The Slide into Totalitarianism (Meditations on Hannah Arendt)

The Third Reich began in 1933, and the first concentration camp was created in Dachau to retain, torture, and enslave “undesirables.” While this was the beginning of the Nazi extermination machine, it didn’t ramp up in earnest until the 1940s. That is when the idea of orderly, mass extermination was finalized as an idea unto itself. Once begun, a system of confinement and cruelty only accelerates to its logical conclusion.

I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s great work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. While an American totalitarian government will not precisely mirror the organizations of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union under Stalin, there will be (and are) many commonalities.

The atomization of society

Social atomization preceded the totalitarian movements of the early 20th century, and it is certainly proceeding apace in the U.S. now. Americans are unlikely to know their neighbors, unlikely to attend public forums or take part in civic organizations, and the decline of church attendance has been well documented. Americans are living increasingly isolated lives, and we don’t know one another well.

Additionally, as our incomes fall, prices rise, and more and more Americans are working several jobs or “gigs” to keep up, if they can keep up at all, it is desirable and even profitable (for corporations) to escape into worlds of fantasy. When realism becomes painful, the mind tends to reject it. For those of you who wonder how Trump’s minions can’t see that the Emperor wears no clothes, Hannah Arendt writes:

In other words, while it is true that the masses are obsessed by a desire to escape from reality because in their essential homelessness they can no longer bear its accidental, incomprehensible aspects, it is also true that their longing for fiction has some connection with those capacities of the human mind whose structural consistency is superior to mere occurrence. The masses’ escape from reality is a verdict against the world in which they are forced to live and in which they cannot exist, since coincidence has become its supreme master and human beings need the constant transformation of chaotic and accidental conditions into a man-made pattern of relative consistency. The revolt of the masses against “realism,” common sense, and all “the plausibilities of the world” (Burke) was the result of their atomization, of their loss of social status along with which they lost the whole sector of communal relationships in whose framework common sense makes sense. In their situation of spiritual and social homelessness, a measured insight into the interdependence of the arbitrary and the planned, the accidental and the necessary, could no longer operate. Totalitarian propaganda can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity. Before the alternative of facing the anarchic growth and total arbitrariness of decay or bowing down before the most rigid, fantastically fictitious consistency of an ideology, the masses probably will always choose the latter and be ready to pay for it with individual sacrifices — and this not because they are stupid or wicked, but because in the general disaster this escape grants them a minimum of self-respect.

Lying and propaganda

In an atomized society like ours, there is an overwhelming need to belong somewhere. Groups, cliques, gangs, political parties, Star Trek aficionados, anything to feel accepted and, most of all, important. Arendt compares totalitarian movements with secret societies:

Secret societies also form hierarchies according to degrees of “initiation,” regulate the life of their members according to a secret and fictitious assumption which makes everything look as though it were something else, adopt a strategy of consistent lying to deceive the noninitiated external masses, demand unquestioning obedience from their members who are held together by allegiance to a frequently unknown and always mysterious leader, who himself is surrounded, or supposed to be surrounded, by a small group of initiated who in turn are surrounded by the half-initiated who form a “buffer area” against the hostile profane world.

What better way to feel more important than by being “in on the secret?” What’s important to these kinds of movements is that there is a sense of brotherhood, of being in the know, of being above the mere masses. Once accepted into the group, it doesn’t really matter if the agenda changes daily. To keep the uninitiated in line, however, requires lying, and lots of it:

The propaganda of the totalitarian movement also serves to emancipate thought from experience and reality; it always strives to inject a secret meaning into every public, tangible event and to suspect a secret intent behind every public political act.

One of the important differences between a totalitarian movement and a totalitarian state is that the totalitarian dictator can and must practice the totalitarian art of lying more consistently and on a larger scale than the leader of a movement.

Statelessness and human rights

A result of WWI was that, with the redrawing of borders and creation of new states, a number of minorities were effectively made stateless. That is, they were not considered to be citizens of any state, regardless of where they lived. It also meant that “these persons had lost the protection of their government and required international agreements for safeguarding their legal status.” In other words, no citizenship, no rights. As a result:

The stateless person, without right to residence and without the right to work, had of course constantly to transgress the law. He was liable to jail sentences without ever committing a crime.

This sums up the situation of all undocumented or “illegal” immigrants in this country, which makes every act of theirs a potentially criminal one. The rights endowed by citizenship in a nation are, nominally, equally applied, but statelessness puts entire groups of people into a black hole in which they have no rights and can be easily abused by persons in authority.

The stateless people were as convinced as the minorities that loss of national rights was identical ·with loss of human rights, that the former inevitably entailed the latter.

Of course, national rights are not exactly guaranteed, even to citizens. Marginalized groups are still fighting for equal protection before the law, and many gains are grudgingly given. Today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been busily rolling back as many civil rights as he possibly can, with the goal of returning to the days when undesirables were trodden under foot, terrorized, or hanged.

