Hannah Arendt Explains How Propaganda Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Morality: Insights from The Origins of Totalitarianism

Image by Bernd Schwabe, via Wikimedia Commons

At least when I was in grade school, we learned the very basics of how the Third Reich came to power in the early 1930s. Paramilitary gangs terrorizing the opposition, the incompetence and opportunism of German conservatives, the Reichstag Fire. And we learned about the critical importance of propaganda, the deliberate misinforming of the public in order to sway opinions en masse and achieve popular support (or at least the appearance of it). While Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels purged Jewish and leftist artists and writers, he built a massive media infrastructure that played, writes PBS, “probably the most important role in creating an atmosphere in Germany that made it possible for the Nazis to commit terrible atrocities against Jews, homosexuals, and other minorities.”

How did the minority party of Hitler and Goebbels take over and break the will of the German people so thoroughly that they would allow and participate in mass murder? Post-war scholars of totalitarianism like Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt asked that question over and over, for several decades afterward. Their earliest studies on the subject looked at two sides of the equation. Adorno contributed to a massive volume of social psychology called The Authoritarian Personality, which studied individuals predisposed to the appeals of totalitarianism. He invented what he called the F-Scale (“F” for “fascism”), one of several measures he used to theorize the Authoritarian Personality Type.

Arendt, on the other hand, looked closely at the regimes of Hitler and Stalin and their functionaries, at the ideology of scientific racism, and at the mechanism of propaganda in fostering “a curiously varying mixture of gullibility and cynicism with which each member... is expected to react to the changing lying statements of the leaders.” So she wrote in her 1951 Origins of Totalitarianism, going on to elaborate that this “mixture of gullibility and cynicism... is prevalent in all ranks of totalitarian movements":

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and nothing was true... The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

Why the constant, often blatant lying? For one thing, it functioned as a means of fully dominating subordinates, who would have to cast aside all their integrity to repeat outrageous falsehoods and would then be bound to the leader by shame and complicity. “The great analysts of truth and language in politics”---writes McGill University political philosophy professor Jacob T. Levy---including “George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel—can help us recognize this kind of lie for what it is.... Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism.”

Arendt and others recognized, writes Levy, that “being made to repeat an obvious lie makes it clear that you’re powerless.” She also recognized the function of an avalanche of lies to render a populace powerless to resist, the phenomenon we now refer to as “gaslighting”:

The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end---is being destroyed.

The epistemological ground thus pulled out from under them, most would depend on whatever the leader said, no matter its relation to truth. “The essential conviction shared by all ranks,” Arendt concluded, “from fellow traveler to leader, is that politics is a game of cheating and that the ‘first commandment’ of the movement: ‘The Fuehrer is always right,’ is as necessary for the purposes of world politics, i.e., world-wide cheating, as the rules of military discipline are for the purposes of war.”

“We too,” writes Jeffrey Isaacs at The Washington Post, “live in dark times"---an allusion to another of Arendt’s sobering analyses—“even if they are different and perhaps less dark.” Arendt wrote Origins of Totalitarianism from research and observations gathered during the 1940s, a very specific historical period. Nonetheless the book, Isaacs remarks, “raises a set of fundamental questions about how tyranny can arise and the dangerous forms of inhumanity to which it can lead.” Arendt's analysis of propaganda and the function of lies seems particularly relevant at this moment. The kinds of blatant lies she wrote of might become so commonplace as to become banal. We might begin to think they are an irrelevant sideshow. This, she suggests, would be a mistake.

via Michiko Kakutani

Related Content:

Hannah Arendt’s Original Articles on “the Banality of Evil” in the New Yorker Archive

Enter the Hannah Arendt Archives & Discover Rare Audio Lectures, Manuscripts, Marginalia, Letters, Postcards & More

Hannah Arendt Discusses Philosophy, Politics & Eichmann in Rare 1964 TV Interview

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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  • Randy says:

    “the ideology of scientific racism”

    This line caught my attention, because it reflects precisely what is going on, on university campuses today, regarding things like “toxic masculinity” and “the patriarchy”.

    It’s why it’s OK to hit men. It’s why it’s OK to cut men. It’s why it’s OK to force men into war. It’s why it’s OK to lock men up. It’s why it’s OK to ignore male suicide.

    It’s amazing that we recently had a march whose missing reflects many of the issues facing men more than anyone else today, and not a word was said about how these impact men. It was all about women, even though the group most vulnerable to these problems is not women.

    These people happily pat each other on the back for fighting for “equality”. But they only care for a single group, the group least at risk.

    That is the banality of evil.

  • Randy says:

    Typo: “missing” should be “mission”. But “missing” is as good a word for it.

  • Sandy says:

    I understand why we have people calling Trump Hitler etc.
    Just by reading these articles and accepting what they say, not because they are accurate, but because they are in the academia. It is the perfect snooty rooty cazooty snobazooty.
    This kind of philosophy, as in this article, has appeal to the scholar snobs of the world.

  • C Baker says:

    Randy, your comment isn’t even a little on topic.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Sandy, this is an educational website, so I’m curious about why you’re here if you don’t value scholarship.

  • Lab Guy says:

    Randy is right.

    Look at press recently Trump. The major media networks and print to push these nonsense narratives like Russian hacking or some other theme. The public is dumb but not that dumb.

    Don’t forget Saul Alinksy which was followed by the last president. Pretty laughable those with any brains overlook the totalitarianism of the left.

  • Russell Scott Day says:

    The USA has been first in many things. The Confederate States of America was Stalinist before Stalin got around to robbing banks.

  • Rich says:

    Lab Guy, didn’t you notice that Arendt looked at Stalin and Hitler? I suppose you didn’t get that far in the article. However, your implication that Obama somehow represents a totalitarian left is laughable. If you can’t understand what you read, maybe it’s best left not to comment.

