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Totalitarianism then and now

IDEOLOGY / By agreeing on a suitable 'enemy', a disintegrated society finds coherence, energy and meaning. A totalitarian propaganda has led to the conclusion that Ukraine will now be allowed to use F-16 jets against the nuclear power Russia – with the major consequences this may entail.


Is it possible to see a deeper totalitarianism or ideology behind the grand politics of our time
alignment – ​​especially regarding the escalating war in Ukraine?

Let me try – both based on Hannah Arendt's great work The Origin of Totalitarianism from 1951 and today with the book The Psychology of Totalitarianism (by Mattias Desmet, Chelsea Green Publishing, London, 2022).

The year before Arendt dies in 1975, she comments on the totalitarianism book she wrote about 25 years earlier. Here she points out in an interview with The New York Review that totalitarianism can arise where people have a contempt for the situation they are in, indifference, great frustration, or where they no longer know what they can believe in – where almost anything could be better. One wants change. Totalitarian leaders take advantage of this by organizing the frustrated, and articulate a ideology, a 'fiction' that promises a change towards something 'better'.

"No matter what he does, and if he's killed 10 million, he's still a clown."

Similarly, Arendt wrote in 1951 how Hitler made most people believe the fiction that 'the conspiracy of the Jewish elite' was to blame – as well as from nature that all who were not 'fit to live' had to be exterminated. And further east, Stalin managed to convince most people that the oppressive bourgeois class had to be wiped out, as 'a dying class' from a historic must.

But in 1974 comments Arendt also how preoccupied we really are with such totalitarian leaders as Hitler og Stalin. (Ask yourself here along the way why the world is so oriented towards individuals such as Putin, Biden or Zelenskyj.) Arendt had in the meantime written the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). The intention of this new book was to dissolve the meaning of such evil or demonic legends – as well as the awe of 'great' men. The interesting thing is that in this interview she responds by referring to Bertolt Brecht, who said that big political criminals had to avkles, and is confronted with laughter. Indeed, Hitler was first referred to in Germany as an idiot – but when he came to power, large books were written about him. Brecht mentions that, despite Hitler's extensive activities, he was not a great personality – the evil lay more in the consequences he opened up to. According to Arendt, 'greatness' should rarely be used.

But then comes the most interesting part, where she again refers Brecht, who wrote: "If the ruling classes allow a petty criminal to become a big crook, that does not entitle him to a privileged position in history. […] that what he has done has major consequences does not make him more significant.” And further Brecht said: "One can say that tragedy deals with the suffering of humanity in a less serious way than the comedy» (my emphasis). Arendt believes he is right, and adds: "No matter what he does, and if he has killed 10 million, he is still a clown."

Fear and most people

But what is it that causes people to be seduced by such leaders to commit monstrous acts?

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza wondered as early as 1670 about "what could lead the masses to advocate undisguised tyrannies". Yes, who really cared that Hitler himself wrote in Mein Kampf that only the lie was big enough... He probably understood what Spinoza called the 'passive affects' of the masses – such as fear, hatred, anxiety and vindictiveness. Fear is what the media lives on. Hatred of others is what politicians use when they create enemy images. Vengeance can live for generations. But what about the anxiety?

Mattias Desmet describes in The Psychology of Totalitarianism how present anxiety is today, where he refers to the World Health Organization (WHO, see also pages 10–12) which, according to him, has reported that one in five today suffers from anxiety disorders. He also substantiates this with today's widespread drug abuse, or the example where Belgium's 11 million inhabitants use 300 million doses of antidepressant medication annually. Desmet adds that "people are troubled by loneliness, loss of meaning, indefinable anxiety and anxieties and generally feel irritable, frustrated and/or aggressive, and search for something to vent these feelings against". He also refers to a tripling of racist and threatening language on social media between 2015 and 2020.

By agreeing on a suitable 'enemy', a disintegrated society finds coherence, energy and meaning. The fight against the enemy, against whom the anxiety is directed, becomes a mission or task charged with pathos and heroes. Today this could be 'USA' or 'Putin'.

At the same time, Arendt describes something profound: totalitarian movements allow most people to lose their identity – their individuality, their self, and they are often labeled and treated as 'superfluous' and identityless. For example like this concentration campone reduces everyone's ability to think, experience and assess. She mentions how many walked unopposed into the gas chambers. And where suicide almost only happened before arriving at the camp.



