Peter Baehr is one of our best Arendt scholars, and his work explicating Arendt's thinking about totalitarianism is invaluable. In his essay "The Theory of Totalitarian Leadership," Baehr argues that the totalitarian leader is only comprehensible as a mouthpiece of what Arendt calls the masses. The masses exist in all democracies, and they may even be an always-existing silent majority. They are the passive, apathetic, apolitical people who lack convictions-until they are suddenly mobilized. They are "the detritus of all social strata that have lost their former social identity and emotional bearings as a result of abrupt political, geopolitical and economic dislocation." The totalitarian leader does not exist separate from the masses; the leader is necessarily a leader of the masses. The mass leader offers the people what they most need: a world they can believe in. Baehr writes,
"In Arendt's long review of Hitler's Table Talk ([1951-52]), and, more succinctly, in a footnote to Origins, she acknowledges Hitler's "brilliant gifts as a mass orator," while noting that Stalin, by contrast, who lacked such gifts, was "able to defeat the greatest orator of the Russian Revolution," namely, Leon Trotsky. Now, it is in face-to-face encounters that witnesses have most often described the allure of Hitler's personality.Arendt was unimpressed. Fascination is a tautological concept. People are fascinated by people who are fascinating. The secret to Hitler's fascination, she responded, lay not in some ineffable, captivating quality, some "magical spell" that floored all listeners, robbing them of independent thought. Hitler's appeal was rooted in something far more mundane: the social propensities of the audience to which he spoke. Her argument is thoroughly sociological. "Fascination is a social phenomenon, and the fascination Hitler exercised over his environment must be understood in terms of the particular company he kept". On her account, Hitler's entourage consisted of people whose capacity for discriminating judgment was all but obliterated. They had succumbed to the "chaos of opinions" that characterized the cynical and iconoclastic interwar years. But where others were indecisive and confused, Hitler was unwavering and clear, an obelisk of iron protruding from a trampled field of corn. Accordingly,
"The problem of Hitler's charisma is relatively easy to solve. It was to a great extent identical with what Professor Ritter calls the "fanatical faith the man had in himself," and it rested on the well-known experiential fact that Hitler must have realized early in his life, namely, that modern society in its desperate inability to form judgments will take every individual for what he considers himself and professes himself to be and will judge him on that basis. Extraordinary self-confidence and displays of self-confidence therefore inspire confidence in others; pretensions of genius waken the conviction in others that they are indeed dealing with a genius."
Two features in particular gave Hitler a stature that in other times and among other people would have been derided as dangerous nonsense. The first was his "apodictic tone," convictions uttered with the utmost dogmatism. Hitler knew firsthand, Arendt explains, the maelstrom of opinions to which modern people are subject and that make them hunger for certainty. Hitler understood that "a role consistently played is unquestioningly accepted as the substance itself ." Second, he formulated this role in a form, logical consistency, which was literally compelling. Indeed, if "logic is defined as the capability to press on to conclusions with a total disregard for all reality and all experience, then Hitler's greatest gift - the gift to which he owed his success and which brought about his downfall - was one of pure logic."
Baehr's essay is published in The Anthem Companion to Hannah Arendt (Anthem Press, 2017). We are grateful to Anthem Press for allowing us to republish the essay. You can read it here. You can also download a PDF of the essay in original formatting here. And as a bonus you can download another of my favorite of Peter Baehr's essays, this one on Robert Nisbit's "Totalitarianism in America?"