political revue


Year XLI, 1999, Number 1, Page 35



What exactly is totalitarianism? What are its origins, and why is it that the 20th century, in particular, has been so scarred by its brutality? Have we seen the last of it, or could it surface once more? All these are dramatic questions which are still prominent in political thought today.
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, and the end of the Cold War, the communist regimes, with their particular brand of totalitarianism, are generally considered to have been definitively overcome. Even though there are political forces still in existence and, particularly, countries which remain rooted in communist ideology, these are, in the first case, forces which have accepted the democratic order in which they, as parties, have taken their place, and in the second, countries which, while generally autocratic, have nevertheless set in motion a process by which they may be integrated into the world market, and which are gradually seeking to adapt to western economic models. And both, moreover, repudiate the eras of totalitarian rule, dismissing them as instances of degeneration. Yet, while totalitarianism in the communist mould is something that has proved relatively easy to confront, much controversy still surrounds the brand of totalitarianism that accompanied the phenomenon of National Socialism. The continuing debate over this issue, particularly in Europe, reveals an oscillation between the desire, on the one hand, to forget the experience of Nazism, to write it off as a period of madness which, as such, will never be repeated, and, on the other, the fear that we could once again be brought face to face with the same tragic phenomenon. This fear is, in part, fuelled by the fact that there exist throughout the world, albeit on a smaller scale, active political groups which embrace elements of fascist and Nazi thought, even in its ugliest and most brutal guise (e.g. racism), and which hark back to the fascist and Nazi period. Even though these are only minority groups, they have nevertheless proved capable of winning a certain amount of support among those sections of society hardest hit by situations of crisis, and emerged as a serious potential threat to democracy.
It is therefore crucial that we go on striving to answer the questions posed above, not only in order to gain a deeper understanding of our past, but also in order to evaluate the potential risks the future holds.
Two scholars who, among others, have asked themselves these questions, setting out to analyse them in particular depth, and whose views it is extremely useful to consider, are Hannah Arendt, particularly in The Origins of Totalitarianism, and Norbert Elias, in essays collected in The Germans.[1] Both German Jews forced into exile to escape the tide of Nazism, they have, at length, examined this tragedy, which for them, of course, also had a personal dimension, in order to understand its origins. As Elias points out in the introduction to his book, “many of the following discussions originated in the attempt to make understandable, to myself and anyone who is prepared to listen, how the rise of National Socialism came about, and thus also the war, concentration camps and the breaking apart of the earlier Germany into two states”.[2] And Arendt, in the preface to the first edition of her book, writes: “This book… was written out of the conviction that it should be possible to discover the hidden mechanics by which all traditional elements of our political and spiritual world were dissolved into a conglomeration where everything seems to have lost specific value, and has become unrecognizable for human comprehension, unusable for human purpose… Comprehension does not mean denying the outrageous, deducing the unprecedented from precedents, or explaining phenomena by such analogies and generalities that the impact of reality and the shock of experience are no longer felt. It means rather examining and bearing consciously the burden which our century has placed on us — neither denying its existence, nor submitting meekly to its weight. Comprehension, in short, means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality — whatever it may be”.[3]
While both these scholars begin with an attempt to understand the tragedy of Nazism, the perspective from which they subsequently develop their arguments differs: Arendt, even taking Stalinism into consideration, seeks to analyse the phenomenon of totalitarianism as a whole and finally develops a sort of Idealtypus of “this entirely new form of government which as a potentiality and an ever-present danger is only too likely to stay with us from now on, just as other forms of government which came about at different historical moments and rested on different fundamental experiences have stayed with mankind regardless of the temporary defeats — monarchies and republics, tyrannies, dictatorships and despotism”.[4] And so, her work highlights, very effectively, the problem presented by the radical novelty of totalitarianism, and by the impossibility of its assimilation into other, tried and tested, historical forms of dominion. Elias, meanwhile, focuses on Germany and tries to explain why it was that Nazism managed to win consensus in that country. Examining both internal aspects (the lateness of Germany’s development into a modern state, social relations, etc.) and external factors (the country’s geographical position and its relations with other states), he goes right back to the process leading to the formation of the German state.
The work of these two authors is, to a certain extent, complementary, and it is important to begin by outlining the main lines of their arguments, starting with The Origins of Totalitarianism, in order to identify both their most useful aspects, and their eventual weaknesses.
In her effort to understand totalitarianism, Arendt begins by drawing a distinction between simple dictatorship and totalitarian dominion, a distinction which also has the effect of separating clearly the Nazi ideology and experience from the fascist ideology and experience (Arendt interprets the fascist experience in Italy, for example, as a nationalistic dictatorship born of the difficulties generated by a multi-party democracy). The fundamental difference between dictatorship and totalitarian dominion lies in the fact that, even though single-party dictatorial systems strive both to take over the public administration and to obtain a complete fusion of State and party, (filling the administrative posts with their own members), and even though such systems leave space for no other parties, forms of opposition or freedom of opinion, they nevertheless leave intact the original balance of power between the State and the party. The government and the armed forces still have the same authority as before and, not having an independent centre of power of its own, separate from the institutions, the party bases its power on a guaranteed monopoly of the State.