  • Snowball says:

    Sandy is part of the US version of the Red Guards of China during the Cultural Revolution. Smash the intellectuals! They self-destructed because they had nothing to lose against the 1%, the scholar class and those with access to opportunities. Thousands died, and China has spent the past century trying to recover. If you go to China, most of the art, buildings, innovative ideas come from outside of China (until recently.)

    That is where you pathetic and self-defeating anti-intellectualism gets you.

  • Max says:

    This is a great explanation for the left’s continuing attempts to lead with emotion rather than facts. And the minions that follow are quick to act on that emotion due to their susceptibility. For it is far easier to answer the call of feelings than to work at a valid argument — if there is one.

  • Johnny White says:

    Sandy, it’s never too late. Wake up. Save yourself. trump may not be Hitler, but trump is toxic. Yer doing what trump needs to do, or suffer–eek– criticism. Which is to take a criticism of his own behavior and pin it on his “enemies”. Come out like the “victim”.

  • Esem says:

    Looks to me like this “Sandy” is doing exactly what the article talked about, diminishing information. Using silly made up words to diminish the possibility further. Not sure if she believes this, or if she is acting out sarcasm with that remark.

  • E says:

    The comments section on this article is so ironic I might throw up.

  • Dave says:

    Randy is putting forth just the kind of gaslighting the article refers to. The facts defy his statements. After a winning campaign of misogyny and racism, it’s astounding how he can make the claim he makes.

  • Ed Crist says:

    Humans have a long history of forgetting most of history. Over and over totalitarianism has thrived because otherwise good people yearn for safety and comfort promised by charismatic figures. Add to that, when ‘alternative facts’ get in the way of their comfort and security, they are at least shunned and at worse the intellectual is persecuted and often times killed (reference above to China and also Cambodia and Russia) . I am not optimistic that our species will ever purge itself of the need and desire of despots. Perhaps I’m wrong.

  • Emma says:

    I think Randy/Sandy are the same person, mistaking the Internet for Reddit.

  • McGillFluffyLeaves says:

    It’s important to not overanalyze human nature – it can always be boiled down into simple universal laws.
    People move.
    They act.
    Their acts have consequences.
    When people act together, the consequences of their actions multiply exponentially.
    If you want people to act together efficiently, you find a target – in 1930s Germany, the easy one was the Jews.
    If you want people to act together justly – that is, not harming others, and having obligations aimed in that direction – you find a way to stop people from moving, and have them do some yoga. That wouldn’t last very long.
    If you want to maximize “no harm” and have a productive society, people need to be taught to look after themselves enough to not care about hurting another, and looking after themselves hooks up with increasing comfort levels if we live in a society concerned with wealth.

  • McGillandLeaves says:

    It’s important to not overthink human nature and boil it down to simple, universal laws.
    People move.
    People act.
    Their actions have consequences.
    When people act together, the consequences of their actions multiply exponentially.
    If you want people to act together most efficiently, you need to find a target, Jews being perfect in 1930s Germany.
    If you want people to live in a just society, people have to stop moving and acting, and do yoga. That wouldn’t last long.
    But if you want to maximize justice without stopping our natural desires to move and act, and while increasing comfort levels, people have to care about themselves first enough to not bother with hurting other people, and tying that to the dollar reinforces that “self love” while increasing overall comfort.

  • Evan Hadkins says:

    Great article. It gets gaslighting slightly wrong though.

  • Diane Ramsey says:

    While everyone is debating how this happened and who to blame, we’re forgetting the basics: Trump is a narcissistic sociopath; a conman, a liar, an instinctive fascist. He hasn’t read any history or scholarly articles. He’s a natural populist/fascist which his supporters mistake for being “authentic”. If they thought for even a minute about the string of lies coming out of his mouth, they wouldn’t have voted for him. But what good con men do is make you stop thinking. “They” are all liars. “Listen only to me”. “Only I can save you”. Repeat endlessly. It’s downright hypnotic! That’s what we’re dealing with. We don’t really need a debate on what the GDP is in any particular year!

  • charlotte says:

    I really appreciate this kind of re-orientation after one frightening week of the Trump presidency. My code name for him is El Feo – the ugly one – because his actual name means to one-up someone – it’s almost too ironic to be true. The male ego won – the white supremacist won – the casual fascist won. Now we have to defend factuality, and that’s psychologically difficult. It means you have to constantly go back to what you know is true and question what will become the norm. The lessons of history don’t lie, however. After 9-11 the Patriot Act allowed the constitution to be enforced arbitrarily. For over 15 years the gas lighting has been at that level, too (yes, even under Obama!) Maybe the constitution doesn’t really say there’s a separation of church and state, maybe we are not all created equal, maybe climate change is a hoax, etc. Blame it on liberals and the media. But historical evidence and artifacts don’t lie: look at how degraded and disgusting Nazi culture was. Women were given a heavy, ugly iron cross for making babies who would become cannon fodder, an insult added to their injury but which was considered an honor. Just look at the aesthetics when the lies become too much: El Feo’s ugliness projected everywhere – his version of greatness. Look at the aesthetic of the Italian movement of Fascism, replacing the beautiful art and culture with ugly monuments to militarism – monuments that they later took down and are ashamed of. Look at Germany’s ugly monuments – the death camps. Look at El Feo’s projected discomfort with himself and tactless gaudy demeanor. It’s no wonder so many US citizens have a kind of collective PTSD right now. Once coping is established, however, we’ll be back, and stronger than before.

  • Someone says:

    The comments here indicate a dislike for the person of Donald Trump. In reading the following article, be aware that Hopkins is not an enthusiast either despite his observations on the nature of the reporting on the man.

    Why Ridiculous Official Propaganda Still Works by CJ Hopkins


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