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Fascisms: then, and now? Arendt and The Origins of Totalitarianism

Re-reading Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is something of a wake-up call for twenty-first century western culture. Some of the evidence from her book, repeated in this essay, makes for a chilling comparison with current political episodes. Her description of the character of ‘fascisms’ in Europe in the 1920s and 30s has remarkable resonance for contemporary events including the election of Trump in the US, Brexit and the cynically casual value attached to democracy by the Johnson government, and more generally, by the wave of populist movements that are growing across Europe.

Fake news, people versus elected officials, trashing of democracy, ridicule of truth, relativism of values, nationalism with its love of loyalty and oaths and its aesthetic of self-sacrifice and violence, the hatred of internationalism and its humanist liberal values, accusations of international (Jewish) conspiracies, charismatic malevolent leaders shunning accountability and saying whatever would be popular one day, only to be reversed the next day, and supporters who don’t care at all about the behaviour of their leaders. These were fascisms then. Are they also fascisms now?

Arendt demonstrates that one of the key strategies of fascism is its stealth, and the furtive way in which it ensures that no one sees the whole picture, and no one therefore can ever fully demonstrate or prove that there are fascisms at work. As such, one of the successes of any such creeping fascism will be that any essay that warns about fascisms will be untimely. If the essay looks over the top in its claims, then it probably appears too early for concrete proof of fascisms. If it has proof then it will likely already be too late to prevent them. In both cases, for fascism, the evidence will be fake. This difficulty is itself engineered by fascism. Mussolini is said to have argued that ‘in seeking to accumulate power it is wise to do so in the manner of one plucking a chicken—feather by feather—so each squawk is heard apart from every other, and the whole process is kept as muted as possible’.

Take, for example, the comments recorded by Milton Mayer about the growth of Nazism in Germany between 1933-45 from ten ordinary Nazi German friends after the war.

To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it … Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained … Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse … In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, “It’s not so bad” or “You’re seeing things” or “You’re an alarmist.” And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must happen, lead to this, and you can’t prove it … In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on … And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying “Jew swine,” collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything has changed and changed completely under your nose.

Mayer himself says, ‘The German’s innocuous acceptance and practice of social anti-Semitism before Hitlerism had undermined the resistance of their ordinary decency to the stigmatization and persecution to come’. In short,‘nonresistance to the milder indulgences paves the way for nonresistance to the deadlier’.
By contrast comes this story from the Greek Island of Zakynthos. ‘The Germans occupied the island in 1943, appointed Lucas Karrer mayor and demanded a list of the Jews living on the island. Instead, Metropolitan Chrysostemos Dimitrious bribed the German commander, and the partisans threatened to attack. Bishop Vassily Stravolmos wired Hitler, asking him not to deport the Jews. The Germans again demanded a list. This time they received one, but it bore only two names: Karrer’s and the metropolitan’s.’ Which of us has the hubris to say that our name would also have been on the list?

Arendt and The Characteristics Of Fascism

Arendt’s study of the origins of twentieth century totalitarianism in Europe describes the influence of the ‘front generation.’ These were the veterans of the trenches of World War I returning to experience the inauthenticity of, and their consequent alienation from, the respectability of the dominant bourgeois class who had not themselves experienced the authenticity of comradeship formed in battle. Dan White records that the front generation were largely middle class men of a socialist persuasion who found that their experience of the trenches gave a positive attachment to nation, ‘a respect for will and irrationality as tangible forces in human affairs, and a more emotional sense of comradeship’ than class consciousness. Many had transferred allegiance to Hitler by 1940. The front generation ‘were completely absorbed by their desire to see the ruin of this whole world of fake security, fake culture, and fake life’. Destruction had become their experience of truth, and became their supreme value. Mussolini spoke of drenare la palude or draining the swamp.

Arendt notes that in the early years of the Nazi movement ‘Hitler appealed almost exclusively to these sentiments of the front generation’. Comradeship rather than class; death and war rather than pity and helplessness; fate rather than individual autonomy; and the necessity and true authenticity of collective suffering and sacrifice were the way that Nazism turned the originally socialist front generation into an instrument of historical progress, and into the community of its own fate. ‘They were satisfied with blind partisanship in anything that respectable society banned, regardless of theory or content, and they elevated cruelty to a major virtue because it contradicted society’s humanitarian and liberal hypocrisy’. Arendt speaks of the front generation’s experience of the ‘fake culture of educated talk’. For them, ‘violence, power, cruelty were the supreme capacities’ and were easily coupled with their ‘antihumanist, antiliberal, antiindividualist and anticultural instincts’.They set out to destroy respectability and the established moral standards of liberal democracy.

Or as a sociologist said of the times, ‘What nobody would have thought possible suddenly turned out to be real; what everybody had taken to be reality itself now stood revealed as an illusion. A complete re-orientation was felt to be necessary; a re-examination of all traditional ideas about reality, all values, all principles’. Albright notes Oswald Spengler’s 1918 prophecy that ‘The era of individualism, liberalism, and democracy, of humanitarianism and freedom, is nearing its end. The masses will accept with resignation the victory of the Caesars, the strong men, and will obey them’. In addition, Arendt states that the power of self-interest, supposedly the most powerful feature in politics, could be overcome by the thrill of evil. She records that ‘The Nazis “were convinced that evil-doing in our time has a morbid force of attraction”’. Herman Göring boasted I have no conscience, and this, says Madeleine Albright, was ‘Nazi morality in a nutshell’.

