Book Review: The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

Book Review: The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

Reviewed by Ray McGinnis

The ideal subject of totalitarianism is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.” (474)

Imagine if the Centre for Christian Studies was headed by a principal who ordered seventy percent of the members of Central Council, all standing committees and CCS staff, to be arrested and shot. That act would be unthinkable, given the Centre’s values and mission, to say the least. But in the USSR in 1937-38, of the 139 members of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, 98 were arrested and shot. According to Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev in his speech before the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in the USSR in 1956, of 1,966 delegates to the 1937 Congress, under Stalin’s orders 1,108 were arrested and executed on charges of being enemies of the state.

Though The Origins of Totalitarianism was first published in 1951, Hannah Arendt’s book has been cited in numerous articles over the past few years. The catalyst for referencing her has been the rise of neo-fascist and authoritarian leaders including Bolsonaro in Brazil, János Áder in Hungary, Andrzej Duda in Poland, Donald Trump in America and Rodrigo Duterte in The Philippines. Of course, the recent experience of the Trump presidency doesn’t represent totalitarianism; Trump merely fires his cabinet members and other senior government officials on a regular basis, while Joseph Stalin typically promoted and then executed Soviet leaders. Stalin was one of seven members in the original Politburo. After Lenin died in 1924, Stalin saw that the other five original members were executed, the last being Leon Trotsky in 1940.

We follow a savior who was crucified on a cross, the torture of choice in the Roman Empire. And the early Christian community had followers of Christ who were routinely fed to the lions in stadiums for the enjoyment of Roman citizens. The sign of the cross is a reminder of a both persecution and torture, and Christ’s resurrection. CCS proclaims that it “is grounded in the diaconal tradition, which means being the church in the world.” The Centre has something to offer people of faith, and others in the wider society, a model of community, leadership and learning. That model provides a way to inoculate people from the appeal of authoritarian leadership styles and, in its extreme, totalitarianism.

Hannah Arendt wrote “what prepares (people) for totalitarianism in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness… has become an everyday experience of the… masses of our century.” (478). At CCS we are “Dedicated to forming learning communities as the foundation to our approach to education.” While individuals may struggle with depression or loneliness, the model for learning happens in community. People have learning partners. The work and learning done happens based in “values of mutuality, equality, and respect.” In this way, CCS is a place that is living an intention of the best that being community can be. We form friendships, collegiality, networks of respect and common purpose. We emerge from our time at CCS knowing firsthand that “we are not alone, we live in God’s world.”

Writing of the experience of totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia, Hannah Arendt warned readers “… it is necessary for totalitarianism to destroy every trace of what we commonly call human dignity.” (458) In her book she provides numerous examples: 1) “In the Soviet Union a woman will sue for divorce immediately after her husband’s arrest in order to save the lives of her children; if her husband chances to come back, she will indignantly turn him out of the house.” 2) “Who could solve the moral dilemma of the Greek mother, who was allowed by the Nazis to choose which of her three children should be killed?” 3) Or the custom of the German SS to make concentration camp inmates responsible for deciding which inmates, friends or strangers, would next be sent to the gas chambers. (452) Terror was government policy, in contrast to Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, where only 7 persons were sentenced to death between 1926 and 1932. Once Mussolini had overcome his political opposition, he was not interested in randomly terrorizing the citizenry as happened in Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia. 

In marked contrast to totalitarian forms, CCS has a mission that is inspired by Jesus’ example of washing the feet of his disciples and standing with those who are marginalized. Where totalitarian government needs to expand its borders and declare war on other nations, CCS seeks to follow in the way of Jesus who “rejected the values of empire.”

One of the important tests of discipleship in standing with those who are marginalized is to believe the victims of injustice. This means that what is required of staff and students at CCS is more than classic liberalism. Hannah Arendt warned that one of the things that aids the advance of totalitarianism, and other variants of authoritarian governance, is that liberal thinkers “indulge in wishful thinking and shirk reality in the face of real insanity.” (437) The lesson of the success of the crimes against humanity in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union is that “‘normal people’ refuse to believe” that crimes such as the death by starvation of 11 million Ukrainian Soviet citizens in the early 1930’s could be a result of government policy. The idea that this kind of atrocity could happen went against what “common sense” taught, and notions of Germany and the Soviet Union as expressions of “civilized” societies. Six million Jews couldn’t be killed in the concentration camps, many said at the close of World War II. After all, Germany was an “advanced society.”

CCS is to be commended for “Approaching theology from a position of inquiry and struggle, striving to extend our boundaries outward in dialogue…” with others. That inquiry, struggle and striving need to always include examining our assumptions. Hannah Arendt had a challenge to both Christians and philosophers halfway through the 20th Century: “It is inherent in our entire philosophical tradition that we cannot conceive of a “radical evil,” and this is true both for Christian theology, which conceded even to the Devil… a celestial origin…” (459)

The original photo, taken in 1937, had a fourth man, Nikolai Yezhov, walking between Stalin and the banks of the Moscow-Volga Canal. But after Yezhov, the People’s Commisar for State Security was executed in 1940 for anti-Soviet crimes he confessed to under torture, all reproductions of this photo had Yezhov airbrushed out of the picture.

Our CCS values need to fortify our ability to be the church in the world, in a world that includes people who prefer to minimize and dismiss injustice and crimes against humanity. Jesus Sermon on the Mount never included the phase, “oh, it can’t be that bad.” Jesus named the powers and principalities he was up against. It will require those of us who are his disciples in the 21st Century to discern what is in front of us, whether in our own community, or a news story of international importance. For our learning to be “relevant” we must heed the lessons of the past. As Hannah Arendt concluded, in answer to the question, how could this happen? Those “determined to commit crimes find it expedient to organize them on the… most improbable scale…. because the very immensity of the crimes guarantees that the murderers who proclaim their innocence with all manner of lies will be more readily believed than the victims who tell the truth.” (439)

Ray is a CCS grad from 1980 and current chairperson of the CCS Communications Committee


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