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Totalitarianism and the Five Stages of Dehumanization
Hannah Arendt’s seminal work The Origins of Totalitarianism(1948) makes for sobering reading in the world we see developing around us in the year 2021. Indeed, we find ourselves in an impasse of epic proportions where the essence of what it means to be human is at stake.
“The totalitarian attempt at global conquest and total domination has been the destructive way out of all impasses. Its victory may coincide with the destruction of humanity; wherever it has ruled, it has begun to destroy the essence of man.” – Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, first published 1948
Although it is hard to claim that – at least in the West – we find ourselves once again under the yoke of totalitarian regimes comparable to those we know so well from the 20th century, there is no doubt that we are faced with a global paradigm that brings forth steadily expanding totalitarian tendencies, and these need not even be planned intentionally or maliciously.
III Conclusion: how do we liberate ourselves?
History gives us powerful guidance on how we can throw off the yoke of totalitarianism in whatever stage or form it presents itself; also the current ideological form that most do not even realize is happening. We can actually stop the retreat of freedom and the onset of dehumanization. In the words of George Orwell “[f]reedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” We live in times where exactly this freedom is under grave threat as a result of ideological totalitarianism, something I have tried to illustrate with how Western societies deal with the Corona crisis, where facts too often seem not to matter in favor of enshrining the latest systemic ideological orthodoxy. The best example of how freedom can be recovered is how the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe ended the totalitarian reign of Communism in their countries starting in 1989.
It was their long process of rediscovery of human dignity and their nonviolent yet insistent civil disobedience that brought down the regimes of the Communist elite and their allies of the mob, exposing the untruthfulness of their propaganda and the injustice of their policies. They knew that truth is a goal to attain, not an object to claim and thus requires humility and respectful dialogue. They understood that a society can only be free, healthy and prosperous when no human being is excluded and when there is always the genuine willingness and openness for a robust public discourse, to hear and understand the other, no matter how different his or her opinion or attitude to life.
They finally retook full responsibility for their own lives and for those around them by overcoming their fear, passivity and victimhood, by learning once again to think for themselves and by standing up to a state assisted by its enablers, that had forgotten its only purpose: to serve and protect each and every one of its citizens, and not just those it chooses.
All totalitarian efforts always end on the dustheap of history. This one will be no exception.
- Christiaan W.J.M. Alting von GeusauChristiaan Alting von Geusau holds law degrees from the University of Leiden (Netherlands) and the University of Heidelberg (Germany). He obtained with distinction his doctorate in philosophy of law from the University of Vienna (Austria), writing his dissertation on “Human Dignity and the Law in post-War Europe”, which was published internationally in 2013. He is President and Rector of ITI Catholic University in Austria where he also serves as a Professor of Law and Education. He holds an honorary professorship at the Universidad San Ignacio de Loyola in Lima, Peru and is President of the International Catholic Legislators Network (ICLN). The opinions expressed in this essay are not necessarily those of the organizations he represents and have thus been written on personal title.READ MORE