Introduction to the Holocaust & Hannah Arendt's work on Totalitarianism.

1) Background to the Holocaust

a) History in a nutshell (taken largely from "America, Past and Present", Divine et all1987), and from a brief history of the Holocaust on the WWW:

i) World War I. 1914 - 1918. Massive slaughter, ended with Germany downtrodden and under severe war reparation law.

ii) Hitler rises to power in 1933 as the head of the National Socialist, or Nazi, movement. He was named Chancellor on Jan 30, 1933. Hitler's party, the national socialists, had won a plurality of 33% of the votes in the 1932 election. Hitler quickly took charge, establishing special police and army units (The SS, the Gestapo, and the SA). He revoked democratic rule, and achieved dictator status by march, 1933.

iii) At the same time, Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922, and militarists in Japan started making noises in the mid thirties, leaving the league of nations in 1936. In 1937, the three powers signed an anti-Communist pact and formed the berlin-rome-tokyo axis. Japan invaded China in 1937. In march, 1938, Hitler seized Austria in a bloodless coup, 6 months later he was making noises about Czechoslovakia, where the allied powers agreed to let Hitler have the Sudetenland, on agreement that Hitler would stop there. Of course, he did not, quickly moving to take most of Czechoslovakia.

iv) On September 1, 1939, Hitler began WWII by invading Poland. England and France responded by declaring war, though they really could not do much to stop Hitler from taking Poland. In the May of 1940, Hitler unleashed his famous Blitzkreig on the western front, taking France. The US responded by sending AID, but still did not enter the war officially, though unofficial navel conflicts ensued. The US officially entered the war after Pearl Harbor, the bombing of US bases in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. On Dec., 11 Germany and Italy declared war on the US and we were completely involved in WWII.

v) The War in Europe was fought on two fronts, the English and US on the West, and the Soviets on the East (they were our allies) - though most of the early fighting took place on the eastern front, with the Soviets taking the greatest casualties. D-day, the allied invasion of Europe, was on June 6, 1944. They had made it to Paris by August. Hitler committed suicide on May 7, 1945 and Eisenhower accepted the unconditional surrender of the Germans. Heavy bombardment of Japan started in early 1944. On August 6, 1945 we dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, instantly killing more than 60,000 people. On August 9th, we dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945.

b) The Holocaust

i) The Holocaust is the name given to the systematic extermination efforts of Germany against the Jews, Gypsies, mentally and physically disabled, and other 'outcaste' people (as defined by the Germans).

ii) The holocaust was a systematic, bureaucratic annihilation of 6 million Jews. By 1945, 2 out of every 3 European Jews had been killed. To put this in perspective, assume a constant Duke population of 6000 students; every student at duke for the next 1000 years would have been killed. While there has been other mass genocide in the past (which we will discuss), the sheer magnitude of the German Holocaust, and the brutal bureaucratic efficiency make it stand out.

iii) The first Nazi concentration camps opened in 1933, and continued as a basic part of Nazi rule until May 1945.

iv) Hitler's party was based on a racists premise, that the biological future of the Aryans was threatened by other races (especially the Jews). The purge of the Jews started by forcing them out of public jobs (professors, cabinet ministers, bureaucratic posts, etc.) and instituting a boycott of Jewish business in early 1933. Then a sequence of legal segregation's, including the Nuremberg laws of 1935, that revoked Jewish citizenship in Germany, further separated Jews from the rest of German society.

v) A key moment in the Holocaust history occurred in November 1938, when a pogrom against Jews started destroying homes, business and synagogues (Kristallnacht).

vi) As war began in 1939, Hitler started the killing campaign, starting with mobile killing units.

vii) Between 1942 and 1944, the height of the extermination began. The German government officially met and decided that killing was the 'final solution' to the 'problem' of Jews in Europe.

viii) for more detail, see: See for more detail. Please read this.

c) Sociological problems raised by the Holocaust

i) The holocaust was a brutal event, that shocked many people when they first heard of it. The problems raised for sociology, made clear by Bauman's book, revolve around how we can understand the things that happened between 1933 and 1944 in Germany. There are questions on multiple levels:

(1) How could individuals participate in the killing?
(2) Why would people follow a man as obviously mad as Hitler?
(3) What is complacency? Who are responsible under such circumstances?
(4) What role does modern social organization play in such Genocide?
(5) Could this happen again?
(6) What are the unique political features of Totalitarian movements that would bring Hitler to power?
(7) And many others…

2) Introduction to Arendt

a) Born in 1906 in Hanover, Germany.
b) Wrote Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951
c) The Human Condition was published in 1958
d) On Revolution in 1963
e) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the Banality of Evil in 1963
f) She died in 1975.

