Populism or Totalitarianism? Warning Signs From Our Recent Past


Authoritarian movements have been popping up all around the world in recent years. In 1951, Hannah Arendt, the philosopher and political theorist who coined the concept of “banality of evil,” published her analysis of Nazism and Communism, the two totalitarian movements that arose in Europe a hundred years ago, with disastrous results for Europe and the world.

The parallels between what happened then and what is happening now are chilling. The following quotes are from Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt Publishing, 1968.

Hitler was a demagogically gifted, democratically elected leader—

Hitler’s spell over his listeners rested “on the fanatical belief of this man in himself,” “on his pseudo-authoritative judgments about everything under the sun, and on the fact that his opinions […] could always be fitted into an all-encompassing ideology.” “[A] crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed,” especially if he “not only holds opinions but presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction.” (p. 305)

The masses who elected him—

Totalitarian movements “recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up on as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention.” Traditional political parties lost “the silent consent and support of the unorganized masses who suddenly shed their apathy and went wherever they saw an opportunity to voice their new violent opposition.” (p. 315) Arendt is referring to the masses of unemployed, displaced people suffering in the profound economic and societal chaos that persisted after World War 1.

Totalitarian movements “conjure up a lying world of consistency” (p. 353) and their propaganda “establishes a world fit to compete with the real one, whose main handicap is that it is not logical, consistent, and organized.” (p. 362) “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.” (p. 352) Adhering to “one of the many current opinions with ‘unbending consistency'” as Hitler did was key because it allowed the masses to be “freed from the chaos of opinions that [society] constantly generates.” (p. 305)

“What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.” The masses “did not particularly object to being deceived because [they] held every statement to be a lie anyhow,” and so leaders “could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.” (p. 382)

Hitler was known for his “‘phenomenal untruthfulness,” “the lack of demonstrable reality in nearly all his utterances,” and “his indifference to facts which he does not regard as vitally important.” “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.” (p. 350)

Incidentally, Arendt’s research found that “[t]he fact that [the leaders’] lives prior to their political careers had been failures, naively held against them by the more respectable leaders of the old parties, was the strongest factor in their mass appeal. It seemed to prove that […] their contempt for respectability”—and for truthfulness, and political correctness—was “quite sincere and not just inspired by passing ambitions.” (p. 327)

Instead of party programs, an all-encompassing ideology—

Totalitarian movements “have done their utmost to get rid of the party programs which specified concrete content and which they inherited from earlier, nontotalitarian stages of development.” As Hitler put it, “Once we take over the government, the program will come of itself.” (p. 324)

Instead, they employ all-encompassing ideologies which assume that “one idea is sufficient to explain everything.” “Ideological thinking orders facts into an absolutely logical procedure which starts from an axiomatically accepted premise”—such as the superiority of the white race— “deducing everything else from it” and claiming to provide “the total explanation of the past, the total knowledge of the present, and the reliable prediction of the future.” (p. 470-471) 

These movements presented disagreements of opinion as “invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason” (p. 312) and justified their defiance of the rule of law on these ideologies. “Totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth, executes the law of History or of Nature without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior.” It claims that “far from being ‘lawless,’ it goes to the sources of authority from which positive laws received their ultimate legitimation.” (p. 461-462) “Objective” enemies of these regimes are those who oppose their ideologies. (p. 423)

Racism was central to Nazi ideology. Nazi propaganda “transform[ed] anti-semitism into a principle of self-definition.” “This gave the masses of atomized, undefinable, unstable and futile individuals a means of self-definition and identification which […] restored some of the self-respect they had formerly derived from their function in society.” (p. 356)

The totalitarian leader claims to be infallible: “The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error.” This assumption “is based not so much on superior intelligence as on [his] correct interpretation of the essentially reliable forces in history or nature, forces which neither defeat or ruin can prove wrong because they are bound to assert themselves in the long run.” (p. 348-349) Furthermore, “everything outside the movement is ‘dying'” (p. 381) and all defeats are “temporary,” or “the beginning of victory.” (p. 349-350) All worthwhile people “are going to be in my camp. And those who will not be in my camp are worthless anyway.”—Hitler (p. 361) 

Totalitarian movements prize loyalty. “[T]heir most conspicuous external characteristic is their demand for total, unrestricted, unconditional, and unalterable loyalty of the individual member.” (p. 323) “Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intelligence and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty.” (p. 339) The Nazis “never apologized for ‘excesses of the lower ranks’,” and incidents of mass terror, such as killings of members of opposing parties, increased steadily “because neither the police nor the courts seriously prosecuted political offenders on the so-called Right,” proving to the population at large “that the power of the Nazis was greater than that of the authorities.” (p. 344)


“The mass man whom [Nazi SS leader] Himmler organized for the greatest mass crimes ever committed in history […] was the bourgeois who […] was ready to sacrifice everything—belief, honor, dignity—on the slightest provocation. Nothing proved easier to destroy than the privacy and the private morality of people who thought of nothing but safeguarding their private lives.” (p. 338)

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction and the distinction between true and false no longer exists.” (p. 474)

Outi Papamarcos is an engineer, a sociolinguist, and a grandmother. She believes that the authoritarian movements now gaining ground in the U.S. and around the world are dangerous.

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