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Anne-Marie Roviello

The Hidden Violence of

Totalitarianism: The Loss
of the Groundwork of the

following unexpected statement: totalitarian violence "is expressed

much more frighteningly in the organization of its followers than in
the physical liquidation of its opponents" (Arendt, 1979: 364). We understand at once that totalitarian organization is far more than just on the
outside, no matter how systematic. It is the organization of chaos, both
outside and inside individuals.
Of course, Arendt's intention is not to deny the radical physical
violence of totalitarianism. Her aim is to understand the distinctive
features of totalitarian terror: the terrifying component specific to totalitarianism is the terror engendered by the radical metamorphosis of a
habitable world into a fictitious world; a world of stable shapelessness
and established instability ("movement for movement's sake"), a world
unhinged, turned upside down where the monstrous and the absurd
are the rule; a world characterized not just by arbitrariness, but by
absolute coherence within this arbitrariness.
The real world no longer obeys its own elementary laws, and
correlatively, the human beings encountered in this world also seem
to have cut themselves off from elementary common sense concerning the distinction between truth and falsehood, and good and evil;
they even seem to have lost the ability to wonder about the meaning of
these distinctions. Instead of sharing vwth one another their experience

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Vol 74 : No 3 : Fall 2007


of the radical meaninglessness of the "functioning reality," instead of

making it an inter-est, they themselves participate in the enterprise of
covering up this no-sense with an ideo-logical Super-sense. The collapse
of the groundwork of the world at the same time as the radical attack on
the human bond that accompanies it, the withdrawal of other human
beings beyond the reach of human communication, lead to the individual's inner collapse. Radical alienation from the world and radical
alienation from oneself go hand in hand.
In order to fully understand the importance of what Arendt
is describing, we should compare this first moment of the analysis
with another assertion that seems just as paradoxical and that is also
in The Origins of Totalitarianism: noting totalitarianism's contempt for
facts and reality, Arendt remarks that the propaganda of totalitarian
movements is "invariably as frank as it is mendacious" (Arendt, 1979: 307).
Totalitarian propaganda is mendacious by its very frankness. Not even
seeking to hide the realities that refute it, it is ineffective from the
standpoint of the obvious; on the other hand, it is formidably efficient
from the very fact of that ineffectiveness, for it destabilizes judgment
and clouds all the issues that would make for an assured, sensible
Totalitarian propaganda does notjust he about the aims and real
actions of totalitarian movements or regimes: it also gives itself the
organization required to change the real world and make it "true" to its
assertions, though they be utterly absurd and utterly monstrous.
The formidable effectiveness of the violence of the totalitarian
lie is at least twofold: the totalitarian lie is no longer there to hide a
reality that remains intact behind it, it is a kind of "factual lie" that
"rests precisely on the elimination of that reality which either unmasks
the liar or forces him to live up to his pretense" (Arendt, 1979: 384). By
means of this basic, radical violence, and the immediate translation of
propaganda lies into a functioning reality (Arendt, 1979: 364), propaganda and organization force people into acting according to the rules
of a fictitious world, and thereby actively denying themselves, by denying
their spontaneous opening to the world.


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Through totalitarian organization the natural bonds of solidarity and communication are broken; they are replaced by distmst and
informing. Thus certain social or national categories of people are only
partially destroyed, as occurred under Stalinism, for the objective is
not so much to wipe out a specific categoryeven if some categories
are the first to be ostracized and wiped outby exterminating its every
member, but to destroy the spontaneous human bonds that make up
the cohesion of these human groups. The objective is to pervert human
plurality into a mass of fragmented individuals, to suppress the common
world and substitute it with alienation from the world, from others,
and from oneself
From then on, everything is blurred for the outside observer who
would still like to distinguish between adherence to the regime out
of conviction and submission through terror, organization, and indoctrination. The issue of knovdng whether this enthusiasm is forced or
sincere loses much ofits pertinence.
Let us keep this important point in mind when we pass judgment
too rapidly on the "fanaticism" of Islamic crowds streaming down the
streets of Teheran or any other totalitarian theocracy.
This world, which is not "simply" barbaric but unhinged, is
strangely alarming; but it is the human beings themselves who are
unhinged; particularly in welcoming the barbarity of the surrounding
world without seeming affected by it. Even in their dreams, the impassive faces and expressionless voices of close relations as well as distant
acquaintances pursue the victims not only of Nazism and Stalinism,
but also of Maoism, Pol Pot, the Afghanistan of the Taliban, and the Iran
The feeling of a very alarming uncanniness {Unheimlichkeit) in
the world, and the correlative loss of the reliability of fellow humans
encountered in this worldsometimes very close relations who have
themselves become unheimlichreplaces the experience in the world
that allows for an autonomous judgment of it. This alarming uncanniness produces a subtle but continuous disintegration of the "two-inone" that makes up the inner space of the individual, a disintegration