An aside: Arendt is a little hard to read. She once said that if she had a perfect memory, she would never write anything, since she really writes to help herself think. This makes it a little difficult for the rest of us to get inside if her thoughts. If you want a good introduction, see John McGowan, Hannah Arendt: An Introduction, (1998, Minnesota press).

3) The Origins of Totalitarianism

    This is Arendt's first great work. Here she attempts to describe the political theory underlying totalitarian regimes. She wants to know: How are such political organizations possible? and What will happen when such organizations come to be? What are the essential pieces of the Totalitarian regime?

We start at the end of this book. Which is always hard, since much of the foundation has already been laid, and thus the conclusion is sometimes packed and dense. In many cases a single sentence serves to encapsulate a great deal of information. Consider the first paragraph of this reading:

1) "No matter what the specifically national tradition or the particular spiritual source of its ideology, totalitarian government always transformed classes into masses, supplanted the party system, not by one-party dictatorships, but by mass movement, shifted the center of power from the army to the police, and established a foreign policy openly directed toward world domination." (p.460).

Here Arendt gives 4 basic characteristics of a totalitarian state:

§ Here Arendt is summarizing what her historical study of totalitarian regimes (Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union). She has identified a few key things:
§ She first points out that classes are reduced to masses. The difference lies in the inter-connection of people. In a class, each person has contact and connection with other people. In a mass, this is not so, instead, we have a group of isolated individuals all in the same position in society. Totalitarian regimes use terror to fragment people - to make it impossible to trust the person next to you, since he or she might be an informant for the secret police.
§ Second, the party system of rule is taken over by a mass-movement. That is, instead of a simple political party, we have an ideological movement, that has a strong ideology and claims special knowledge of what is right and correct. Her examples are the Nazi party and the Communist party. These are not political parties in the same sense as democrats and republicans. They are huge collections of people sharing a similar, driving idea, that pushes the group forward.
§ Third, power in society moves away from the army and to the police. Thus, Hitler had the Gestapo and the secret police, the KGB in Russia had strong power, and usually could control the army as well.
§ Fourth, all totalitarian regimes have world domination as their goal. These regimes are not content with taking just one nation, or a 'homeland', but with every step they seek more.

All of these pieces will play a larger role in the characterization of Totalitarianism that Arendt lays out.

Next Arendt makes a claim: That the characteristics of totalitarian regimes are not historical accidents, that they will not necessarily disappear with the fall of Nazi Germany or the Soviet union, but instead that they are a natural outcome of modern social organization. To understand the totalitarian system, we need to identify it's nature, to see if it has 'its own essence [that] can be compared with and defined like other forms of government…" (p.461)

She argues that

"Totalitarian rule confronts us with a totally different kind of government. It defies all positive laws, even to the extreme of defying those which it has itself established…. but it operates neither without guidance nor is it arbitrary, for it claims to obey strictly and unequivocally those laws of Nature or of History from which all positive laws always have been supposed to spring."

That is, we can't say totalitarianism is arbitrary. On the contrary, it is often guided by some 'true' principle (the march of history, the Law of Nature, God's Will, etc.). Thus, far from being lawless, it goes to the source of authority from which positive laws received their ultimate legitimation.

There is an important point about law here. Totalitarianism gains it's power, to some degree, by claiming to represent justice on earth, in a way that no normal law could ever do. This is so, because all law must be general, but the peculiarities of each situation might call for more specific treatments. The totalitarian movement claims to bypass the problem by instituting Justice directly - and in so doing, does away with the 'petty' everyday laws we usually use.

