Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism would be on anyone’s list of books that changed the world. But it is a classic that is deeply marked by the period in which it was written–a period, as Arendt put it, of “both reckless optimism and reckless despair.” She started work on it in 1945, when Hitler had just been defeated, and finished in 1951, when the new state of Israel was beginning to flex its military muscles in the Middle East, communist revolutionaries had taken power in China, and Berlin had been blockaded under the shadow of the atom bomb.
“Never has our future been more unpredictable,” Arendt wrote; “never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest.” We had no hope of recovering our old-time faith in progress, but there was not much chance of returning to “the old world order” either. The best traditions of Western culture had been vandalized and laid waste by Fascism and Nazism, and we found ourselves defenseless at the prospect of World War III.
Socialism and Marxism might once have offered shelter for political optimists, but not anymore: They had by then been absorbed into Stalinist Communism, which, far from being the antithesis of Nazism, turned out to be its horrible twin–an undeclared totalitarianism of the left, exactly mimicking the self-proclaimed totalitarianisms of the right.
Arendt was not the first to describe Marxism as a form of totalitarianism, and several of her conclusions had been anticipated by Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945–though she seems never to have acknowledged his work, or he hers. But no one before her had presented a sustained historical argument for regarding German Nazism and Soviet Communism as “essentially identical systems.” As she saw it, the essence of totalitarianism was not dictatorship or one-party rule but a kind of ideological alchemy that transmuted a few fanciful notions of historical fate into ruthless imperatives of government. To Arendt, totalitarian ideology was manifestly ludicrous: If the future is really being shaped by an iron historical destiny, it should not require assistance from an iron political will. But ludicrousness is no obstacle to influence, and totalitarian fantasies had been the inspiration of several megalomaniacal regimes–notably in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union–that tried to override the inherent unpredictability of human affairs and to treat people as superfluous to grand historical projects. “The totalitarian belief that everything is possible,” Arendt said, “proved only that everything can be destroyed.”
The mood of The Origins of Totalitarianism was sober but never despondent. Totalitarianism as Arendt portrayed it was the upshot of an extraordinary concurrence of historical circumstances rather than an expression of some deep-rooted hideousness in human nature. By an unlucky accident, the collapse of rigid class structures in Europe had coincided with the decay of well-defined nation-states and the dissolution of old-style imperialisms, leaving traditional networks of solidarity in ruins. Totalitarianism had then filled the political vacuum with a new form of nationalism–a “tribal” nationalism that appealed to the self-pity of the mob while offering an attractive platform to intellectuals with delusions of omniscient grandeur. Even the persecution of the Jews was incidental rather than inevitable. Anti-Semitism had a long and repellent history, but before the rise of totalitarianism it had been little more than a hobby for boorish buffoons. When prosperous Jews lost their former function as state financiers, however, they became easy targets for inchoate mob rage, and anti-Semitism was transformed into a concerted policy of mass murder. Totalitarianism, in short, was a kind of accident, and it “became this century’s curse only because it so terrifyingly took care of its problems.” With the defeat of Nazism, however, the problems facing the world had changed; and if there were continuing grounds for fear, there were also fresh reasons for hope.