The Origins of Totalitarianism

The Origins of Totalitarianism Study Guide

Though published and widely known as The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt's work was originally conceived under the name The Burden of Our Time. This alternate title reveals the purpose of the work: to interrogate the terrible burden placed on civilization by the horrors of the 20th century. Having stayed briefly in a concentration camp herself, Arendt was attempting to understand what historical development led to the rise of totalitarianism in the forms of Hitler and Stalin so that society might be better able to handle the burden of history.

The work was first published in 1951, but revised 7 years later following the events of the Hungarian revolution in 1956. Arendt considered this the first example of a people rising up against total domination and felt it necessarily to seriously add to her work. She wrote and added the final chapter, "Ideology and Terror," as well as making additions to portions of Part II on Imperialism. Finally, in 1967 she wrote additional prefaces to each section that are now published alongside the 1958 version.

This work is considered by many to be one of the most important works of political theory in the 20th century. However, at the time Arendt was a bit unorthodox. Her methods of analysis did not fit in with sociology, which had become quite popular by the '50s, nor did consider her work strictly philosophy. She called her own work "political theory," which has since become a very popular phrase but was not without its critics at the time. The book has maintained its popularity and is still considered a work of central importance to this day.