"Totalitarian policy does not replace one set of laws with another…. [instead] it promises to release the fulfillment of law from all action and will of man; and it promises justice on earth because it claims to make mankind itself the embodiment of the law." (p.462)

The removal of Law is important politically. Total terror destroys law. However, laws govern the interaction among people (recall Durkheim’s discussion of positive restituative law). Thus, totalitarianism

"substitutes for the boundaries and channels of communication between individual men a band of iron that holds them so tightly together that it is as though their plurality had disappeared into One Man of gigantic dimensions. To abolish the fences of laws between men - as tyranny does - means to take away man's liberties and destroy freedom as a living political reality; for the space between men as it is hedged in by laws, is the living space of freedom." (p. 466, my italics).

Totalitarianism "Destroys the one essential prerequisite of all freedom which is simply the capacity of motion which cannot exist without space."

What does Arendt mean here? Surely she doesn't mean people are physically bound (though the lack of emigration during the Soviet Era might suggest some of this).

[discuss the 'one man' line]

For Arendt, freedom comes from the ability to interact with others in a political manner. To discuss the world, and engage in political action. The bare necessity for doing this is some protected space - some legal apparatus - that protects speech and action. Interestingly, she things that almost any set of solid, well known laws can provide such a space - since people are essentially creative and can make due even under the "desert of tyranny." But under totalitarian regimes, there is no legal constant. This lack of a legal constant makes every action suspicious, every attempt to set up a political dialog uneasy since there is no legal framework to build on.

What are totalitarian movements trying to accomplish? They exist to "provide the forces of nature or history with an incomparable instrument to accelerate their movement." That is, to help the laws of history along. In the communist case, it is to help speed the revolution, in the Nazi case, it is to speed the "natural" biological dominance of the Germanic people, in a religious case (think of the current Afghan situation) it is to help God's Will. Now these laws will, in fact must since they are laws, eventually succeed. but they can be slowed down by people, according to the movements, and thus the purpose of a movement is to speed and unblock the way.

The reason that a 'natural law' can be thwarted by people brings in one of Arendt's unique contributions, one that she really focuses the whole of The Human Condition on, that of the ability of people to act anew. Human action, the result of human freedom, Arendt considers the pinnacle of human-ness. Action for Arendt is the ability to create something entirely new. Something that has never been seen before, and may never be seen again. This ability to create something new is present in each person, and thus her line "for this freedom … is identical with the fact that men are being born and that therefore each of the is a new beginning, begins, in a sense, the world anew." (p.466)

How do totalitarian states speed the course of history? By executing the death sentences that 'history' would do in the long run anyway. Thus they kill the infidels, exterminate 'unworthy classes' and speed the war against the capitalist and petty bourgeoisie.

This need to keep world history/ nature moving keeps the national movement in constant motion. At all times, a new victim is needed to exercise the 'laws' of nature. Constant movement is an essential characteristic of totalitarian governments.

Arendt says that a consistent problem for all manner of political organization is how to motivate action on the part of citizens. how do you get people to do things, as a society? Under totalitarian rule, Terror is the essence. The essence of terror is random destruction - those who are killers today will be killed tomorrow. This means that (1) people cannot trust each other, and (2) fear cannot make people act in a particular way (because what will we fear if death is, essentially, random)? Since totalitarian states feed a 'natural' movement, the only thing that can help guide individual action is some insight into what the natural law has in store - what 'should' happen next. This is where ideology comes in. Ideology provides a story that fits events into a meaningful sequence, and thus guides people actions.

Ideologies are -isms (racism, fascism, fundamentalism, etc.) that can explain everything from a single premise (Germans are the chosen people, all of history is class warfare, the ways of God are mysterious, etc.)

Ideologies claim to be scientific (Nazis based their work on eugenics and Darwinian thinking, Stalin on Marx's theory of historical progression). An ideology is the 'logic of an idea'. That is, we take a single premise and expand on that premise with sets of logical deductions, and thus 'arrive' at the goal of history. For example, "Racism is the belief that there is a motion inherent in the very idea of race." (p.469).