The revolution brought about by a totalitarian movement (once it has seized power) is, on the other hand, far more radical. All the power remains in the hands of the movement’s own institutions, excluding completely the apparatus of State and the armed forces. While this is again achieved by taking control of the public administration, in this case, there is no merging with it: the highest positions in the State hierarchy are assigned only to less important members of the movement, while all the offices of State are duplicated, creating shadow institutions which emanate directly from the movement and strip the existing offices of State of their effective power. The country is thus run by the movement, within whose confines all decisions are taken. The State remains, but only as a facade for the benefit of the outside world; it is now the secret police, and not the armed forces, which is the country’s real centre of power, existing above the State and operating behind the pretence of the State as the real power. The driving force behind all this is the leader, on whose will and orders the entire life of the movement depends. He remains removed from the members of the movement, even those who have reached its highest echelons, and lives surrounded by a close circle of initiates among whom he is careful to cultivate a climate of reciprocal suspicion and mistrust. In fact, his rise to power is due, in part, to his ability to exploit situations of internal strife; once he has gained supremacy, however, his power is guaranteed, as a situation is created in which the whole organisation is totally dependent upon him, and in which each member identifies fully with his person. Everything in a totalitarian regime is, in fact, fictitious; facts do not count, only the infallibility of the leader, who moulds reality. He has the absolute monopoly of power, and total and blind loyalty to him is the unbreakable rule. There are no such things as hierarchies within the totalitarian system, no possible heirs destined to succeed the leader; while these things are workable where an absolute authority has been established, the same is not true in the context of a totalitarian dominion; the latter, not content with restricting freedom, aims rather to abolish it, to get rid of it altogether. All this explains the fanaticism of militants who are prepared to die for a supreme collective ideal which does not have utilitarian implications in the short term, but which serves to ensure the greatness of the last, final victory. The great innovation of the totalitarian regime is thus organisation, or the art of accumulating power. The slogans and ideologies of these regimes are generally nothing new, but what is new is the capacity to use them as the basis underlying (to paraphrase an expression of Hitler’s[5] “a fighting organisation”, and to transform them into a system which makes reality correspond with ideology. The essence of this system is terror, a terror which grows as the power of the movement grows (in a manner inversely proportional to the existence of an opposition). Wielded over a population that is completely subjugated, it is directed not at real enemies (these have already been eliminated) but at “objective enemies”, those, in other words, who belong to races and groups that are “objectively” to be eliminated. The concept of guilt thus becomes totally meaningless (and the objectivity of law disappears[6]) as the aim is not to bring about some, albeit distorted, form of justice, but rather to control, totally and permanently, every individual in every area of his life.
Concentration camps are laboratories for testing the will to achieve the total domination of men. Men are reduced to objects: they are allowed no rights, sapped of their moral strength (this is achieved by rendering even death meaningless, thereby removing the basis for martyrdom), their conscience is wiped out (whatever choice an individual makes, it destined to make a murderer of him, and victims and executioners are thus reduced to the same level of abjection), their individuality is destroyed, and their spontaneity, their capacity to react, snuffed out (which explains why there are practically no instances of resistance mounted in these camps). Death camps are an essential part of totalitarian regimes, as “without the undefined fear they inspire and the very well-defined training they offer in totalitarian domination, which can nowhere else be fully tested with all of its most radical possibilities, a totalitarian State can neither inspire its nuclear troops with fanaticism nor maintain a whole people in complete apathy”.[7]
The death camps, according to Arendt, are “the appearance of some radical evil, previously unknown to us, that puts to an end the notion of developments and transformations of qualities. Here, there are neither political nor historical nor simply moral standards but, at the most, the realization that something seems to be involved in modern politics as we understand it, namely all or nothing — all, and that is an undetermined infinity of forms of human living-together, or nothing, for a victory of the concentration-camp system would mean the same inexorable doom for human beings as the use of the hydrogen bomb would mean the doom of the human race.”[8]
The most striking aspect of Arendt’ s analysis, which I have sought to convey here, is her ability to probe so deeply and effectively the abyss opened up by Nazism. This is, in fact, a new historical reality, distinct from other experiences of absolutism or dictatorship, that brings us face to face with the manifestation of “radical evil”. Radical evil is man’s capacity to destroy all that which distinguishes him as such, in other words, all traces of reason. However, it is, in my view, questionable whether Nazism should be defined in these extreme terms.
Eric Weil, too, in Logique de la Philosophie maintains that Hitler can be comprehended by reason, but that he places himself outside of it, that he is something other than reason, (and thus substantially, pure violence). From a logical point of view, and as far as an understanding of Nazism is concerned, these affirmations are contradictory (reason in fact cannot comprehend that which is other than itself, because it lacks the categories to do so; thus as Arendt herself admits, it cannot explain radical evil;[9] on the contrary, within the framework of this logic, it would not even be possible to talk in terms of it). The fact remains however that these affirmations have empirical confirmation that cannot, from a moral point of view, easily be denied. The insinuating doubts which remain serve in fact to demonstrate that there are still obscure aspects clouding our understanding of Nazism.
