You will not find „atomization“ in the index of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism* (nor will you find „banality“ in the index of Eichmann in Jerusalem, at least not in the 1963 version). I wonder what that tells you about the original intention behind these concepts, which in many ways have become key concepts in our understanding of Arendt.

The idea of an atomized society is not only a powerful metaphor, but actually Arendt’s way to describe the deep essence of totalitarian society, going all the way down to the relations between individuals: „Mass atomization in Soviet society was achieved by the skillful use of repeated purges which invariably precede actual group liquidation. In order to destroy all social and family ties, the purges are conducted in such a way to threaten with the same fate the defendant and all his ordinary relations from mere acquaintances up to his closest friends and relatives“ (p. 323). The lack of personal relations characterize the whole structure from top to bottom: „The evidence of Hitler’s as well as Stalin’s dictatorship points clearly to the fact that isolation of atomized individuals provides not only the mass basis for totalitarian rule, but is carried through to the very top of the whole structure“ (p. 407). Finally it characterizes, as far as the Soviet Union is concerned, not only Stalinist society, but post-Stalinist as well: „Khrushchev learned from Stalin that every group of people who begin to show signs of class identity and solidarity must be broken up, ideologically for the sake of the classless society and practically for the sake of an atomized society which alone can be totally dominated. But what Stalin achieved by means of a permanent revolution and periodic gigantic purges, Khrushchev hopes to achieve by new devices, built into, so to speak, the social structure itself and meant to assure atomization from within“ (p. 485).

Yet, even though Arendt is talking about personal relations generally – i.e. trust, respect, confidence, security and companionship that in a „normal“ society would form the basis of everyday life, she also seems to se such relations from a politicized perspective, thereby ignoring (or missing) the strategies of social relations that would exist under any oppressive regime. But seeing such strategies would mean „normalizing“ totalitarianism as just one kind of oppression. That’s not her goal, since totalitarianism must be unique.

*Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York & London, HBJ, 1973.

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