Two world wars in one generation, separated by an uninterrupted chain of local wars and revolutions, followed by no peace treaty for the vanquished and no respite for the victor, have ended in the anticipation of a third world war between the two remaining world powers. This moment of anticipation is like the calm that settles after all hopes have died. We no longer hope for an eventual restoration of the old world order with all its traditions, or for the reintegration of the masses of five continents who have been thrown into a chaos produced by the violence of wars and revolutions and the growing decay of all that has still been spared. Under the most diverse conditions … we watch the development of the same phenomena – homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth …
It is as though mankind had divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organise masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.
On the level of historical insight and political thought there prevails an ill-defined, general agreement that the essential structure of all civilisations is at breaking point. Although it may seem better preserved in some parts of the world than in others, it can nowhere provide the guidance to the possibilities of the century, or an adequate response to its horrors.
The seer is Hannah Arendt, in the 1950 preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism. When she wrote a new preface to the book in 1966, and looked back for a moment at her original judgment, she was a touch apologetic. The Origins had been drafted between 1945 and 1949, and in retrospect it registered, she had come to feel, as a first effort to understand what had happened in the opening half of the 20th century, ‘not yet sine ira et studio, still in grief and sorrow and, hence, with a tendency to lament, but no longer in speechless outrage and impotent horror’. ‘I left my original preface in the present edition in order to indicate the mood of those years.’
I understand her unease. Already by the mid-1960s, the moment of The Origins of Totalitarianism’s second edition, the tone and even the substance of her 1950 reckoning with fascism and Stalinism had a period flavour. The world – or at least, the world of European and European-in-exile intellectuals – had decided that the 20th century’s long catastrophe was over. Many thought that 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, had marked its ending. And whatever crisis of civilisation had succeeded the earlier terrible catastrophe – Arendt and her friends were far from certain how to characterise the new situation, and certainly not inclined necessarily to see it as a respite from ongoing decay and powerlessness at the level of civil society – it could no longer be written about (or depicted) in epic terms. The fall of Europe had happened, tens of millions had perished, but the fall of Europe had not proved a new fall of Troy. After it had not come the savage god. Maybe ‘the essential structure of civilisation’ had broken; but the breakage, in the years after 1950, had failed to give rise to a new holocaust or a final nuclear funeral pyre. In place of the banality of evil had arrived the banality of Mutually Assured Destruction.