Moreover, there remains the crucial question of just how such a dramatic experience came about at all. Here, Arendt is unable to provide any convincing answers. In her view, the fact that a phenomenon of this kind had never previously manifested itself is, in some ways, mere chance, due even to the simple fact that never before had there been a dictator mad enough to start such a regime. As far as the causes are concerned, she highlights imperialism and the role of ideologies as determining factors.
With regard to imperialism, Arendt’s starting point is correct; she goes back to the crisis of Europe’s nation-states which began in the last three decades ofthe 19th century, and was due to the fact that the nations in this period found themselves unable to cope with the pace of economic expansion. However, instead of proceeding along these lines to see the growing tensions and subsequent upsetting of the international equilibrium as a consequence of this profound inadequacy on the part of the states, Arendt shifts her attention to the mechanisms at work within them, blaming the wealthy bourgeoisie which, until then, had never sought political supremacy, for imposing the imperialist solution as a means of safeguarding its own interests. Since, again in Arendt’s view, the degeneration of the nation-state is rooted in imperialism, which in turn brings with it an insatiable thirst for power (corresponding in this case to the thirst for capitalist expansion on the part of the bourgeoisie), and since it is based on the use of force, there could only be one outcome: mortal conflict among the nations and the replacement of the “spirit of unorganized solidarity and agreement”[10] that had characterised the comity of European nations, with hostility and competition between “fully armed business concerns — ‘empires’.”[11]
Arendt also stresses the point that the nation-state had, until the advent of the imperialist phase, been above the classes, founded on the principle of the rule of law. As the imperialist phase unfolded, however, the nation-state, which had passed into the hands of the bourgeoisie, tended to degenerate. This was partly due to its inability (since it lacked the necessary instruments) to incorporate new populations. Unable to integrate the populations of the countries brought under its imperialist control, it sought instead to assimilate them, and whenever this proved impossible, to oppress them, thus violating the fundamental principles underpinning the rule of law. Nationalism itself subsequently degenerated into tribal nationalism, evolving from a sense of loyalty to one’s country (a sentiment which, in Arendt’s view serves merely to justify centralisation, a need which, due to the fragmentation of society, became immediately apparent upon the birth of the nation-state) into a pretext for prevarication and brutality. The way was thus prepared for political decline and for the emergence of anti-democratic movements. It was, in fact, in precisely this phase that the first of these began to appear (imperialist and, especially, Pan-Germanic movements in German-speaking countries and Pan-Slavic ones in Russia) presenting ideologies which were to serve as a source of inspiration for patriotic totalitarian movements.[12]
Here, the weakness of this part of Arendt’s analysis — her failure to appreciate the link between the advent of Nazism and the crisis of the European system of states — becomes clear. More concerned with drawing a distinction between common forms of dictatorship and totalitarianism as such, and thus more predisposed to picking up on aspects common to Nazism and Stalinism than to recognising the different roots of the two phenomena, Arendt overlooks the fact that Nazism emerged in a Europe that was suffering a generalised crisis of democracy and witnessing the affirmation of dictatorial regimes in almost all its countries, a situation born of an objective contradiction which seemed to leave the European states no way forward, other than the fascist way, and which lies at the root of both Nazism and fascism.[13] This contradiction, which Arendt points out, but fails to probe, is that which existed between the pace of the evolution of the forces of production and the structure of the nation-state. The national markets, in fact, were no longer able to satisfy the requirements of production (unlike the United States which, thanks to its continental market, was already stronger than Europe economically), but in Europe, the economy was prevented, by the very nature of the system of states, from expanding to take on the continental dimensions needed. In fact, the “comity of European nations”, to use Arendt’s expression again, has never been characterised by “spontaneous solidarity and tacit understanding” among its members; on the contrary, it has always been a tension-ridden system that has produced, alternately, phases of equilibrium, and thus relative quiet, and phases of extreme tension, coinciding with the emergence of attempts to achieve hegemonic dominion of the continent. Colonialism and its political equivalent, imperialism, thus represented an attempt to get round the problem through a search for new economic outlets that would allow the State to survive while at the same time ignoring the deep contradiction caused by the radical evolution of the forces of production.
In this situation of impasse, the dramatic force of the new hegemonic challenge, originating from Germany, was unprecedented: the very existence of Europe’s states was at risk and all the resources of all the different countries had to be mobilised in order to face up to the threat.
The continuous escalation of tension caused by this situation, which rendered increasingly evident the structural inadequacy of the states, could not fail to lead to conflict. The First World War was the first instance of this, and it led to a dramatic acceleration of the process. It was the inevitable consequence of Germany’s desperate attempt to free itself from the shackles of the system of states in Europe in order to become the centre of a new world equilibrium.
