You may have recalled that earlier in this particular reading of The Origins of Totalitarianism, I discussed how Hannah Arendt invoked Thomas Hobbes to explain a central idea in totalitarian thinking. Her original use of this idea was to describe the state of a totalitarian society, or a society that was at least primed for totalitarian motivation, in terms of an ultra-bourgeoisie. These were people who were so disconnected from each other that they regarded their neighbours as fierce competitors who should be crushed in the name of self-defense.
I’m not a huge fan of the bourgeoisie metaphor (perhaps petty robber baron of the street corner would be better). But the initial idea that a society’s individuals can easily fear each other, as interpreted from Hobbes’ Leviathan, is clear.
But later in the book, she describes the role of the totalitarian Leader in terms very similar to the textbook version of the Sovereign in Leviathan: the ultimate authority of a society who stands outside society in order to be that ultimate authority. The key to totalitarian thinking would be that the relationship of absolutely loyalty to the will of the Leader, which at least the elite of the movement must hold, actually abnegates personal responsibility. There is total devotion to the Leader to the point where the dedicated movement member acts only as his extension.
In other words, Arendt is developing a way for the excuse “I was only following orders” to be somehow legitimate. That she has to describe such a total breakdown of the ethics of tens of thousands of individuals in order to achieve this shows either what a terrible excuse it is, or it shows the incredible power totalitarian mobilization of a populace has.
When I say that she understands its legitimacy, I don’t mean that she excuses the SS Death’s Head (yes, their actual name, Totenkopfverbände) concentration camp guard for their actions. I mean she tries to understand how an ordinary person could perform such horrifying acts as running an industrialized death camp. It’s her way, as an intellectual, of looking utter terror in the face.
A stereotypical response to the old excuse of “I was just following orders” to deny responsibility is to dismiss it as a lie. I’m not going to cite the Milgram experiment as an authoritative example because it’s become just as stereotypical as taking “following orders” as an empty excuse. She’s trying to examine the psychology of someone who would let their reputation be destroyed and be executed as part of a Stalinist purge because their faith in the movement is so strong, they believe that their sacrifice to maintain the loyalty of the people to the Leader is a fair price.
In this way, totalitarianism really is the denial of one’s own identity, one’s desires, hopes, and even will. Arendt carefully distinguishes (on page 365, to be precise), following orders from submitting to another’s will. A dictatorship is simply the loyalty of a soldier to his commanding officer: strict, but still bound within a reciprocal ethical code. A commander who needlessly endangers his troops is punished within the army; a dictator who puts the country in military or economic jeopardy may face opposition. But a totalitarian Leader doesn’t give orders; he directs his will. And the members of the totalitarian movement obey, not from choice, but almost autonomically.