The Terror of Totalitarianism Explained

We all hope totalitarianism — a form of government in which the state has no limits in authority and does whatever it wants — is a thing of the past.

Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia showed what the end of humanity would look like, and it terrified us. But it's important to understand that totalitarianism didn't just spring up out of a mystical vacuum. As Hannah Arendt explains in The Origins of Totalitarianism, it is, rather, just one possibility along a path that most countries are on at one time or another. And that is why it is so important to understand what it is.

The People

One of the most disturbing things about Nazism in Germany is how quickly the country changed. They went from democracy to concentration camps in fewer than ten years.

Most of us assume that the Germans of the time were different from us — we’d never fall for the kind of propaganda that Hitler spewed. And our democracy is too strong to be so easily dismantled. Right?


Arendt writes that “the success of totalitarian movements … meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled countries….” One illusion was that most citizens were politically active and were part of a political party. However,

… the [totalitarian] movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in a democratically ruled country, [and] that therefore a democracy could function according to rules which are actively recognized by only a minority. The second democratic illusion exploded by the totalitarian movements was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation.

In many modern democracies, we can see evidence of indifference and pervasive feelings of helplessness. There is low voter turnout and an assumption that things will be the way they are no matter what an individual does.

There is pent-up energy in apathy. Arendt suggests that the desire to be more than indifferent is what totalitarian movements initially manipulate until the individual is totally subsumed.

The disturbing factor in the success of totalitarianism is … the true selflessness of its adherents: it may be understandable that a Nazi or Bolshevik will not be shaken in his conviction by crimes against people who do not belong to the movement…; but the amazing fact is that neither is he likely to waver when the monster begins to devour its own children and not even if he becomes a victim of persecution himself….

How does totalitarianism incite this kind of fanaticism? How does a political organization “succeed in extinguishing individual identity permanently and not just for the moment of collective heroic action”?

As Arendt demonstrates, both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia capitalized on tensions already present in society. There was essentially a massive rejection of the existing political system as ineffectual and self-serving.

The fall of protecting class walls transformed the slumbering majorities behind all parties into one great unorganized, structureless mass of furious individuals who had nothing in common except their vague apprehension that the hopes of party members were doomed, that, consequently, the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent.

How does a totalitarian government harness this attitude of the masses? By completely isolating individuals through random “liquidating” (mass murder) so that “the most elementary caution demands that one avoid all intimate contacts, if possible – not in order to prevent discovery of one's secret thoughts, but rather to eliminate, in the almost certain case of future trouble, all persons who might have not only an ordinary cheap interest in your denunciation but an irresistible need to bring about your ruin simply because they are in danger [in] their own lives.”

It's important to understand that it is simple to isolate people who already feel isolated. When you feel disconnected from the system around you and the leaders it has, when you believe that neither your vote nor your opinion matters, it's not a huge leap to feel that your very self has no importance. This feeling is what totalitarianism figured out how to manipulate by random terror that severed any form of connection with other human beings.

Totalitarianism “demand[s] total, unrestricted, unconditional, and unalterable loyalty of the individual member. … Such loyalty can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement.”

The Politics and Propaganda

Totalitarianism does not have an end goal in the usual political sense. Its only real goal is to perpetuate its own existence. There is no one party line that, if you stick to it, will save you from persecution. Remember the random mass murders. Stalin repeatedly purged whole sections of his government — just because. The fear is a requirement. The fear is what keeps the movement going.

And how do they get there? How do they get this power?

Arendt argues that there is a “possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.”

This battle with truth is something we see today. Opinions are being given the same weight as facts, leading to endless debates and the assumption that nothing can be known anyway.

It is this turning away from knowledge that opens the doors to totalitarianism. “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”

These fabrications form the basis of the propaganda, with different messages crafted for different audiences. Arendt makes the point that “the necessities for propaganda are always dictated by the outside world and that the movements themselves do not actually propagate but indoctrinate.” Thus, propaganda can be understood as directed to those who are out of the control of the totalitarian movement, and it is used to convince them of its legitimacy. Then, once you are on the inside, it's about breaking down the individuality of the citizens until there is nothing but a “subdued population.”

The success of the propaganda directed internally demonstrated that “the audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”

The Power

What does totalitarian rule look like? These states are not run by cliques or gangs. There is no protected group getting rich from this control of the masses. And no one is outside the message. For example, “Stalin … shot almost everybody who could claim to belong to the ruling clique and … moved the members of the Politburo back and forth whenever a clique was on the point of consolidating itself.”

Why no clique? One reason is that the goal of totalitarianism is not the welfare of the state. It is not economic prosperity or social advancement.

The reason why the ingenious devices of totalitarian rule, with their absolute and unsurpassed concentration of power in the hands of a single man, were never tried before is that no ordinary tyrant was ever mad enough to discard all limited and local interests — economic, national, human, military — in favor of a purely fictitious reality in some indefinite distant future.

Since independent thinkers are a threat, they are among the first to be purged. Bureaucratic functions are duplicated and layered, with people being shifted all the time.

This regular violent turnover of the whole gigantic administrative machine, while it prevents the development of competence, has many advantages: it assures the relative youth of officials and prevents a stabilization of conditions which, at least in time of peace, are fraught with danger for totalitarian rule….

Any chances of discontent and questioning of the status quo are eliminated by this perpetual rising of the newly indoctrinated.

The humiliation implicit in owing a job to the unjust elimination of one's predecessor has the same demoralizing effect that the elimination of the Jews had upon the German professions: it makes every jobholder a conscious accomplice in the crimes of the government….

Totalitarianism in power is about keeping itself in power. By preemptively removing large groups of people, the system neutralizes all those who might question it.

Possibly the one ray of hope in these systems is that because they pay no attention to actually governing, they are not likely to be sustainable in the long run.

The incredibility of the horrors is closely bound up with their economic uselessness. The Nazis carried this uselessness to the point of open anti-utility when in the midst of the war, despite the shortage of building material and rolling stock, they set up enormous, costly extermination factories and transported millions of people back and forth. In the eyes of a strictly utilitarian world the obvious contradiction between these acts and military expediency gave the whole enterprise an air of mad unreality.

But in the meantime, what these regimes create is so devastating to humanity that it would be naive to assume that humanity will always bounce back. “They have corrupted all human solidarity. Here the night has fallen on the future. When no witnesses are left, there can be no testimony.”

Even though totalitarianism doesn't produce countries with a variety of strengths and a robustness to fight off significant challenges, they should not be easily dismissed. The carnage they create tears apart all social fabric. And we must not assume that they exist only in the past. Thus, from Hannah Arendt, a final word of caution: “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.”


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