Since it left untackled the basic problem of the inadequacy of the European system of states, the First World War, and the inevitable economic and social crisis that followed in its wake, paved the way for the rise of fascism. The structurally authoritarian institutions of Europe’s centralised states failed to deal with and absorb the growing social unrest, thus leaving the democratic institutions with very little support; this opened up the way for regimes which did have the capacity to impose, even through violence, an element of social order. And, as the crisis of the European system of states persisted, fascism emerged as the only possible way of ensuring the survival of the nation-state, as it was the only regime with the capacity to mobilise fully all the state’s resources and, thus, to prepare it for war. Autocracy, imperialism, xenophobia and, of course, despotism, were not degenerate expressions of nationalism, attributable to subjective policies, but simply exaggerated expressions of its characteristic traits, traits first appearing at the time of the French Revolution obscured initially by progressive elements and by the new-found freedom from the shackles of the Ancien Régime — and now brought to light by the objective contradictions which the nation-state itself had generated.
Nazism thus shares the same roots as fascism which, originating in Italy, became a model for the whole of Europe. Arendt insists, however, that Nazism (like Stalinism), since its goal is to achieve world dominion, has nothing to do with nationalism, and thus she fails to appreciate fully the tragic contradiction inherent in the principle of the nation which, always tied to the concept of exclusive sovereignty, can view enlargement only in terms of imperial dominion. Arendt, herself, draws attention to the incongruity of a nation-state which affirms universal values but applies them only within its own confines, and it is Arendt again who writes that the evolution of the nation-state towards totalitarianism is a danger that can be regarded as having always been inherent in the structure of the nation-state.[14] However, she is inconsistent on this point, even going so far as to state that “full national sovereignty was possible only as long as the comity of European nations existed; for it was this spirit of unorganized solidarity and agreement that prevented any government’s exercise of its full sovereign power”,[15] which is tantamount to saying that sovereignty represents a choice made freely by states and that it works only if it is not exercised to the full.
In fact, to appreciate the contradiction inherent in the principle of absolute sovereignty, it is necessary to bear in mind that it is superable: if, on the contrary, absolute sovereignty is considered immutable, then this point becomes impossible to understand. Although Arendt, for a short period following the war, believed in the idea of European unification, and despite writing, in the preface to the first edition of her book, of the need for “a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle, in a new law on earth, whose validity this time must comprehend the whole of humanity while its power must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly defined territorial entities”,[16] she soon abandoned these ideas as utopian and went back to viewing real politics as “different peoples getting along with each other in the full force of their power.”[17] Thus, she fails to appreciate that, in an increasingly interdependent world, it was precisely this need for “the full force of… power” which lay at the root of totalitarian madness. The degeneration into totalitarianism of the communist ideology, which aimed to favour the process of human emancipation, is rooted, as well as in traditions of despotism in the Asian mould which were very strong in Russia and in Asia generally, also in the pressure brought to bear by the need to achieve in the space of a generation the level of industrial development achieved in the rest of Europe over the course of an entire century; this pressure was due to the need to reach as quickly as possible, in a Europe which was heading inexorably for another war, “the full force of… power (an explanation which can also be applied to China, which aimed to achieve first regional and then global hegemony, and to Cambodia where nationalism was a crucial element in the pursuit of Pol Pot’s crazy political design). While none of these were inevitable developments, of course, they did represent an expression of the need, imposed by the balance of power among states, for a coherent power policy.
In addition to imperialism and the degeneration of nationalism, Arendt also sees ideologies as a root cause of totalitarianism. Totalitarian movements, and the regimes which they manage to establish, are based on a radical falsification of reality. To put it another way, they scorn and reject facts and refuse to consider reality, which they believe they can mould, ex novo, according to the laws of history or of nature of which they consider themselves the trustees, even believing that they have the capacity to transform human nature. Arendt even goes so far as to say, “the aggressiveness of totalitarianism springs not from lust for power, and if it feverishly seeks to expand, it does so neither for expansion’s sake, nor for profit, but only for ideological reasons: to make the world consistent, to prove that its respective supersense has been right”.[18]
Given that Arendt fails, as we have said, to see the connection between the drive towards imperialist expansion and the crisis of the European system of states, she is thus led to maintain that ideologies are largely to blame for this movement. “An ideology is quite literally what its name indicates: it is the logic of an idea. Its subject matter is history, to which the idea is applied… Ideologies are never interested in the miracle of being. They are historical, concerned with becoming and perishing, with the rise and fall of cultures, even if they try to explain history by some ‘law of nature’… To an ideology, history does not appear in the light of an idea (which would imply that history is seen sub specie of some ideal eternity which itself is beyond historical motion) but as something which can be calculated by it… The movement of history and the logical process of this motion are supposed to correspond to each other, so that whatever happens, happens according to the logic of one ‘idea’.”[19] And again, “Ideologies are harmless, uncritical and arbitrary opinions as long as they are not believed in seriously. Once their claim to total validity is taken literally, they become the nuclei of logical systems in which, as in the systems of paranoiacs, everything follows comprehensibly and even compulsorily once the first premise is accepted. The insanity of such systems lies not only in their first premise but in the very logicality with which they are constructed. The curious logicality of all isms, their simple-minded trust in the salvation value of stubborn devotion without regard for specific, varying factors, already harbors the first germs of totalitarian contempt for reality and factuality.”[20]
