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[Chalice] Hannah Arendt &[Chalice]
The Origins of Totalitarianism

Presented November 5, 2006, by Joseph Messina

"Philosophy must become concrete and practical, without for a moment losing sight of its origin."

Karl Jaspers in letter to Arendt, 18 September 1946. Commitment to philosophy in the political sphere.


Born in 1906 into a middle-class Jewish family in Königsberg, capital of East Prussia.

"I came from an old Königsberg family [T]he word 'Jew' was hardly mentioned at home. I first encountered it -- though really it is hardly worth recounting it -- in the anti-Semitic remarks of children as we played in the streets -- then I became, so to speak, enlightened. as a child -- now a somewhat older child -- I knew, for example, that I looked Jewish. That is, that I looked a bit different from the rest. But not in a way that made me feel inferior-I was simply aware of it, that is all."

Television interview, 1964, quoted in Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World, by Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.

University years: 1924-29 (Marburg, Freiburg, Heidelburg). Studies with Heidegger, Husserl, & Jaspers. Dissertation (under Jaspers): The Concept of Love in St. Augustine. Problem addressed: how is it possible to live in the world and love one's neighbor while holding to an unworldly or other-worldly vision? She is working in the seed-bed for her idea of what she calls the human condition of plurality -- being with other people in various forms of friendship (correspondence with McCarthy, 225-232) and cooperation; acting together.

Arrested by the Gestapo in 1933 in Berlin because of research she was doing for the German Zionist Organization, with which she was not officially associated; released after 8 days, thanks to a decent German policeman and the help of friends. Leaves Germany with her mother, without travel documents, by way of "the Green Front," a forest-and-mountain escape route used by Jews and leftists.

"I arrived at the conclusion which I always, at the time, expressed in one sentence, a sentence which clarified it to me: 'When one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew'." Interview with Günter Gaus, 1964, quoted in Young-Bruel, p. 109.

Refugee in Paris till 1940. (From now till 1951, when she becomes an American citizen, she is a "stateless person," a type of the "pariah," an important term in her political language).

May 1940: ordered with other refugees from Germany to report to an internment camp.

"A few weeks after our arrival in the camp France was defeated and all communication broke down. In the resulting chaos we succeeded n getting liberation papers with which we were able to leave the camp." Many chose not to leave the camp, trusting in the Vichy government to protect them. Those who stayed, hoping for the best, were picked up and transported to extermination centers.

She and her husband, Heinrich Blücher, granted visas by the U. S. State Department; make a very lucky escape to the U. S.

After a struggling start, embarks on brilliant career in the U. S. Holds several major academic posts; on faculty at the New School for Social Research and the University of Chicago. Becomes an American citizen in 1951. "The pariah's task, in Arendt's understanding, was to be alert to the unexpected, to look at how things and events appear without preconceptions about history's course or pattern, to avoid sacrificing the outsider's perspective for the parvenu's comforts." Young-Bruel, "From the Pariah's Point of View," in Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World, p. 5, ed. Melvyn A. Hill.

Dies December, 1975. She left in her typewriter a sheet of paper with typed epigraphs for Judging, the projected Volume 3 of The Life of the Mind.

Some Major Works:

My interest in Hannah Arendt was aroused years ago when I read The Human Condition and was struck by the use Arendt made of ancient Greek literature and philosophy. It seemed to me even then that she was showing me how to make more powerful use of the Greek tradition; her take on this tradition was transforming my understanding of my life in the world. So I want to begin today with Greek political philosophy as Arendt has helped me to see it. That will be my way to move into the question of political responsibility which I want to use as the center for my talk.1

I'll work mainly with Arendt's book The Origins of Totalitarianism, though I'll sometimes take up some of her other works. About Origins it's important to keep in mind that it was conceived and written on the heels of the war and was part of the immediate response to totalitarian evil (written in '49, published in '51) -- it's amazing that she was able to write with such control so close to such a horrible experience -- consequently, its historical aspect is "an act of resistance" (Young-Bruehl, in Hill, p. 11). Not only was Stalin still alive when she wrote (he died in 1953), but also those elements which made Hitler's and Stalin's totalitarianism possible were still in her opinion very much alive. She wrote about Origins in 1958, "I felt as though I dealt with a crystallized structure which I had to break up into its constituent elements in order to destroy it. This image bothered me a great deal, for I thought it an impossible task to write history not in order to save and conserve and render fit for remembrance, but, on the contrary, to destroy" (Y-B, in Hill, p.11).

