The Origins of Totalitarianism

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The Origins of Totalitarianism
Arendt, H. - Origins of Totalitarianism.jpg
The 1951 edition
Author Hannah Arendt
Language English
Subject Nazism, Communism, Totalitarianism
Genre non-fiction
Publisher Schocken Books
Media type Hardcover
Pages 704
OCLC 52814049
320.53 22
LC Class JC480 .A74 2004

The Origins of Totalitarianism (German Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft, i.e. Elements and origins of totalitarian rule) is a book by Hannah Arendt which describes and analyzes the two major totalitarian movements of the 20th century, Nazism and Stalinism. Its original title was to have been 'The Burden of Our Times', and it was published as The Burden of Our Time [sic] in Britain in 1951.[1] It was recognized upon its 1951 publication as the comprehensive account of its subject and was later hailed as a classic by the Times Literary Supplement.

This book continues to be one of the definitive philosophical analyses of totalitarianism, at least in its 20th century form. Arendt dedicated the book to her husband Heinrich Blücher.


The book describes the rise of antisemitism in central and western Europe in the early and middle 19th century and continues with an examination of the New Imperialism period from 1884 to the outbreak of World War I. Although Arthur de Gobineau's An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1853–1855) constitutes the first elaboration of "biological racism", as opposed to Henri de Boulainvilliers' anti-patriotic and anti-nationalist racism, Hannah Arendt traces the emergence of modern racism as an ideology to the Boers', starting in particular during the Great Trek in the first half of the 19th century, and qualifies it as an "ideological weapon for imperialism".

Along with bureaucracy, which was experimented with in Egypt by Lord Cromer, Arendt says that racism was the main trait of colonialist imperialism, itself characterized by its unlimited expansion (as illustrated by Cecil Rhodes). This 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 Communism were totalitarian movements that sought to eliminate all restraints upon the power of the State.

Final section[edit]

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.[2] The Intercollegiate Studies Institute listed it among the 50 best non-fiction books of the century.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ British Library ID BLL01000107370.
  2. ^ The 100 Best Non-fiction Books of the Century, National Review
  3. ^ Intercollegiate Studies Institute's "50 Best Books of the 20th Century" (Non-fiction)
  4. ^ 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. 
  5. ^ Horowitz, Irving Louis (January 2010). "Assaulting Arendt". First Things. Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  6. ^ Wasserstein, Bernard (October 2009). "Blame the Victim—Hannah Arendt Among the Nazis: the Historian and Her Sources". Times Literary Supplement. 

External links[edit]