The ideologies that evolved in the 18th and 19th centuries can thus be considered to have paved the way for the acceptance of totalitarianism, and their “logical” apparatus to have provided instruments important in the definition of the totalitarian doctrine. Without denying in any way the fact that totalitarian movements and regimes are founded on a strong tendency to mystify themselves, on an extreme disdain for reality (which in turn contains the seeds of self-destruction as it makes it impossible to evaluate correctly the real conditions of success) and on a rigidly and axiomatically formulated doctrine (something which served really to motivate the masses and to mobilise them in the collective effort), it cannot, however, be denied that ideologies were something more than a simple attempt on the part of groups and movements to bend reality to their logic. First of all, it is necessary to distinguish between these ideologies on the basis of their underlying values, which may be universal values or values intended to create differences and divisions among men (in this regard, Arendt makes no distinction between the racist and the communist ideologies, considering them both tragically harmful); furthermore, like any conceptual instrument, they can be used more or less appropriately. Ideologies, per se, are theories which do not set out to describe reality, but which serve simply to provide the categories that allow it to be described. Reality is actually described on a concrete level through historical and sociological analysis.[21] To assess the degree to which an ideology is objective, or falsified, it is necessary to appreciate whether or not it sets out to make reality correspond to its own designs (this is the way totalitarian movements and regimes use ideology) or whether, as was the case in many liberal, democratic and even socialist and communist ideologies, it does nothing more than supply the criteria which provide the basis for an awareness of reality and for action. Historically, these three currents of thought have been important influences in the emancipation of the classes excluded from power within the State; they have provided the instruments allowing an understanding of the historical situation and the pinpointing of the political objectives that must be achieved. The elements of self-mystification that they contained can be attributed, above all, to the contradiction between the universal values which they invoked and the partiality of the pursuit of these values, always to the advantage of a section rather than the whole of the population. But in an era in which, for the first time, the overwhelming majority of the population, who had always existed on the outer edges of the life of the State, was being drawn into the political process, they became important instruments in the mobilisation of the different classes and factors contributing to great progress.
In conclusion, therefore, Arendt must certainly be praised for her successful analysis of totalitarianism as a category whose peculiarities have been identified on the basis of Nazism and Stalinism, two such vastly differing experiences; this is an achievement which allows her to isolate common and characteristic traits and to identify totalitarianism as an Idealtypus, different from other forms of dictatorship and qualitatively distinct from the forms of dominion already known. This is borne out by the fact that it is possible, on the basis of the categories which she outlines, to recognise the totalitarian regimes which subsequently emerged (such as that of China in the Cultural Revolution and Cambodia under Pol Pot) and to draw a distinction between these and the numerous other dictatorships that have taken hold all over the world; dictatorships which, while often more cruel as a result of the awareness of totalitarian precedents, are not for this reason to be grouped with them.
However, continuing to adopt this common perspective, also in her investigation of the origins of totalitarianism (in which she goes beyond the boundaries of a simple analysis of it as an Idealtypus), not only does Arendt fail to understand correctly the origins of Nazism (the misconceptions outlined earlier in this essay), she is also led to overlook the profound differences which separate the Nazi and communist experiences, particularly as regards the values on which they were based, and the different conditions from which they sprang and which determined their evolution and outcome. In fact, it is not possible, from a historical standpoint, to equate and evaluate in the same way the attempt to bring Europe under the control of a new race of masters and the attempt to realise the value of economic justice. Even though the manner in which this latter objective was pursued was erroneous, even though it quickly became mixed up with nationalistic impulses, even though it was based on theoretical presuppositions which turned out to be false, even though it gave rise to a totalitarian system, the fact remains that the Russian Revolution can also be attributed historically with affirming, albeit only partially, the value of economic justice, and it is also true that the socialist and communist ideologies have, wherever the State left room for democratic action, been instrumental in the emancipation of the working classes. While Nazism ended in self-destruction in the context of a world war, there has been an evolution and “de-totalitarianisation” of Stalinism, a fact which indicates not the different nature of the two so much as their different historical significance.
For those who wish to examine the link between the crisis of the European system of states and the causes that led Germany to establish a totalitarian regime rather than a simple dictatorship (and thus to turn the dream of restoring the great Reich into something so brutal and tragic), the analysis of Elias (who also explains why it is that totalitarianism emerged this century, and not earlier) is extremely useful.