Arendt's thinking about political responsibility may be seen to move between two points of entry into the idea of humanity -- what in one powerful moment she calls "the terror of the idea of humanity."

The first point of entry derives from her Jewish culture, and is rooted in the story in the Book of Genesis of "the unitary [or common] origin of the human race." What she draws from this story is clear from her citation of a Jewish prayer -- "Our Father and King, we have sinned before you" -- a prayer by means of which those who prayed took upon themselves "not only the sins of their own community but all human offenses." "OG & UR," 131-32. I'll return to the political implications of this conception. It is a gateway to her powerful concept of human plurality, our togetherness in the world and our responsibility for everything that happens in it.

The second point of entry is her conception of political life among the ancient Greeks. For Aristotle, the polis, the city, is logically prior to the household and family, because it is the telos, or end, of human life. The end is logically prior because it gives point and purpose to everything else. The polis is a distinctively human creation and leads humankind toward the distinctively human; and so Aristotle makes the powerful statement that a man without a city is a beast or a god. The Greeks credit human beings together with building the human world. The gods are protectors and sometimes destroyers of cities, but human beings build and maintain them and the political life that is possible only within them -- within a human political community. Human beings, not gods, are responsible for maintaining that community which upholds their humanity. The polis is grounded in human reality and is a unique form of life for human beings. To destroy this form of life is to destroy humanity, to destroy humankind.

Furthermore, the freedom to participate in political life is an end in itself; it is public happiness. This freedom is our human dignity, an end in itself. It is the essence we give to humanity. And we can only do it together. I cannot give myself freedom alone. Remember that great sentence in the American political tradition: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights . Well I don't know what self-evident means, and we all know that not everyone would agree that a creator endows us with the rights we enjoy. Nor do we need to agree on this to insure the rights. The crucial proposition in that sentence is we hold: that is, we guarantee one another, by means of our acting together, by means of our political organization, a basic dignity and equality. It is not crucial that there be a God to endow us with these. God is at any rate invisible in the political sphere. It is crucial that we guarantee one another's dignity and equality.

We can only do it together, and we can only do it in a concrete and particular common world. The abstract universal rights of humankind, for instance, are not sufficient, not real enough, to secure our dignity and equality. In an important passage Arendt cites Edmund Burke on the French Revolution and the universal declaration of the rights of man. Burke had said bluntly that he was not interested in the universal rights of man but only in the rights of Englishmen. This may sound John Bullish and provincial, but Burke's point, as Arendt sees it, is that unlike the rights of man the rights of Englishmen are derived from a particular history, from a particular narrative -- Magna Carta and all that -- and are guaranteed by a particular state empowered by the people of that narrative.

This guarantee is concretely political, which the Enlightenment ideals of universalism and tolerance, based on respect for universal humankind, are not. Not being concretely political, they are inadequate, because, although the Enlightenment ideal of respect for universal humankind is supposed to ensure us of inalienable rights, these rights are unenforceable except by the power of the state, of which they are supposed to be independent. For only in states, and in the sort of collective arrangements and actions they make possible, can we be assured, that is, can we assure one another, of our "universal" human rights. What sort of rights would you have in a wilderness with other wild folks?

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt paints a ghastly picture of a system she considers historically unique in the directness and relentlessness of its assault upon the ability of human beings to act together to guarantee one another's humanity. That is to say, a system, the first in history, that assaults humanity itself. In one chilling passage, Arendt talks about totalitarianism as a system that renders humanity superfluous. She means more than that it attacks human freedom, and thereby human dignity, though it certainly does attack them; she means that it attacks the public world, the world of cooperation and interaction; that it leaves its victims isolated and atomized; hence political action and political responsibility are impossible.2

I'll try to give a sketch of key features of the totalitarian situation as Arendt sees it. Arendt's three-volume work unfolds over almost 500 dense and difficult pages. I'm actually going to skip the parts dealing with origins in order to focus on some key features.

