For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

The Origins of Totalitarianism

by Arendt, Hannah (1973)


The Origins of Totalitarianism begins with the rise of anti-Semitism in central and western Europe in the 1800s and continues with an examination of European colonial imperialism from 1884 to the outbreak of World War I. Arendt explores the institutions and operations of totalitarian movements, focusing on the two genuine forms of totalitarian government in our time—Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia—which she adroitly recognizes were two sides of the same coin, rather than opposing philosophies of Right and Left. From this vantage point, she discusses the evolution of classes into masses, the role of propaganda in dealing with the nontotalitarian world, the use of terror, and the nature of isolation and loneliness as preconditions for total domination.

Key Passage

The poor whites in South Africa, who in 1923 formed 10 per cent of the total white population and whose standard of living does not differ much from that of the Bantu tribes, are today a  warning example of this possibility. Their poverty is almost exclusively the consequence of their contempt for work and their adjustment to the way of life of black tribes. Like the blacks, they deserted the soil if the most primitive cultivation no longer yielded the little that was necessary or if  they had exterminated the animals of the region. Together with their former slaves, they came to the gold and diamond centers, abandoning their farms whenever the black workers departed. But in contrast to the natives who were immediately hired as cheap un-skilled labor, they demanded and were granted charity as the right of a white skin, having lost all consciousness that normally men do not earn a living by the color of their skin. Their race consciousness today is violent not only because they have nothing to lose save their membership in the white community, but also because the race concept seems to define their own condition much more adequately than it does that of their former slaves, who are weIl on the way to becoming workers, a normal part of human civilization.  (p.194)


Arendt, Totalitarianism, Antisemitism, Nationalism, National Socialism, Nazi, Stalin, Stalinist, Propaganda


The Origins of Totalitarianism [1951], Arendt Citations

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