Critique of Hannah Arendt's Approach in Her Thesis on Totalitarianism

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A totalitarian government is one which should be seen as a regime of the past. In society today, people have rights and freedoms; which means that the government has the mandate to protect its citizens, and give them the power to work and realise the best in themselves. A democracy is defined as the society where people have a voice and say in the government; electing leaders of their own preference and where no singular person imposes himself as the one and only dictator. In a country, people expect good education, quality medical services and security from the people they elected.

Therefore, it means that the citizens have a right to question the elected leaders without feeling intimidated or menaced. One of the significant reasons for facing underdeveloped countries is poor leadership; where elected leaders work on their own without taking into account the considerations of the common man. This kind of dictatorship and poor governance indefinitely lead to the underdevelopment and insecurity of a nation (Resnick, 23). Hannah Arendt’s thesis on totalitarianism seeks to examine the historical forces of this extreme authoritarianism form of government which prevailed in the 20th century; particularly with two prime examples of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia. The primary aim of this essay to explain Arendt’s thesis of totalitarianism, and some of the critique of the ideology.

Genocide and Totalitarian Methods of Domination

Totalitarianism is a political concept type of government that is dictatorial and centralised, which requires complete subservience to the national state. This type of government typically prohibits all the opposition parties and restricts individuals who are in opposition to the central state it claims; and exercise a very high degree of control over both private and public life. In most types of such governments, the leaders are dictators, ruling a nation state with very little or no freedom. Subsequently, people suspected to criticise the government are either jailed or even killed (Arendt, 1973); and lack freedom of speech means that some ideas and religions can be disregarded and banned. Therefore, it means that if the ruler is a dictator, he or she is not restricted by the opposition, laws or the constitutions.

This type of leadership is hazardous as citizens cannot criticise the government freely without fear of being arrested for being killed. In some countries where dictatorship has thrived, human rights activists have disappeared without a trace. Critical readers would argue however, for evidence opposing Arendt’s notion that ‘totalitarian regimes can only develop in states with large populations’ (Arendt, 1973). For instance, the genocidal pol pot regime in Cambodia, which resulted in the death of over 3 million people was an example of a small state suffering under a totalitarian regime (The History Place). Although these facts weren’t available to Arendt during her lifetime, they still disapprove her contention regarding state size and totalitarianism.

In her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism” Arendt sought out to differentiate her work from other forms of political oppression like despotism, tyranny, and dictatorship which had become commonplace for people’s experiences at the time. Since the creation of the state, citizens of a nation state have gone through various types of governments, some worse than others. Instead, the author of the book wanted to know how the specific and all the cruel things performed Hitler in Nazi Germany with the whole world was watching (Arendt, 1973). The main question is why did people not raise their voice when all these malicious acts were happening? A lot of people were killed in what was believed to be the biggest massacre in world history. In addition to this, how did Stalin’s and Nazi death camps purge? According to Arendt, horrible marks of totalitarianism symbolise an incomprehensible magnitude of evil and degeneracy.

The main reason for Arendt’s approach to all these questions was to examine crucial elements of social and political contexts where this type of government flourished; as well as some of the root causes of the emergence in this phenomenon. According to Arendt, totalitarianism was the primary source of internal destruction of the country (Herf, 2008). From previous manifestations of territorial and legal stability; many non-states in the late 19th century started suffering from effects of the expansion of imperialism, and individuals began to identify themselves as citizens inferior to others above their specific social class. In society, according to Arendt, there are two classes in society. One is the ruling class, and the rest are the workers who own nothing but their human workforce. Her notion explains that the bourgeoisies (ruling class) own the means of production, underpaying the workers and exploiting them for their labour (Sigwart, 2016). The people in the government are the same people in the ruling class; therefore they cannot understand nor empathise with what the proletariat are going through. The collapse according to Arendt, was induced by many attempts to fix and adjust a non-formal relationship between the emergent middle-class group and the aristocracies. A further reason was also the states’ efforts to try to amend and reconcile the relationship between the two classes in society. This is still happening in our communities today as people are fighting and working hard to maintain a high level of equality and rights. Thus, the more divisions emerged, the more the upper class gained more power.


In ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, Arendt mentions that totalitarianism is different from despotism and dictatorship, as it suppresses and replaced all other political institutions, causing a newly formed ‘statelessness’ nation (Resnick and Wolff 2013). In this kind of state, there is a desire to pursue specific goals (such as conquest and industrialisation) in pursuit of the exclusion those deemed unworthy. Therefore, it means that most of the resources will be directed toward accomplishing that particular goal, unfortunately resulting in people suffering in its process (Tilton, 2016). Under this rule, Arendt suggests that organisations and traditional forms of an institution are suppressed and discouraged.

Therefore, there is a weakening of the social fabric which makes people in society more absorbed to single and unified movements. As individualism and pluralism diminish, most people in society will embrace a totalitarian form of leadership. There is a well organised and considerable scale violence, and overtime this violence understood as permissible, and even necessary. For example in Stalin Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, classes of people such as Kulaks and Jews were singled out for extinction and persecution. In each of the two cases, the persecuted people were always linked with having a relationship with the external enemy and later blamed for state troubles. Consequently, public opinion was raised against these group of people and their fate under the eyes of the government at the time was condoned.