It is important that ideologies do not need experience to base on. For example, there have been multiple millennial cults which predicted the end of the world. but the end of the world didn't happen. One might think that this would destroy the ideology, but it does not. Why? because they can say something like "prayer averted the catastrophe" and thus encompass the event into their thinking. The key here is that such logic is completely unfalsifiable. No set of facts could prove it wrong. [this is a danger with many 'logical' approaches. Psychoanalysis is a good example….]

Arendt identifies three totalitarian elements in all ideological thinking:

1) A claim to total explanation. "the claim to total explanation promises to explain all historical happenings, the total explanation of the past, the present and a reliable prediction of the future." (p470)
2) Ideological thinking becomes independent of all experience from which it cannot learn anything new. It insists on a reality beyond our five senses (Hitler's ideology said Germans were the best, and thus they could not loose the war - even when his tanks were being crushed.)
3) Ideological thinking proceeds in a particular manner. "Ideological thinking orders facts into an absolutely logical procedure which starts from an axiomatically accepted premise, deducing everything else from it; that is, it proceeds with a consistency that exists nowhere in the realm of reality." (my italics)

The force of "logicality" is very important for Arendt, she says: "As terror is needed lest with the birth of each new human being a new beginning arise and raise its voice in the world, so the self-coercive force of logicality is mobilized lest anybody ever start thinking - which is the freest and purest of all human activities is the very opposite of the compulsory process of deduction." (p.473)
[make sure you understand the examples on p.472 and 473]

The two points: terror to isolate and divide people, and ideological thinking to sever the relationship with reality, are what make a totalitarian state work.

Understand the quote:

"The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exists." (p.474).

So now we are left with the question: How do totalitarian regimes come to be? Why is it that we never saw a totalitarian regime before the Nazis? Arendt's answer relates closely to Marx's ideas about alienation. She says that totalitarian regimes are only possible under the conditions of modern production, where 'homo faber' (man as maker, creator, fabricator) is replaced by 'animal laborans' (the laboring animal) - that is, under the conditions of modern production. Let's trace her argument.

First, a key aspect of terror is isolation. But Arendt says we have seen tyrannies - which have isolated many before, but never totalitarianism. Thus, the type of isolation must be different. She makes a distinction.

In tyrannical governments, the political contacts between men have been severed, but "the whole sphere of private life with the capacities for experience, fabrication and thought are left intact." that is, old-style tyranies made political interaction (talking with others about common action) impossible, but still allowed a private life, where people could create.

Under totalitarianism, the "iron band" of total terror leaves no space - even for private life, since the self-coercion of totalitarian logic destroys man's capacity to think and experience.

to make this claim, she has to make a distinction between to types of isolation.

"What we call isolation in the public sphere, is called loneliness in the sphere of social intercourse."

That is:
        Isolation == separated from public, community life, in a situation where I cannot act since no one will act with me.
        Loneliness == Separation in the private life - in a situation where I feel deserted by all human companionship.

Isolation, interestingly enough, is required for "all so-called productive activities of men" People have to isolate themselves to create, he/she must leave the realm of politics to 'fabricate'. In isolation, people are connected to the world he/she is working with human artifacts (tools, raw material, etc) to create something new.

"Only when the most elementary form of human creativity, which is the capacity to add something of one's own to the common world, is destroyed, isolation becomes altogether unbearable." (this ought to sound a whole lot like Marx's work on Species being!)

This [the destruction of the ability to create] can occur when the chief values are dictated by labor (that is, by the need to feed oneself).

When this happens, people loose touch with the world, and are thus ripe for being taken in by totalitarian logic. "a tyranny over 'laborers" however, …, would automatically be a rule over lonely, not only isolated, men and tend to be totalitarian."

(read p.475 closely!).

Thus, totalitarianism is new in that it destroys both public and private life.

Arendt identifies this one issue, because for her our ability to experience the world depends on interaction with other people.

"Even the experience of the materially and sensually given world depends upon my being in contact with other men, upon our common sense which regulates and controls all other senses and without which each of us would be enclosed 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." (p.475-476)

Thus, the experience of totalitarianism is not a rare, unique event, but a form of political organization that is made possible by the industrial (i.e. alienating) modern production process.