“Stalin trusted only one man and that was Hitler.” This axiom exemplifies Hannah Arendt’s conception of Soviet domination. The USSR was equivalent to the Nazi state when it came to political persecution and mass killings. For Stalin, only a man who rose to unrivaled supremacy through the direct employment of violence or its universal threat—Adolf Hitler—could truly be his peer.
Such a statement was certainly uncommon in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, when Hannah Arendt wrote and published her most famous work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The political philosopher, born in Hanover in 1906 to a German Jewish family and an outstanding student of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, had every reason to be especially attentive to the horrors of Nazism, which had forced her to flee Germany and then Europe, and which had killed and silenced many of her friends. But in the postwar years she nevertheless quickly understood that the USSR was a threat of equal scope.
The Origins of Totalitarianism has the dual aim of illustrating Nazism’s devastating deeds while attacking the other regime whose atrocities Arendt believed were equal to Hitler’s. Without necessarily aiming to design a US Cold War foreign policy agenda, she was certainly advocating for a strong stand against Soviet totalitarianism. For that, she needed to forcefully demonstrate the similarities between Hitler and Stalin. When Stalin looked at the ruthless, iron-fisted despot in Germany, said Arendt, he saw an equal.
He emulated the Nazi example by intentionally creating an atomized society, something that the NSDAP had found already into existence. To accomplish this aim, Stalin first dissolved any remaining participatory meaning in the word Soviet—“council”—derived from the revolutionary experiences of 1905 and early 1917, which had more to do with citizenship and democracy than with communism, as Arendt would argue in On Revolution.
To cow property-owning classes like the urban middle class and peasants, Stalin conducted massive purges, created concentration and forced-labor camps, and provoked shortages that would eventually lead to great famines, like Holodomor in Ukraine. All this made clear to the middle class of the USSR that they could rely on no group solidarity, that each and every one of them was a vulnerable individual, easily dominated by an overwhelming state and by its supreme and unquestioned leader.
Stalin subjugated the workers by implementing forced-labor conditions in factories and packing the bureaucracy with loyalists. Passports were required to enter or exit a city. This guaranteed that Soviet civil society ceased to exist, leaving all persons to be monitored by the State and at the same time by one another.
In the complex system of mutual denunciations in the Soviet Union, fear corroded all social relationships, even the closest. Arendt highlights the efficiency and surprising speed with which a web of social relations could be destroyed when an individual’s survival was threatened. Friendships and blood-ties melted away before the threat of denunciation. Even children were brainwashed into believing that the supreme leader was wiser and better than their own untrustworthy parents. This is the definition of totalitarian terror—a system that harasses and encircles not only political opponents, as in a dictatorship, but harmless citizens as well.
Stalin’s most efficient method of thwarting Soviet civil and political society was undoubtedly the purges. Judicially speaking, not only did the accused bear the burden of proof but, as Arendt adds, this was joined to the principle of guilt by association.
“As soon as a man is accused, his former friends are transformed immediately into his bitterest enemies; in order to save their own skins, they volunteer information and rush in with denunciations to corroborate the nonexistent evidence against him; this obviously is the only way to prove their own trustworthiness. Retrospectively, they will try to prove that their acquaintance or friendship with the accused was only a pretext for spying on him and revealing him as a saboteur, a Trotskyite, a foreign spy, or a Fascist.”
The combination of repression, isolation, the rejection of friends and family, and threats against these same led the accused to “confess” their crimes—thus the high rate of “self-confessed” criminals in the Soviet Union. Arendt concluded: “In the last analysis, it has been through the development of this device to its farthest and most fantastic extremes that Bolshevik rulers have succeeded in creating an atomized and individualized society the like of which we have never seen before and which events or catastrophes alone would hardly have brought about.”
The Soviets’ repressive methods also aimed to sustain ideological coherence over time. For example, by identifying his victims as “dying classes,” Stalin simultaneously justified his tactics by using Marxist ideology and gave the impression that Marxism was triumphing in its world struggle, as evidenced by the steady flow of dying members of the bourgeoisie. Stalin was also proving to the world that his ability as a statesman was also joined by his talent as an effective forecaster. As Arendt saw it, nothing happened but what had been previously predicted. Totalitarian leaders enforce their rule not only over a determined territory and population, but over time itself.
In this respect the dictator is the infallible interpreter of the ruling ideology. In the case of the USSR this was communism and class struggle. Etymologically, “ideology” means the logic that can be developed from a set of ideas, and so for Arendt any ideology has totalitarian potential. The sheer force of syllogism is what scares Arendt the most. In Arendt’s perspective, communism and Nazism as ideologies are not inherently more murderous than other ideologies; what differentiates them is their implementation, the amazing degree of political domination and social subjugation they achieved.
Consider, for example, the ease with which Stalin or Hitler could make anything suit their patterns of thinking. Ideologies aim to offer a total explanation of any event, process, or subject; but achieving that versatility requires dramatically reducing the core substance that inspired them in the first place. Everything can be interpreted as either pro- or anti-communist, depending on the circumstances. This margin of elasticity is of capital importance for repressive and political purposes. Stalin’s pragmatism and absence of links with the USSR ideologues like Trotsky are recognized by Arendt:
“Just as the danger of a military dictatorship arises when the army no longer serves but wants to dominate the body politic, so the danger of totalitarianism arises when the conspiratory sector of a revolutionary party emancipates itself from the control of the party and aspires to leadership. This is what happened to the Communist parties under the Stalin regime. Stalin’s methods were always typical of a man who came from the conspiratory sector of the party: his devotion to detail, his emphasis on the personal side of politics, his ruthlessness in the use and liquidation of comrades and friends.”
Through force of charisma or sheer repressive power, the totalitarian dictator rises to the status of an adored, paternal leader. The destabilization of civil society through purges and gulags creates a state of uncertainty that justifies his awesome power. Hence Soviet communism never sought the comfort and wellbeing of its citizens, despite professing to do so, but was in place to increase the leader’s power by pursuing a campaign of global domination and supremacy. For Arendt, this goal must never be achieved if the world is still to be a place worth living in. The Origins of Totalitarianism was a call to wake her readers to this danger.