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Publisher's Summary

This classic, definitive account of totalitarianism traces the emergence of modern racism as an "ideological weapon for imperialism", beginning with the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in the 19th century and continuing through the New Imperialism period from 1884 to World War I.
©1966 Hannah Arendt; (P)2007 Blackstone Audio, Inc.

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  • Roger
  • South Orange, NJ, United States
  • 08-04-08

Vast and intricate analysis of horror

Arendt uses Marxist economics, combined with a Hobbesian outlook, to evaluate the rise of Hitler and Stalin. Her thesis is that their totalitarian regimes were qualitatively different from other despotisms, both inwardly and outwardly, because their aim was not self or national aggrandizement, but pursuit of a blinding ideology, leading ultimately to total destruction.

She describes totalitarianism arising out of anti-Semitism and global imperialism. There are some wonderful insights here, such as the change in anti-Semitism from anti-Judaism to anti-Jewishness and the change in the concept of nation from one of geography to one of ethnicity or race. The pattern of anti-Semitism and imperialism leading to totalitarianism seems to fit the German model better than the Russian, however. In addition, her discussion of racism suffers from ignoring New World slavery. She acknowledges the irony of the US as a land of liberty founded on slavery, but she does not consider the totalitarian nature of American slavery.

Arendt is at her best evaluating the nature of totalitarian regimes. She describes the ability of Stalin and Hitler to destroy the connections of individuals with others in society and eventually self-identity. She also explains how the focus of a totalitarian regime on ideology isolates it from reality and makes it so much harder for the non-totalitarian world to understand or deal with regimes focused on goals other than self or national interest. This incomprehension also makes it harder for the rest of the world to grasp the reality of the Radical Evil adopted in pursuit of totalitarian ideology. She describes in academic terms much of what Orwell illustrated in 1984.

Arendt also gives ominous warnings about the need for the separation of law and power, meaning that those charged with executing the law should not be the ones deciding what the law is, as well as the assault on civil society that results from constant or unending war.

52 of 54 people found this review helpful

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  • Douglas
  • Atlanta, GA, United States
  • 02-10-15

Very Heady Look at Theory of Totalitarianism

This was not at all what I was expecting. I was thinking this would be more of a history of the early stages of Totalitarianism governments such as in USSR and Germany. Those are the two governments that Arendt focuses on but this really isn't that sort of book. This is a theory book; meaning it focuses more on psyche and philosophy and behavior theory than facts, anecdotes, and events. There was a totally superfluous digression concerning Benjamin Disraeli that was quite lengthy, and that was actually one of the more interesting parts of the book for me. The reason I gave it 4 stars overall is that I think if you're looking for a theory book, this is an excellent one. It just wasn't what I was looking for. I don't want that to influence people who might be thinking of buying this though. And Nadia May is brilliant as always as narrator. In fact, if not for May, I probably would have checked out more than I did. She makes even the driest theory ramblings seem sort of interesting. More than that, she always convinces me 100% that she herself believes what she's reading and that what she's reading is absolutely true.

12 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • A User
  • Frederick, MD, United States
  • 08-05-08

Difficult to follow

My review only applies to the audio version. Whatever the merits of the book itself. I found it very hard to follow as the mass of detail and the manner of writing was such that it was difficult to listen. For a work of this type you need to be able to go back and reread sentences and whole paragraphs. The narrator was good but the complexity of the subject matter was hard to keep up with. I found I had to stop and think about what was just said. I have listened to hundreds of audio books over the years and this was the most difficult book to listen to given the way the subject is presented and the not exactly clear presentation of it. Plus the fact that some of the material is dated particularly that on the Soviet Union and the characterization of Lenin.

27 of 30 people found this review helpful

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  • Marcus
  • Brasília, Brazil
  • 05-15-16

Totalitarianism and History

Totalitarianism is a human enterprise difficult to explain but possible to comprehend. This work of Hannah Arendt helps the reader in understanding this human "achievement". Pure and absolute evil doesn't appear suddenly, it has its roots in history. Arendt examines the genesis and the development of anti-Semitism and imperialism in the first two parts of this work. Its characteristics and history are well explained in order to relate them to totalitarianism. Arendt has a talent to relate the pivotal facts in history to ideas (concepts), its generation and development. Her writings increase the reader comprehension of the questions and, when confronted with human faults and failures, inspire the search of solutions. As the result of this well made work, the reader gets invaluable knowledge about totalitarianism and its manifestations in history and about how to overcome it.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Matthew
  • Gatineau, Quebec, Canada
  • 03-22-17

