1914–18); then traces the emergence of racism as an ideology, and its modern application as an “ideological weapon for imperialism”, by the Boers during the Great Trek (1830s–40s) in the early 19th century.

Arendt's work was preceded by An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–55), by Arthur de Gobineau, an initial elaboration of scientific racism, and the anti-patriotic and anti-nationalist racism of Henri de Boulainvilliers. Besides bureaucracy, experimentally applied in Egypt, by Evelyn Baring, 1st Earl of Cromer, racism was the main trait of colonialist imperialism, itself characterized by unlimited territorial and economic expansion, as illustrated by Cecil Rhodes. That unlimited expansion necessarily opposed itself and was hostile to the territorially delimited nation-state. Arendt traces the roots of modern imperialism to the accumulation of excess capital in European nation-states during the 19th century. This capital required overseas investments outside of Europe to be productive and political control had to be expanded overseas to protect the investments. She then examines "continental imperialism" (pan-Germanism and pan-Slavism) and the emergence of "movements" substituting themselves to the political parties. These movements are hostile to the state and antiparliamentarist and gradually institutionalize anti-Semitism and other kinds of racism. Arendt concludes that while Italian Fascism was a nationalist authoritarian movement, Nazism and Stalinism were totalitarian movements that sought to eliminate all restraints upon the power of the movement.

Final section

The book's final section is devoted to describing the mechanics of totalitarian movements, focusing on Nazi Germany and Communist Russia. Here, Arendt discusses the transformation of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the non-totalitarian world, and the use of terror, essential to this form of government. Totalitarian movements are fundamentally different from autocratic regimes, says Arendt, insofar as autocratic regimes seek only to gain absolute political power and to outlaw opposition, while totalitarian regimes seek to dominate every aspect of everyone's life as a prelude to world domination. Arendt discusses the use of front organizations, fake governmental agencies, and esoteric doctrines as a means of concealing the radical nature of totalitarian aims from the non-totalitarian world. A final section added to the second edition of the book in 1958 suggests that individual isolation and loneliness are preconditions for totalitarian domination.


Le Monde placed the book among the 100 best books of any kind of the 20th century, while the National Review ranked it #15 on its list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century.[1] The Intercollegiate Studies Institute listed it among the 50 best non-fiction books of the century.[2] The book made a major impact on Norman Podhoretz, who compared the pleasure of reading it to that of reading a great poem or novel.[3]

The book has also attracted criticism. The most comprehensive may have been in the Times Literary Supplement in 2009 by University of Chicago professor Bernard Wasserstein.[4] Wasserstein cited Arendt's systematic internalization of the various anti-Semitic and Nazi sources and books she was familiar with, which led to the use of many of these sources as authorities in the book.[5]

See also


  1. The 100 Best Non-fiction Books of the Century, National Review
  2. Intercollegiate Studies Institute's "50 Best Books of the 20th Century" (Non-fiction)
  3. Podhoretz, Norman (1999). Ex-Friends: Falling out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Helman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. New York: The Free Press. p. 143. ISBN 0-684-85594-1. 
  4. Horowitz, Irving Louis (January 2010). "Assaulting Arendt". First Things. Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  5. Wasserstein, Bernard (October 2009). "Blame the Victim—Hannah Arendt Among the Nazis: the Historian and Her Sources". Times Literary Supplement. 

External links