Elias, in fact, points out that alongside certain traits peculiar to Nazism, there are others which are shared by the whole of our society: “just like scientifically conducted mass wars, the highly organized and scientifically planned extermination of whole population groups in specially constructed death-camps and sealed-off ghettos by starvation, gassing or shooting, does not appear to be entirely out of place in highly technicized mass societies”.[22]
While the process triggered industrialisation prompted major changes, and offered mankind scope for progress, it also brought great dangers: the dizzyingly rapid increase in man’s technological capacity goes hand in hand with an increase in his capacity for destruction; the involvement of all sections of the population in the life of the state, a condition essential for the realisation of democracy, brings with it the need for a “strong” common philosophy as the basis of support for the institutions, but the values towards which this philosophy is oriented are not necessarily universal ones, because while the new, mass society is democratised socially, it is not necessarily democratised politically. The State’s monopoly of which can serve to guarantee respect for the law and justice, can be accompanied by the risk of a strengthening of the bureaucratic apparatus, and of despotic control of the people. Progress, therefore, together with opportunity, has thus created the conditions and potential instruments for the establishment of total dominion. This is a danger that can manifest itself in concrete terms only if the existing political institutions prove unable to manage the deep contradictions which emerge, and only if no rational way forward can be seen; in these cases however, the flight from reality can take the form of a crazy design for total dominion, and the higher the level of civilisation is, the more absolute the negation of its values has to be.
According to Elias, the contradictions peculiar to Germany’s case can be understood in the light of both the German situation in the inter-war years and the characteristics of the process of the formation of the German State. It was a process strongly conditioned by the fragility of the Holy Roman Empire which, due to the vastness of its territory, was subject to strong centrifugal forces. As a result, while other European countries were becoming increasingly centralised, in the Holy Roman Empire, regional principles were gaining strength and the balance of power was tending to shift away from the emperor. This lack of integration proved to be a major weakness, inviting attempts at invasion on the part of neighbouring countries. The empire went through a long period of wars and invasions which left the German states impoverished not only materially, but culturally too, and led to the development of a strong inclination towards, and even a tendency to idealise military culture and practice. It must also be recalled that Germany was still firmly attached to a rigidly autocratic and authoritarian model of government which did not allow for the resolution of conflicts through mediation, treating these instead as insubordination against the established power.
None of these characteristics was changed by the mechanism which brought about the unification of Germany. Indeed, following the failure of the attempt at German unification of 1848, which can be seen as the incarnation of upper class aspirations for a democratisation of political life, unification when it did come, was achieved on a military basis, a fact which had, from the point of view of the questions under examination here, a number of implications. First of all, the new state sprang from a despotic power tradition and the German nationalism which subsequently developed was far removed from the ideals and the heroes of the democratic revolution (“the self-image of the nation as a ‘we-unit’ absorbed the association with an autocratic central power instead of, as in many other cases, shaking it off”[23])
Second, the bourgeoisie which, due to the backwardness of the small German states, had had no hope of gaining access to power prior to the unification, began to enter public life at a time in which the conditions were already maturing for the birth of a strong workers’ movement. The bourgeoisie, finding itself pressed between two social fronts, was, due to the autocratic nature of the new German state, obliged to integrate with the aristocracy against the emerging “fourth estate” (this actually applied only to those belonging to the highest levels of the bourgeoisie, with those belonging to its lower levels remaining excluded), adopting aristocratic inclinations and an aristocratic attitude to power. The upper middle class (the only class to be drawn into the governing of the country) thus adopted (with even greater inflexibility and fanaticism than that shown by the aristocracy) the militaristic mentality of German nobility (its belief in the cult of force and in rigid discipline and absolute obedience) and its identification of the State with the ruling class, tightly closed and incapable of incorporating the new emerging forces. The section of the bourgeoisie which remained attached to liberal and democratic ideals was thus left completely isolated and powerless within the context of a totally rigid political system.
A deep contradiction emerged between all this and the concurrent process of industrialisation that had been triggered by the unification of the State and was now bringing to the fore new economic forces which, representing the material basis of the country’s power, could not, without giving rise to other major contradictions, be kept indefinitely on the fringe of political life. There was, furthermore, also a major contradiction between all this, and the need for the involvement, and the mobilisation, of all levels of the population (a need which was emerging in all the European nation-states that had, through conscription, created vast armies, and which could not, as a result, fail to lead to a political awakening on the part of broad sections of the population).
With regard to this point, Elias points out how the nationalist ideology, necessary in order to mobilise the masses, and which, in the whole of Europe, had become a key element in the identity of each individual citizen (the people were made to assimilate the idea that, as individuals, they were subordinate to the needs of their country whose survival was the supreme value because on it depended the very meaning of the life of everyone of its members) became particularly exaggerated in Germany, where strong discipline and absolute adherence to national principles and ideals was demanded regardless of their correspondence with reality. And this development was due precisely to those peculiar aspects of the history of the formation of the German State which had formed the basis for the moulding of the collective mentality which we referred to earlier. The very name chosen for the new state is indicative of this: Second Reich indicates the dream of resurrecting, at the heart of Europe, a great German empire, a “continuation” of the great German empire of the Middle Ages. In short, Germany took as a model the one glorious period in its history, but this model was applied to such a vastly changed European context that it never had any real hope of succeeding; a highly self-mystified project, it was pursued with a determination and vigour heightened by the fact that it was never truly realistic. Present in all European states, this deliberate mystification of the nationalist ideology had, in Germany, due to the lack of any element of democracy in the country’s political practice, to the gap separating its ideals from its reality, and to the exclusively national, and even racial character of its objectives which embraced no element of universality, particularly negative implications.