Deep and complex, gets better as it progresses

Admitidly very long, but overall really interesting. The first 70-80% is slow, and contains long discussions of topics which later I couldn't remember why they were relevant, but the last 20-30% was packed with really insightful discussions on totalitarianism.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Excellent

A well thought out and engaging work. She explains so much through the analysis of human history. I believe that much of Arendt is still relevant today. An excellent audiobook reproduction btw.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Gary
  • Las Cruces, NM, United States
  • 11-04-17

Autonomy of chess and why it matters today

What does it take to create a Hitler or a Stalin? More importantly can it happen in the USA as it has in Putin’s Russia? Arendt is a very intelligent writer. She’s not afraid to assume her readers really want to know and never talks down to the reader. The book was reprinted in the 1960s but mostly reflects her thoughts from 1950. There’s just something about a writer who assumes her readers have read Hobbes’ ‘Leviathan’, Kant, Jeremy Bentham and Utilitarian philosophy, and often quotes from Edmund Burke, and all the while assumes the reader understands the context and the connections of what is being discussed.

In order to create a totalitarian system the first thing required is to create hate of the other of some kind. She documents the madness of 19th century Europe (and South Africa) and its peculiar blaming of the Jews and the stateless for its ills, the Dreyfus Affair in all of its details and the chaos after the First World War and then the book starts to get into its groove as she starts to consider the special characteristics inherent within Hitler and Stalin the two totalitarians under consideration which resulted from that madness, the first race inspired, the second class inspired.

The common ingredients necessary for totalitarianism to take hold were along these lines, create a fear stemming from a difference and use the threat of terror to appeal to baser instincts of the mobs (winning the hearts of at least 48% of the people is just enough to win in an Electoral College, for example). A Hitler quote from the book went something along these lines ‘everything I am I owe to you the people of Germany, and who you are is owed to me’. It would be similar as if somebody said ‘only I can fix the problems that you have and nobody else knows how to do that except for me’.

To create totalitarianism, undermine science and knowledge by appealing to dogma instead of reason and create fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) by challenging all narratives contrary to the leader’s whim for that day and act as if they were coming from a fake media or pointing out there are alternative facts. Consistency and coherence are not necessary within their narratives for them to be successful only what the leader has recently said matters, because after you insult your opponent by calling them names (such as ‘Pocahontas’) the mob will cheer you on in order to see blood as if they were sharks swimming in the water between feedings.

Keeping people afraid and hateful from any group or person who threatens them in their fevered imaginations and who are not part of their self selected group defined by their ethos. It doesn’t matter if they are to be made afraid of Muslims, Mexicans or immigrants. The most important consideration is that the masses must be irrational in their fear, but have the feeling that something wicked this way comes and only one person can save them from that future (but unknown) travesty.

The author will say that totalitarian merges the law into the ethos of the people manipulated by the leader such that to disagree with the law and the hate that proceeds from the created ethos would be tantamount to being anti-patriotic and not part of the spirit of the country as such nor would they be deemed worthy of protection by the rule of justice. The leader, for example, could lead a chant of ‘lock her up’ before any indictment has been made and recommend a death penalty before a trial especially in acts of terror when committed by the bogeyman group of the day in order to instill fear induced by terror of the unknown to come, because fear of terror can never be relaxed since the totalitarian has convinced the mob only he knows how to fix the problem which he has created to be an existential threat within the minds of the mob and the leader but not in reality.

I would say, in addition for totalitarianism to win out the people must first stop learning. They must allow their leaders to think for them, and no matter how absurd the assertion is and void of science for totalitarianism to take hold the people must be willing to accept statements such as ‘Climate Change is a Chinese Hoax’ or ‘vaccines cause autism’ as truth because their leaders, and their insular news sources trapped within an epistemic closure tell them such. (Can’t they just read ‘Scientific American’?).

Rush Limbaugh routinely tells his listeners that they do not need to read the ‘fake news’ and they can count on him instead. It’s a free country and any one can pick who they want to listen to or what they believe, but I sincerely suggest they be willing to learn from other sources then what their leaders have sanctify with their imprimaturs.

Every time I hear a 9/11 truther, or a climate denier, or a vaccine denier, or somebody who ignores the Mueller investigation about Russian influence within American politics because Hillary did something ‘nasty’ and is the real criminal which only makes sense in their fevered imaginations I cringe, because I know they are part of the totalitarian vanguard. Russia is not our friend and they are a threat to democracy. Education and science are the best defense against ignorance based fear and as Kant said, ‘the problem with the ignorant is they do not know they are ignorant’ at least the ignorant can learn. The stupid will always remain stupid.

