The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 2: Antisemitism

Previous posts in this series:

The Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1: Introduction.

In section 1 of The Origins of Totalitarianism, titled Antisemitism, Arendt describes the history of the Jews in Europe. Beginning with the rise of the nation-state in the late 18th and early 19th centuries most, Jews who were long-term residents of nation-states were given the status of citizen, although they never achieved social status, and were always suspected of allegiances outside the nation-state.

Wealthy Jewish bankers historically were treated more or less civilly, because of their utility in providing loans to governments. This group received various privileges, but generally was not admitted to society. They were more interested in remaining part of the Jewish Community, Arendt says, and did not seek assimilation. Many of the sons of the middle class Jews were highly educated. This group, the intellectual Jews, saw themselves as heirs to the traditions of educated Europeans, and sought assimilation. The great masses of poor Jews were isolated in most nations, by choice to enable them to maintain their religious practice, or by custom or by force.

Antisemitic parties grew in Germany, France and Austria beginning around 1880. Arendt attributes the rise of these parties in Germany in part to the creation of the German state by Bismarck who had always maintained working relations with the Jews. The aristocracy hated him because he ended their remaining feudal privileges, and they found it easy to attack him on Antisemitic grounds. Arendt says French Antisemitism is deeply rooted, and even though there was support for citizenship, there was always a great deal of suspicion throughout French society.

Arendt thinks a more important factor in the rise of Antisemitic parties was the massive corruption and fraud that came with the rise of capitalist systems, and which led to a financial crash in 1873 that lingered for years. The frauds were not perpetrated by Jews or by Jewish banks, but were enabled by the financial sector which was dominated by a few Jews. Arendt says that much of the loss fell on the lower middle class, small merchants and artisans. P. 37. The Jews who made loans to individuals among the lower middle classes were not the wealthy Jews who dealt with the nation-state, but small lenders who lived in local communities. They were thought to have political ambitions, seeking to rise to power on the backs of small, non-Jewish, borrowers. Antisemitic parties were a response to these perceived ambitions.

The essence of the first section may be the title of the second part: “Between Pariah and Parvenu”. As noted, some Jews were admitted to society and to roles in the State and intellectual life, but the Jewish people as a whole were excluded. Even social classes prepared to accord those masses a degree of legal, economic and even political equality would not accept Jews into social equality. Most Jewish people of Europe were never fully integrated, and were always on the edge of attack, as the Dreyfus Affair reveals. For those not familiar with this matter, there is a short description of the main facts beginning at P. 89. Arendt doesn’t say so, but Dreyfus’ granddaughter Madeleine fought in the French Resistance, was captured by the Nazis, and murdered in the Holocaust. Her name is on the family’s tombstone in a crowed corner of the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. I’ve seen it.

The Dreyfus Affair split French society between the Anti-Dreyfusards who supported the Army in its quest to punish Dreyfus even after it was established he was framed; and the Dreyfusards, who stood for the rule of law fairly applied. Here’s an absolutely fascinating discussion from the New York Times in 1904 of one well-known Anti-Dreyfusard, Madame de Loynes, whose portrait by Amaury-Duval hangs in the d’Orsay in Paris, and is one of my favorites. After Zola produced his J’accuse, people were in the streets on both sides. Leading Anti-Drefusards organized the Butcher Brigades, largely groups of Parisian butchers, to attack the Dreyfusards wherever they gathered, ostensibly on the grounds that they were opposed to the Army, and thus to the nation. See P. 111. This group is a precursor to the Brownshirts, who used violence to attack forces arrayed against the economic establishment in Germany, or the Blackshirts in Italy in the early 20s.

Arendt’s history is much more complex, and even a bit troubling in its emphasis on the role played by Jewish bankers. This brief discussion is intended to point out two of the ideas that resonate throughout The Origins of Totalitarianism. First, it demonstrates the importance of economic issues in creating political movements. The main cause of the financial crash was the unrestrained market organization of the economy, led by the Aristos and the rich Capitalists. The lower middle class supporters of the Antisemitic parties were deflected from identifying the actual cause, in large part because of centuries-old distrust and hatred of the Jews. Thus, the position of the capitalists and the Aristos was never seriously threatened.

It also highlights a crucial point about assimilation. European Jews were always available as a scapegoat in times of crisis. The status of French citizen didn’t protect French Jews, even the famous, like the family of Nissim-Camondo, from being deported to Auschwitz by the Vichy Government.

