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DURING the summer of 1950, when Hannah Arendt was on vacation, she was reading proofs for The Origins of Totalitarianism. In a letter to her mentor and beloved friend, Karl Jaspers, she wrote: A lot of work here, of course, but also swimming and walks. Reading proofs is awful, that is boring. I’ve taken a different epigraph from Logik from the one I mentioned to you before: “Give yourself up neither to the past nor to the future. The important thing is to remain wholly in the present .” That sentence struck me right in the heart, so I’m entitled to have it (Arendt and Jaspers, 1992: 153). We know just how deeply that sentence struck Arendt, because she not only used it as the epigraph for The Origins of Totalitarianism , she also adopted a variation of it for one of her most important collections of political essays, Between Past and Future. In the preface to that collection, she gives an extraordinarily imaginative interpretation of a Kafka parable, a parable intended to illuminate “the gap between past and future”—the gap for exercise in political thinking—the gap in which we gain experience in how to think. This is the “place” where Arendt located all genuine thinking, and it has special significance for this symposium, “Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism—Fifty Years Later.” There is a temptaSOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 69, No. 2 (Summer 2002) The Origins of Totalitarianism: Not History, but Politics BY RICHARD J. BERNSTEIN tion on such occasions to look back, to praise (or criticize) what she said then—to show the ways in which she was perhaps insightful and/or misguided in her understanding of the phenomenon she was struggling to comprehend: totalitarianism. I hope to resist this temptation, to view the book not as a past document but as an aid in our own present thinking, in our own attempt to live in the gap between past and future. I know from personal experience that this is the way in which she would have wanted her work discussed. I had the good fortune to participate in what, I believe, was the first conference that was exclusively devoted to her thought. It took place in Toronto almost 30 years ago, and Hannah Arendt was present . Characteristically, she was not at all interested in honorific speeches. She wanted to discuss the issues, and she actively engaged in discussion and argument with all the speakers. But let me remind you that in her preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism , she already indicated that this is the way in which she wanted the book to be read. She concluded the preface by declaring , “all efforts to escape from the grimness of the present into nostalgia for a still intact past, or into the anticipated oblivion of a better future, are vain.”1 Perhaps the most grim, disturbing, but realistic sentence in the entire book comes near its conclusion, when she says, “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man” (439). Anyone who has lived through the uses of terror and torture, the massacres , genocides and “ethnic cleansings” that have occurred all over the world during the past few decades is painfully aware of how strong and ever present these temptations are. The Origins of Totalitarianism is a difficult, complex, disjointed book. At times it reads more like a series of independent essays loosely related to each other. It ranges over the most diverse topics , from observations about various aspects of anti-Semitism to a discussion of nineteenth-century British imperialism, from the 382 SOCIAL RESEARCH nature of rights to the decline of the nation-state and the logic of total domination. Some of her claims appear to be outrageous and perverse. For example, she tells us that anti-Semitism, “a secular nineteenth-century ideology,” did not exist prior to the 1870s. Or again, she asserts that the notorious forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” served the Nazis “as a textbook for global conquest.” The Origins of...


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pp. 381-401
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