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The Origins of Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt's landmark work about Europe's anti-Semitic and imperialist roots

By Hannah Arendt
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The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) is a landmark work by Hannah Arendt, in which she traces the anti-Semitic and imperialist roots of modern-day totalitarianism in Europe. Starting with the rise of the nation-state in the seventeenth century, Arendt reveals the prejudices and myths that empowered the Nazism and Stalinism of the early twentieth century, and that can lead to the erosion of free-thinking democracy. She also gives clear warning on how to avoid predatory totalitarian movements in the future.

Key idea 1 of 9

European Jews were historically isolated from mainstream society but kept close to those in charge.

During the twentieth century, totalitarianism has been inseparably linked to anti-Semitism. The reasons behind this anti-Semitism are complex, and to try to explain it, we’ll have to turn back the clock and look at how Europe’s class system changed over the years.

By the mid-seventeenth century, Europe had long been operating under the rules of feudalism, which meant that society was primarily divided into two categories: peasants and nobility.

Within this structure, Jewish people had traditionally worked in the position of moneylenders. They managed financial accounts for the nobility, including their loans, and in return, they received interest payments, as well as some special benefits that other non-nobles didn’t receive.

But then came the Peace of Westphalia, a series of treaties signed in 1648, which essentially put an end to feudalism in much of Europe. From its ashes rose a new kind of society – one controlled by governments instead of monarchs. Under this new governmental rule, communities began to grow more homogenous and develop their own unique nationalities, which is how different regions in Europe came to be known as nation-states.

During the transition away from feudalism, the Jewish people who’d worked as nobility’s financial managers began to work for governments. But it was soon apparent that these more complex systems generated more work, so more Jewish people, including those who hadn’t previously benefited from feudal arrangements, began to rise in status.

However, the reality of this status was neither here nor there – for the Jews found that they were considered outsiders by everyone.

Their service to government brought them special access to elite circles and events, and this did more than just make the working class view them as having an unfair advantage. In fact, the growing number of Jews ascending the social ladder led to a popular conspiracy theory that there was a Jewish plot to take over all of Europe.

The ruling classes of Europe didn’t accept the Jews as their own, either. Instead, they saw Jews as a “vice” – something deemed to be unwholesome yet had to be endured due to the role Jews played in society. Therefore, some Jews were accepted on an individual basis, though they were still looked down upon, even by people who benefited greatly from their assistance.

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