As an American born in the 20th century, I am familiar with concentration camps. I am familiar in the Hollywood fashion, and through the books I have read. Despite this familiarity, I cannot conceive of the horror of concentration camp life. What I have seen in newsreels of World War II or have read in books defies my imagination. I do not want to imagine myself starving, without privacy, books, clothes, music, or decent hygienic shelter. I cannot imagine how awful it must be to be in such physical misery, surrounded by similar misery, and to simultaneously be the object of derision, apathy and torment. In such a condition, I suspect I would wonder if I were a human being. The Jewish writer Hannah Arendt describes concentration camps as bad as this and worse; she explains that the ones created in Germany for the Jews were the result of totalitarianism, which is a kind of government that wields its force through domination over its people. The resulting terror produced by totalitarianism stamps out individuality and propagates a kind of strength that is destructive rather than enriching to the human spirit.
Hannah Arendt explains that total domination has as its objective to treat all human beings as if they were just one individual (para 2, 282). “Conformity” is the word that comes to mind to explain what she means by this. She writes that totalitarian domination uses ideological domination of the “elite formations,” (para 2, 282) two words signifying all militants serving the ideology. On the opposite end of the spectrum, totalitarian domination uses terror to dominate anyone not serving or sustaining the ideology. Before investigating what the results of such a strategy would be, it behooves anyone contemplating totalitarianism to wonder why a nation would wish to embrace such a technique.
We can find the answer on the school yard. Bullies dominate by creating scapegoats. The purpose of their domination is power. Those who follow and back up bullies emulate them, thus embracing the bully ideology, as thin as that is. Bullying has no particular benefit to the school yard save the immediate sense of superiority it gives those who embrace and employ its techniques. Successful bullying grants material gain to the bullies, even good grades, if they learn how to employ their techniques to that end. However, bullying does not nourish individuality, neither for the bully nor for anyone on his or her path. Anyone who can, will avoid, even ignore, the bully because contemplation of his or her dominance is painful and begs for heroism, taking time away from the simple pleasures and necessities of living. Even in this effect, the bully eradicates individuality by quelling other voices. Without individuality, there is no flourishing of creativity, no diversity, only swaggering on the part of one type of individual, and cowering and/or survival tactics adapted by all others until such time as the bully determines to eliminate those not in conformity.
Hannah Arendt makes clear that any nation wishing to embrace total domination must play with reality. Lies and truth must become interchangeable. She writes, “Hitler circulated millions of copies of his book in which he stated that to be successful, a lie must be enormous—“(para 6, 284). In Total Domination, Arendt explains that the path of totalitarianism goes through stages, with “the initial stage of totalitarian rule serv[ing . . .] the exclusive purpose of defeating the opponent” (para 7, 284). Reality must be manipulated in order to make the populace doubt itself as well as to eliminate those whose diversity and individuality undermines the total domination of the state. Arendt points out that suppression takes many forms and that concentration camps are not an invention of totalitarian movements: ”They emerge for the first time during the Boer War, at the beginning of the century, and continued to be used in South Africa as well as India for ‘undesirable elements,” primarily for putting out of sight those people who “could not be sentenced by ordinary process of law” (285).
An ideology is useful to a totalitarian government. When that ideology revolves around a certain skin color, sex, ethnicity or narrow interpretation of a single religion, anyone who does not possess that color, sex, ethnicity or narrow interpretation will be denied human status through means of terror. A change in psychology happens to anyone who is subject to terror, the most extreme example being in the concentration camp. It is commonly known that abused spouses, through the process of being conquered and maligned, accept their status, as do abused children. If inhabitants of the concentration camp are kept out of sight, there will be no one to think about or stand up for them. They will become objects of suffering, without human status. Every shred of individuality, which made them human in terms of reasoning and creativity, will be stripped away. Keeping this process out of the public eye is necessary to the totalitarian state in order to not burden its followers with the temptation to reason; as for the oppressed, total domination strips away from them the basic concept of, and belief in, their own human rights.
(new page) Works Cited
Arendt, Hannah. “Total Domination.” A World of Ideas edited by Lee Jacobus. Bedford/St.Martins, 2013. Pp 279-290.
–written for my students. Headers missing. Indents won’t work so I have added space breaks. However, there are no space breaks in MLA formatting.