Hannah Arendt did more than anyone else to give the idea of totalitarianism the importance we accord it today. But like her contemporary George Orwell, in her subtlest trains of thought Arendt was seldom writing about the “-ism,” the social and political entity. She was more concerned with the implications of the adjective “totalitarian.”
There was, she believed, a totalitarian germ in the Western liberal political order. The instruments for the total control of opinion existed in every advanced technological society—and some of those instruments were already at work in America, even if selectively and half-buried under pretexts and euphemisms. Arendt accordingly devoted considerable energy in her final years to exposing the consolidation of state power here in the US—especially the war powers that could be turned back and deployed against citizens at home, but also the manufacture of mass opinion and the expanding cooperation between government, think tanks, and corporations that profit by their connection with the state.
In Germany, Arendt had seen firsthand the effects of a totalitarian order. The Holocaust was the end one should have expected from such a beginning; and yet the crimes of those who invented the death camps were of a peculiar kind. By their very magnitude, they could neither be properly punished nor forgiven. Jews, Roma, Communists, and homosexuals under Hitler’s regime—as well as all who deviated from the changing policies of the party under Stalin’s regime—were proscribed, and from one day to the next were transformed into virtually stateless persons. A different exclusionist tendency lay hidden in the path of commercial democracy, where the worst abuses would be slower to appear and less dramatic.
For the North Atlantic states exhibited a good many of the symptoms that, during the Second World War, had left stateless persons exposed and unprotected. Some of Arendt’s most memorable observations, in Part Two of The Origins of Totalitarianism, dealt with this unprecedented class of the marooned and helpless. What Enlightenment thinkers called “the natural equality of mankind at large”—a phrase from Burke that might as well have come from Kant—had referred to the human rights of persons everywhere. This version of equality was an homage to “our unchangeable and unique nature,” as Arendt put it. But the tendency of equality is to press toward uniformity. (If we are not the same, how can we be sure that we are equal?) Rights for stateless persons in any case would require a resoluteness and an economic sacrifice the world of nations was unwilling to deliver. So, for decades after 1945, such oppressed individuals would be thrown back on the variable rights of persons under the existing code of powerful states.
How could totalitarian methods ever draw the compliance of free citizens? A cause of the peril, Arendt believed, quite apart from propaganda and coercion, was the enchantment of success. A government that could exact apparent agreement with one radical change after another was given legitimacy by the mere fact that it was never stopped. What Germany witnessed in the mid-1930s, she wrote in “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” was not simply the corralling of a stupefied populace by the promises of a master demagogue. More remarkable was the apparently sincere
overnight change of opinion that befell a great majority of public figures in all walks of life and all ramifications of culture, accompanied as it was by the incredible ease with which lifelong friendships were broken and discarded. In brief, what disturbed us was the behavior not of our enemies but of our friends who had done nothing to bring this situation about. They were not responsible for the Nazis; they were only impressed by the Nazi success and unable to pit their own judgment against the verdict of History, as they read it.
This belief in a determined trajectory, an irresistible and progressive arc of History toward an assured goal, was the metaphysical fallacy against which Arendt’s political criticism was always directed. To the person who says “Put yourself on the right side of History,” the candid and self-respecting answer can only be “You are asking me to be irresponsible.” But appeals for proscription and censorship on behalf of “safety,” even in a tolerant democracy, always return us to a single temptation: the demand that we concede an ever-engrossing prerogative to the powers that be, in the cause of comity, or stability, or a less troubled consensus. When, in early December 2022, liberal-corporate journalists heard that the old regime of Twitter in 2020 had received and followed regular advice from the FBI and chose to greet the startling news with silence, indifference, or a knowing sarcasm, they were showing themselves charmed by success. “Working together” (they must have concluded), “Twitter and the FBI succeeded. And they were on the right side of History.”
By her background and personal experience, Arendt was associated with a group of refugee scholars whose presence accounted in large measure for the quality of humanistic study in mid-century America. Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Cassirer, Erich Auerbach, Rudolf Wittkower, Franz Neumann—beyond Arendt’s own circle of friends and editors, these were her intellectual compatriots, and they shared certain beliefs so closely held that they seldom required articulation: a distrust of the modern myth of the state and a dedication to preserving the uniquely modern privilege of personal consciousness and conscience. The latter they cherished as a gift—being neither the private possession of an individual nor the collective asset of society—that comes with inseparable responsibilities. The capacity to think, like the ability to judge, is part of the human inheritance, and the largest duty of the thinker is to embody a wisdom that looks backward to ancestors as a condition of looking forward to posterity.