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Some Thoughts on Reading ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’

December 28, 2014

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Hannah Arendt

Lately, I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. This book is dense with ideas, so I have decided to write some blog posts about it, in which I will discuss some of the issues that the book raises.

The Origins of Totalitarianism is divided into three sections, the first of which is titled’Antisemitism’. Arendt devotes a lengthy discussion to this topic because she sees anti-Semitism as being at the center of Nazi ideology (unlike some historians who treat it as a side issue for the Nazis). Arendt begins by making a distinction between antisemitism (Arendt’s spelling), which she sees as a modern phenomenon, and the Medieval religious prejudice against Jews (which Arendt calls “Jew-hatred”). The former sometimes borrowed language and imagery from the latter, but it was nonetheless a distinct historical development.

Arendt is contemptuous of the ‘scapegoat” theory of anti-Semitism – the idea that Jews are made into scapegoats to distract people from the real sources of their problems. Arendt argues that this idea fails to explain the genocidal fury of anti-Semitism, while it ignores the historical roots of anti-Semitism.

According to Arendt, Jewish financiers played an essential role in the creation of the powerful monarchies of the eighteenth century, particularly in France and in Prussia. (The Rothschilds were the most famous and influential of these financiers.) Indeed, Arendt claims that the development of modern Europe would have been impossible without these people. (She quotes Diderot: “Thus dispersed in our time… [the Jews] have become instruments of communication between the most distant countries. They are like the cogs and nails needed in a great building in order to join and hold together all other parts.”) With the development of the modern nation state, which began with the French Revolution (which gave equal political rights to Jews), these financiers became an essential support for these new powerful states. (Arendt notes that the financial provisions of the peace treaty that ended the Franco-Prussian War were negotiated by two Jewish financiers: Gerson Bleichroeder representing Germany, and a Rothschild representing France.)

As a result of this, people began to associate Jews with the state. This made them an object of resentment for two groups. The first was the aristocracy, who bemoaned the loss of their feudal rights under the new nation-states. The second was the lower middle class (small landowners, guild artisans, small tradesmen), who saw their economic positions threatened by the developing capitalism that the nation-states enabled. Among these groups, the notion of a “Jewish conspiracy” began to make sense. Of course, they were aware that there were Jews who were poor, but that only made the success of some Jews seem sinister to them.

Arendt notes that the antisemitic parties that appeared in Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century all claimed to a “party above all parties”. Their aim was “… to become the representative of the whole nation, to get exclusive power, to take possession of the state machinery, to substitute themselves for the state.” From early on, the whole trend of antisemitism was towards totalitarianism.

Arendt ends this section with a discussion of the Dreyfus Affair, which foreshadowed Nazi Germany in some ways. “Kill the Jews” became a political slogan. Mobs attacked Jews on the streets and looted Jewish-owned stores.

Some have tried to draw an analogy between nineteenth century antisemitism and twenty-first century Islamophobia. The two things are similar in that each posits the existence of an inexplicable Other that poses a possibly existential threat. That’s about as far as the similarity goes, however. Antisemitism has anti-state and anti-capitalist overtones that are absent in Islamophobia. Indeed, Islamophobes tend to be strong supporters of the government, especially its military wing, which they see as a necessary bulwark against an expansive Islam. (This pro-government stance was particularly striking in the late Christopher Hitchens, who, before his religious conversion, was actually something of a radical.) Hitchens and Sam Harris endorsed the invasion of Iraq, which they (wrongly) believed was part of some sort of war on Islam. (Richard Dawkins, the most intelligent of the Islamophobes, opposed the invasion, correctly arguing that it was exactly what bin Laden wanted the US and Britain to do.)

The second section of Arend’s book is titled “Imperialism”. I plan to write about that soon.

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