There are very few things that are better than multi-talents. The “Renaissance men” of any age, whether Da Vinci or Franklin, are praised for their ability to excel in not only one difficult area, but any field they happen across. That being said, if there was a “Renaissance book” displaying a mastery of the sciences in a way comparable to those great artists, it might be Hannah Arendt’s book The Origins of Totalitarianism.
Working in equal parts as a work of ethnology, sociology, history, and philosophy, Arendt’s essay, published in 1951, is a deeply researched and engrossing study of totalitarianism. Beyond just this analysis, the book (as its title would suggest) spends an equal amount of time investigating how the system of destruction came about. As she establishes at the beginning in her discussion of anti-Semitism, Arendt is not only focused on what occurred during totalitarian reigns, but why and how they came to be. Amidst the book’s discussions continental anti-Semitism and British overseas imperialism, Arendt spends a notable amount of time on two episodes of history largely considered footnotes — the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary and the “pan-movement” nationalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The pan-movements were ethnicity-based nationalist movements which arose in the Austrian and Russian hinterlands that were in many ways the forerunners of mid-20th century totalitarianism. As Arendt writes, “Nazism and Bolshevism owe more to Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism (respectively) than to any other ideology or political movement.” Though largely sidelined in favor of their far more murderous mid-20th century cousins, the pan-movements represented a shift in political organization, formed and developed in the crucible of pre-World War One and interwar Eastern Europe. Though these pan-movements were not exclusively Austrian, with Pan-Germans in Germany and Pan-Slavs in Russia, the weakness of Austria-Hungary allowed the political and ideological elements of the pan-movements to fully come to the fore.
In the Austrian state, Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism brought forth their twin tenets of movement and ideology that would come to characterize future totalitarian regimes. As these movements acted to weaken Austria-Hungary, they also learned from it, borrowing from the Dual Monarchy a reliance on powerful, arbitrary bureaucracies. Even after the fall of Austria-Hungarian Empire, the resulting nation states cemented the goals of the pan-movements and created a refugee wave which laid the totalitarian foundation across all of Europe. Arguably, more than any other political development, the pan-movements and their incubation in Austria-Hungary is the true “origin of totalitarianism.”
The first tenet of the pan-movements was movement: the continued striving towards governmental destruction and reorganization. In the cases of Pan-Germanism and Pan-Slavism (both of which could be found within Austria-Hungary), the animating force behind the movement was severe anti-statism directed towards the government in Vienna.
Austria-Hungary’s approach to managing its various ethnic groups made the government a compelling enemy for all those who were nominally its citizens. Towards the end of its existence, lacking a strong monarch for a unifying figure, the decaying empire survived by playing the different ethnic groups of the state off each other. Whether the “mutual antagonism and exploitation” occurred between the Czechs and Germans or the Poles and Ruthenians, tensions between the various groups kept the empire as a whole manageable but could not be a lasting fix. Instead, as the grievances between the groups multiplied in number and age, each nationality grew to desire independence at all costs. For many, despotic rule by their kindred seemed far more appealing than rule by an outsider government which continued to pit them against their antagonistic neighbors.
This level of popular grievance towards the Austrian government was unmatched in pre-war Europe. As a political matter, this meant that the revolutionary energy of the early 20th century, normally directed towards industrialists or landowners, was solely focused in Austria towards defeating and destroying the ruling apparatus. However, both the pan-movements and the future anti-state totalitarian movements drew their potency largely from the second part of Arendt’s formulation — ideology.
The “ideology” component, the tenets of the movement not reached through practical matters but assumed through theory, paved the way for the ethnicity based domination and extermination that would come to characterize the totalitarianism of the 20th century. Though the pan-movements centered their ideology on Slavic and German nationalism, their focus was not on homeland or history. Instead, both groups believed in an “absolute claim to closeness” that offered a “new religious theory and a new concept of holiness.” Each group believed, as Arendt quotes an early Russian historian, that they were the “true divine people of modern times,” blessed by God to unite and hold power. This mindset not only led to the movements eschewing Christian orthodoxy and institutions unless such things were politically expedient, but also meant an inherent surpassing of the “narrow bounds” of countries, building on and reinforcing the anti-state character of the movements. If the Slavic genius existed within the Slavic people, whether they were ruled by the German state or the Austrian state was irrelevant. As a German politician put it, “world politics,” the politics of ethnicity and nationality, “transcend[ed] the framework of the state.”