Many have drawn comparisons here. Brexit, the election of Trump, and the current rise of populist movements in Europe, speak in part of similar themes. There is a growing disillusion with liberal democracy and the educated talk of globalization; there is growing respect for strong leaders; and ‘fake’ is the new reality in which traditional rules and values dissolve. But there are two associated characteristics noted by Arendt that also speak to today, and which are less often brought to our attention as players in the theatre of fascisms. These are the cultures of relativism, and of gullibility and cynicism.


Arendt argues that in relation to twentieth century totalitarianism, ‘What the spokesmen of humanism and liberalism usually overlook, in their bitter disappointment and their unfamiliarity with the more general experiences of the time, is that an atmosphere in which all traditional values and propositions had evaporated … made it easier to accept patently absurd propositions than the old truths which had become pious banalities’. This is coupled with the cynicism that ‘nobody could be expected to take the absurdities seriously’.

But when values dissolved into hypocrisy, and when standards of behaviour were rewritten according to an aesthetic of destruction, the path followed did not rest with a simple intellectual relativism. Mussolini wrote that ‘Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition. If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and those who claim to be the bearers of objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity. From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, we Fascists conclude that we have the right to create our own ideology and enforce it with all the energy of which we are capable’. Ernst Röhm, founder of the Nazi Party’s military wing, the SA or Sturmabteilung (Storm Troopers) speaking of the young generation at this time said, ‘Nothing could be more lying than the so-called morals of society … [These boys] don’t know any longer how to distinguish between truth and error’.

This relativistic culture did not become a crucible for trying to retrieve one set of moral content over another, or to invent a new moral content. Instead, in the destruction that played out in the culture of relativism, truth was no longer tied to content and content itself became irrelevant. Now truth was attached to loyalty and to obedience. The watchword for the SS was ‘My honour is my loyalty’, and total loyalty, states Arendt, ‘is possible only when fidelity is emptied of all concrete content’. In building up the Party Hitler refused to discuss a programme or its content. He proclaimed publically that ‘Once we take over the government … the programme will come of itself’.

Arendt records a student at the time saying, ‘what counts is always the readiness to make a sacrifice, not the object for which the sacrifice is made’. Indeed Fascism here discovered a ‘means of dominating and terrorising human beings from within’. She notes that Hitler ‘was of the opinion that even “thinking … [exists] only by virtue of giving or executing orders”’. He therefore effectively ‘eliminated even theoretically the distinction between thinking and acting on one hand, and between the rulers and the ruled on the other’. In Nazism it is the will of the Führer that is the rule of law. The dissolution of liberal and humanist standards and moral respectability, and of conscience, and of the destruction of the version of democracy that accompanied them, brought about a culture of mystical heroism beyond the control of the ordinary individual ‘and therefore beyond the power of reason’.

Gullibility and Cynicism

In this culture beyond reason, propaganda had usefulness not only for the version of life it portrayed. It also engendered a mixture of gullibility and cynicism. Aware of its extraordinary resonance for today, let us read this passage in full from Arendt.

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true. The mixture in itself was remarkable enough, because it spelled the end of the illusion that gullibility was a weakness of unsuspecting primitive souls and cynicism the vice of superior and refined minds. Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leader for their superior tactical clearness.

This leader is spared from ever having to be accountable to his own statements. Naïve are those who thought then (or believe now) that such a leader would be brought down by his lies, or made to adhere to his promises. ‘The totalitarian system, unfortunately, is fool-proof against such normal consequences; its ingeniousness rests precisely on the elimination of that reality which either unmasks the liar or forces him to live up to his pretence’. In yesterday’s totalitarianism and in today’s totality, the fake dominates. Gullibility embraces the fake, and cynicism embraces gullibility. The totality is immune from truth because the very idea of truth is dissolved within it.

Arendt concludes here, ‘The outstanding negative quality of the totalitarian elite is that it never stops to think about the world as it really is and never compares the lies with reality. Its most cherished virtue, correspondingly, is loyalty to the leader, who, like a talisman, assumes the ultimate victory of lie and fiction over truth and reality’. Moreover, ‘Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it’.

From all this let us make one observation from the many that commend themselves. For fascisms to thrive, as Arendt demonstrates, the fasces (axe) is wielded against critical education. Fascisms are educationally lazy, equating questioning with disloyalty. And of course, education, especially higher education as history shows, can be co-opted into this laziness, assimilating itself all too easily into the new realities. How, then, to get universities and schools, and all institutions of education, to resist this laziness? Perhaps by a commitment to ensuring that learners and tutors are given opportunities to unmute the squawk of each single plucking of the chicken, and therein to unmute the whole process.

Arendt, H. (1968) The Origin of Totalitarianism, London, Harcourt.

Buller, E.M. (2017) Darkness Over Germany, London, Arcadia Books.

Hitler, A. (1939) Mein Kampf, London, Hurst & Blackett Ltd.

Lips, E. (1938) Savage Symphony, New York, Random House.

Mayer, M. (2017) They Thought They Were Free. The Germans 1933-45, Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press.

Veatch, H.B. (1962) Rational Man: A Modern Interpretation of Aristotelian Ethics

White, D.S. (1992) Lost Comrades. Socialists of the Front Generation 1918-1945, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.

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