Arendt makes an important contrast between two types, the citizen -- or citoyen, the word she most often uses, influenced by the idea of the citizen articulated during the French Revolution -- and the bourgeois. For Arendt the citizen and the bourgeois are two distinct historical types. Arendt's citizen is the modern version of the Greek citizen in the polis: the citizen is politically responsible and committed to the public sphere, the sphere of speech and concerted action, the sphere within which human freedom and humanity itself are realized. The bourgeois, on the other hand, is the culprit responsible for the breakdown of the values of the citizen and consequently the erosion of the public sphere. Instead of cultivating civic virtue, he makes an opportunistic private calculation.3

If the mark of the citizen is commitment to the public sphere, the mark of the bourgeois is the commitment to private interest and the unlimited possession of property. Property is private -- it is one's own, to be protected from the encroachment of the public. To protect property, the bourgeois must seek to control the public sphere, but not in order to participate in public affairs; rather, to use, indeed to subvert, the public sphere and civic virtues for the sake of the private and individual accumulation of wealth. That is, political institutions are to serve as masks for private interests, as masks for bourgeois dominance of the state. Otherwise, the bourgeois is indifferent to public affairs. In their stead, the bourgeois tends to cultivate private life, family and career; these reflect the belief in the primacy of private interest.

In Arendt's analysis this indifference to public affairs, this withdrawal from them, leaves the bourgeois isolated from his own class -- he becomes the atomized individual. The irony is that as atomized individual the bourgeois cannot act in the public sphere. Go further: atomized individuals cannot make up a public sphere. "Public life," she says, takes on the deceptive aspect of a total of private interests, as though these interests could make up a new quality by sheer addition" -- that is, as if we add up private interests to get a public interest. Of course we can't. And so the public world disintegrates. And what of the private sphere? Arendt maintains "Nothing proved easier [for totalitarianism] to destroy than the privacy and private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives" (Origins, 338). Private life, it turns out, requires a healthy public sphere.

Thus the triumph of the bourgeois means its annihilation as a class. It is now atomized.

What characterizes atomized people? They are without communal relations and common sense-- "Even the experience of the material and sensually given world depends upon my being in contact with other men, upon our common sense which regulates and controls all the other senses and without which each of us would be inclosed in his own particularity of sense data which in themselves are unreliable and treacherous. Only because we have common sense, that is, only because not one man, but men in the plural inhabit the earth can we trust our immediate sensual experience" (475-76). Without communal relations and common sense we are each of us abandoned to loneliness, unable to confirm an identity, for we rely on others to confirm our identity. Common sense and communal relations are the mutual guarantee we need "in order to experience and live and know our way in a common world" (476).

Put another way, atomized people "have lost the whole sector of communal relations in whose framework common sense makes sense" (352).

I'll take up one other step in Arendt's account of the decline of political responsibility: the role that bureaucracies play in reducing human beings to functions. Totalitarian organization is an ideal form of bureaucratic organization. Now, bureaucracy, as anyone who has dealt with an efficient one knows, is without human agency -- better, human agency is so well hidden that we simply can't find the perpetrators of the deeds of bureaucracy; the perpetrators can't even find themselves: it wasn't me, it was my job, my function. All one seems to be able to find is automatic rules and automatic obedience as a substitute for thought and conscience. In its totalitarian ideal, bureaucracy is efficaciousness without agency -- doing without a doer. The organization moreover works to isolate people so that they can't confer together about and confirm their common reality. There is no visibility, no knowledge of one another, no ability to talk with one another about possible action, no power to act together. The compensation, if that is the word to use for this state of affairs, is that each is fully exempted from responsibility. Tell a functionary that he is going to be held accountable and he'll feel betrayed (OG&UR, 130):

A dialogue reported by an American correspondent at the death camp at Maidanek, in German-occupied Poland. It was liberated by Russian troops in July '44; only a few hundred prisoners remained alive.

Q. Did you kill in the camp?
A. Yes
Q. Did you poison them with gas?
A. Yes
Q. Did you bury them alive?
A. It sometimes happened.
Q. Were the victims picked from all over Europe?
A. I suppose so.
Q. Did you personally help kill people?
A. Absolutely not. I was only paymaster in the camp.
Q. What did you think about what was going on?
A. It was bad at first but we got used to it.
Q. Do you know the Russians will hang you?
A. (Bursting into tears) Why should they? What have I done?

