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


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

Even before she wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism Arendt spoke of the desperate need to tell the "real story of the Nazi-constructed hell":

Not only because these facts have changed and poisoned the very air we breathe, not only because they now inhabit our dreams at night and permeate our thoughts during the day -- but also because they have become the basic experience and the basic misery of our times. Only from this foundation, on which a new knowledge of man will rest, can our new insights, our new memories, our new deeds, take their point of departure. (See "The Image of Hell.")

The beginning called for here, if there were to be one, will arise from individual acts of judgment by men and women who know the nature of totalitarianism and agree that, for the sake of the world, it must not occur again--not only in the forms in which it has already occurred, which may be unlikely, but in any form whatsoever.

The significance of the story Arendt went on to tell and retell lies entirely in the present, and she was fully aware that her "method," a subject which she was always loath to discuss, went against the grain not only of political and social scientists but also, more importantly to her, of those reporters, historians, and poets who in distinct ways seek to preserve, in or out of time, what they record, narrate, and imagine. Reflecting later on the moment in 1943 when she first learned about Auschwitz, Arendt said: "This ought not to have happened." That is no purely moral "ought" based in ethical precepts, the voice of conscience, or immutable natural law, but rather as strong as possible a statement that there was something irremissibly wrong with the human world in which Auschwitz could and did happen.

Reconciliation to that world requires understanding only when totalitarianism is judged, not by subsuming it under traditional moral, legal, or political categories but by recognizing it as something unprecedented, odious, and to be fought against. Such judgment is possible for beings "whose essence is beginning" (see "The Difficulties of Understanding") and makes reconciliation possible because it strikes new roots in the world. Judgment is "the other side of action" and as such the opposite of resignation. It does not erase totalitarianism, for then, thrown backward into the past, the historical processes that did not cause but led to totalitarianism would be repeated and "the burden of our time" reaccumulated; or, projected forward into the future, a never-never land ignorant of its own conditions, the human mind would "wander in obscurity."4 A quotation from Karl Jaspers that struck Arendt "right in the heart" and which she chose as the epigraph for The Origins of Totalitarianism stresses that what matters is not to give oneself over to the despair of the past or the utopian hope of the future, but "to remain wholly in the present." Totalitarianism is the crisis of our times insofar as its demise becomes a turning point for the present world, presenting us with an entirely new opportunity to realize a common world, a world that Arendt called a "human artifice," a place fit for habitation by all human beings.

Arendt's papers provide many interesting opportunities to study the development of her thought. For instance, in "The Difficulties of Understanding," written in the early 1950s, judgment is conjoined with understanding. As late as 1972, in impromptu remarks delivered at a conference devoted to her work, she associated it with the activity of thinking. But Arendt was working her way toward distinguishing judgment as an independent and autonomous mental faculty, "the most political of man's mental abilities" (see "Thinking and Moral Considerations"). Although the activities of understanding and thinking reveal an unending stream of meanings and under specific circumstances may liberate the faculty of judgment, the act of judging particular and contingent events differs from them in that it preserves freedom by exercising it in the realm of human affairs. That distinction is critical for her view of history in general and totalitarianism in particular and has been adhered to in this introduction.


4. The Burden of Our Time is the title of the first British edition of The Origins of Totalitarianism (London, 1951). Arendt frequently cited Tocqueville's remark in the last chapter of Democracy In America: "As the past has ceased to throw its light upon the future, the mind of man wanders in obscurity" (see "Philosophy and Politics: The Problem of Action after the French Revolution" and Between Past and Future, "Preface").


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