Along with the pan-movement’s claim to divine right came a virulent anti-Semitism, which Arendt distinguishes from normal “Jew-hatred” by the fact that it was separate from “all actual experience concerning the Jewish people.” Previously, Austrian parties had expressed anti-Semitic sentiment, but their lack of harmful action against Jews when in office showed they were more political opportunists than true anti-Semites. Arendt even describes the mayorship of one candidate who won the election on an anti-Semitic platform as a “kind of golden age” for Viennese Jews. In contrast, the new pan-Germanist party in Austria, led by Georg Schoener, was willing to declare anti-Semitism as “the mainstay of the national ideology… [and] the major national achievement of the century,” and was anti-Semitic in both word and deed. This marked shift came in part from tying in the Jews with the hated Austro-Hungarian state, but, more frighteningly, it sprung from the pure application of the pan-movement’s ideology. The pan-movements recognized that the Jewish people also believed they were chosen by God, and this familiarity bred hatred due to the simple fact that “the pan-movement’s claim [to divine chosenness] could clash seriously only with the Jewish claim.” Threatened by the surface level similarity between themselves and the Jews, the pan-movement nationalists saw the others’ “competing claim” as a direct and irresolvable threat. This tension — totally ideological and, thus, totally unreconcilable — would later lead to the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime, which decided it could resolve what it saw as a challenge to its Pan-Germanism inspired ideology by destroying the other “claimants.”
The movement and ideology of the pan-movements were intrinsic to the movements themselves, and their residence in Austria-Hungary was only important insofar as the weakened country allowed those elements to come to the front. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy which came to characterize the pan-movements was lifted mainly from Austria-Hungary (as well as Russia to a lesser extent). The Austro-Hungarian rulers, attempting to assert their authority across the country, often resorted to bureaucratic decree to control the far-flung ethnic populations in their frontier that absolutely hated them. This bureaucracy, also found in the Russian monarchy, had clear benefits for pacifying the frontier populations. However, these advantages, whether quickness of execution or easy steamrolling of local institutions, all relied on an understanding of raw political power as unquestionable and absolute. This arbitrary rule, further heightened by the “facelessness” and untraceable nature of faraway apparatchiks, led to leaders and politicians conceptualizing legislation as arbitrary rule and governance as domination. The proto-Bolsheviks and Nazis who lived in Austria and Russia were fascinated with the directness of bureaucracy, and hoped to repurpose it from a tool of the monarchy into the sword of the movement. As one Pan-Slav noted with awe, bureaucracy was “a tremendous machine, constructed after the simplest principles, guided by one man… Who would dare to attack us and whom could we not force into obedience?” Though the role of the bureaucracy would be deepened and expanded upon as an instrument of political organization in future totalitarian societies, its origins lay firmly with the governance of the Austrian state.
Of course, Austria-Hungary did not rule forever, and the Habsburg Monarchy was dissolved into various states at the end of World War One. However, the remnants of Austria-Hungary would continue to contribute to the rise of totalitarianism. The postwar peace treaties were supposed to be opportunities for national self-determination which would spread the liberal order into Eastern Europe, but instead the resulting states aided the total collapse of constitutional rule across the region. The key reason that the treaties spectacularly backfired was that they were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the ethnic landscape of the region. The patchwork of nationalities across Eastern Europe, not yet homogenized by the massive postwar transfer of peoples to conform to national borders, could not be grouped into neat, ethnically similar populations. One look at the map of the chaotic hodgepodge of ethnicities in Austria-Hungary, and it should have been clear, as one German writer put it, that the “nation-state principle [could not] be introduced to Eastern Europe.” The victorious Allies failed to understand this.
Instead of setting up neutral, law-based states which were impartial to ethnicity, the peace treaties established nation-states which clearly prioritized one nationality over another. Moreover, they attempted to protect minorities inside those countries by special international legislation — a sign that the victorious powers did not even believe the new governments had an obligation to take care of their minority citizens. The Allies, in this way, made a full concession to the nationalism and exclusion of the pan-movements, and emboldened their further rise across Germany and elsewhere. In the end, it became a matter of course for the government to go against the minorities and the minorities to hate the government which either wanted them assimilated or liquidated.
In tandem with the legitimization of the nation as the foundation of government came a wave of denaturalizations and stateless, paperless refugees. Overwhelmed by a surge of people that could not be returned to countries that would not take them, and unable to repatriate the crowd to nation-states which were not their homeland, the states of Western Europe became reliant on extra legal actions by police to turn back and detain people at their borders. Just as bureaucracy outsourced governing from the normal channels of the state in Austria-Hungary, empowered police across Europe became absolute authorities in themselves, operating without oversight or control. The emboldened authorities in each state also built networks of communication and cooperation to contain the growing refugee population, creating the core enforcement layer for the totalitarian apparatus to come. Even after the country’s end, the remnants of Austria-Hungary continued to empower pan-movements, heighten ethnic strife, and help establish powerful, uncontrollable police apparatus, all of which paved the way for the totalitarian demagogues of the future.
After discussing the issue of the stateless populations in Europe, Arendt begins her section on totalitarianism. In this way, both explicitly in argument and structurally within the essay’s structure, the eruption of the pan-movements within Austria-Hungary and other locales represents the final “origins” of the political movements to come. However, the pan-movements are not just noteworthy as a forerunner to brutal one-party rule. Instead, both the pan-movements and the fall of Austria-Hungary are important reminders about the incredible significance of the minutiae of history, and how events occurring long before major occurrences can be informative and compelling in their own regard.
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