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Critics of both historical right and left have stressed that the contents of the Stalinist and Nazi ideologies are distinct, something that Arendt was well aware of and stresses in her thesis. One of the issues that Hannah Arendt’s focuses on was Nazism. When discussing Nazism, her focus lay with the ideologies and actions that were related to the Nazi party, otherwise referred to as the National Socialist German Workers Party. Nazism was an example of fascism which articulated that ideology differentiated itself from liberal democracy and parliamentary systems (Kamenka, 2017). The regime consisted of anti-communism, eugenics, scientific racism, and anti-Semitism. Followers of the Nazism ideology agreed with pseudo-scientific theories that believed in racial hierarchy in connection to social Darwinism (Schleunes, and Tilton 2016).

The aim was to help overcome social division and develop a homogenous society of Germans based on racial purity which stood in for people’s community, creating a historically German territory (Tilton, 2016). Furthermore, the national socialism term came about as a result of trials to develop a nationalist redefinition of socialism, as another option of Marxist international socialism and free market capitalism. Marxist concept talking about class conflict and universal equality was opposed. It also spoke about rejecting cosmopolitan internationalism and ought to convince all parts of the new German society to drop down their desires to the common good, thus agreeing on political interests as the main priority of the industrial organisation.

Arendt’s notion of anti-Semitism is particularly specified in her key statement: ‘modern anti-Semitism grew in proportion as traditional nationalism declined, and reached its climax at the exact moment when the European system of nation-states and its precarious balances of powers crashed’ (Arendt, 1973). Many critics would argue that this is actually incorrect, and that as well as having no real historical backing for her theory, multiple historical events have proven otherwise to her statement. For instance, historian Zeev Sternhell mentions the rise of integral nationalism in 19th Century France, and how this was driven into extreme anti-Semitism during the Dreyus affair (Avineri, 2010). Furthermore, Arendt’s focus that anti-Semitism grows in support with a declining nation-state neglects other anti-Semitist movements in Eastern Europe, and their direct connection to increasing nationalist movements.

For example, anti-Semitism in Eastern European countries such as Romania and Lithuania increased when their pursuit of nationalism prospered; as it involved confronting largely existing Jewish minorities and their territories, resulting in violence and discrimination (Avineri, 2010). By dismissing what really happened to the large Jewish population in Eastern Europe; critics bring into question Arendt’s account of anti-Semitism as being a reliable and valid account. Furthermore, Arendt’s accounts regarding historical analysis are brought into further questioning regarding reliability when looking at the writings she cites to support her theories. Undoubtedly, Arendt clearly bases her views on well-grounded and authentic research. However, Arendt also continuously cites the woks of Nazi historians, such as Walter Frank; a man responsible for ‘cleansing’ German universities of Jewish lecturers. By citing workers devoted to Nazi rule and belief, Arendt jeopardises her accounts of Jews in German history as controversial and problematic (Avineri, 2010).

Stalinism and Decline of Nation State in Europe

Stalinism is another concept that is brought about by Hannah Arendt, specifically discussing policies and governing rules that were implemented by Joseph Stalin from 1927 to 1953. Stalinist policies drove the emergence of a totalitarian state, cultic of personality with disregard for any foreign communist party input. Stalinism supported the growth of class conflicts, using state violence to force the society to revolt against the bourgeoisie and other classes with ‘counter-revolutionary sympathises’; who were seen as enemies unproductive and unnecessary in society (Sigwart, 2016). Consequently, the policy resulted to significant political violence and the killing of people (Tilton, 2016).

Stalinism saw communism as acceleration in development through the means of industrialisation. This helped in stressing for the desire to rapidly industrialise the Soviet Union, because they were so behind when compared to the other countries economically. Also, it ascertained that they needed more industries to be able to face the oppositions created by the internal and external enemies of communism. A change that occurred was the rapid movement of the agricultural industry to urbanised development, changing several smaller villages into industrial cities (Kotkin, 1995). To further his doctrine, Stalin adopted ideologies, expertise and labourers from Western Europe, in pursuit of better industrial development. Similarly to Adolf Hitler, Stalin focused all the powers to himself; making the political era cult-like as he was the sole controller of every other industry. Whilst some individuals hold strong negative views on Stalin’s rule; viewing him as a territorial, discriminatory dictator, some critics would suggest that the era was phase the state was supposed to go through to be effective.

Although Arendt does not agree that totalitarian rule was the primary contributor of genocide, the author argues that there is a close relationship between programs of mass destruction and totalitarian methods of domination (Birch, 2007). However, unlike other regimes of terror witnessed before, physical life cannot be eliminated by totalitarianism. Rather than that, total terror in the society will be abolished by doing away with political and civil rights, public life exclusion, taking away of personal properties and finally murder and deportation of all extended families and the neighbouring communities.

In conclusion, we have to agree that democracy is the best form of government where people have freedom of speech. In her book ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, the author challenges a continuity thesis between Stalin’s ideology and Marx’s ideologies. We are living in a world where society is changing every day. A good government is measured by the kind of services it gives to its citizens. However, this cannot be achieved if the local people have no voice in the government. Therefore, it is crucial that we all carry the responsibility of making sure that society is an unprejudiced and safe community; where people have the freedom of speech and right to equality. All this will be achieved only if there is a good government, where people can raise their voice and question the status quo amicably and harmoniously.

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