The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought

Totalitarianism: The Inversion of Politics
by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University


1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 PREVIOUS | NEXT

Caption Below

From "On the Nature of Totalitarianism: An Essay in Understanding," n.d. The Hannah Arendt Papers (The Library of Congress Manuscript Division).

Defying classification in terms of a single academic discipline such as history, sociology, political science, or philosophy, The Origins of Totalitarianism presents a startling interpretation of modern European intellectual currents and political events. Still difficult to grasp in its entirety, the book's climactic delineation of the living dead, of those "inanimate" beings who experienced the full force of totalitarian terror in concentration camps, cut more deeply into the consciousness of some of Arendt's readers than the most shocking photographs of the distorted bodies of the already dead. Such readers realized that there are torments worse than death, which Arendt described in terms of the longing for death by those who in former times were thought to have been condemned to the eternal punishments of hell. She meant this vision of hell to be taken literally and not allegorically, for although throughout the long centuries of Christian belief men had proved themselves incapable of realizing the city of God as a dwelling place for human beings, they now showed that it was indeed possible to establish hell on earth rather than in an afterlife.

Arendt added totalitarianism to the list of kinds of government drawn up in antiquity and hardly altered since then: monarchy (the rule of one) and its perversion in tyranny; aristocracy (the rule of the best) and its corruption in oligarchy or the rule of cliques; and democracy (the rule of many) and its distortion in ochlocracy or mob rule. The hallmark of totalitarianism, a form of rule supported by "superfluous" masses who sought a new reality in which they would be recognized in public, was the appearance in the world of what Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, called radical and absolute evil. Totalitarian regimes are not the "opposite" of anything: the absence of their opposite may be the surest way of seeing totalitarianism as the crisis of our times.


1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 PREVIOUS | NEXT

The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought