Islamic terrorism is the new totalitarianism. At least that’s the impression one gets from some Western commentators these days. In “Terror and Liberalism,” Paul Berman invoked totalitarianism in order to explain the strikingly modern ideology of Islamism. Joschka Fischer, then Germany’s foreign minister, spoke of a “third totalitarianism.” This past February, Salman Rushdie, Bernard-Henri Lévy and others published a statement calling radical Islam “a new totalitarian global threat.” And last month, President Bush said that today’s Islamic terrorists are “successors to fascists, to Nazis, to communists and other totalitarians of the 20th century.”
The ongoing post-9/11 resurrection of the term totalitarianism coincides with the centennial this month of the political theorist who thought most deeply about it. Who better than Hannah Arendt to help us say whether such language can meaningfully illuminate the new dispensation?
Arendt, who was born in Hannover, Germany, in 1906 and died in New York in 1975, seldom shied away from engaging — or igniting — political controversy. One example is her views on Zionism. She had worked for a Youth Aliyah group and had delivered a critique of assimilation in her book on a 19th-century German Jew named Rahel Varnhagen. But Arendt called Zionism an “obsolete” form of nationalism which endeavored “to compromise with the most evil forces of our time by taking advantage of imperialist interests.”
Even more controversial was “Eichmann in Jerusalem” (1963), her report on the Israeli trial of the former high-level Nazi whom she portrayed as a banal, thoughtless bureaucrat. She claimed there that “to
a truly extraordinary degree,” the Nazis had received Jewish cooperation in carrying out their genocidal plans, and that without this cooperation the number of Jewish victims hardly would have been as high as it was. Typical of the reaction was that of Philip Rahv, founding co-editor of Partisan Review: “I think the goyim will be delighted to discover that the millions of Jews the Nazis murdered are at least partly responsible for their own deaths.”
Yet, Arendt’s most enduring legacy — and the one most relevant to today’s debates — is her 1951 book “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” where her genius in conceptualizing the unfamiliar burns brightest. Wrestling with the most destructive forces of the 20th century, she concludes that despite their outward differences, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union were in profound ways inwardly similar. They belonged to an utterly new, totalitarian type of regime that could not be explained by any of Montesquieu’s 200-year-old categories — republic, monarchy, despotism. As a refugee from Nazi terror who fled to America (by way of Paris and the Gurs internment camp) in 1941, she knew whereof she spoke.
Arendt’s theory of totalitarianism gained political currency almost immediately. As former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz said, Arendt “had perhaps done more than any single writer to establish the moral equivalence between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, thereby supplying the theoretical basis not only for hard anti-Communism but also for exactly the kind of resistance to Communist expansion the U.S. was mounting through the policy of containment.” So are Arendt’s views as relevant to the War on Terror as they once were to the Cold War? In a new book, “Why Arendt Matters” (Yale University Press), Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, suggests that Arendt’s views are indeed relevant, but not in the way we might expect. She contends that Arendt would be troubled by totalitarian temptations within America no less than in militant Islam. In what Young-Bruehl calls America’s “unthinking” reaction to 9/11, the nation “became, overnight, militarized,” the administration started detaining suspected terrorists in “state-sanctioned torture centers,” and “the secret services began to operate like a shadow government, that is, in ways that Arendt had identified as proto-totalitarian.” For much of this, Young-Bruehl blames the “cadre of neoconservatives,” adding that anti-Communists of Podhoretz’s stripe “distorted and exploited” Arendt’s views. “Victory for democracy over totalitarianism, they held, justified any means for promoting democracy — including totalitarian means.”
But in flattening Arendt’s nuanced arguments into a kind of shrill op-ed, Young-Bruehl lets her contempt for Bush and the neocons obscure Arendt’s essential distinction between those who imperfectly guarantee freedoms and those fundamentally dedicated to destroying them. As a result, she takes the latter with less than adequate seriousness.
Another writer who addresses Arendt’s contemporary relevance corrects this mistake. In her introduction to the latest edition of “The Origins of Totalitarianism” (Schocken), Harvard’s Samantha Power writes: “As one disgusted by the convenient patience and wishful thinking of European statesmen before and during the Holocaust, Arendt would undoubtedly urge us to eschew our ‘common-sense disinclination to believe the monstrous’ and make all necessary sacrifices to guard against chemical attacks, dirty bombs, and other atrocities that our imaginations can hardly dare to broach.”
But I think that Arendt matters in a deeper way, too. It is true that Islamism has not created concentration camps, those “holes of oblivion” that were for Arendt the defining features and the laboratories of totalitarianism. And although Berman may be right to claim an underlying identity of state tyranny and nonstate terrorism, it is also true that Al Qaeda terrorists, for instance, do not control a state apparatus — despite their aspiration to form a global sharia-based caliphate.
Still, Arendt predicted that totalitarian tendencies will survive the death of the era of totalitarian states. Arendt’s lens thus helps us see more clearly how the new jihadism bears the mark of those tendencies by bringing some of the telltale signs into sharper focus: the totalistic Islamic worldview that reaches into every facet of life, demanding from the individual total loyalty and achieving over him total domination; the retreat from the anxieties of modernity into an idealized, heroic past; the masses who feel themselves the outcasts of globalization; the contempt for the “decadence” of the West; the obsessive antisemitism that was also intrinsic to both Nazism and communism (hence the widespread dissemination in the Arab world of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”); the fetishized violence spread by the shahids; the pan-Arabist echoes of the pan-German and pan-Slav movements that Arendt saw as preludes to full-blown totalitarianism; the antidemocratic denial of human plurality; the desire for limitless expansion and global domination; and the notion of a united, supranational umma where once there was a racial volk or worldwide proletariat. Each of these is what Arendt called a “catalytic agent” for totalitarianism. Yet the most important element of the totalitarian impulse past and present is the will to annihilate human freedom, to surrender it to the march of historically irresistible forces. This takes us to perhaps the deepest lesson to be gleaned from the investigations that Arendt conducted into “the grammar of political action.” She insisted that the possibility of political freedom — not the same thing as an individual’s freedom from politics — is universal. Quoting Sophocles’s suggestion that freedom can “endow life with splendor,” Arendt called freedom the raison d’être of politics. The highest political action, she thought, is free speech in public about public affairs.
Hence Arendt’s lofty regard for the wisdom of the American Revolution — and her fear that contemporary Americans are in danger of forgetting it. For such people as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, she wrote, “life in Congress, the joys of discourse, of legislation, of transacting business, of persuading and being persuaded, were… a foretaste of eternal bliss.” A sophisticated indulgence of those joys and freedoms — together with an awareness of the urgent necessity to protect them where they are threatened — may be just the thing to counter the bleak vision of eternal bliss that animates today’s would-be totalitarians.
Benjamin Balint is a library fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.