The Hidden Violence of Totalitarianisnn


that can attain a level of madness devastating to the self and to what
remains of the world.
The last stage of this disintegration is the withdrawal of the
victims themselves behind the same facade of impassivity.
Unselfishness to the point of self-sacrifice is the radicalized
expression of the radical loss of contact of the self with the self.
Arendt sees the monstrous self-abnegation of the famous Moscow
trialsduring which the defendants, out of conviction, supported being
sentenced to death for crimes they did not commitas the extreme
expression of a self-negation that affects the very psychological and
moral integrity of individuals and that is conditioned on the destmction of human plurality in its most elementary dimensions: resisting
the accusations brought against them would have required, on the part
of the Moscow defendants "great confidence in the existence of fellow
human beingsrelatives or friends or neighborswho will never
believe 'the story'" (Arendt, 1979: 353). However, this community of
meaning, the common requirement for meaning, in this case the sharing through speech of the radical no-sense of what is happening to us,
this elementary requirement for psychological and ethical freedom is
precisely what the organization and the propaganda set out to destroy.
Former victims of Maoist camps tell us that the first prisoners to
die were those who knew themselves to be abandoned by their relatives. Bettelheim makes the same comment: the camp prisoners who
felt abandoned by the entire world were the first to die.
Thus an elementary requirement for resisting unjust suffering
appears to be the knowledge that other human beings exist who are
likely to recognize the sense of radical injustice being made to the
victims and are liable to suffer from their suffering.
As we know, Arendt is describing the experience of desolation
(Bodenlosigeitj the loss of ground, the fundamental experience of human
beings subjected to totalitarianism: the ground of the real gives way
and with it the ability to judge and act in an autonomous manner; but
even more deeply, the individual's sense of self, the feeling of being a
self, gives way. In losing the groundwork of the world, the individual


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loses his own inner groundwork. Arendt's analysis is meant to reveal

the radical existential violence done in this way to the basic requirements of people's humaneness. This is a kind of attack not just on a
fundamental human right, but on the very precondition of all fundamental freedoms and human rights.
Arendt also says, "Man can force himself almost as violently as he is
forced by some outside power" (Arendt, 1979: 470; italics added). That is
the other fundamental dimension of totalitarianism's hidden violence;
it can be violence done by oneself against oneself at the same time
as against others, the radical wrenching away from one's own inner
The totalitarian lie is a kind of perversion, to the extent that it
forces individuals to participate actively, on the front line, indeed with enthu-

siasm, in the mendacious destruction of the very requirements of their

existence, including when their own lives are at stake. In driving them
to lie themselves, not about some reality that remains exterior to them,
but on the essential things of their existence, in compelhng individuals
to be the main agents in their own disintegration, totalitarian terror
completes the work of disintegration.
Propaganda being drummed out relentlessly, occupying, sensu
militari the entire space of public discourse, but also, too often, of
private discourse, this harassment and the state of permanent vigilance in which it thrusts individuals, destroys the last refuge as well:
the miniature plural space that is the "two-in-one" that makes up the
intimate counsel of individuals.
The ultimate stage of this psychological violence is to ban speech:
it is specifically prohibited to talk about this violence, recount it, or
make it into an object of inter-est and thereby dissipate part of the diffuse
terror it engenders. The hammering of propaganda is accompanied by a
law of absolute silence on the "real" future of totalitarian hes. Thus, in
Nazi Germany, it was strictly forbidden, under penalty of serious reprisals, to spread "rumors" about the camps.
It is easy to understand the perverse power of the ban on talking, the ban on communicating the evil taking place right near us.

