For Hannah Arendt, the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin were different to the dictatorships of the past. In historical narratives, military rule–and by extension the leaders who emerge as a symbolic figurehead of that rule–are portrayed as fearless and ruthless. This is typically juxtaposed against the fear that their ‘subjects’ experience when living under such a regime.
I, however, would like to propose that it the unspoken fear of the leader that fuelled the totalitarian regime. But what was the fear that fuelled the leader to behave in a way that defies all logic? Why did these leaders choose to wilfully ignore all the historical lessons of the past? Could they not foresee that their regimes would never take root, let alone bear fruit?
Totalitarian regimes, when they occur, leads to a purge of a clearly defined enemy. Monuments and histories are destroyed. Libraries are burned and even entire civilisations and their achievements are systematically wiped out. The needs of ordinary citizens mean nothing to these corrupt leaders. If they encounter opposition of any sort, their instinct is to destroy what is causing that fear; instead of dealing with the root cause of their own fear.
From race to class to ethnicity–a group of people are targeted by military leaders for destruction and annihilation. Although all nation-states have at some point have experienced a mild or severe form of totalitarianism; regimes that had existed prior to Hitler and Stalin had not been successful in destroying the non-political bonds of community and family life.
Military leaders have shown a tendency to thread into regions of life where other leaders not only exercise caution; but never even think to thread. Totalitarian regimes embark upon the unthinkable; leaving an entire population in disbelief after the event of its occurrence.
The real aim, then, for totalitarian regimes is not a specific achievement for society; but to indoctrinate the entire population into the leader and the party’s way of thinking. It is psychological control on their own population. For totalitarian regimes, the territory that the state wishes to gain ownership over is the mind.
Extreme and unquestionable loyalty is required for such a regime to work. The justifications for military rule are endless. It is the manifestation of a disturbed mind that has turned both against itself and its people.
Totalitarian regimes, regardless of the extremity with which they express themselves, have always been short-lived. Why? A totalitarian leader does not care for his fellow countryman and woman. It is not the bad medicine that fixes your problem; but the poison that kills it so that it will never return.
The antidote, then?
If we begin working with the premise that for totalitarian regimes, human life is inconsequential; then the antidote must be to value human life and community relationships. But how do we value human life and community relationships? If we had valued them to begin with; perhaps such a leader would not have been thrusted into power.
But a closer look at the annals of history shows that these leaders emerged on the scene during a power vacuum or when a nation was particularly vulnerable. They swept in and filled the heads of their population with big dreams that they were never going to fulfil. They never had a plan for ‘success’.
When WWI broke out, the Allied Powers–particularly Britain and the US–demonised Germans. The Allied Powers portrayed themselves as bastions of freedom and democracy. This was even before the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin had the chance to take root. And decades after WWII, this historical narrative has not been corrected. War crimes had occurred on both sides. The self-proclaimed bastions of democracy were themselves undemocratic.
Socialist ideas took root in the last part of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the 20th. The socialist parties in Germany and Austria began to frame individualism, liberalism, democracy and capitalism as “English liberal values”. Free trade was seen as a British conspiracy to dominate the economic markets of the world. The entrepreneur who worked for a profit was not seen as a viable solution to solving the economic problems of a nation. Rather, it was centralised state planning that would come to the rescue.
On that same account, Austrian economist F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was highly critical of centralised planning. He espoused that in an economy that is entirely subject to state-planning, it is not left up to the unforeseeable future or to unknown persons to later allocate resources that will benefit people. The state’s jurisdiction over all aspects of life–from education to employment–did not allow for the entrepreneurial drive to flourish. It did not allow for the soul of the people to guide them towards their own destiny.
The economic success of certain states which flourished with state-planning has led many theorists to reassess the merits of the ideology. At the same time, it has also led to criticisms regarding how reliant people grow on the state. Does the state become a single parent that must provide for all the children of the soil? I cannot answer this question definitively. But state-planning does sap people of the vital creativity needed to experiment and create societies that flourish through their own volition and willpower. Too much state-planning also leaves the state vulnerable to the whims of leadership.
If a leader has the welfare of his or her people in mind; then perhaps state-planning works. But when a leader and their party do not have the welfare of their people in mind; it can lead to disastrous episodes in history where great abuses take place.
The only long-lasting antidote that comes to my mind is the development of a legal system that takes into account the many various archetypal chapters of history. Instead of focusing on the characters that have populated world history, we should focus on the historical narrative of each era in framing and creating a legal framework. We should not rewrite the law in our own image; but rather, take careful note of the laws that existed and worked–and the circumstances during which they stopped working completely.
Personality politics is an excellent way to allow one man to take the blame or the culpability for everything that happened–especially the great abuses that occurred during a period of time. A more holistic view, then, would force us to view a period of history; not through the lens of good and evil–but as a continuum of factors that came together to create the perfect storm; where very few stones were left unturned.
Perhaps the answer lies in studying the few stones that were left unturned.