For the nation-state cannot exist once its principle of equality before the law has broken down. Without this legal equality, which originally was destined to replace the older laws and orders of the feudal society, the nation dissolves into an anarchic mass of over- and underprivileged individuals. Laws that are not equal for all revert to rights and privileges, something contradictory to the very nature of nation-states. The clearer the proof of their inability to treat stateless people as legal persons and the greater the extension of arbitrary rule by police decree, the more difficult it is for states to resist the temptation to deprive all citizens of legal status and rule them with an omnipotent police.

If a totalitarian regime wants to dispense with a group of people, it simply revokes citizenship from the group: “one need only remember the extreme care of the Nazis, who insisted that all Jews of non-German nationality ‘should be deprived of their citizenship either prior to, or, at the latest, on the day of deportation.’”

In the U.S., we tend to think of citizenship as a stable, immutable thing, because our Constitution guarantees this right. But already, naturalized citizens are having their citizenship revoked or are being deported without going to that length at all.

Lest you put too much faith in our Constitution to protect you, know that its protection is only as good as the people backing it up:

In the early years of their power the Nazis let loose an avalanche of laws and decrees, but they never bothered to abolish officially the Weimar constitution; they even left the civil services more or less intact-a fact which induced many native and foreign observers to hope for restraint of the party and for rapid normalization of the new regime. But when with the issuance of the Nuremberg Laws this development had come to an end, it turned out that the Nazis themselves showed no concern whatsoever about their own legislation. Rather, there was “only the constant going ahead on the road toward ever-new fields,” so that finally the “purpose and scope of the secret state police” as well as of all other state or party institutions created by the Nazis could “in no manner be covered by the laws and regulations issued for them.” In practice, this permanent state of lawlessness found expression in the fact that “a number of valid regulations [were] no longer made public.”

Dehumanization and silencing of undesirable groups

First the assertion, then the response. Then another, similar assertion. Rapists. Thugs. Animals. Murderers. “Infesting.” How far will it go? As far as the public will stand for it. Disapproving words are empty.

Even the Nazis started their extermination of Jews by first depriving them of all legal status (the status of second-class citizenship) and cutting them off from the world of the living by herding them into ghettos and concentration camps; and before they set the gas chambers into motion they had carefully tested the ground and found out to their satisfaction that no country would claim these people. The point is that a condition of complete rightlessness was created before the right to live was challenged.

Once relegated to second-class citizenship or statelessness, your political voice is extinguished. You have no rights. You are deemed unworthy to be heard or complain. Eventually, many citizens may come to agree that you are unworthy to be heard. And there is nothing you can do to change your state within the framework of the nation.

The fundamental deprivation of human rights is manifested first and above all in the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective. Something much more fundamental than freedom and justice, which are rights of citizens, is at stake when belonging to the community into which one is born is no longer a matter of course and not belonging no longer a matter of choice, or when one is placed in a situation where, unless he commits a crime, his treatment by others does not depend on what he does or does not do. This extremity, and nothing else, is the situation of people deprived of human rights.

State police

What function do our police officers serve? Are they there to enforce the law? Which ones? Historically, the police force in any country served to do two things: 1) protect the property of the rich, and 2) enforce the status quo. Ours is no different. While many officers do brave and wonderful things, that effect is almost a happy accident: it’s not really what they’re for, but it makes us happy when they do it.

One of the ways that the Nazi organization kept moving was by creating concentric layers of bureaucracy, which often overlapped and duplicated effort. The inner layer was formed of “the elite,” while outer layers were filled with sympathizers or those who aspired to the elite. This was a moving target, which required more and more “inner circles” to be created. The outer layers served as the public face of the movement.

The U.S. already has several layers of policing, including the CIA and the FBI, who are as likely to spy on (or kill) American citizens as anyone else. The NSA serves the overlapping function of spying on, well, everyone. The National Guard has been called upon to fire on U.S. citizens on more than one occasion (whether protesting or striking). Until fairly recently, the police force was a more banal face of law enforcement. But as departments acquire more and more military equipment, that is changing. It is not uncommon to see police officers in our cities looking more like professional soldiers, with heavy armor and hi-tech weaponry. It is becoming increasingly obvious that they are at war, and we are the enemy.

The task of the totalitarian police is not to discover crimes, but to be on hand when the government decides to arrest a certain category of the population.

Constant instability

Societies thrive when things are stable: the economy, the government, our environment. But if your goal is total domination, stability is not necessarily your friend. Stalin maintained a never-ending whirligig of instability, which kept his enemies — and everyone else — off balance, all the time. Frequent purges meant that younger, more malleable people could be brought into the organizations, while the older workers could be dispensed of in the gulag.

…both Hitler and Stalin held out promises of stability in order to hide their intention of creating a state of permanent instability.

Trump’s method of governing by constant chaos echoes the older regimes, and to a large extent, it works. He distracts us with trivialities from the truly important issues at hand, and we spend half our time gaping at each other and saying, “Did he just say/do/tweet that?” We are so psychologically off balance that getting through the news cycle of a single day with our sanity intact feels like an accomplishment.