Arendt had an interesting take on the ‘autonomy of chess’. Within a group of people there will be some people who like something for its own sake such as the game of chess just for the sake of chess itself (St. Aquinas makes only God (i.e., the ultimate Good) and the conscience of the individual as causes of themselves). Himmler, when he came to power was not going to allow that. He was not going to allow a farmer to be a farmer just for the sake of farming. He was going to insist that everything had to serve the nation in the end since the nation itself with its totalitarian leader was to serve as the ultimate good for all within the nation. All of his SS guards were never to be SS agents just for their own sake. The good of the nation meant the good of the leader and that was what mattered most in that symbiotic relationship. The capitalist and expansionist highlighted in the first part of the book similarly, the author will say, just wanted to make money or expand for its own sake, its own cause. Leaders of totalitarian states are not necessarily ideologically driven, but often want authoritarian power for its own sake and are using the people only as useful idiots in order to enhance what they think of as their ultimate good.

It is vital that we study history. Otherwise we can be doomed to repeat it. This book gives a recursive view of history since it is a look back at a history as seen by a very intelligent writer in 1950 about a history that immediately came before that time period, and the reader gets both a history of the time period and a snapshot of what was believed in 1950. We’ve learned a whole lot more about Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia since this book was first published, but in spite of what we know today that she didn’t know then this book made for an intelligent telling of an interesting period of time. Our understanding of history takes many drafts with rewrites before we think we get it right or at least good enough to think we did, and this book represented one of the best of the early drafts.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Lessons from history not to be ignored

This work from 1951 is as relevant today as it was at the transition between WW II and the cold war. From the point of view of recent events, Arendt's most relevant insight is how big lies can be told and repeated by those in power until they are "normalized". She clearly describes the anatomy and mechanics of an alternative worldview that had abandoned normal, fact-based standards of thought and discourse. It's a chilling reminder of how seemingly innocuous (or at least easily resistible) crackpot ideas can gain momentum and lead to something truly horrific.

The narration of this audiobook is excellent. The story only bogs down in the extensive descriptions of the workings of totalitarian states in the last third of the book. The first third, describing the history leading to the rise of totalitarianism, and the the second third, describing how ordinary people were swept up by an entirely new populism that discarded all of the old rules of public and political discourse, provide the key understandings for our world today.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Monumental

Breathtaking, monumental, a must-read by the most important political philosopher of the Twentieth Century. By the time she has finished comparing and contrasting the worlds of Hitler and Stalin, you will be prepared to face the worst.
Read by one of the most articulate narrators on Audible.

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  • Juan
  • Florida
  • 07-05-17

Amazing

This book had so much information! Loved all of it.

Her analysis at the end about loneliness and isolation are amazing and really tie the whole book together.

It was just so amazing. Really sad that such a book has to be written though

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  • Terje
  • 05-13-14

A must read, for people interested in history.

Would you listen to The Origins of Totalitarianism again? Why?

Hanna Arendt gives us great insight into European history, espesially the period 1800-1950. Why the first generation of educated young Jews, leaves the profession of their parents, and become revolutionaries, and end up in gulags and concentration camps. She also lists the differences and similarities, between Nazi-Germany and Soviet-Union.

What other book might you compare The Origins of Totalitarianism to, and why?

"The Road to Serfdom" by F.A. Hayek<br/>"In the Shadow of Satan" by Janusz Subczyski

What does Nadia May bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you had only read the book?

Clear and easy listening.

Was this a book you wanted to listen to all in one sitting?

Yes

36 of 37 people found this review helpful

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  • Ed
  • 05-16-17

Hard but interesting

Very thorough treatment of the subject that requires attention & concentration but well worth it

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 05-15-17

history through a narrow slit

I was looking forward to listening to this book but found it disappointing. it seemed to me like viewing history through a narrow slit even though it was explained that anti semitism fur example need not just apply to anti semitism and can mean any similarly targetted victims. I'm also unsure about the view that we have never seen such tyranny as we have in contemporary and near contemporary times. I would concede that technology has made tyranny more effective but not that our recent times are necessarily any more tyrannical by intent or purpose.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Mr A Carroll
  • 11-07-17

informative but dull

struggled to finish, but understood there was valuable instead so plowed on.

feel it repeats itself.