Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics

Hannah Arendt: On the use of lies as a political strategy

In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true…. Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.

The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.

The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed.

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.

One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.

Nothing perhaps illustrates the general disintegration of political life better than this vague, pervasive hatred of everybody and everything, without a focus for its passionate attention, with nobody to make responsible for the state of affairs—neither the government nor the bourgeoisie nor an outside power. It consequently turned in all directions, haphazardly and unpredictably, incapable of assuming an air of healthy indifference toward anything under the sun.

The antisemites who called themselves patriots introduced that new species of national feeling which consists primarily in a complete whitewash of one’s own people and a sweeping condemnation of all others.

The outstanding negative quality of the totalitarian elite is that it never stops to think about the world as it really is and never compares the lies with reality.

Never has our future been more unpredictable, never have we depended so much on political forces that cannot be trusted to follow the rules of common sense and self-interest—forces that look like sheer insanity, if judged by the standards of other centuries.

The true goal of totalitarian propaganda is not persuasion, but organization of the polity. … What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.

To them, violence, power, cruelty, were the supreme capacities of men who had definitely lost their place in the universe and were much too proud to long for a power theory that would safely bring them back and reintegrate them into the world. They were satisfied with blind partisanship in anything that respectable society had banned, regardless of theory or content, and they elevated cruelty to a major virtue because it contradicted society’s humanitarian and liberal hypocrisy.

Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of the man who can fabricate it.

Men have been found to resist the most powerful monarchs and to refuse to bow down before them, but few indeed have been found to resist the crowd, to stand up alone before misguided masses, to face their implacable frenzy without weapons and with folded arms to dare a no when a yes is demanded.


Quotations From The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt (1906 – 1975) was a German-born Jewish American political theorist.  She escaped Europe during the Holocaust, becoming an American citizen. Arendt’s first major book was The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), which traced the roots of Stalinism and Nazism in both antisemitism and imperialism. In it, Arendt argues that totalitarianism was a novel form of government, different from other forms of tyranny in that it applied terror to subjugate mass populations rather than just political adversaries. 

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3 comments on “Hannah Arendt: On the use of lies as a political strategy

  1. Rene Andersen
    February 28, 2017

    We are seeing this play out daily.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. triciaknoll
    January 31, 2017

    She nailed it. This manipulation is known…and still it works.

    Liked by 1 person

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