The Hidden Vioience of Totalitarianism


brought about by us, or happening to us. The perversion of totalitarian indoctrination reaches its ultimate goal when individuals submit
to the obligation of describing the evil inflicted on them, and/or M^hich
they are inflicting, as a good, as the supreme good, and have to do so
publicly and solemnly. Therein lies the ultimate expression of the (self-)
destructive violence of the personality in totalitarian regimes. Because
the possibility of communicating with oneself and others, and because
the tendency of others to be concerned and stimulate further concern
about the evil being done in the worldthe evil befalling us, as well
as the evil we are involved inare not just a therapeutic extra for the
individual but a constituent dimension of personality, this totalitarian
omertd is much more than just a means of disinformation. It is not
just a silence about (vkTongjdoings, it is an integral part and. fundamental dimension of these wrongdoings, for it produces a subtle disintegration of personality, not only the persons who inflict the wrongdoings
and those who assist them, but also in those people who are subjected
to them. It becomes a fundamental dimension of life in totalitarian
Total domination is also total domination over space and time.
Organized chaos destroys the experience of the self as continuous in time. Perverting the power of anticipation, without which no
freedom is possible, substituting the unpredictability of events with
the unpredictability of absolute arbitrariness, totalitarian organization paralyzes freedom or forces it to anticipate the only future still
possible: that of its own terror to come. Individuals rapidly learn to live
without a future.
Arendt remarks that both Hitler and Stalin were sticklers for
This manifests itself by an over-determination of objects, of
gestures, of the most humdrum, insignificant situations, and by a
correlative destruction of the stability of meanings in the surrounding world. It begins with small details, and then grows until nothing
escapes the totalitarian super-sense.
In a toyshop, a child's ball bears a swastika. By its mere presence.


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even though buying a ball without a swastika is not expressly forbidden, a father who just wants to buy a ball for his son is forced to choose
between a gesture of "treason," of resistance, and a gesture of voluntary
submission and acquiescence to everything that the swastika represents.
In Ahmadinedjad's Iran, the young faithful are not allowed to
run in the streets or in stairways of their universities, because running
produces an anti-Islamic movement of the buttocks. Under the Taliban,
there was a ban on the whistling of teakettles.
It is no longer just a question of self-censorship, but of imposing
a permanent self-control on the smallest gestures, the smallest, most
natural movements of the body. In Iran and in the Afghanistan of the
Taliban, it is also forbidden to laugh in public.
The most familiar objects end up becoming suspicious precisely
because they are familiar. Human beings are thrust in a situation of
perverse harassment where just as they are about to open up to the world
v^th an affect of trust, that aflFect is transformed into its opposite.
The situation could be described as one of permanent ambush.
"We've lost the idea of tranquillity. When there's a lull all of a sudden
it terrifies us" (Khadra, 2004: 35-36). As Dominique Linhardt says about
terrorism, "life is attacked in the very doings that usually guarantee it"
(Linhardt, 2006: 73).
I would like to mention a final aspect of totaUtarianism's hidden
violence: making the horror unreal. Three conditions can be noted. The
first is to make the victim himself cany out the horror, as though he
subscribed to it. The second is to bring each person, even the victim
himself, to be absentfi-omthe situation, to repress the part of his being
that is affected by the situation. Radical violence for the victims who no
longer receivefi-omtheir own anesthetized selves the testimony of the
radical evil infiicted on them. The horror turns into a nightmare, into
the unreality of the nightmare, uncontrollable, if only in an imaginary
way. And third: it is forbidden to speak of the horror.Everyone knows
about the camps, everyone knows dreadful things go on in them, even
if they don't all know exactly what: rumors are spread, but they can

The Hidden Violence of Totaiitarianism


never be made into the subject of genuine exchanges. The sharing of

the meaning of this no-sense being impossible, the no-sense remains,
but it loses its solid presence; it floats around individuals and inside
them like an unheimlich (uncannily alarming) water in which they flounder about in vain.
The ultimate stage of totalitarianism's hidden violence: individuals become unreliable, alarming, unheimlich to themselves.
Translated from the French by Catherine Temerson.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt Brace

and Company, 1979.
Khadra, Yasmina. The Swallows of Kabul. Trans. John Cullen. New York:
Anchor, 2004.
Linhardt, Dominique. "Dans l'espace du soupcon." Esprit: Terrorisme et
contre-terrorisme, la guerre perpetueUe? (aout-septembre 2006): 70-80.


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