All are accomplices in the efficaciousness of the organization. Yet no one has agency, the capacity to act. If no one has agency, there can be no responsibility. Buying into a bureaucratic organization is a way to escape the common responsibility of all human beings for one another and of each human being for his own choices. Totalitarian organization thus makes it possible to avoid responsibility by spreading responsibility throughout a depoliticised society. We're all doing this, yet we're not doing it publicly and responsibly, because we're invisible and not capable of collective political action.

And yet people are responsible for choosing the political conditions which erode their responsibility. Free beings make that choice.

To say a person is free means that there are always alternatives. Arendt did not have much good to say about Sartre, but she would agree, I think, with something paradoxical he said about the days of the German occupation of France. We were never freer than in those days, he said, for at any moment we might say 'Rather death than . ' -- "than" followed by dots to be filled in with whatever one chose to resist.

Here we seem to hit a tangle in Arendt's thinking-better, a tangle in human reality, one which Arendt seems not to have completely worked out, perhaps regarding it as a condition of that reality, which she would not falsify for the sake of logical consistency.

Remember that her argument has been that human beings cannot act in the political sphere isolated and alone; that plurality is a necessary condition for action. In Men in Dark Times, she wrote of the impossibility of resisting a totalitarian regime alone, "in the darkness of total domination, in which whatever goodness there may still remain becomes absolutely invisible and therefore ineffective" ("Karl Jaspers: A Laudatio," 76). And in her Correspondence with Jaspers Letter 33, p. 27, she wrote of a young man who "could not stand the Nazi regime and the impossibility of doing anything effective against it" [my italics] and so left Germany. There comes a point in the totalitarian regime when the solitary individual can do nothing effective against the regime, though still capable of solitary exemplary acts (I'll come back to this in a minute -- the story of Anton Schmidt in Eichmann).

To resist a regime requires political action, and political action is not possible for human beings in solitude or isolation; political action is collective action; it requires plurality. Arendt went so far as to speak of totalitarianism as "making martyrdom, for the first time in history, impossible" (451). This comes about because of the organizational powers of the totalitarian regime: it is able to make even death anonymous, by making it impossible to find out whether a person is alive or dead, by orchestrating mass death, by forbidding grief and remembrance -- in short, by organizing oblivion; she speaks of "holes of oblivion" into which our humanity falls (452-59).

The picture she paints of triumphant totalitarianism is bleak indeed. But I think she knew her picture was overdrawn, that it imaged a totalitarian dystopia never completely, perfectly, realized.

In the same letter to Mary McCarthy in which she writes, "an individual is powerless by definition" (147), she mentions several points in her report on the Eichmann trial which are "in conflict with the book on totalitarianism" (149). "I speak at length in 'Totalitarianism' about the 'holes of oblivion.' On page 212 of the Eichmann book I say 'the holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story'."

Arendt's reference in this letter to an important passage in Eichmann in Jerusalem leads me to that book, which I'll be paraphrasing or quoting from for a while.

At one moment in the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, a witness happened to mention the name of Anton Schmidt, a sergeant in the German army-a name not entirely unknown to the audience at the trial for Schmidt's story had been published in a Hebrew bulletin and some Yiddish newspapers. Schmidt, in charge of a patrol in Poland, in the course of his work had run into members of the Jewish underground and had helped them by supplying them with forged papers and military trucks. He did not do it for money. This went on for five months until Schmidt was arrested and executed.

"During the few minutes it took [the witness] to tell of the help that had come from a German, a hush settled over the courtroom; it was as though the crowd had spontaneously decided to observe silence in honor of the man named Anton Schmidt. And in those two minutes which were like a sudden burst of light in the midst of impenetrable, unfathomable darkness, a single thought stood out clearly, irrefutably, beyond question -how utterly different everything would have been if only more such stories could have been told" (EJ 231).

There are, of course, explanations of this devastating shortage. A German army physician for example stated that "we did nothing" because "anyone who had seriously protested or done anything against the killing unit would have been arrested within 24 hours and would have disappeared." The witness goes on: "It belongs among the refinements of totalitarian governments in our century that they don't permit their opponents to die a great, dramatic martyr's death for their convictions. A good many of us might have accepted such a death. The totalitarian state lets its opponents disappear in silent anonymity. It is certain that anyone who had dared to suffer death rather than silently tolerate the crime would have sacrificed his life in vain. None of us had a conviction so deeply rooted that we could have taken upon ourselves a practically useless sacrifice for the sake of a higher moral meaning."