The leaders who know how to make use of the people's frustration, even if such 'leaders' are some comic figures, create it the ideology most people can be driven by – as the new zeitgeist or myth of the times. As Arendt wrote in 1951, they will thus no longer distinguish between what is fact and fiction, true and false – yes, just think how fake news today adds to this confusion.

Within totalitarian ideology contradictory facts are not accepted – 'dissidents' are quickly removed. As in today's China, where a stand-up comedian's little ridicule of the 'honourable' military was not tolerated – he was quickly fired, and the company was sued for around NOK 20 million by the state.

With ideology, all the lonely and possibly 'self-lost' in modern 'atomic' societies are given an identity. In this way, the illusion becomes more important than reality for most people. And ideology holds logiwhich means that if you have said A, you have to say B, etc. – this alignment does not accept compromises or diplomacy. According to Arendt, one is obsessed with winning.

Like the West with Zelensky today to 'win' over Russia, a nuclear power with a population four to five times larger than today's Ukraine? Yes, whatever the cost – what if an escalation leads to a nuclear war in which an estimated 3 billion people die?


We are then talking about larger totals than the terror regimes in the past. For example Stalins war against Ukraine in the early 30s where between 12 and 21 million died – according to Arendt, it was assumed that 8 million were exterminated just in one year. But what about before Stalin? According to Desmet's book, Tsarist Russia executed around 17 people a year, which the Russian revolutionaries thought was scandalous – they tried to abolish death penaltyone. But what happened after the revolution in 1917? 540 annual executions were then recorded, which then increased until, for example, 1937, when 600 were executed. A totalitarian regime proved more effective at the time...

Totalizing ideology is also used by Putin's Russia – although Stalin's brutality against his own citizens was of a different nature. Nevertheless. One can agree with the Norwegians here NUPI (seminar 16 June), which mentions the Kremlin's "ideological ecosystems" and how the military sphere has exploded with "the shaping of the new state ideology". But now it is probably not only Russia that imprisons its own critics, so-called foreign agents, and uses totalitarian propaganda. Ukraine also uses ideology as a weapon, as they both 'exclude' or kill those who think differently, throw parties out of parliament, seduce the West with its new experienced 'actor' – and promote a fascist ideology.

Propaganda and prophecy

In the 703-page book, Arendt mentions how totalitarianism uses terror and propaganda to establish the 'movement' in people's minds. In the chapter "Totalitarian Propaganda", she describes how terror without propaganda will lose its psychological effect, and propaganda without terror will lose some of its power. She mentions that the masses must be won over through propaganda – as only the mob and the elites are initially convinced.

Totalitarian propaganda also consists of the leader's 'infallibility', as Hitler could never admit a mistake. And as Arendt writes, "totalitarian dictators have the habit of declaring their political intentions in a prophetic form". As Hitler spoke in the Reichstag in 1939: "Today I will again make a prophecy: If the case of the Jewish financiers […] again succeeds in throwing the nations into a world war, the result will be [...] the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe." According to Arendt, totalitarian leaders can tempt with "a victory that is independent of 'temporary' losses […] because the masses, in contrast to the classes, want victory and success as such".

As she adds in the propaganda chapter, most people under current ideology do not allow themselves to be convinced by facts, "not even fabricated facts, but only the consistency of the system they are presumably a part of. [...] Totalitarian propaganda is driven by the escape from reality into fiction, from 'randomness' into consistency". Many people want simple 'lasting' solutions, rather than a world with its arbitrariness. (See our middle section this time on propaganda and publicity, pp. 25–40.)

Well. The increasing militarismI am NATO og USA whipping up together with Russia and Ukraine, has confirmed a couple of ideologies that 'everyone' must follow until they 'win', even if this can now be enormously destructive.

Leaders like old Biden, old Putin, or the somewhat younger Stoltenberg and Zelenskyj, should be met with laughter and be seen in the comedy they play out – in which millions now participate. But the consequences are just too serious. The laughter therefore rather gets stuck in the throat. Unfortunately.

Truls Lie
Truls Liehttp: /
Editor-in-chief in MODERN TIMES. See previous articles by Lie i Le Monde diplomatique (2003–2013) and Morgenbladet (1993-2003) See also part video work by Lie here.

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