Totalitarianism illustrated the human capacity to begin, that power to think and to act in ways that are new, contingent, and unpredictable… But the paradox of totalitarian novelty was that it represented an assault on that very ability to act and think as a unique individual. This new phenomenon seemed to Arendt to demonstrate the self-destructive implications of what she called “modern man’s deep-rooted suspicion of everything he did not make himself.” Believing that “everything is possible” totalitarian movements demand unlimited power, but what this turns out to mean is not at all the building of utopia (which would itself set limits to power and possibility) but unparalleled destruction.
“Experiments” in total domination in the concentration camps that are the “laboratories” of the new regimes gradually make clear that the price of total power is the eradication of human plurality. The characteristics that make us more than members of an animal species – our unique individuality and our capacity for spontaneous thought and action – make us unpredictable and therefore get in the way of attempts to harness us for collective motion. Only one can be omnipotent, and the path to this goal, discovered separately by Hitler and by Stalin, lies through terror on the one hand and ideology on the other.
“Total terror” as practiced in the camps is, Arendt claims, “the essence of totalitarian government.” It does not simply kill people but ﬁrst eradicates their individuality and capacity for action. Any remnant of spontaneity would stand in the way of complete domination. “Total power can be achieved and safeguarded only in a world of conditioned reﬂexes, of marionettes without the slightest trace of spontaneity. Precisely because man’s resources are so great, he can be fully dominated only when he becomes a specimen of the animal-species man.”
Unlike the violence and coercion used by ordinary tyrants it does not have a utilitarian purpose such as repressing opposition, and it reaches its climax only after genuine opposition has already been repressed; its only function is to further the project of total domination by crushing out all human individuality. “Common sense protests desperately that the masses are submissive and that all this gigantic apparatus of terror is therefore superﬂuous; if they were capable of telling the truth, the totalitarian rulers would reply: The apparatus seems superﬂuous to you only because it serves to make men superﬂuous.”
Ideology complements terror by eliminating the capacity for individual thought and experience among the executioners themselves, binding them into the uniﬁed movement of destruction. Ideologies – pseudo-scientiﬁc theories purporting to give insight into history – give their believers “the total explanation of the past, the total knowledge of the present, and the reliable prediction of the future.” By making reality as experienced seem insigniﬁcant compared with what must happen, they free ideological thought from the constraints of common sense and reality. But in Arendt’s view the most dangerous opportunity they offer (seized by both Hitler and Stalin) is their stress on logical consistency.
Both leaders prided themselves on the merciless reasoning with which they pursued the implications of race- or class-struggle to the murder of the last “objective enemy.” In their hands the ideologies were emptied of all content except for the automatic process of deduction that one group or another should die. Ideological logicality replaced free thought, inducing people to strip themselves of individuality until they were part of a single impersonal movement of total domination. For totalitarian ideologies do not support the status quo: they chart an endless struggle that is inexorable in its destructiveness. Total power turns out, then, to mean inevitable destruction. The job of the totalitarian regime is simply to speed up the execution of death sentences pronounced by the law of nature or of history.