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.”