Arendt, however, is not saying that racism or any other element of totalitarianism caused the regimes of Hitler or Stalin, but rather that those elements, which include anti-Semitism, the decline of the nation-state, expansionism for its own sake, and the alliance between capital and mob, crystallized in the movements from which those regimes arose. Reflecting on her book in 1958 Arendt said that her intentions “presented themselves” to her “in the form of an ever recurring image: I felt as though I dealt with a crystallized structure which I had to break up into its constituent elements in order to destroy it.” This presented a problem because she saw that it was an “impossible task to write history, not in order to save and conserve and render fit for remembrance, but, on the contrary, in order to destroy.” Thus despite her historical analyses it “dawned” on her that The Origins of Totalitarianism was not “a historical . . . but a political book, in which whatever there was of past history not only was seen from the vantage point of the present, but would not have become visible at all without the light which the event, the emergence of totalitarianism, shed on it.” The origins are not causes, in fact “they only became origins- antecedents–after the event had taken place.” While analyzing, literally “breaking up,” a crystal into its “constituent elements” destroys the crystal, it does not destroy the elements. This is among the fundamental points that Arendt made in the chapter written in 1953 and added to all subsequent editions of The Origins of Totalitarianism (see “Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government”):

If it is true that the elements of totalitarianism can be found by retracing the history and analyzing the political implications of what we usually call the crisis of our century, then the conclusion is unavoidable that this crisis is no mere threat from the outside, no mere result of some aggressive foreign policy of either Germany or Russia, and that it will no more disappear with the death of Stalin than it disappeared with the fall of Nazi Germany. It may even be that the true predicaments of our time will assume their authentic form–though not necessarily the cruelest–only when totalitarianism has become a thing of the past.

Arendt’s judgment of totalitarianism must first and foremost be distinguished from its common identification as an insidious form of tyranny. Tyranny is an ancient, originally Greek form of government which, as the tragedy of Oedipous Tyrannos and the historical examples of Peisistratus of Athens and Periandros of Corinth demonstrate, was by no means necessarily against the private interests and initiatives of its people. As a form of government tyranny stands against the appearance in public of the plurality of the people, the condition, according to Arendt, in which political life and political freedom–“public happiness,” as the founders of the American republic named it–become possible and without which they do not.

In a tyrannical political realm, which can hardly be called public, the tyrant exists in isolation from the people. Due to the lack of rapport or legal communication between the people and the tyrant, all action in a tyranny manifests a “moving principle” of mutual fear: the tyrant’s fear of the people, on one side, and the people’s fear of the tyrant, or, as Arendt put it, their “despair over the impossibility” of joining together to act at all, on the other. It is in this sense that tyranny is a contradictory and futile form of government, one that generates not power but impotence. Hence, according to Montesquieu, whose acute observations Arendt drew on in these matters, tyranny (which he does not even bother to distinguish from despotism, malevolent by definition, since he is concerned with public rather than private freedom) is a form of government that, unlike constitutional republics or monarchies, corrupts itself, cultivating within itself the seeds of its own destruction (see “On the Nature of Totalitarianism”). Therefore, the essential impotence of a tyrannically ruled state, however flamboyant and spectacular its dying throes, and whether or not it is despotic, and regardless of the cruelty and suffering it may inflict on its people, presents no menace of destruction to the world at large.

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