George Orwell’s “1984” is not the only classic that’s celebrating a comeback. Hannah Arendt’s philosophical essay “The Origins of Totalitarianism” has also spiked in interest recently. Here’s why it’s so relevant.
Born in Germany to a Jewish family, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) fled when Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933. She spent time as a stateless refugee in France and was deported to an internment camp under the Vichy regime. She emigrated to the United States in 1941, later becoming a US citizen.
Having experienced first-hand the near collapse of an advanced civilization, she also became one of the first political theorists to analyze how totalitarian political movements could rise in the early 20th century.
The roots of Nazism and Stalinism are described in her first major book, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” originally published in English in 1951.
It has been compulsory reading for many college students ever since, but the dense political work of over 500 pages isn’t typically a bestseller. It has been flying off bookshelves in the US since Trump’s inauguration; Amazon even briefly ran out of stock this week.
These new Arendt fans are presumably trying to understand what Trump’s presidency could lead to. As it might take a while for readers to get through her heavy essays, here are a few spoilers: “Trump is not a totalitarian in her understanding; he incorporates what she calls ‘elements’ of totalitarianism,” Roger Berkowitz, professor and head of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanity at Bard College in New York, explained in a recent DW interview.
However, strong warning signs shouldn’t be ignored, added Berkowitz: Arendt believed that “one of the core elements of totalitarianism is that it’s based in a movement… and Trump has explicitly called himself the mouthpiece of a movement. That’s a very dangerous position for a politician.”
Populism: easy fixes in times of global anxiety
Arendt’s analysis focuses on the events of that period. Although her observations obviously couldn’t explain everything about today’s complex political developments, many are still revealing even now, as the right-wing populism that’s spreading throughout Europe and the US is reminiscent in different ways of the situation in the 1920s and 30s that allowed the Nazis and Communists to rise. Continue reading