Our Peculiar Hell

Our Peculiar Hell

If I had to select items of twentieth-century evidence to be found one day by future historians and archaeologists, the gas chambers of Auschwitz and the protocols of the Moscow trials would be high on my list. Twentieth-century man has brought forth his own peculiar hell—the modern one-party dictatorship, inhibited by no law or moral consideration in the exercise of its power, recognizing no private refuge of the individual in its effort to penetrate every sphere of life and to make every subject serve its purpose. Ours is the century in which novels about the future ceased to be Utopias and became nightmares—and not without reason.

There are still historians and other educated people who would deny the originality and uniqueness of what, for want of a shorter name, we call totalitarianism. They point to the age-old tradition of Asiatic despotism, to the Pharaohs who had their pyramids built by state slaves, or—more pertinently—to the pattern of plebeian revolution ending in tyrannis in ancient Greece or in the Italian Renaissance. They recall the link-up between an expanding empire and a fanatical faith during the conquering period of Islam or the European wars of religion, and they conclude that our contemporary horrors are just another installment in the recurrent story of unrestrained power and blind intolerance. The most they are willing to concede is that modern communications technique, by creating more efficient media of mass propaganda, has placed an additional weapon into the hands of the despot; but this by itself would hardly entitle us to speak of a basically new political and social phenomenon. In that view, a passionate concern with the phenomenon of totalitarianism appears merely as proof of a parochial time horizon—a deplorable lack of historical detachment.

In fact, however, twentieth-century totalitarianism shows essential features which are not to be found in any slave state, theocracy or revolutionary tyrannis of the past. It contains elements of all three, but combines them in a new context: the slave state is not static, but commands a modern industrial economy with rapidly changing technique; the official religion is secular; the tyrannis continues the revolutionary transformation of society. For one thing, totalitarian dictatorship is the product of the age of mass democracy; it does not aim at keeping its subjects politically quiet, but at forcing them into active support of its ever-new campaigns. For another, it aims at controlling all spheres of life of a highly complex and differentiated society, at extinguishing any remnant of independent forces, every germ of pluralism. To quote the closing words of Trotsky’s unfinished biography of Stalin:

‘L’Etat, c’est moi’ is almost a liberal formula by comparison with the actualities of Stalin’s totalitarian regime. Louis XIV identified himself only with the State. The Popes of Rome identifie...