The Origins of Totalitarianism - Part one: Anti-semitism

This is a long, hard book. Indeed, very few books get multi-part book reviews from me, but I want to checkpoint this one given how long I've been reading it for. I'm now 160 pages into roughly 630 pages of dense text. I've been reading it on and off (ok, mostly off) since putting it on my reading list at the start of 2022. Unfortunately, my extended hospital stay left me wanting something lighter, so... it's a very slow process.

Why do I want to read such a fun topic? On the one hand, my interest in modern liberal democracy and the post-War order has left me wanting to understand better the other side: totalitarianism. On the other hand, recent moves towards populism, the hero-worship of deeply-flawed "strong men" in Western democracies and the the rise of more totalitarian tendencies in other countries has left me wanting a more direct understanding of totalitarianism. So, I'm reading this book.

It's divided in three: Antisemitism, Imperialism and Totalitarianism. Here, I'll be reviewing the Preface and Antisemitism.

And, to be fair, a bunch of this will be more a disjointed précis than review, since this a long, hard book with seams of fascinating insights.

The Preface draws attention to the lack of scholarly attention to crackpots (who, after all, became far too prominent in the lead up to World War II). When it comes to Imperialism, it's interesting to look at the situation as described in the book vs. now. While first published in 1951, the Preface dates from 1967, and at that point Japan was backward and flailing. I'm also intrigued as to how Imperialism is the step before Totalitarianism: Is it a necessary precondition, or may future totalitarian states jump there directly?

Moving on to the Preface's discussion of Totalitarianism, I was struck by the bluntness of one of Arendt's sentences that I'm looking forward to her eventually expanding on: "It is quite obvious that mass support for totalitarianism comes neither from ignorance nor from brainwashing."

It then has a fairly interesting diversion on China, and discusses Russia's lack of reliable record keeping: How not only did Russia publish fake stats about how well they were doing, but they were so detached from reality that real stats were apparently unavailable!

Finally, there's an interesting definition of totalitarianism: It's the genocidal phase. Arendt view the post-Stalin phase of Soviet Russia as not totalitarianism. I can see this as a reasonable definition and think it'll be interesting to read more later.

Moving on to the first chapter of Antisemitism, it explores the question of why antisemitism lead to totalitarianism. My instinct is that the Jews made a good Other, but it's not a unique Jewish thing, as backed up by genocides that have happened since this book was written, such as in Rwanda, Myanmar, and the cultural genocide of Uighurs.

Arendt makes the interesting point that Nationalism is supra-national. What is nominally about a particular country's pride in itself, is really very much about something else.

A little later she says "Wealth without visible function is intolerable". Historically, aristocrats ran things. They had unearnt power and wealth. That wealth be associated with the powerful seemed natural. Only when they lost their arbitrary power, and were just plain rich, did people resent them fully. Is it progress that we now resent the activist billionaires?

She makes the point that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was more important historically for the fact that people believed it was genuine, than for the fact it was a forgery.

She also wants to avoid the simple explanations that either the Jews were an arbitrary target or eternal victims. From my side, I'm wondering whether the Holocaust was something fundamentally new, or the logical conclusion of the industrial revolution coming to historically "hand-made" pogroms and terrors? I'm guessing the rest of the book will gradually address this.

The main thesis seems to be that Jews were importance as overthrown international bankers to nation states in the 19th century (such as the Rothschilds etc.). Whatever power was lost was retained in the imagination, making them an excellent target. This quickly wades into territory I know nothing about. Their status as people with a lot of money but zero political understanding made them exceptionally vulnerable.

This view of Jewish bankers as international baddies behind the national government reminds me unpleasantly of the scapegoating of the EU by people like Boris Johnson. Distant (preferably international) power is easy to blame for local concerns, and can rarely respond. A very useful tool of the nationalist.

Reading all this, I find it quite hard to understan how Jews fitted into society at the time, because modern life limits parallels: The Holocaust has changed attitudes, but moreover it killed millions - the prevalence of and nature of Jews in society will be different to the pre-war situation. It's clear that as well as the bankers, there were a lot of very poor Jews, perhaps making Roma the modern simile,

Towards the middle of this section, the book gets a bit bogged down. Big ideas are replaced by details, insight replaced by something more academic. At the same time, this is a book that makes plenty of assumptions of the reader. It's quite opinionated, and not only expects you know the basics of the subject, but that you know the context of everything it talks about. Seventy years later, this context becomes less clear.

Some useful insights remain, or can be extracted. The Jewish bankers represented something more like personal wealth than a modern banker does - more akin to modern billionaries. The book recognises that the setting for totalitarianism was not just, as history GCSEs like to pretend, World War I, but the politics of the late 19th Century. Politics are less visible in economically good times, but the undercurrents flare up in tough times.

Anti-semitism was not the same thing in the US, as Black people were the relevant out-group there. On the other hand, assimilation was happening in Europe, and this part was of some personal interest. My family name comes from German Jews of the mid-nineteenth century, and somehow we've assimilated into nth generation CofE public school attendees. As someone far less versed in it than I should be, the discussion around expectations of change and aspects of otherness in assimilation were fascinating.

