Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences

Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences

Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences

Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences

Synopsis

This book examines the nature of totalitarianism as interpreted by some of the finest minds of the twentieth century. It focuses on Hannah Arendt's claim that totalitarianism was an entirely unprecedented regime and that the social sciences had integrally misconstrued it. A sociologist who is a critical admirer of Arendt, Baehr looks sympathetically at Arendt's objections to social science and shows that her complaints were in many respects justified.

Avoiding broad disciplinary endorsements or dismissals, Baehr reconstructs the theoretical and political stakes of Arendt's encounters with prominent social scientists such as David Riesman, Raymond Aron, and Jules Monnerot. In presenting the first systematic appraisal of Arendt's critique of the social sciences, Baehr examines what it means to see an event as unprecedented. Furthermore, he adapts Arendt and Aron's philosophies to shed light on modern Islamist terrorism and to ask whether it should be categorized alongside Stalinism and National Socialism as totalitarian.

Excerpt

Search, then, the Ruling Passion: There, alone,
The Wild are constant, and the Cunning known;
The Fool consistent, and the False sincere;
Priests, Princes, Women, no dissemblers here

—Alexander Pope, Moral Essays, Epistle I

This book examines the nature of totalitarianism as interpreted by some of the finest minds of the twentieth century. Russian Bolshevism and German National Socialism, personified by Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler, not only were responsible for the most devastating war in human history—excluding Chinese and Japanese casualties, it killed around 36 million soldiers and civilians. Bolshevik and Nazi aggression also produced camps and slave labor colonies that murdered millions more. Only a minority of those marked for extermination, exile, or forced labor were determined enemies of the regimes that slaughtered them. Given the opportunity, most would have kept their heads down, connived and colluded to be left alone. But totalitarian governments were the foe of tranquility. They unleashed wars, purges, and show trials. They demanded that completely innocent people admit to impossible crimes. They mobilized whole populations for conquest. They assigned death by category; it was not what you did that damned you, but what you were—a Jew, a Slav, an intellectual, a kulak, a “cosmopolitan.” Animating this culture of death were rituals and ideologies that prophesied earthly redemption: a . . .

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