The Butcher Brigades offer a parallel to the Klan and others who attacked and murdered Black people for decades. They’re like the Pinkertons and the militias attacking union workers across the US for decades. The dead African-Americans, these dead union members and their families, found that they had no political rights despite their putative status as US citizens. We might even see echoes of the attacks on the antiwar protesters in the 60s and Black Lives Matter today, or gun-toting anti-Muslim morons.

Here’s a good example of fear of immigrants from President Wilson’s Third Annual Message to Congress in 1915:

I am sorry to say that the gravest threats against our national peace and safety have been uttered within our own borders. There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have sought to bring the authority and good name of our Government into contempt, to destroy our industries wherever they thought it effective for their vindictive purposes to strike at them, and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue. … Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out. They are not many, but they are infinitely malignant, and the hand of our power should close over them at once. They have formed plots to destroy property, they have entered into conspiracies against the neutrality of the Government, they have sought to pry into every confidential transaction of the Government in order to serve interests alien to our own.

According to Wilson, the crime of participating in politics is at the heart of the damage done by these immigrants. They have no right to object to government policies or to argue for one side or the other in WWI. They have no right to organize as unions and take on the capitalists. These are equally grave crimes to Wilson. And his 1915 speech could easily have been given by any of today’s Republican presidential candidate about all immigrants.

And it goes without saying that there is one group of US citizens who have never been assimilated.

10 replies
  1. bloopie2 says:

    Dense and educational post, thank you. (From one who unfortunately knows little about this history). There are some hints in your post, about just WHY Jews have been hated and pushed aside like no others. Can one say more about that?

  2. bevin says:

    “Leading Anti-Drefusards organized the Butcher Brigades, largely groups of Parisian butchers, to attack the Dreyfusards wherever they gathered, ostensibly on the grounds that they were opposed to the Army, and thus to the nation. …”
    Action Francaise has a reasonable claim to being considered the first european fascist movement. It was certainly anti-Jewish but its focus was on fighting socialists and the left in general.
    As to the army, some context might be helpful. The French army was badly beaten in 1870, by the Germans. It was re-organised, under the benevolent eyes of the German occupation forces in 1871 and attacked the Paris Commune which it suppressed with enormous brutality, in much the same way that, in the previous Revolution of 1848, the army had massacred leftist social revolutionaries.
    In the Third Republic the army became almost autonomous in its conduct of colonial adventures- essentially the army which Dreyfus fell afoul of was reactionary, monarchist, ultra catholic, imperialist, corrupt and implacably hostile to the left.
    Militarism and military officers were important components of all fascist movements. They remain so. This strand of fascism has long outlasted the old strain of “anti-semitism” whose roots lie in the medieval church, and which were refreshed, as Arendt appears to be saying by the crucial part that Jews-and conversos- played in the development of long distance trade in the Columbian era, as well as the connections formed between Jewish communities and the courts of eastern Europe.
    The role of the despised other, the outlander, is played by a variety of communities, religious, ethnic and otherwise organised. Those looking for anti-semitism as a characteristic of fascism are liable to miss many of the more virulent of its forms. Most notably the form it takes in Palestine where the Israeli government is deeply marked by fascist themes, ideas and practises, without being anti-semitic.

    • Ed Walker says:

      Thanks, that is indeed helpful context. The connection of the French Army to the Catholics is of special note. Anti-clericalism was strong in the wake of the French Revolution, and the effort to reestablish the Church was a strong component of French conservatism in that time.
      The role of the French Army in crushing the Commune is a real black mark against the Army, which included a large number of Aristos in the Officer Corps, and many of the soldiers were steeped in Napoleonic grandeur. There is still an active group of people organized around the Commune, l’Association des Amis de la Commune de Paris at 46 Rue de Cinq Diamants, in the 14th Arr. Here’s an interesting discussion by Adam Gopnik of a recent book about the Commune.

    • haarmeyer says:

      The origins of the hatred do not flow from Jews to Jewish bankers, but rather from banking unfairly back to all Jews. It does indeed have to do with the Church, which in the name of proscribing usury, effectively banned Christians from making loans, a ban from which the Jews were exempt. Similar prohibitions existed in Spain under Muslim rule, which also banned Muslims from “usury”, as well as banning Muslims from brokering slave deals, which occupations came to be associated with Jews, and then Jews with the feelings about those occupations.

