I think this is the most challenging book I’ve ever finished. I don’t know how to describe it so I’m going to borrow Goodreads‘ blurb:
The Origins of Totalitarianism begins with the rise of anti-Semitism in central and western Europe in the 1800s and continues with an examination of European colonial imperialism from 1884 to the outbreak of World War I. Arendt explores the institutions and operations of totalitarian movements, focusing on the two genuine forms of totalitarian government in our time?Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?which she adroitly recognizes were two sides of the same coin, rather than opposing philosophies of Right and Left. From this vantage point, she discusses the evolution of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the nontotalitarian world, the use of terror, and the nature of isolation and loneliness as preconditions for total domination.
I don’t think I read this book the best way. If you are planning on reading it I’m highly recommending Kaelan’s review of the book. It’s on Goodreads and is quite helpful. I read this review when I was 50% through the book so I tried his tips throughout the rest of the book and it was quite helpful! They helped me understand the book better. I’m glad I have some historical knowledge of Europe in the 1800s and 1900s, if not I fear I would be at a total loss while reading this book. I’m not very educated in political history and political terms so sometimes I had to google things to make sure I was getting the right picture. I discovered quite quickly that if I read it very closely I was barely able to finish a chapter, so instead, I read it more as a total, taking with me the things I found most important. This is probably not the best way to read this book like I said, but it somehow worked semi-ok for me. From a personal perspective, I would highly recommend that you take personal notes while reading the book. It makes it easier for you to go back and look at things and also collect your thoughts if you are having a hard time understanding what Arendt is talking about, trust me I had a few of those episodes while reading the book. My seminar tutor says that if you understand an academic text fully the first time reading it then you’ve not read it properly. Well, no worries there, haha.
I decided to read this book for one of my classes since I’m writing an assessment of Arendt’s view on totalitarianism. I’m not regretting that decision, but like I said this was a hard one. First of all, the edition I read was from 1958, the original book was first published in 1951. This fact makes it quite interesting to read because she talks about things that can be related to today’s society. At a point in the book, she talks about people being stateless as a result of the first World War and how no nation wanted them. I came to the conclusion that this sounds quite similar to the refugee-situation we’ve had in Europe with people coming from Syria and the Middle-East in the last couple of years due to war in their own countries. Another thought I had was that the totalitarian regimes during the 1930s and 1940s resemble the regime of IS today. I’m fairly uneducated in the history of the Middle East, so my only reference point is the movie City of Ghosts, but I did see some resembling traits from the regime in the movie and those of the book.
Reading this book is a proper brain twister. It is tiring, but you do get a lot out of reading it if you understand at least some parts of it. It has given me a new perspective on several parts of the European history which I will look more closely at later on. I think Arendt is one of those authors who resembles your strictest teacher in the school; while you are there you don’t enjoy what they teach you, but later on, you realize how important it was that they kept up their strict ways because it made you more educated.
This book is worth a read. Especially if you are more educated in the areas mentioned than me and you want to learn more about the society in one of the most unstable periods of our time.
Genre: History, politics
Theme: Antisemitism, totalitarianism, politics, history
– The Book Reader