Hannah Arendt was born of middle-class, secular Jewish parents in Linden, now a part of Hanover, in 1906. Her life spanned three-quarters of the twentieth century, coming to an end half a world away in New York City in 1975. During her life she witnessed two world wars, the triumph of totalitarian movements in Russia and Germany, the foundation of the state of Israel, and the onset and maturation of the Cold War. In very few other individuals did this century of war and revolution inspire such a prodigious intellectual output.

Arendt was born in the historical epicentre of her time, and she brought to her political theory a knowledge and awareness of history which is a missing element in many of the intellectuals of our time. This writer on totalitarianism and its meaning for modern politics would not soon forget her time as a stateless person or in the concentration camp of Gurs in Vichy France, nor the scores of her friends and relatives murdered by fascists. These experiences gave her life’s work a sense of urgency, far removed from the complacency which rules our new gilded age. "That which has happened is a warning," wrote her mentor Karl Jaspers in 1953. "To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered for only in knowledge can a recurrence be prevented."

This concern with the old was augmented with her concern for the new. What makes Arendt's work so perceptive and interesting is her rigorous analytical clarity, and habit for noticing what is original about a phenomenon. Many of our intellectuals react to each new act of depravity by Islamist terrorists with a tired and stolid yawn, as if they had seen it all before. The worst – especially amongst enemies of the state of Israel – declare their total lack of surprise at each atrocity inflicted on the citizens of that country, as they believe it to be the entirely expected result of the victims' policy itself. A reading of Arendt might suggest that many attempted understandings of Islamism have failed not only to grasp its radicality in terms of the history of Western political experience, but also that it shares this radicality with other movements which so recently threatened the extinction of the cultural and political space which we treasure.

The Origins of The Origins of Totalitarianism

Arendt wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism between 1945 and 1949. Unlike so many works which are produced at close proximity to the events they analyze, it has retained both its emotional and analytical power. Indeed, it is hard to imagine The Origins being written by anyone who had not been at close proximity to the Nazi war machine and the death camps. Arendt was arrested in Germany in 1933 whilst carrying out research on anti-Semitism for the German Zionist Organization; had the police conducted a more thorough investigation before releasing her, they might have discovered she also worked to aid the escape of political refugees (mostly Communists) in that same year. Thereupon, she followed in the footsteps of many other Jewish refugees and fled to Paris.

Whilst there, she worked for Agriculture et Artisanat and Youth Aliyah, organizations which aimed to equip Jews destined for Palestine – many of whom were refugees from further east - with the skills they would need to survive in their new home, as well as providing support for the refugees while they were in France. But the activities of these organizations were constantly threatened by right-wing French organizations, such as the Action Française, of Dreyfus Affair infamy.

As both a German and a Jew, Arendt was particularly liable to become a victim of the caprice of the French government. In May 1940, she and her husband were shipped off to internment camps, considered suspect due to their German origin. Her destination was Gurs, a camp in south-western France which had previously been used to house Spanish Republicans and was now to be home to an assortment of pacifists, Germans, French left-wingers and common criminals who had been removed from prisons in the path of the Nazi advance in the north. Arendt was lucky enough to escape the camp during a period of confusion in the wake of the German invasion, but many of its inmates were not – had she remained, she might have become among the many thousands of prisoners who were later sent to the death camps.

What was especially tragic about the fate of Jews in France was that many inadvertently aided their persecutors by complying with Vichy measures, such as identifying themselves as Jews in the German and Vichy census which was conducted after the invasion. Others reported to police stations when summoned by the Parisian police, beginning the long chain of internment which would end in their deaths at the hands of the SS in Auschwitz. As historian Richard Vinen has argued in a recent book, this was "perhaps because many of them felt that there might be serious consequences from breaking the law and because few of them yet realized how serious the consequences of obeying the law might be". Arendt did not obey the law, and she advised her friends to do likewise; instead, she was lucky enough to escape across the Atlantic to America.