In the light of this heritage, it is easy to understand the fragility of Weimar’s republic, and how the way was paved for the rise of Hitler. In Germany there existed neither a culture, nor a political practice compatible with a parliamentary system, based on mediation and flexibility. Instead, there were strong tensions generated by the inability to accept both military defeat and internal political changes, seen as impositions on the part of the winners; there was a sense of terror that a Bolshevic-type revolution might occur in Germany, and finally, there was the havoc wreaked by the economic crisis. Against this background, Hitler emerged as a leader with a design for the salvation of the humiliated might of Germany, and as the incarnation of the self-image, totally self-mystified, of the nation: “When a nation such as Germany, with a traditional inclination to an autocratic pattern of conscience and we-ideal which subjected the future to a dream-image of a greater past, became caught up, during a national crisis, in a dynamic of escalation in which, first of all, the ruling power elites and later wider social circles drove each other through mutual reinforcement to a radicalization of behaviour and beliefs and a progressive blocking of reality-perceptions, then there was an acute danger that the traditional autocratic traits would intensify into tyrannical harshness and that the fantasy-dominance, although previously moderate, would grow stronger and stronger.”[24]
National socialism, therefore, can be seen as the “modern” version of Germany’s great imperial dream, set in a “democratised” mass society in which a strong ideology, far removed from reality, was needed in order to offer every citizen a reason, and a cogent justification[25] for obeying blindly the leader of the nation, and in a European context in which any design to achieve hegemonic dominion of the continent was totally unrealistic and thus could be pursued only with the desperate and ferocious determination characteristic of those who no longer have anything to lose.[26]
Elias thus points out that totalitarianism was not an inevitable consequence either of the development of the German State, or of the conditions emerging following its defeat in the First World War, but just one possible consequence of these things. However, the fact that it was a possibility that was realised should prompt us to reflect deeply on the fragility of the process of civilisation and remind us that we should never, in the defence of it, lower our guard. When situations of acute crisis evolve, in whose face the institutions are clearly powerless, the alternatives open to us in our increasingly interdependent world, a world in which technology and development continue to augment the instruments of power, become ever more sharply defined. Either we find the solutions that will allow an enlargement of the sphere of democracy and man’s greater rational control over technology (that is, either we proceed along a path that will one day lead to the emergence of forms of government common to the whole of mankind), or the abysses of disintegration, dominion and possible barbarity will open up, ever wider. As Hannah Arendt points out, once a form of government has been an established fact, it can, after temporary historical defeat, always return. This should serve as a warning to all, but to Europe in particular — to a Europe which was spurred on, by the tragedy of Nazism, to begin the process of its unification and which, on the way, seems to be forgetting its historical responsibility to affirm, in the world, the revolutionary principle that is the overcoming of absolute sovereignty.
Luisa Trumellini

[1] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1966. Norbert Elias, The Germans, New York, Columbia University Press, 1996. This is the English translation of the collected essays, Studien über die Deutschen, published in Germany by Suhrkamp Verlag in 1989.
[2] N. Elias, op. cit., p. 1.
[3] H. Arendt, op. cit., pp. VII-VIII.
[4] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. 478.
[5] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. 364, see note.
[6] According to Arendt, the disregard of the totalitarian regime for law (including that originating from within), is the fruit of its claim to represent a higher form of legitimacy that stands above petty legality. It claims that it obeys faithfully the law of history, or of nature, (which is the true law) and applies the same directly to mankind, without the need to translate it into principles of right and wrong. Ultimately, this law, if correctly applied, will produce a mankind that can be regarded as its very incarnation.
Absolute terror is the instrument through which the regime gives real expression to the law of the historical process, or of nature (a law in perpetual motion which, unless it is to lose all meaning, can have no end, not even when a state of absolute dominion is reached). It serves to prevent spontaneous human action from getting in the way of the process, and to create a new mankind in which, for the greater good of the species, individuals are wiped out. Initially, this instrument of total terror can be mistaken for a symptom of tyrannical government as the totalitarian regime must behave like a tyranny initially in order to remove all the limits posed by the laws of men. Its real objective, however, is to create a cast-iron bond among individuals, a bond which unites them so closely that they lose their plurality and metamorphose into a single man of gigantic proportions.
