Essay: Hannah Arendt and Jews and Politics

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Hannah Arendt, Jews, And Politics

Hannah Arendt, the Jewish Question, and Totalitarianism

Totalitarianism was never defined in the past because it could not exist. This is simply because totalitarianism implies total control, and in the past it was simply not possible to gain total control given the technological and cultural limitations.

It has only been as recently as the 20th century that totalitarianism has become a real political option, as shown particularly by the Nazis. With such examples in mind political theorists have, over past fifty years, debated the real meaning of totalitarianism but it has still eluded concise definition. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Carl Friedrich attempted to define it in their book 'Totalitarian Autocracy and Dictatorship' but attached a certain Cold-war, anti-Communist bias to it which created a model of totalitarianism that was not only damning but obviously represented the Communist regime of Russia; it is clearly propaganda. Hannah Arendt suffered at the hands of the Nazis, as she was a Jewish emigrant to America. While her book - and in turn her definition - is far fairer she does on some points let her experiences taint her understanding of totalitarianism. What totalitarianism is perceived to be taints how the past is viewed and how certain regimes from the past are thought of; thus what historians understand totalitarianism to be taints the meaning that they attach to the importance and reliability of sources relating to such regimes.

The first part of the commonly accepted definition of totalitarianism relates to a state ideology. Now, a totalitarian state does not need to follow or believe in any sort of ideology despite Friedrich and Brzezinski's claim that a totalitarian state requires "an official ideology to which general adherence [is] demanded… intended to achieve a 'perfect final stage of mankind."

Totalitarian states are, insofar as we have seen, revolutionary and as such the ideology put forward is one which offers to right the wrongs of the current political system and help the people out of troubled times. An ideology is an extremely important preliminary requirement for totalitarianism as it is a revolutionary or reactionary movement, but as time passes the significance of the ideology diminishes proportionally with the need for an ideology. While Hitler may have fanatically believed in the destruction of the Jews within German borders it is doubtful that he, at least initially, intended to reach the extremities to which the Nazis eventually did.

In support of Brzezinski's first criteria, Hannah Arendt makes the point that the totalitarian ideology "singles out the foes of mankind against whom terror is let loose and no free action of either opposition or sympathy can be permitted to interfere with the elimination of the objective enemy."

Arendt's point is a result of her experiences under Hitler, and as such she seems to be describing more how she felt about him by restricting the ideology to be racially based, rather than the diverse ideological positions totalitarian leaders are able to take. It is in the best interests of the infant revolutionary totalitarian state to attempt to quash an "objective enemy" only so far as to unite the people under a common cause, but it is not necessarily a sustained effort rather it is just necessary to establish control.

Control over the party is just as important as control over the people. Brzezinski believes that totalitarianism demands "a single mass party, hierarchically organized, closely interwoven with the state bureaucracy and typically led by one man"

. Once Hitler passed the Enabling Act in 1933, he set his mind on systematically destroying all possibilities of opposition to his rule to achieve this, Hitler banned all rival political parties and ordered that no further political parties be formed.

It is necessary that the party or the leader ensure that there is no opposition to the rule of the party through whatever means possible. Hitler "[gave] power to those below him but [encouraged] them to compete among themselves for power and influence" and thus ensured that Hitler's subordinates fought amongst themselves too much to offer any real threat to his leadership, however a totalitarian system requires that total power rest in a single place; in Nazi Germany, too much power was allocated to too few people and thus the organized hierarchy required for a totalitarian state was undermined. The leader of a totalitarian government is thus either a figurehead or the bearer of total power, there is no grey area.

Arendt rightly contests Brzezinski's second point in saying that a "lack of or ignoring of a party program is by itself not necessarily a sign of totalitarianism."

In theory totalitarianism can be made to exist in any form of government, from democracy to communism to a dictatorial state. Should a democratic candidate be elected into an office which has been given total power over the state he/she will rule with the support of the party they are affiliated with; then they are a totalitarian ruler in a democratic system, despite the existence of other political parties.

Hitler earned his power through the Enabling Act of 1933, a move that was apparently approved via plebiscite and thus he was a dictator with totalitarian tendencies under what was still a democratic system. However, Arendt goes on to suggest that Hitler was nothing more than a "functionary of the masses" and "without the masses, the leader is a non-entity."

In a matured totalitarian system Arendt's point carries no relevance as the leader should never have to worry about the support of the masses since the masses will always support him given the fact that they will have been indoctrinated with pro-totalitarian ideas throughout their education. Hitler derived majority support from the bourgeois and less so from the rich, and little from the proletariat. If, however, his support faltered there was a real chance that he would be killed or he would be forced out of office.

This is simply because Hitler's totalitarian state was still young, in time Hitler -or the Nazi party- would have gained the political security totalitarianism demands.

Along with the stability of political thought comes prevention of any possible avenues to threaten the ruling party. To ensure this Hitler oversaw a "monopolistic control of the armed forces"

; a preliminary but ongoing procedure which is necessary to control a totalitarian state or indeed any state. The government must be able to regulate the actions of the armed forces and the munitions industry as a factor in the total control of a nation. Such a concept is technically outdated since currently all developed nations control the armed forces of their respective states. In Nazi Germany, it was a sudden transition of control which was completed in the wake of the Night of the Long Knives, where the SS kidnapped and murdered many of Hitler's personal enemies; one such enemy was Ernst Rohm, head of the Sturm Abteilung (SA)

. In the aftermath, Hitler had the German Army swear an oath of allegiance to him personally, and thus he became the commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Germany. It should be noted that "Germany was not compelled to prepare on such a scale for war -- that was a deliberate decision taken by Hitler"

, and as such the role of the army is determined by the leader and predetermined by the totalitarian ideology.

Arendt supports the requirement for the "monopolistic control of the armed forces" but distinguishes the need as only preliminary and part of the totalitarian process rather than lasting criteria. In her opinion, as a totalitarian movement gains power and finally get into power, little is changed; The system remains democratic until such time as "all government positions are held by party members," and thus "the power of the party rests on a monopoly guaranteed by the state."

This monopoly must, by implication, include the armed forces and since controlling the army ensures continued power and since control must be obtained immediately and retained thereafter, it is not a preliminary requirement but a constant factor for the upkeep of the state. Hitler retained this power; he ensured that he was the final authority on all military matters and thus cemented his authority through German military successes.

Military successes are admittedly important, but not as important as economic success. Hermann Goring was put in charge of the four-year plan that related to the "central control and direction of the entire economy."

It is essential that a totalitarian state play a direct role in every aspect of the operation of the state but with respect to the economy there only needs to state direction, with only so much control as to ensure effectiveness. When Hitler allocated someone a role, he tended to allocate a contradicting role to another person or persons. This ensured that policy -especially economic policy- was applied ineffectively as conflicting interests limited the effectiveness of certain strategies. Hitler put Goring in charge of the four-year plan but encouraged competition and the agricultural sector through the Reich Economic Chamber.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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