The Origins of Totalitarianism

It was while in America that she began to work on The Origins of Totalitarianism. Her book has received some deserved criticism for implying too close an identification between Nazism and Stalinism, which despite their similarities also differ markedly from one another. But The Origins is not supposed to be a clear-cut history of totalitarianism, and these flaws do not undermine its central point: that the psychology of totalitarian movements is fundamentally alien to the Western political tradition, and that only recourse to this tradition can hope to defeat them. When this book is read together with her later work The Human Condition, it provides a way of thinking about totalitarianism by placing it in a historical and political context which is still relevant to the battle against totalitarian Islamism.

What is novel about totalitarianism is that it is the complete antithesis of politics as it is understood in the Western world. Arendt's exposition of the Western conception of politics sees the political arena as an area in which there is space between each individual for those individuals to act – to do deeds, to make speeches that persuade, and to otherwise express their individuality. Each new human being is a new beginning with something unique to bring to this world, and the power to begin something new – such as an idea or political organization – is "identical with man’s freedom". Laws, meanwhile, provide the framework in which this activity, which might otherwise be chaotic, takes place, and prescribe limits on what is allowable.

How different this is to the conception of politics held by the Nazi, the Stalinist, or the radical Islamist! The totalitarian ambition is to totally crush the realm of individuality and the power of people to make new beginnings, instead demanding complete control over them in matters of action, thought, and faith. They seek instead to construct what they view as an ideal society in their own image. It is this attempt to crush the potential of each human being which made Arendt view totalitarianism as the most absolute political evil. Whether this is done in the name of dialectical materialism, racism, or the will of Allah is incidental; the damage done to the Western conception of freedom is the same.

The complete nature of totalitarianism's break with the past and with our normal conception of politics is what makes it so hard for many people to accept the magnitude of the threat which it poses. This point has been argued admirably by many authors in recent years, most notably by Paul Berman in his book Terror and Liberalism. Yet comparisons between al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups like the IRA or ETA persist. All of these groups have in the past committed despicable acts, but what sets terror with a totalitarian agenda apart from that with a mere political agenda is that there is nothing which can be done to satisfy the former but complete and unconditional surrender. A movement which seeks to crush individuality and does not care for reality, save to destroy it, will settle for nothing less than a total – and impossible – transformation of the world in its own image. There can be no compromise with such a movement.

Islamism Through the Eyes of Arendt

But this, of course, is not a satisfactory end-point for any discussion of how to combat the menace of totalitarian Islamism. It is clear that the movement exercises enough attraction to some people within societies the world over to continue to thrive, and an understanding of why this is so is vital. Any successful strategy in the war against Islamist terrorism must kill, capture or deter more terrorists than it creates. On the one hand, it has been tempting for many observers to throw up their hands and claim that there is no rational way to understand why a young Muslim would join al-Qaeda or seek to imitate it, as the organization is clearly staffed by madmen; but this is not satisfactory. There is a reason why our democracies are threatened by radical Islamists and not by, say, radical vegans; and it is not satisfactory to merely claim that reason fails when trying to to comprehend why this might be.

This reason lies in the specific perversion of Islam which has been carried out by Islamists, who have managed to invent a totalitarian form of Islam over the last half century by cobbling together themes from Islamic history and very modern forms of propaganda and organization. In these respects, their movement bears more in common with Nazism and Stalinism than it does with almost any previous political movement in the Islamic world, especially in the specific criticisms that it levels against the political way of life of the West. Arendt's observations on the motivations of totalitarian movements and the way their members view the world hence turn out to be highly relevant to our current predicament.

Arendt views the rise of Nazism and Stalinism as in part a consequence of the atomization of European society between the two world wars. The beginning of the modern period saw the destruction of the traditions and societal groupings which used to bind people together and prescribe to them their place in the world; whereas the modern period is characterized only by constant movement and change, in which "all that is solid melts into air" and the world is a more unpredictable place. On the whole, the society which was left was viewed as a mere agglomeration of private interests in which there were no higher values than those of the bourgeoisie, who pursued pleasure and avoided pain. These developments would contribute towards both the form and the content of Nazism and Stalinism.