The section on Antisemitism picks up towards the end, with a fascinating sketch of Disraeli (even if I have no idea how accurate it is), and a discussion of the Dreyfus affair. I was amused by the author's admiration of In Search of Lost Time, given how long-winded she is!

There are various interesting insights, from how blaming society (rather than individuals) for crime takes away responsibility, and enables the punishment of potential criminals. The author refers to how the leaders of the death factories were highly educated and had Jewish friends - strong echos of Good.

Arendt gets to the point of claiming that as Jewishness became vague (a consequence of assimilation?), the logical outcome was that the conclusion would be extermination, rather than simple punishment through regular laws. I don't get it. Maybe this will become clearer in the other sections?

Anyway, the Dreyfus affair. I initially wondered if it loomed larger when writing in 1951, and wasn't really that key, but she makes a good case. The affair covers the wider politics, not the court case(s) per se.

The backdrop to the Dreyfus affair was the Panama Scandal. In short (and badly summarised), politicians were bribed to support building of the Panama canal, until the private company involved went bankrupt, taking many middle-class investors with it. Some Jewish men acted as the middlemen between the (non-Jewish) businessmen and (non-Jewisham) politicians. They made convenient scapegoats, particularly as revelations were spun out by an anti-semitic newspaper, whose popularity grew with each new corrupt politician revealed.

The framing of Dreyfus was clearly an anti-semitic act. He was the first Jew on the general staff, and the Catholic church had a strong hold over the army, which also had a clique-y culture, strongly resistant to change. Both the Catholic church and the army acted as power structures independent of the civilian government.

Dreyfus's guilt was taken as the guilt of all Jews: minorities and the disadvantaged have no individual identity, but are representatives. The genocidal version of The vehemence of the reaction is pretty astonishing now.

There's a wonderful description of Piquart, the officer who brought the Dreyfus fabrications to light: "Piquart was no hero and certainly no martyr. He was simply the common type of citizen with an average interest in public affairs who in the hour of danger (though not a minute earlier) stands up to defend his country in the same unquestioning way as he discharges his daily duty." This, of the one man who whistleblew an army conspiracy and ended up being sent abroad into a dangerous role as thanks, before being arrested, fired and stripped of his decorations! I wish I could be as much of a not-a-hero as him.

Both Clemenceau and Zola risked a lot in publicly protesting Dreyfus's innocence. Fascinating to find them so much more than an elder statesman of World War I and a writer. That and it was a pleasure to read up on Clemenceau in Wikipedia and discover that he was arrested a couple of times as a young radical politian. So French.

The mob behaviour around the Dreyfus affair presented a foreshadowing of the fascism to come. Arendt distinguishes the mob from the general population they're supposed to be: The population wants genuine representation, the mob is a caricature of the population that wants to be represented by a strong man (another caricature).

The author notes that despite the anger, the Mob only became violent when faced with the suggestion that Dreyfus might be innocent. Shockingly, not only did anti-semitic mayors become elected, but some used their official positions to organise pogroms. The Mobs became highly-organised with hero-worshipped leaders. This was not spur-of-the-moment stuff.

The Jewish response was unhelpful. They were mostly politically unaware or naive, and did not recognise this as the wide-ranging attack that it was, almost preferring to not make a fuss. The assimilated Jews were some of the most anti-semitic, in order to fill into their new roles. I really don't like to put stereotypes on individuals, but this does rather feel like the approach of various current Tory cabinet ministers who are the children of immigrants.

The Catholic response was also interesting, as an internationally-united condemnation of Jews. It was widespread and consistent until Dreyfus was released, at which point the experiment was abruptly halted by Leo XIII.

And how did the Affair end? Farcically. The threat of an international boycott of the Paris Expo of 1900 focused a lot of political minds, and there were pardons all round for Dreyfus supporters and the violent anti-semitic mobsters alike. Dreyfus was pardoned, letting him go while continuing to ludicrously declare his guilt.

At the same time, the Catholics and the army both suffered a loss of influence, with the latter being pulled under civilian control. This messy ending sets the scene for the 20th century.

At this point, I should probably review the book versus my expectations. It assumes more than I was hoping for. It's more a personal thesis than an (trying-to-be) objective retelling of history. It is dense and long-winded, with flashes of intense insight. The footnotes are a frustraing mix of super-interesting insights and tedious references.

It is looking like the rest of the book will really be about the events of the first half of the twentieth century, with any generalised observations about totalitarianism being a side effect. I'm a little disappointed by this, I was hoping for more reusable concepts - as they say, history does not repeat, it rhymes. I want to understand the common patterns, and I feel focus on the specifics does not help my interests so well.

Having said that, I'm willing to plough ahead with the remaining 75% of the book, partly under the hope that it will increase in focus as it zeroes in on totalitarianism, and partly because those occasional flashes of amazing insight feel so worthwhile.

Posted 2023-05-17.