  3. gmoke says:

    Not just anti-Semitism but xenophobia and the demonization of the Other are foundational to historical totalitarianism. You can see this in Hungary under Orbán and Fidesz. There weren’t enough Jews left in Hungary to demonize them effectively so they used the Romany people instead and now have expanded that xenophobia and racist prejudice to include the refugee populations coming from Syria and other countries destroyed by military and economic warfare.

    “Popular” totalitarianism seems to require some Other who can easily be distinguished and crushed with impunity to get the blood lust going while the totalitarian rulers pick the pockets of the people.

  4. wmd says:

    The Dreyfus Affair split French society between the Anti-Dreyfusards who supported the Army in its quest to punish Dreyfus even after it was established he was framed; and the Anti-Dreyfusards, who stood for the rule of law fairly applied.

    There’s an extra “Anti” prefix here.

  5. haarmeyer says:

    As per your final quote from Wilson’s speech, he goes on to talk about people born in the U.S. as well:

    There are some men among us, and many resident abroad who, though born and bred in the United States and calling themselves Americans, have so forgotten themselves and their honor as citizens as to put their passionate sympathy with one or the other side in the great European conflict…

    In 1917 Congress obliged with the Espionage Act, and in 1918 with the Sedition Act of 1918, the target of both of which were German-Americans, and the purpose of which was to legalize the actions already being taken against them in the name of patriotism by local law enforcement and vigilantes — up to and including beatings, jailings, tar and featherings and in at least one documented case, lynching.

  6. Evangelista says:

    “And it goes without saying that there is one group of US citizens who have never been assimilated.”


    Do you mean indigenous American peoples, or do you mean to suggest there is another “group” who have been designated “varmint” and approved for exterminations on the North American continent, and have “never been assimilated”?

    You certainly cannot mean “Semitic” peoples, even Jewish and Arabic both, since even taken together, to combine discriminations against both for maximization, they all have come in far below Blacks, ‘Mexicans’ and even Italians, who are, to this day, defined as ‘greasy, dangerous gangsters’. ‘Mexicans’, of course, includes all ‘Hispanic’ language (some’s ‘Hispanic’ is non-recognized ‘Indio’) Indigenous-descent peoples, and Arabs have suffered extraordinary discrimination only since Zionist organized orchestration (They were a ‘foreign menace’ during the Barbary Pirates fomentation). In fact, prior to Zionism, the bell-curve for entry, antagonism, assimilation, acceptance for Jews on the North American continent was a near exact match for that of the Irish, only the dates of occurrence differing, for the Jewish immigrant ‘invasion’ occurring later.

    You have to be careful of facile grabbings and transferrings of pseudo-parallels from European and Russian Empire histories. There is a regular industry of sympathy-grubbers who cut onions in those fields frequently and regularly. They will skew you into faux history.

  7. Alan says:

    I missed commenting on the first post and wanted to comment on this part:

    The technique adopted by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation was to look far back into history to show the wave that swept over European nations with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism as the dominant form of economic organization. Foucault uses the same technique, for example in Discipline and Punish, which describes the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the working people of France.

    That’s not what Foucault is doing in D&P. Foucault isn’t doing history; he’s subverting totalizing narratives.

    If the genealogist refuses to extend his faith in metaphysics, if he listens to history, he finds that there is “something altogether different” behind things: not a timeless and essential secret, but the secret that they have no essence or that the essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms. (Foucault in Nietzsche, Genealogy, History).

    Foucault is not describing the “impact of the Industrial Revolution on the working people of France”. D&P unearths various assemblages of techniques/practices and their constitution of fields of knowledge/power. He’s looking at disciplinary techniques that take hold in a variety of settings and create various types of objectivities and subjectivities. In other works he looks at other micro-practices. He’s finding “something altogether different”. Contrast the brutal torture/death scene with which D&P opens with Bentham’s ‘enlightened’ rationalism as it appears in the Panopticon chapter. They both constitute forms of power/knowledge. Is there progress from one to the other? Do you believe the grand reformist narrative? In modernity man becomes an object of knowledge (observation, documentation) and diverse rationalizations (ordering, techniques, manipulations, bureaucracy, techniques of government). Forget about states (totalitarian or otherwise), sovereigns, dictators, actors behind history, etc. for a moment. To understand power, or at least grasp how it might be resisted, one might start with the ‘sciences’ of ‘Man’, modes of rationalization, techniques of governance, etc., that is, from the bottom up.
    For discussion of subversion and resistance of said sciences see Against Totalitarianism: Agamben, Foucault, and the Politics of Critique. Foucault Studies (December 19, 2015): 155–79.

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