Instability is also exhausting. Not only are we experiencing Trump’s instability, but most of our citizenry are struggling to make ends meet, keep up with our jobs, and manage our health, assuming we even have that option. We were unstable before Trump, and now we’re reeling.

The constant churn, from the totalitarian’s perspective, also serves to radicalize the party (or the base) further. Out with the somewhat moderate Spicer, Priebus, or Tillerson; in with John Bolton and Mike Pompeo. The ideology grows and hardens, purging believers in name only, and adding more strident voices, like layers of a pearl:

This constant radicalization of the principle of racial selection can be found in all phases of Nazi policy. Thus, the first to be exterminated were the full Jews, to be followed by those who were half Jewish and one-quarter Jewish; or first the insane, to be followed by the incurably sick and, eventually, by all families in which there were any “incurably sick.” The “selection which can never stand still” did not stop before the SS itself, either. A Fuehrer decree dated May 19, 1943, ordered that all men who were bound to foreigners by family ties, marriage or friendship were to be eliminated from state, party, Wehrmacht and economy; this affected 1,200 SS leaders.

Concentration camps

The United States has concentration camps. This is now a fact. It could be argued that our tremendously large prison system, which houses more people of color as a percentage of the population than white folks, is also a form of “camp,” but I’ll let that go for right now. We are putting brown Spanish-speakers in cells. They can’t leave. They have no rights. They have no voice.

It is not so much the barbed wire as the skillfully manufactured unreality of those whom it fences in that provokes such enormous cruelties and ultimately makes extermination look like a perfectly normal measure. Everything that was done in the camps is known to us from the world of perverse, malignant fantasies. The difficult thing to understand is that, like such fantasies, these gruesome crimes took place in a phantom world, which, however, has materialized, as it were, into a world which is complete with all sensual data of reality but lacks that structure of consequence and responsibility without which reality remains for us a mass of incomprehensible data. The result is that a place has been established where men can be tortured and slaughtered, and yet neither the tormentors nor the tormented, and least of all the outsider, can be aware that what is happening is anything more than a cruel game or an absurd dream.

The dreamlike quality of all this, the unbelieving thought that, “no, this can’t be really happening; it couldn’t happen,” helps the totalitarian seize control while the doubting population resorts to fantasies and reassuring lies. After all, for most sane people, the idea of rounding up entire groups of people, gassing them, and then burning the corpses in ovens is a crazy idea. But now we know better.

Well — some of us do. The “Holocaust deniers” have a long history, and the Internet is full of ignorance and hate that ignores the stories of the survivors. Apparently, this started early. Arendt writes:

There are numerous reports by survivors. The more authentic they are, the less they attempt to communicate things that evade human understanding and human experience-sufferings, that is, that transform men into “uncomplaining animals.” None of these reports inspires those passions of outrage and sympathy through which men have always been mobilized for justice. On the contrary, anyone speaking or writing about concentration camps is still regarded as suspect; and if the speaker has resolutely returned to the world of the living, he himself is often assailed by doubts with regard to his own truthfulness, as though he had mistaken a nightmare for reality.

This doubt of people concerning themselves and the reality of their own experience only reveals what the Nazis have always known: that men determined to commit crimes will find it expedient to organize them on the vastest, most improbable scale. Not only because this renders all punishments provided by the legal system inadequate and absurd; but because the very immensity of the crimes guarantees that the murderers who proclaim their innocence with all manner of lies will be more readily believed than the victims who tell the truth. The Nazis did not even consider it necessary to keep this discovery to themselves. Hitler circulated millions of copies of his book in which he stated that to be successful, a lie must be enormous — which did not prevent people from believing him as, similarly, the Nazis’ proclamations, repeated ad nauseam, that the Jews would be exterminated like bedbugs (i.e., with poison gas), prevented anybody from not believing them.

Many of the modern neoNazis are self-radicalized. That is, they find misinformation online and, for whatever reason, feel the need to belong to this new “secret society” of believers. The only cure for lies is the truth. We are currently listening, as a family, to Survivors Club: The True Story of a Very Young Survivor of Auschwitz, by Michael Bornstein. I want my children to understand what happened and why. To be a force for good in this world. In the preface of the book, Mr. Bornstein says that he was motivated to set down his account after finding his very famous picture (days after he was freed from Auschwitz) on an Internet page that claimed that his photo was “proof” that children were not systematically killed in the camps.

Unfortunately, many of these survivors are dying, so they can’t speak further to the atrocities of totalitarian regimes. I know this is depressing. I don’t want to have to fight fascists again. You don’t want to have to fight fascists again. But the signs are everywhere, and we can’t just give up and hide. Let us stand together.

Photo of Michael Bornstein a few days after the Russians freed the camp. It is also the cover of his book.

Writer, painter, cat fancier, troublemaker, democratic socialist, & antifascist.