Arendt maintains, however, that the example afforded by Sergeant Anton Schmidt reveals the fatal flaw in that argument. It is true, she says, that "totalitarian domination tried to establish these holes of oblivion into which all deeds good and evil would disappear. But the effort was in vain. The holes of oblivion do not exist. Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story. Hence, nothing can ever be practically useless, at least not in the long run. The lesson of such stories is simple and within everybody's grasp. It is that under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that 'it could happen' in most places but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation."

The exemplary story is the only light we may have in all this darkness. The opposite of holes of oblivion is memory. Remember the story. The injunction not to kill occurs only a couple of times in Hebrew scripture. But countless times it enjoins us to remember. Pass it down. It is the continuity of the human; it is the hope for the future.

This also makes even more painfully ironic the remark I quoted earlier about Arendt's effort as a historian in The Origins of Totalitarianism: "I felt as though I dealt with a crystallized structure which I had to break up into its constituent elements in order to destroy it. This image bothered me a great deal, for I thought it an impossible task to write history not in order to save and conserve and render fit for remembrance, but, on the contrary, to destroy."

As I close I want to return to that first point of entry into the idea of humanity which Arendt explores. This is where Arendt's narrative of her Jewishness, her specific orienting story, assumes its full power. At the close of her essay "Organized Guilt & Political Responsibility," written before the war had even ended, she writes:

"For many years now we have met Germans who declare that they are ashamed of being German. I have often felt tempted to answer that I am ashamed of being human. This elemental shame, which many people of the most various nationalities share with one another today, is what finally is left of our sense of international solidarity; and it has not yet found an adequate political expression."

Here we can begin to understand what she means by "the terror of the idea of humanity and of the Judeo-Christian faith in the unitary origin of the human race." For this idea & faith "impl[y] the obligation of a general responsibility" which we shrink from assuming. She writes, "For the idea of humanity, when purged of all sentimentality, has the very serious consequence that in one form or another men must assume serious responsibility for all crimes committed by all men and that all nations share the onus of evil committed by all others. Shame at being a human being is the purely individual and still non-political expression of this insight." Notice that we see her still struggling for a form of political expression, still trying to find a way back into the common world: purely individual shame is non-political. She continues: "to follow a non-imperialistic policy and maintain a non-racist faith becomes daily more difficult because it daily becomes clearer how great a burden mankind is for man." Here it becomes clear that what she's dealing with in this essay of 1945 is not German guilt: it is a sort of inverse racism which she fears may prevail as people recoil from totalitarian evil and attempt to dispel it by conjuring up notions of a supposed German character. A recent example of this conjuring is the Goldhagen book Hitler's Willing Executioners.

She closes the essay I've been quoting from with a reflection on the Jewish prayer I quoted earlier: "Our Father and King, we have sinned before you." By means of this prayer those who prayed took upon themselves "not only the sins of their own community but all human offenses." Those who are ready to follow this road today, she says, have finally realized, in fear and trembling, "of what man is capable -- and this is indeed the precondition of any modern political thinking." She concludes, "Upon them and them only, who are filled with a genuine fear of the inescapable guilt of the human race, can there be any reliance when it comes to fighting fearlessly, uncompromisingly, everywhere against the incalculable evil that men are capable of bringing about." Those to whom she refers have assumed the awesome responsibility of the idea of humankind. They have assumed both the heavy burden and the untold potential of the human condition of plurality, of being unavoidably together in the world.


(1) Some years ago I attended a Midwest faculty Seminar at the University of Chicago on Origins. Among the talks that remain in my mind and have surely influenced me here is Iris Young's "Masses in Isolation: Responsibility and Political Action in the Thought of Hannah Arendt."

(2) Arendt's model of totalitarianism goes beyond the better-known model, which describes "a new political phenomenon combining unprecedented coercion with an all-embracing secular ideology"; totalitarianism in Arendt's sense "means a chaotic, nonutilitarian, manically dynamic movement of destruction that assails all the features of human nature and the human world that make politics possible." Margaret Canovan, in The Cambridge Companion to HA, pp. 26-27.

(3) Arendt, "Organized Guilt & Universal Responsibility," in Essays in Understanding, ed. Jerome Kohn (New York, 1994), p. 130.

©2006 Joseph Messina

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Messina, Joseph. 2006. Hannah Arendt & The Origins of Totalitarianism, /talks/20061105.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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