Arendt’s reflections on the way the totalitarian regime breaks down the consensus iuris, which it considers superfluous, demonstrate how all forms of law are subordinate to political power. Law is a product of the State, which holds the monopoly of violence, and the law is the law only in so far as the institutions of the State are able to guarantee the extent to which it can be applied and will be respected. The content of a law is determined by the regime operating within a country and by the restrictions imposed on that country by the system of states of which it forms a part (think, for example, of the obligation, built into all national constitutions, to die and kill for one’s country). Wherever a state’s internal regime and the international equilibrium combine to give rise to a system of laws in which all human dignity is denied, then the struggle to overcome that regime cannot ever be carried forward using instruments of law, because unless they are enforced by the State, these instruments have no validity. The struggle becomes a political one — a quest to create the conditions by which a different international equilibrium can be established, and the regime overturned. This also means that the regime is not judged on the basis of legal, but political criteria. Politics is the art of winning, and then of managing power, with the aim of carrying forward the slow and difficult process that is the emancipation of mankind; and law is one of the most important political instruments. But condemnation of Hitler’s regime is based not on legal considerations, but on the awareness that his design was absolutely, totally, opposed to the process of human emancipation which tends towards peace, and equality and freedom among all men; the negation of the rule of law is just one, albeit extremely significant, indication of the barbarity of Nazism which, in a world of sovereign states, can be defeated through war (i.e., using another means in which the rule of law is negated) and only through war.
Equally, universal law may become a global reality only when it has become no longer necessary to impose the same through force and when, in the world federation, politics (and thus power) and law can finally come together. Until such a time, politics will continue to be the supreme channel through which events are assessed and responsibility apportioned.
[7] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. 456.
[8] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. 443.
[9] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. 459.
[10] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. 278.
[11] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. 126.
[12] It is in this context of affirmation and subsequent degeneration of the nation-state that the question of anti-Semitism also emerges, and Arendt reflects in great depth on this, asking why it was that “this seemingly small and unimportant Jewish problem… had the dubious honor of setting the whole infernal machine in motion”. (p.3) In fact, the condition of the Jews changed radically as a result of the strengthening of the nation-states and of the nation-state system in Europe. There was no longer room for them to live as a separate community (in fact, from a legislative point of view, they were rendered equal to the rest of the population — a move which guaranteed them equal rights, but also entailed their assimilation into society); there was no longer scope for their role as the sovereign’s financiers — the financial and fiscal system now guaranteed the state its income — or for the privileges attendant upon this role. On a political level, too, the Jews’ role as international mediators became untenable as the scope for diplomacy became increasingly restricted. In short, the Jews were targeted in a period in which they had become a futile and powerless community without a specific role to fulfil, a people who were, however, still “different” from the rest of the population, still identifiable by their Jewishness, a category which, having lost its political and religious significance, could only be judged on the basis of criteria of vice and virtue. This population, the most displaced throughout the course of world history, found itself stateless once again, at a time (the period following the First World War) when the refugee problem was exposing the limits of the nation-state, which was proving unable to restore to these masses without a homeland their dignity as citizens. Hatred of the Jews thus became a catalyst able easily to fire the mood of apolitical masses, frustrated and bowed by the economic crisis and needy of a new identity. The Jews provided the perfect instrument for defining, in negative terms, the new race that was being shaped as a means of salvation: as Hitler said, the Aryan is the opposite of the Jew.
[13] These reflections are developed further in the essay “Il Fascismo come ultima linea di difesa dello Stato nazionale”, by Francesco Rossolillo, Il Federalista, XIX (1977).
[14] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. 275.
[15] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. 278.
[16] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. IX.
[17] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. 142, see note.
[18] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. 458.
[19] H. Arendt, op. cit., p. 469.
[20] H. Arendt, op. cit., pp. 457-8.
[21] On the concept of ideology, see M. Albertini, ll federalismo, Bologna, Il Mulino, 1993, pp. 91-94.
[22] N. Elias, op. cit., p. 303.
[23] N. Elias, op. cit., p. 340.
[24] N. Elias, op. cit., p. 344.
[25] In a number of passages, Elias reminds us that the sense of authority inherited from the despotic regime, and the nationalist sense of subordination to the supreme good of one’s country, were strongly internalised in Germany, making it difficult for individuals to disobey what was presented as the only doctrine, and the only political hope of salvation. And idolisation of the leader was also a part of this mechanism.
[26] In Elias’s view, the Jewish question, too, fits into this framework: there existed no objective or utilitarian reason why the Jews should be exterminated. All the “rational” hypotheses that have been advanced, including the need for a scapegoat, the need to create “an enemy” do not in any way hold water. While it was of course easy for the Germans, like all oppressed peoples, to take out their frustration on someone weaker than themselves, taken in isolation, this explanation is deeply inadequate. The truth is, there is no explanation; it was just a demonstration of coherence with an ideology which, right from the start, had picked out the Jews as the main enemy of the Aryan race. The fact that the slaughter only began in 1939 is easy to explain: first, it was only whit the outbreak of war that Germany, no longer having to conceal its designs as it had done while preparing for war, was free to carry through its objectives. Second, only now was the organisation, in place to set in motion the colossal machine of deportation and mass extermination. Elias does not dwell upon just why the Jews were chosen as the object of the ideological hatred of National Socialism. See note 3 for Arendt’s analysis of this point.



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