I am feeling compelled to finally read The Origins of Totalitarianism, the 1951 work of Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt. In it she explores Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. She wants to come to some kind of understanding—should it be possible—of horrific evil, and of how totalitarian regimes can come to be in the first place.
In the words of an acquaintance, my strong desire to read Arendt feels both “ominous and important.” Am I reading it in preparation for the 2024 presidential election and all that may follow? I hope not—but I will anyway. Or am I reading it to (still) try to wrap my head around how so many folks in the U.S. voted in 2016 for a man who praises Vladimir Putin and himself had (has) dictatorial aspirations? Or do I feel it necessary to read this because of the ways in which anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and racism persist, decades after Nazi Germany?
All of the above.
Here are just a few quotations from The Origins of Totalitarianism:
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule 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.
Practically speaking, the totalitarian ruler proceeds like a man who persistently insults another man until everybody knows that the latter is his enemy, so that he can, with some plausibility, go and kill him in self-defense.”
(This is exactly what Putin is doing in Ukraine—claiming self-defense as he launches unprovoked attacks—and also descriptive of Trump’s unprovoked verbal abuse toward others, whom he then labels enemies/rivals.)
And this sobering line:
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.
Let me know in the comments if you’ve read Arendt or anything else on totalitarianism.