The Origins of Totalitarianism – A Human Rights Day Book Review

International Human Rights Day is the perfect time to review a classic book. Find out why The Origins of Totalitarianism is rated one of the top non-fiction books of the 20th century.

The Origins Of Totalitarianism

The Origins Of Totalitarianism
Hannah Arendt

Let’s mark this year’s International Human Rights Day by revisiting one of the twentieth century’s top non-fiction books. It’s about the rise of Nazism and Stalinism during the era of the two World Wars.

We’re talking about political theorist Hannah Arendt’s first major work called The Origins of Totalitarianism. She first published it in 1951 and released major revisions in 1958 and 1968. She divided the book into three parts–Anti-Semitism, Imperialism and Totalitarianism. Human rights defenders recognize Arendt’s book as a classic because of its provocative observations.

Arendt argues that totalitarianism arose from three social movements. These are antisemitism, colonial imperialism and militant nationalism. Although her book is a product of the Cold War era, it seemed eerily relevant as I re-read it in these final weeks of 2020.


In Part One, Anti-Semitism, Arendt traces the origins of anti-Jewish discrimination. She points to the paradox of the Jewish community, being alternately admired and resented throughout European history. 

Arendt focuses a large portion of Part One on the infamous Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus was an officer of the French General Staff. He also happened to be Jewish. 

The French government accused him of spying for Germany. A court found him guilty in a secret trial and sentenced him to life in the penal colony on Devil’s Island. His supporters insisted that he was framed and that the documents used against him were forged.

Dreyfus Affair Ultimately Never Settled

The authorities released him after a series of appeals, but ultimately, the affair was never settled and still triggers lively debates in cafes. Arendt argues that the Dreyfus affair would have faded into obscurity except for two factors.

As she puts it, “The Dreyfus Affair in its political implications could survive because two of its elements grew in importance during the twentieth century. The first is hatred of the Jews; the second, suspicion of the republic itself, of Parliament and the state machine.”

This combination of an ethnic scapegoat and distrust of public institutions reminded me of today’s political climate. Immigrants and refugees, whether from Latin America or Syria, have become the scapegoats. At the same time, populist movements denounce the “fake news” and call for a leader who will reform corrupt political institutions to “drain the swamp.”


Part Two of the book is called Imperialism. This section has become the most influential because it’s the first time an author connected racism with colonialism.

This is an accepted foundation of today’s social justice theory. Still, this part of the book has also always been controversial. Not everyone supports Arendt’s argument that racism drove imperialism.

She describes the late nineteenth century and the period leading up to WWI as a time of relentless growth and global expansion for the European powers. She explains the dynamic by which the central foreign policy drivers of that period became gaining and holding onto power.

History of the Idea of Race

She then discusses the history of the idea of race. As Arendt puts it, “Racism has been the powerful ideology of imperialistic policies since the turn of our century.” She supports this theory by pointing to the work of Arthur de Gobineau.

She describes Gobineau’s views, writing. “The fall of civilizations is due to a degeneration of race, and the decay of race is due to a mixture of blood.” In today’s multicultural milieu, most of us would dismiss such notions as quaint nonsense from a bygone era.

Even so, in 2019, U.S. congressman Steve King said this about contraception. “Preventing babies being born is not medicine. That’s not constructive to our culture and our civilization. If we let our birthrate get down below the replacement rate, we’re a dying civilization.”

Powerful Combination of Racism and Bureaucracy

The Age of Imperialism ends with the beginning of the First World War. Arendt shows us that this absurd and catastrophic conflict nearly wiped out the ideas of the nation-state and the “rights of man.” 

Having outlined the origin of what she calls “race thinking,” Arendt discusses how the powerful combination of racism and bureaucracy was central to imperialist thought. She shows how this was especially true in apartheid South Africa and on the rest of the African continent.

She argues that the weakening of the nation-state and the rights of man set the stage for totalitarianism. As she explains, “The punishment involved in the loss of human rights is that such loss coincides with the instant when a person becomes a human being in general–without a profession, without a citizenship without an opinion without a deed with which to identify and specify himself–and different in general, representing nothing but his own absolutely unique individuality deprived of expression within and action upon a common world, loses all significance.”

Libertarian Views Lead to Totalitarianism

We’ve been hearing many populists and libertarians idealizing the rugged individual who owes nothing to the community. Although these people are openly hostile to totalitarianism, they don’t seem to realize that their views lead them closer to it.

Part Three is called Totalitarianism. It outlines the process by which Hitler and Stalin gained power in the period after WWI.

Arendt explains that both forms of totalitarianism arose out of populist mass movements of cynical, alienated and apathetic people. She describes them like this, “They recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention.”

“Too Apathetic or Too Stupid for Their Attention”

When I read that sentence, I’m reminded of Hilary Clinton’s phrase “a basket of deplorables.” Arendt writes that the masses at that time believed that, “The most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent.”

Today’s populist movement denies science, dismisses expertise, calls reputable news organizations “fake news” and denounces the “educated elites.” The historical parallels are striking and unnerving.

The author then explains that masses can’t be won over with a sense of belonging alone. To get them to embrace the totalitarian cause, the leaders of the movement need propaganda.

Propaganda For Organization, Not Persuasion

Arendt explains, “The true goal of totalitarian propaganda is not persuasion but organization–‘the accumulation of power without possession of the means of violence.’”

When we consider news outlets like Fox, OAN, NewsMax and Breitbart, there’s no other word for their products than propaganda. In line with Arendt’s model, their goals seem to be not merely to convince but to harness their audiences as part of a broader movement.

Arendt concludes by warning that, having created totalitarianism, we always run the risk that it could rise again. As we’ve seen throughout this review, we can sense the warning signs in current events.

Every End in History Contains a New Beginning

Even so, she ends the book on a positive note. She writes, “There remains also the truth that every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning…the beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”

I enjoyed the book thoroughly, and it deserves its reputation. Arendt is a clear and engaging writer, even if her prose can be a bit formal and academic. I haven’t done anything to her quotes in this review to make her language more inclusive. For instance, some readers may find her archaic use of male pronouns inappropriate, but her work is a product of its time.

The structure of the book is clear, and her argument flows naturally through its three parts. I came away with a clear understanding of Arendt’s explanation of totalitarianism’s roots and an appreciation for her reputation.

Treats Fascism and Communism as Roughly Equivalent

One thing that I was uncomfortable with was Arendt’s treatment of fascism and communism as roughly equivalent. She thinks of them as two closely related strains of totalitarianism with only trivial differences. Conventionally, political scientists view them as polar opposites.

For example, way back in 1978, when I was in high school, Mr. Barclay taught us about the political spectrum. Fascism went on the right, and communism went on the left. Yet, Erendt makes no such distinction.

To be fair, she doesn’t refer to the traditional political spectrum in her proposed dynamic. She’s more concerned with practical consequences than adherence to ideologies on the left or the right than someone like Trotsky was at the time.

As mentioned earlier, some of Arendt’s peers have challenged her connection between racism and imperialism. They feel that she exaggerates the influence of Gobineau and that she should have stressed her model of bureaucratic power as the main driving force behind colonialism.

Four Whole Earths Out of Five

These are quibbles, though. Overall, I would highly recommend this book to anybody who feels inspired to delve into the roots of totalitarianism on this International Human Rights Day. I’ve decided to give this book four “Whole Earths” out of five because of what it taught me.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
The Origins Of Totalitarianism
Human Rights Call to Action from UN Chief
Hong Kong Crackdown Draws International Condemnation

COVID-19 Human Rights Issues Come to Light


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