ARENDT ON STALIN AND HITLER
BY MATIAS ILIVITZKY
“Stalin trusted only one man and that was Hitler.” This axiom exemplifies Hannah Arendt’s conception of Soviet domination. The USSR was equivalent to the Nazi state when it came to political persecution and mass killings. For Stalin, only a man who rose to unrivaled supremacy through the direct employment of violence or its universal threat—Adolf Hitler—could truly be his peer.
Such a statement was certainly uncommon in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, when Hannah Arendt wrote and published her most famous work, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The political philosopher, born in Hanover in 1906 to a German Jewish family and an outstanding student of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers, had every reason to be especially attentive to the horrors of Nazism, which had forced her to flee Germany and then Europe, and which had killed and silenced many of her friends. But in the postwar years she nevertheless quickly understood that the USSR was a threat of equal scope.
The Origins of Totalitarianism has the dual aim of illustrating Nazism’s devastating deeds while attacking the other regime whose atrocities Arendt believed were equal to Hitler’s. Without necessarily aiming to design a US Cold War foreign policy agenda, she was certainly advocating for a strong stand against Soviet totalitarianism. For that, she needed to forcefully demonstrate the similarities between Hitler and Stalin. When Stalin looked at the ruthless, iron-fisted despot in Germany, said Arendt, he saw an equal.
He emulated the Nazi example by intentionally creating an atomized society, something that the NSDAP had found already into existence. To accomplish this aim, Stalin first dissolved any remaining participatory meaning in the word Soviet—“council”—derived from the revolutionary experiences of 1905 and early 1917, which had more to do with citizenship and democracy than with communism, as Arendt would argue in On Revolution.
To cow property-owning classes like the urban middle class and peasants, Stalin conducted massive purges, created concentration and forced-labor camps, and provoked shortages that would eventually lead to great famines, like Holodomor in Ukraine. All this made clear to the middle class of the USSR that they could rely on no group solidarity, that each and every one of them was a vulnerable individual, easily dominated by an overwhelming state and by its supreme and unquestioned leader.
Stalin subjugated the workers by implementing forced-labor conditions in factories and packing the bureaucracy with loyalists. Passports were required to enter or exit a city. This guaranteed that Soviet civil society ceased to exist, leaving all persons to be monitored by the State and at the same time by one another.
In the complex system of mutual denunciations in the Soviet Union, fear corroded all social relationships, even the closest. Arendt highlights the efficiency and surprising speed with which a web of social relations could be destroyed when an individual’s survival was threatened. Friendships and blood-ties melted away before the threat of denunciation. Even children were brainwashed into believing that the supreme leader was wiser and better than their own untrustworthy parents. This is the definition of totalitarian terror—a system that harasses and encircles not only political opponents, as in a dictatorship, but harmless citizens as well.
Stalin’s most efficient method of thwarting Soviet civil and political society was undoubtedly the purges. Judicially speaking, not only did the accused bear the burden of proof but, as Arendt adds, this was joined to the principle of guilt by association.
“As soon as a man is accused, his former friends are transformed immediately into his bitterest enemies; in order to save their own skins, they volunteer information and rush in with denunciations to corroborate the nonexistent evidence against him; this obviously is the only way to prove their own trustworthiness. Retrospectively, they will try to prove that their acquaintance or friendship with the accused was only a pretext for spying on him and revealing him as a saboteur, a Trotskyite, a foreign spy, or a Fascist.”The combination of repression, isolation, the rejection of friends and family, and threats against these same led the accused to “confess” their crimes—thus the high rate of “self-confessed” criminals in the Soviet Union. Arendt concluded: “In the last analysis, it has been through the development of this device to its farthest and most fantastic extremes that Bolshevik rulers have succeeded in creating an atomized and individualized society the like of which we have never seen before and which events or catastrophes alone would hardly have brought about.”
The Soviets’ repressive methods also aimed to sustain ideological coherence over time. For example, by identifying his victims as “dying classes,” Stalin simultaneously justified his tactics by using Marxist ideology and gave the impression that Marxism was triumphing in its world struggle, as evidenced by the steady flow of dying members of the bourgeoisie. Stalin was also proving to the world that his ability as a statesman was also joined by his talent as an effective forecaster. As Arendt saw it, nothing happened but what had been previously predicted. Totalitarian leaders enforce their rule not only over a determined territory and population, but over time itself.
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