Nazism and Stalinism were attempts to fight both the unpredictability of this world and the values it held dear. Both movements promised to their members a privileged place in the world as members of an elite – hence their appeal to disenfranchised strata of the population, or those hit by economic dislocation (note the provenance of many Islamists) – and promised to remake the world in a more predictable and utopian fashion. As totalitarian movements, they promised an escape from the world as we know it into a glorious future (glorious, anyway, for members of the movement) in which politics and economics are no longer spheres of dangerous risk, but more closely resemble the world of craftsmanship, where one can know exactly what one is making and what the results of action will be.

My use of the word 'utopia' does not imply endorsement of any totalitarian project. In fact, one man's utopia is always another man's nightmare, because any utopian project involves an escape from "life as it has been given to man on earth", in Arendt’s phrase; in practice this escape means destruction. A utopia as defined by an Islamist would be as threatening to the Western conception of freedom as a utopia defined by a Nazi; both imply a desire to escape the real world in exchange for a dream of the impossible. On a personal level, this desire has its most blatant expression in the final act of the suicide bomber, who exchanges his own life for the virgins of the afterlife – and usually takes a part of the real world of other human beings with him. That which he cannot change, he destroys; and his own death in the process shows that death is the only possible end-point of a project which seeks the impossible.

It is likewise no coincidence that Nazism, Stalinism and Islamism define themselves explicitly in opposition to bourgeois values. This fact has been noted most effectively in the book Occidentalism by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit. The Islamist claim to be the carrier of particularly anti-bourgeois values, such as the focus on the spiritual rather than the economic, the brotherhood of a community of believers which is open to only a select few and look out for one another (Islamists refer to each other as "brother"), and the glorification of death all remind us of the similar views of themselves held by Nazis and Stalinists.

This may be one reason why Europe has proven a much better incubator for homegrown Islamism than the United States. The high respectability of religious belief in America and the peculiar nature of American identity, which is so welcoming to immigrants and tolerant of their faith, helps to prevent the isolation of immigrant communities which has occurred in Europe.

Multiculturalism has produced fractured societies and young, second-generation immigrants are confused about their identities; they are more likely to reject the bourgeois values that seem to permeate European culture and politics and seek a belief system which provides them with an alternative, apparently more stable community which promises an escape from the modern world. Islamism is a political outlet for those who feel alienated from the traditional modes of political expression in their society. But its endpoint is only death and destruction.


It has been repeated almost to the point of banality that the most crucial battleground of the war on terror is in the minds of Muslims the world over. But repetition does not make a point untrue. Clearly convinced Islamists are immune to persuasion, which is why everything America has done the world over to help Muslims, especially in the Balkans, has done nothing to alter their extreme beliefs. Their belief systems have long since parted company with reality. The future is in the hands of the young who are undecided. To persuade them of the goodness of a free way of life, the Western world, and especially Europe, needs to trumpet its heritage and its unique way of doing politics. Life in a free society can be fraught with risks which utopias and dictatorship promise to remove, but only a free society can offer fulfilment to the human spirit.

Arendt's life work is a testament to the appeal of the Western way as against the suffocating conformism of totalitarian movements, whatever form they take. Her analysis of the ways in which such movements threaten our way of life, and the perverse ways they can mislead the young and alienated into seeing them as the wave of the future, ought to be essential reading for anyone interested in our current predicament. They are a heartening reminder of the richness and variety of our political and intellectual tradition, and such medicine is vital in the battle against one of the most implacable foes Western civilization has ever faced.

Further reading

Arendt's biographer is her ex-student Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, who has written Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World and the somewhat forced Why Arendt Matters. Arendt's best works are those cited, but Between Past and Future is also exceptional. The book by Richard Vinen cited is The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation which is worth reading but not buying. This write-up is a testimony to my inability to get the above published in Commentary (and lack of imagination over where else to try), which explains the slightly esoteric angle.